Ravenbound - Flying Below Its Potential
The rogue-like/lite genre has, at this point, seen just about everything. Card collecting, platforming, real-time strategy, turn-based strategy, roleplaying, first-person, third-person, hell even sports have featured in rogue-likes over the last few years. So it is hard to impress, hard to make the genre feel fresh. Systemic Reaction, developers of Generation Zero, gives it a red-hot go with Ravenbound, a new open-world rogue-lite with a cool premise and setting. But sadly, a series of missteps along the way means it never reaches its true potential and is left languishing behind other more accomplished titles in the genre.
As I said, Ravenbound is an open-world, 3rd person rogue-like with some minor card-collecting elements based on Scandinavian folklore and mythology. Players take the role of the Vessel, a character bound to the power of the Raven and charged with removing the hatred and evil brought to the land by one of the six gods that govern the world. In order to break the hold, you must free the other five gods from their prisons and gain their blessings. As far as setups for a game go, this is a pretty good one. The lore elements are entertaining and it is wonderful to see some mythology explored outside of the well-worn Greek and Nordic realms that have been plundered dry.
The ever-important rogue-like loop here is an engaging one. Players start their run as the raven, flying into the open world looking for the first cleansing point. Once the point is reached there is a small battle waiting, which upon completion rewards players with some Mana and begins their path towards upgrading their skills. Players are then tasked with clearing out enemy encampments to gain card-based skill boosts until they feel they are strong enough to tackle the area’s boss, free a god and move on to the next region. The combat is third-person melee-based with light and heavy attacks along with dodges and blocks, nothing groundbreaking but it has been put together in a way that makes it enjoyable and rewarding. When the player dies, a currency that is collected through achieving certain goals can be used to upgrade new player types, weapons and boosts that can be used in future runs. Essentially the skeleton of Ravenbound is a good one that should provide the solid foundations for a jolly good time.
Sadly, things go off the rails reasonably quickly. The first problem is the balance in relation to the skills. To gain new skills, players are required to collect fragments left behind by dead enemies. Three fragments combine and give players the choice of one of three skills, which are activated with mana. It sounds a little convoluted, but at a basic level it works well. Where things go wrong is when the hatred mechanic gets involved. As you take down enemies or open hatred-infected chests, hatred begins to consume the slots where the fragments sit, eventually taking over them. When this happens, players only need two fragments to get skill cards, but this means they also get a negative card that does things like making the bosses harder. Hatred can only be removed by defeating the boss of the region and even then, only one bar (of up to three) is removed. This is where the problem lies, the balance of the mechanic is way off. It feels like to upgrade your character enough to be able to take on the bosses (especially in the later regions) you earn too much hatred, which in turn makes the game harder, which means you have to upgrade your character more. It is a nasty circle that is out of balance and doesn’t ever feel fair. The idea itself isn’t a bad one, just the implementation needs tweaking.
The open world is fine, without ever being great. There isn’t anything particularly broken about it but at the same time, I hardly felt inspired to explore it. Getting around the world is fantastic though with the player able to transform into a Raven and fly around at will. Flying above an enemy encampment, transforming back to my character and dropping on enemies with a big sword slash was one of my favourite ways to start a battle and never got old. There are chests to find, little alcoves to poke into but it is just a shame that this cool mode of transport is really just for getting from point A to point B and feels underutilized as a result. Another instance of a solid foundation that fails to achieve its potential.
The biggest issue with the game however isn’t the failure to achieve greatness, no it is something more sinister than that. This is a game that is, quite broken in more ways than I care to count. I have seen a host of bugs and glitches, from weapon stats changing dramatically for no reason to the raven getting stuck in scenery to the camera wildly spinning out of control. There are a litany of issues that seem to occur on a regular basis. But the biggest sin is the fact the game constantly crashes. On average the game crashed once every half hour or so for me, booting me back to the desktop with nothing but a “please send this report to the developer” message. Hell it even crashes when you try to exit the game. Thankfully the game boots quickly and it autosaves before every encounter so I didn’t lose any progress, but it did cause me to swear in frustration more times than I would like.
In all honesty, Ravenbound feels like an early-access title. In fact, I am sure I could forgive all of the problems I have with the game if that were the case. Alas, it is not. I actually checked the Steam page three or four times to make sure, that’s how much it feels underdone to me. At the same time though, I feel that if the devs stick with it, if they can sort out the balance issues and the stability problems, there is a really enjoyable experience here. I enjoyed the gameplay enough that I kept playing despite the problems and it is a title that I will watch closely to see how much developer support it gets. Honestly, this has the potential to be a real winner so I really hope it gets the post-launch attention it needs. At the moment however, Ravenbound is just another title that fails to live up to its full potential and to me, a game that can’t reach its ambitions is more disappointing than one that is just outright bad.
Ravenbound was reviewed on PC with code kindly supplied by the publisher.