Review: Indivisible (2019)

A charming genre hybrid with heart and style that still requires considerable polish to reach its full potential

From the very outset, Indivisible wears its influences with pride. Within the first hour you will have seen a gorgeous anime cutscene highlighting the game’s characters and their exploits to come, met the plucky teenage protagonist whose village is burned by an evil empire and started the obligatory prison escape sequence. No doubt about it, Indivisible is a throwback; a homage to the golden era of Japanese Role-Playing Games complete with all the tropes that veteran gamers have come to expect.

But within this first hour, it will also become abundantly clear that Indivisible is not just a love letter to a by-gone era – a Metroidvania structured 2D action platformer with JRPG elements presented in a charming hand-drawn style usually associated with 2D fighters such as developer Lab Zero Games‘ previous hit Skullgirls (2012) – Indivisible is a hybrid beast that melds nostalgia and innovation to create something unique. This cocktail of ideas, old and new, is something that courses through almost every aspect of this title.

Take for example the aforementioned prison escape sequence. This phrase may conjure images of a speedy escape from a cell, a brief search for your confiscated and often poorly hidden weapons leading to a trek through narrow hallways filled with low-level guards that you plow through on your way out the door. Yet in Indivisible, your party reaches the exit within seconds only to discover that this prison is actually a hi-tech fortress flying miles above ground. From this point, your party has to venture further into the fortress, overcoming wind-assisted platforming sections and a security system that includes a giant head shooting a great laser beam from its mouth. Indivisible even jokes about the player’s expectations of such a level when, after freeing a fellow inmate and hearing about how his weapon was taken and hidden by guards who are rightly terrified of its destructive power, your party finds his weapon just laying on the floor outside the cell before commenting on how surprisingly easy that was.

This sort of self-deprecating humour is littered throughout the game’s script, giving a refreshing levity to the story’s tried and tested formula in which you take control of Ajna, a young woman with a mysterious power who begins a journey through a variety of exotic fantasy landscapes including a desert, an ice cave and an industrialised city, collecting a ragtag band of friends to help her stop a menace that threatens to destroy the world. Again, this story is typical of the classic RPGs that influence Indivisible, which in turn takes gleeful delight in poking fun at the genre’s predictability. Perhaps the best example of this is when Ajna and co. are forced to jump from a great height – after being warned that they will inevitably be killed by the fall, Ajna answers along the lines of “Don’t worry, I’m sure a giant bird will catch us or something”. Post-jump, players are shown a close up of Ajna’s screaming face before cutting to Ajna being carried to safety by a giant bird.

But make no mistake, Indivisible is not just a parody. When you meet a new companion (or Incarnations as they’re known in the game), they are absorbed into Ajna’s mind, some willingly and some not. They can only be released in certain circumstances such as battle, meaning that characters who bear animosity towards one another are bound together, with hostilities showing through in jabs and arguments common in the early part of the game. This, along with the gravity of the overarching quest, adds an extra layer to the scripting, providing a dose of seriousness when necessary.

Undoubtedly the game’s biggest influence is PS1 cult classic Valkyrie Profile (1999) and nowhere is this more apparent than in Indivisible‘s combat system. It’s great to see a unique combat system like Valkyrie Profile‘s rescued from the scrap heap of gaming history and fitted with shiny new parts, offering a new generation of gamers the chance to experience a novel and enjoyable method of combat.

Like Lenneth and her Einherjar before them, Ajna and her Incarnations battle enemies in not quite turn-based combat with each of the four selected party members allocated to a different face button. Each character earns attacks at slightly different rates and players can choose to attack separately or wait until several characters are ready to unleash more powerful, multi-hit combos. Indivisble‘s upgraded model features unique skill sets for each character, with some leaning more toward support or healing rather than offence and each boasts a special attack that can be used once the team’s Iddhi Bar has been filled. There is also a defensive element added reminiscent of that found in South Park The Stick of Truth (2014) where a character can mitigate damage by blocking as an enemy attacks and greatly reduce damage if able to time the block precisely.

Indivisible‘s combat system shines brightest in its cleverly constructed boss battles in which opponents will usually try to retreat from standard combat every so often, transitioning back into platforming segments where the player must avoid various long-distance attacks and find a way to lure the enemy back into conventional combat, creating especially memorable encounters.

It’s biggest failing however is the inability to escape. Most enemies are pretty durable and even standard encounters can sometimes feel drawn out, so at times when you want to avoid battle – you may be trying to focus on a platforming section, backtracking though already explored areas or just trying to avoid engaging a particularly troublesome enemy – getting locked in these inescapable, momentum killing scenarios can make you want to cry out in frustration.

In many aspects, Indivisible is silk smooth and dripping with style. The beautiful animation seen throughout the game being bolstered by smaller touches like the last save also acting as the main menu screen so that you’re back in the action at the press of a button and seamless transitions between exploration combat.   Factor in excellent design such as the well crafted platforming that steadily builds in intricacy and challenge and how all characters’ progress and upgrades are linked to Anja’s so that every character is battle-ready at all times, allowing variation and experimentation, and the core experience is a pleasure to both watch and play.

But with so many loving touches and well executed ideas found throughout the game, it’s disappointing that numerous bugs along with some questionable design choices create notable speed bumps on an otherwise joyful journey.

While several of the game’s most noticeable flaws have been fixed with a day one patch, the game still becomes a technical shambles once you’ve progressed far enough into the story. Some of the more memorable glitches include an unavoidable battle at a fixed location which happens to be so close to a ledge that your party can’t all fit on solid ground, so the character in the back keeps dropping off the screen and teleporting back into position only to keep falling and returning in an infinite loop, as well as less hilarious issues like an area that doesn’t load correctly, causing Ajna to fall endlessly through a blue screen until you close and re-open the game. There are plenty more examples we could run through but suffice to say that, while the developers are likely to address them via a patch in due time, many of these bugs and glitches are so flagrant that it’s shocking to find them in the released product.

That being said, just as much frustration stems from a handful of intentional design choices that stifle the game’s momentum. The biggest of these is the omission of fast travel points within each area. This problem becomes apparent a few hours into the game when three new locations become available at once and the player is told that they can choose in which order to explore them, implying that it won’t matter which you choose first. It eventually becomes apparent that these levels cannot be completed in one run, but you won’t find out until 20+ minutes further in when you reach a point you can’t yet cross because the ability you need to proceed is found in one of the other regions.  This forces you to trek back and forth between these three areas until you’ve collected all you need to complete each one.

Another hair-pulling issue is that tutorial messages seem to be allocated to a particular enemy or obstacle that they apply to, but this may not necessarily be the first enemy or obstacle of this kind that you encounter, so for example, you may spend considerable time trying to work out why the enemy you’re facing isn’t taking any damage, then when you’ve eventually conquered that test and moved on, you’ll encounter the same enemy again ten minutes later but now with an unhelpful message informing you that it can only be damaged when juggled.

In creating the game’s soundtrack, Lab Zero Games enlisted the services of genre pioneer Hiroki Kikuta who gained renown for his work on the influential Secret of Mana (1993). This decision certainly paid off as Kikuta’s magic flows throughout Indivisible with music that melds into its fantasy world but reverberates through your skull after closing the game. While the voice acting is solid throughout, the volume levels are much less consistent. At normal volume, most characters are clear but others such as Razmi and Dhar can be difficult to hear and one particular boss is almost inaudible. Conversely, the sound effects suffer from an almost opposing affliction where, while fine for the most part, there are some tinny, high pitch effects that are so irritating that you may instinctively reach for the mute button. Thankfully, the most common occurrence of this was removed in the day one patch, but occasional examples still plague the soundtrack.

For the majority of its play time, Indivisible is a beautiful and well designed experience that’s enjoyable for veteran and rookie adventurers alike. Lab Zero Games, 505 Games and the over 32,000 Indiegogo backers who made this release possible have created a fresh title that honours gaming history while adding a fresh chapter of its own by reinventing a lost but valuable sub-genre. Unfortunately, the slew of lingering technical issues and tedious backtracking that comprise the rest of that play time prevent this game from reaching its full potential.

Indivisible is available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC on 8 October 2019

Often hilarious script, well designed platforming sections and multi-faceted combat system that encourages experimentation, beautiful animation, creative boss battles.
Inability to escape from battle or fast travel within regions makes backtracking a chore, inconsistent volume balancing, crawling with bugs later in the game
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