by Dan Lenois
reviewed on PC
Reach for the sky...
From a superficial angle, it's not hard to see the general appeal of navigating a modestly-sized open world either on foot or by wing. The problem is that, as is so often the case with advertising, in contrast to the final product, what we ultimately got never manages to achieve what it set out to do. Developed by Systematic Reaction, the developers behind the sleeper hit Generation Zero, Ravenbound is a difficult game to review, and not for the reasons you would normally think.
Ravenbound is a roguelike, and similar to any other roguelike or roguelite game, death and rebirth are fundamental aspects to the core gameplay experience. Luckily, this is one of the few areas of the game that ultimately feels fairly well-balanced. While the player will lose all the items and upgrades they bought for that character using the in-game currency, any challenges you completed during that playthrough will yield their rewards upon death. While the aforementioned challenge system is simplistic, (ie. "Eliminate 50 [of said enemy type]",) the rewards, namely new passive or active ability cards, (ex. "+10 melee damage",) are crucial if you ever plan to defeat the game's bosses. The problem is that the implementation of this progression system doesn't just balance out the inconvenience of dying. It all but actively encourages players to die. However, the fun doesn't end there.
Bugs, glitches, and issues, oh my!
Technical issues not only plague this game, but often times makes it actively unplayable. NPC questgivers and vendors will often glitch out and become inexplicably inaccessible. There's few things as frustrating as watching the blacksmith or healer stand there, expectantly staring at you with their blank, soulless eyes, while the game refuses to recognize that you've pressed the interact key. NPCs will also occasionally teleport into nonexistence, as if Thanos' snap had reached them in this calm virtual world. Background models and assets likewise commonly glitch out, either flickering in and out of existence, or just disappearing altogether. There was even one particular instance, early into the initial playthrough, where all audio cut out for that entire play session, and was only fixed upon relaunching the game.
Such drawbacks could be forgiven, if the core gameplay experience went out of its way to blow away the player. However, at best, it's just unremarkable. While the few boss fights present throughout the game are decent, the vast majority of the combat will revolve around the player attacking specifically marked enemy camps, of which there are dozens. If you love attacking nearly-identical camps filled with the same five or six enemies again and again ad nauseum, this is definitely the game for you. I'm all for some good old-fashioned open-world grind, but it has to be presented in a way that at least pretends to be fresh and interesting each time. The Batman: Arkham games are one notable case study of this formula (mostly) at its best. Ravenbound, conversely, represents the formula at its worst.
From horizon to horizon...
This is not to say everything on display here is necessarily doom and gloom. Flying around the world as a Raven is incredibly satisfying. Learning how to effectively take advantage of dives for additional temporary speed, or timing your descent and subsequent transformation back to human form, in order to drop you right where you want to go without coming to a complete stop, requires skill and patience, and shows off the world around you at its best. However, for some reason, flight is restricted to only being accessible by traveling to specific raven-marked platforms, which will transform you into said animal form. It would have been far more immersive, and far more satisfying in terms of gameplay mechanics, to allow the player to freely transform into a raven at will. If a player can press a button at any time to exit raven form, it seems only reasonable and logical that entering raven mode should likewise only require a single button press. If there was a balancing concern regarding overuse of this mechanic, there are alternate solutions, such as timed or charged cooldowns.
Connecting to the world...
For reasons passing human understanding, Ravenbound arbitrarily is online-only, and requires the player to first register with a third-party service, before graciously allowing them to proceed with playing the singleplayer RPG. If Ravenbound had been designed as a multiplayer game, as was the case with Generation Zero, both of these decisions would make total sense. There is presently no offline mode option for those that don't wish to set up an account and play a singleplayer game online. If the thought of online-only connections in singleplayer campaigns is a major dividing line for you, as it was with many players in the cases of Marvel's Avengers or the recent Hitman trilogy, you may want to keep this in mind when deciding whether or not to purchase this game.
Ravenbound comes across as an internal playtest version of an unreleased upcoming game. The barren open-world, the clunky and bugged game mechanics, and rampant balancing issues, makes the game feel like it's not ready for Early Access, let alone the full launch it's been given. It's easy to feel sorry for the many developers who likely put their hearts into this project, but sometimes it's not just ok, but often wise, to leave a game in the development oven for just a bit longer, rather than releasing it so prematurely.
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Visually impressive, immersive flight mechanics
Empty open world, dull combat, excessively repetitious gameplay, tons of bugs, missing features.