I must confess upfront that I’ve never quite gotten along with Soulslike games. Years of Excel spreadsheets and apple cider have dulled my reflexes enough that I can’t quite keep up with them. Yet I do adore Roguelikes/lites and at the end of the day, both are about punching a brick wall until it eventually breaks. So when Ravenbound promised to marry the two, I was quite interested. It’s a pairing that has some promise.
Unfortunately, Ravenbound didn’t stop there. It kept chucking things into the pot, throwing in an open world and card-based gameplay into the mix, stopping it all from cooking down properly. It’s ambitious, there’s no doubt about that, but Ravenbound struggles to blend it all and feels shallow as a result. After all, keep mixing paints together and all you’re going to be left with is gray.
A Flock of Genres
Let’s strap Ravenbound to the vivisection table and start examining its parts, beginning with that open world. Ravenbound‘s world of Avalt is on its last legs. Back in its heyday, it had six protectors but after one of them stabbed the others in the back, it fell into ruin. To bring it back to life, its former protectors create a spirit in the form of a raven to inhabit vessels and hit a lot of things with swords. As stories go, it’s fairly interesting yet poorly told. So much is in plain, unvoiced text dumps, either vomited by NPCs or contained in giant stones. Ravenbound does far too much telling and not enough showing.
Still, its explorable world shows a bit more promise. It looks great for one and is littered with the remnants of old buildings being reclaimed by nature. Flying over the landscape and moving from glorious sunshine to driving rain felt great. For the first few runs, I’d slow my speed a bit and just watch the hills roll by. We’re a raven, remember, so we can fly. It’s actually a nice travel method. Transforming into an armoured warrior miles in the air and crashing down onto the heads of unsuspecting bandits never got old.
There is an issue with the open world though and it’s one that permeates all of Ravenbound: it’s ultimately shallow. You won’t find many interesting things there, outside of set combat zones that are scattered around the countryside. These fights show up as icons, so you zoom your feathered form down to them, fight, then immediatly take to the air again. Except you can only transform at set points on the map, so every fight was followed by trudging back to a raven point so I could get to the next one. Rather undermines the open world concept, unfortunately.
Dealing Out The Pain
Let’s examine the combat next. It’s standard soulslike affair. We have a light attack, heavy attack, block and dodge. Survival depends largely on your reflexes and reading enemy patterns. Its functional, if unexciting, but helped somewhat by the enemy variety. You have bandits, of course, but also trolls, strange floating women and giant, aggressive trees. That said, the combat works best against small handfuls of melee creatures because the camera enjoys getting in close. It does make the difficulty a bit all over the place, as the worst enemies will just fire stuff at you from off screen, doing massive damage. Given the RNG of the roguelite element, this can lead to some frustrating deaths.
Paired with this is the card system, which I actually liked. When you open a chest, or gather enough ‘fragments’ from corpses, you’ll get presented with a handful of cards. This includes new armour, weapons or buffs. You then need to hunt out enough mana to use them. While they don’t change up more than numbers (as weapon styles are locked in when you choose a character), it introduces a nice risk-reward system. Taking too many cards will cause ‘hatred’, which powers up the bosses. You can gamble on a good bit of gear but if your luck sucks then you’re going to be fighting an incredibly angry boss with a feather duster.
These boss fights are the points where all the systems get the closest to melding. It’s a 1-on-1 fight with a giant boss, who’s carrying a weapon twice your length. While I was a bit disappointed that every boss is an identical looking suit of armour, the 1v1 focus forces some tension into the combat. There are no healing items, bar one single card, so mistiming a dodge or block feels genuinely painful. Scraping by these fights by the skin of my teeth was one of my highlights with Ravenbound. Some feel a little unfair, like the lad with a giant axe, but it’s not too bad.
You’ll note I’ve been conspicuously avoiding talking about the Roguelite element and that’s because of one simple reason: I don’t really care for it. See, roguelites by definition require playing the same thing over and over. To make that work, the game needs enjoyable moment-to-moment gameplay and Ravenbound doesn’t have that. Before each boss there is precisely one simple sidequest and a requirement to convert a set number of fragments. Then it’s a 1v1 and repeat for the next boss. The only thing that changes are the cards, which is just a glorified roll of the dice at the end of the day.
I pushed through enough to kill all the bosses except the final one. Then Ravenbound told me I had to kill three previous bosses in a row but changed up nothing. It was side quest, fragments, boss, repeat. The varying difficult of the enemies meant I tended to fight the same types over and over. Dying on the third boss brought new levels of frustration because I knew I’d have to do the same damn thing over again. The scales fell from my eyes as I realised I’d just been going through a simple loop for the past three hours. In the end, I just kind of gave up.
My final word is this: I admire Ravenbound a lot more than I actually like it. It’s trying to merge together a host of different elements, which is by no means an easy task. When asked to describe it, I’d probably do that sideways, waggling hand motion. It’s not bad but not particularly good either. Its nice ideas are balanced out by the shallowness of the experience. If you want to see a game juggle far too many balls then give Ravenbound a look but I struggle to recommend it otherwise.
hi great article
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