Rustler – A Horse is no Substitute for a Rocket Launcher
Rustler is a top-down open-world homage to the original Grand Theft Auto games, where your character, the ever so original name ‘Guy’, is a petty horse thief with plans to make it big. As you make your way through the world you encounter a mash-up of historical groups and figures and pop culture analogues that help on your quest to be the champion of the Grand Tournament where the prize is the princesses hand in marriage and the kingdom that comes along with it.
Developed by Jutsu Games, Rustler is the sort of game that you look at and can instantly see the similarities to the older GTA games. Not only is the game in the same top-down style as the first two, except with better graphics and a vastly different time period, but Rustler uses the same types of puns in mission names and the same fonts for said names. Hell, even the music that plays as you complete a mission is the same as in later games in the GTA series. There is a very fine line between being inspired by something and being an imitation. Rustler bills itself as a tribute, but when I look at these instances I see a game that has just copied a bunch of elements from a game series, with the developers not even trying to put their twist on it to truly make it their own.
The one big area where the GTA imitation fails is in the wanted level and guard chases. Attacking people, stealing horses in front of guards and other shenanigans will result in the guards giving chase through the streets and countryside in their attempt to bring you to justice. No hassle I will just race through the streets until I lose them and hide in the woods right?…… Right???
Yeah, no that’s not going to work.
I could be on the fastest horse type in the game and tearing my way through the streets, my pursuer falling off into the distance when someone would come from ahead of me and take up the chase. Every. Damn. Time. I could ride into the middle of the forest with no guards visible on my mini-map and sure enough, along comes a guard. I was never able to escape from the guards on my own, instead forced to rip down wanted posters to reduce my wanted level step-by-step. It didn’t take long for me to realise that at a wanted level of one or two I could just ride my horse looking for the posters or one of the two Pimp My Horse shops that clear the wanted level without any worries about my pursuers. The guards on horseback will chase you, but that is all they will do. No attacking or anything. It is ridiculously easy to just continue riding your horse until you find the posters to slowly bring down your wanted level, to the point that it is more annoying than anything and just becomes a chore.
This is the biggest example of how taking a gameplay mechanic from one game and just transplanting it into another does not work. Look at this logically. In GTA you are chased by police. The police have radios and thus can communicate your position during a chase. If you manage to get yourself out of sight they will search in the area of your last known position for some time before they call it off. Rustler is set in a period without mass communications. Sure when guards start chasing someone they can call out and maybe blow on a horn or something to signify a crime, but if I kill the only guard chasing me and take off into a forest in a different direction then how can they keep track of me? The biggest problem with imitating a game where the mechanics are so well known is that you are inviting a direct comparison to the original and it is glaringly obvious when it does not work the way it should.
The thing is there was promise in Rustler, but I just feel like that by trying to emulate the GTA series the developers instead forced themselves to be locked into certain design choices that don’t fit. While the game is filled with pop culture references, some of these are just batshit weird. There is a Yoda analogue that is addicted to meth, a medieval superhero known as the Iron Maid, and a rich white boy that wants to be a rap god and fashion designer. These analogues are written as stereotypes cranked up to 11 to seem edgy and completely over the top. There are some standout moments in the writing, such as dealing with Round-Earthers for the Spanish Inquisition and giving a bunch of knights spiked beer to give yourself an edge in the Grand Tournament, but these moments are buried beneath the standard narrative beats that one can easily see coming. There is nothing inherently bad about the majority of the writing, just a few characters that have been given a more extreme treatment than is called for.
Despite all of this, Rustler can be enjoyed as a game in its own right. Yes, there are a few issues, but as mentioned it is easy enough to get around them. Due to the period, there is only a set number of weapons available, and while I am sure there is someone who will appreciate the ability to weaponise horse dung it is pretty useless overall. Once you get the hang of blocking and slashing with your sword the combat is a lot easier, though a weapon wheel would have made changing weapons on the fly a lot more manageable. I also found the final battle against the stories ‘big bad’ to be a bit underwhelming. You gain access to a type of hand grenade during the story and during the final fight, he starts to throw them at you. I am not sure if it was because of a bug but instead of throwing them at me he just threw them in front of himself constantly. I had only landed three hits on him in that section when he died. A win for me but one that felt a bit empty.
What I will call out as the greatest innovation of the game is the inclusion of the humble bard. As most people would expect, it is pretty hard to get a decent sound system on a horse in medieval times and sometimes you want some background music while you are riding through the countryside or killing a whole battalion’s worth of guards. Thankfully there are plenty of bards in need of coins and for a small fee, they will follow you around playing their lute for your enjoyment. If you don’t like the tune a simple punch to the face will make them play something different or even start beatboxing. If you’re the sort of person who doesn’t like to beat your help you can also just press down on the d-pad and it will serve the same purpose.
Despite its flaws, Rustler allows you to wreak havoc in a medieval open world. While it does have its issues it can keep you occupied for the 7 to 8 hours needed to complete the main questline, with even more activities and side quests to keep you going after that. So hire a bard, steal a horse and go start some trouble.
Rustler was reviewed on the Nintendo Switch with code provided by the publisher.