Raventhorne, the first game of this summer’s Xbox Live Indie Uprising event, feels something like that kid in high school who was brilliant in math, except he’s in English class. It’s a game that manages to hit something exceptionally out of the park, and does enough to make it a title with niche appeal, but deep down it’s a little out of its element.
The game does have one claim to fame: its graphics, done by deviantart artist animastur, are pretty phenomenal. The art is lush and reminiscent of previous Norse 2D beat ’em up Odin Sphere, which makes it a pleasure to look at. Unfortunately, it’s not all bells and whistles with the graphics: an overabundance of particle effects and some occasional sketchy animation detracts from their beauty.
Where Raventhorne really shines is in its mechanics. Not in actually playing it, but in its mechanics. In practice Raventhorne tries to be a hefty brawler filled with deliberate action—a 2D Demon Souls, if you will. It takes a very traditional brawler structure and adds a number of interesting complications. You have a stamina meter, which prevents you from just charging in and pressing X fourteen times to end every encounter. You don’t stun enemies as you hit them, which means that you need to make focused, aggressive strikes at the enemies in theory.
The best mechanic in the game is its timed blocking. Here’s how it works: when you block an enemy, a normal block consumes stamina. Enemies will hit through it, fairly frequently. The only way around this is to time your block so that you start blocking right when the enemy attacks; doing so adds another particle effect to the field (seriously, I cannot emphasize enough just how many particle effects there are in this game) and it makes you temporarily invulernable, enabling you to waltz in and wail on your enemies for a while. It’s a very satisfying mechanic, and it’s great when it works well.
Sounds good so far? Well, that’s when the Fun Bandits show up to steal all your fun. Sorry. It’s a damn shame, because the mechanics are good enough to promise a compelling game.
The core problem that Raventhorne has is that the game is designed in a way to minimize how much fun its weighty mechanics could be. Enemies hit you very satisfyingly, they can knock you back, but you cannot knock them back. You can counter this by blocking, but then it never feels like anyone’s actually doing any damage, and it gives the battles the feeling that you’re just pressing X to raise a number until it gets big enough to make that bastard stop hitting you.
That could be surmountable, but the level design isn’t. The nasty problem with having such detailed background work is that you really can’t have it both ways: it’s either beauty of good game design. This game picked beauty, and as a result every fight takes place in the same location: a large flat plain. There’s no dynamism to it. It’s doing the same thing over and over. Even worse are the flying enemies. The developers came up with this brilliant blocking mechanic, and then designed encounters where every enemy is a flier who shoots projectiles at you; the core blocking mechanic doesn’t work with projectiles. Raventhorne becomes a game where you tank projectile attacks to block the attacks of the guys on the ground to kill them, and when they die it becomes a game about awkwardly jumping, hitting X once, watching the flier fly away, and chasing him.
You will do this about ten times per flier, because every enemy in the game has about twice as much health as they should. Every encounter is a slog.
I feel bad saying it, but Raventhorne, in general, is a slog. There’s a story, but the less said about it the better. It’s not a terrible premise, but it’s poorly written, reliant on deus ex machina moments (hey, this character has shown up for no reason! He can’t possibly be a villain, can he?), and not integrated into the fighting at all. Enemies are fighting you, but there’s really no reason for them to. They’re fighting you because this is a brawler, and you fight enemies in this type of game.
I said in the beginning this is a niche game, and people who love brawlers will find Raventhorne more serviceable than I have. There’s some cool ideas, a little bit of punishing difficulty (more SNES than NES, and if you like brawlers you will understand this comparison), and a lot of really excellent art. It’s a game that got away from its developers a little bit, but it’s not entirely unenjoyable to the right person. For someone like myself, however, I found myself terribly frustrated about halfway through, praying for deliverance.