Ravenbound Review

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The Roguelike genre is now, unequivocally, a major part on the gaming landscape. The cyclical loop of progress and death wrapping its way around and around itself for hours on end seems to have captured all but the most stalwart of gaming hearts. The barrage of new releases that utilise the formula also seems unlikely to stop anytime soon. Ravenbound, the latest release from Systemic Reaction, aims to blend the sensibilities of a Roguelike with the exploration of an open world, all the while mixing in a dose of deckbuilding for good measure – this aspect another key tenet of modern games. This Nordic fantasy is hoping to blend those components into a new whole, and it’s a combination that often works pleasingly well.

Ravenbound is set in the land of Ávalt, a kingdom that’s been corrupted at the hands of The Betrayer, an elder God who turned on their brethren. Originally, six gods watched over the land, providing peace and prosperity, at least, they did until the sixth of their number became twisted and evil, leaving behind the way of virtue and swapping it for the more seductive path of villainy and destruction.

The remaining Gods created a weapon that took the shape of an aven, designed to undo the malice of their lost sibling. However, in doing so they left themselves open to attack, and the Betrayer fell upon them, destroying them and casting the land into ruin. Since then, the Raven has been biding its time, waiting for a warrior who can draw upon its power.

That’s where you come in. And come in again. And then once or twice more. The Raven is searching for vessels to channel their power, each one of which comes with randomised attributes, the three different races offering a range of different skills and a host of alternate weapon specialities and buffs. As you progress you can unlock more powerful options that might end up in your next vessel’s genetic makeup, immediately giving you an advantage on your next run.

Each run sees you head out into the world, aiming to clear the corruption from the land, grow steadily stronger, and tackle a series of powerful guardians who stand as gatekeepers to the next set of challenges. The final battle is a head-to-head showdown with the Betrayer, and you have to hope that everything you’ve been able to do up to this point will be enough to finally cleanse the land. It’s certainly easier said than done.

Combat lies at the heart of Ravenbound, and it’s both a huge strength and a minor weakness. You need to endure conflict in order to progress in Ravenbound, and the hack and slash gameplay requires thought and strategy as much as it needs quick reflexes. We’re not talking Dark Souls or Elden Ring levels of danger, but you can still lose a big chunk of your health if you wade into every fight without a care in the world. You need to parry, dodge and break through enemy defences in order to succeed, and while that’s a lot of fun, it can become a little wearing after a while.

For all that Systemic Reaction has crafted a great-looking Nordic-fueled fantasy, the world itself just doesn’t quite come to life. You can fly over ruins, run across myriad mountaintops and through lush forests, but other than the camps of enemies to battle, there’s nothing else to latch onto. Find a settlement and its inhabitants simply stand still, available to talk to, but with nary a care for their day-to-day chores. It means that the combat, and to a lesser extent the exploration, is what Ravenbound pins all its hopes on, and I think it’s going to be a distinctly personal choice to decide whether that’s enough. I think this is a game that would have really benefitted from voice acting, and it’s a shame that they decided to leave it off the design sheet.

Each of your characters is imbued with the ability to take the form of a raven, giving you access to a beautiful means of travelling the world. You can swoop from the sky, retake your bipedal form, and start dismantling an enemy encampment in a truly elegant piece of design, but when the battle is over you have to find a raven altar in order to retake your feathered form. Sometimes there’s one within a few feet, but sometimes there’s not, and the game regularly loses momentum as you have to tramp around to find another altar. It feels like it would have just been more natural, and more fun, to be able to switch between the two at will.

The lack of life isn’t helped by the camera being a fraction too pulled in, leading to some annoying hits from unseen enemies, and some of the human enemy types lack a clear visual identity. There are mystical creatures like Draugr and trolls that are more immediately identifiable, but the legions of uninteresting human opponents that inhabit many of the camps need more variety for players to be truly engaged, even if the combat remains enjoyable and rewarding.

You find cards along the way which allow you to draw upon new powers, weapons and armour to bolster you in combat through the deck-building side of Ravenbound. You need Mana to play the more powerful cards, so you have to find cards that provide you with Mana as well as ones with direct benefits.

Ravenbound deck building

Along the way you collect fragments from elite enemies and when empowered these become a further selection of cards to choose from. It feels a little unwieldy at first, but Ravenbound does a good job of doing the heavy lifting for you, and soon enough you’ll understand when to take the easy option, and when to opt for something more powerful but harder to play, balancing the risk and reward to try and further your run.

The Betrayer’s corruption, or Hatred, also comes into play here, as chests and items may be corrupted. If you can’t clear out a nearby Tear – a focus point of Hatred – then you have the option of opening the loot chest and taking on a portion of the Hatred that lies there. Each time you do so you open yourself to an even harder experience, with permanent buffs for enemies that will soon make you weigh up how much you want that chest.

Ravenbound feels like it’s caught between its multitude of genres; while it’s clearly an indie roguelike, the open world setting and high quality visuals may confuse players as to exactly what it is they’re experiencing and what they should be expecting. If you go into it with your expectations tempered, Systemic Reaction has crafted something that’s both intriguing and involving, but that is almost undone by its own desire to impress.

Ravenbound is a striking Scandinavian fantasy, and one that’s often a delight to experience. However, this particular open world can often feel too empty and lifeless, relying on a player's thorough involvement in its collection of gameplay ideas to stay engaged.
  • Excellent combat
  • Beautiful Nordic fantasy setting
  • Flying through the sky as a raven
  • The world can feel lifeless
  • Combat can become repetitive
Written by
TSA's Reviews Editor - a hoarder of headsets who regularly argues that the Sega Saturn was the best console ever released.