A game best played with a healthy dose of perspective.
We all want it- a game that comes to iOS and challenges what people expect from the platform. We want a game with scope, visual flair, and pitch perfect mechanics. Many would argue, especially after this banner year for iOS, that we have already seen such games. Ravensword: Shadowlands is not that game, but it doesn’t need to be. At the eye of the hype tornado surrounding Ravensword is a decent, flawed, action RPG that you can play on your phone.
Ravensword: Shadowlands frontloads the game with what is possibly its best looking environment. Massive trees, blue skies, and well-animated, detailed enemies, all accompanied by the game’s delightful soundtrack. However; there are some rough patches in texture work, geometry, and especially human characters that are not consistent with the rest of the game. I wouldn’t say that the game looks bad, far from it, but the dips in graphical design can be jarring, especially since the areas that have benefited from more polish stand out so well. Nothing can take away from the spectacle of watching that first troll scream as it comes crashing down on you.
Speaking of that troll, Ravensword’s difficulty curve makes for a challenging opening. The troll caves were a particular hurdle for me, even though the game has adjustable difficulty. I was forced to beat up low level enemies to scrounge up enough experience and hike my level up just so that I could push my way through. After a while, it started to feel like an artificial way to increase the amount of time spent in the initial area. This is normal in most Japanese RPGs, but not in Bethesda-style Western RPGs.
Ravensword clearly aims to mimic Bethesda’s work; its style, core gameplay and structure are all impressions of the recently-released Skyrim. One particular portion of the game is a near clone of Oblivion’s gate segments. The downside of Ravensword’s lofty ambitions is that they aren’t met for the most part. Variety in the game’s loot system is minimal, whether it is in the shops or the fields. Environments are largely wide, linear areas littered with enemies, and almost no items laying about to scavenge. The game’s core city feels empty, filled with lifeless NPCs and a lack of activity. Dungeons in the game are also linear affairs, pushing the player from one enemy filled room to the next room filled with identical enemies. There isn’t a true sense of exploration, and most places end up feeling too big for their own good.
For comparison’s sake, I would say that Morrowind was at a similar level of graphical fidelity to Ravensword (perhaps even lower). However; the art and writing in Morrowind more than made up for the technical limitations, and it felt as if there was always something interesting to discover around each corner. Ravensword doesn’t have as dense of a world, but given the cost of the game it is hard to find fault in this. The example I keep turning to in my head is the Archmage’s tower; a giant opulent building on the outside is an empty room with a man sitting on a throne. The developers didn’t build out several stories, or even add touches to make it look like the kind of place an Archmage would live. That is all fine, considering that this is really a budget experience, but the best way to compensate for the lack of a built-out world would be to fill it with words to allow the player to fill in the gaps.
Crimson Shroud, a game recently launched on the 3DS e-shop is a similarly priced role playing experience. Yet Crimson Shroud manages to have fantastic writing on a budget, something that would have added life to the rigid cut scenes in Ravensword. The writing in Ravensword takes away from my interest in quests, and severely diminishes the payoff at the end of the game.
Bethesda’s Elder Scroll games are known for having lackluster combat, and Ravensword’s combat brings out the blemishes in those mechanics. Most combat encounters consist of hammering the enemy with your main weapon, hurling a spell, and walking backwards as the enemy assaults you. What is widely considered to be poor combat in the Elder Scrolls games is worsened on the touch screen. The buttons are poorly located (on the iPad version that I tested) and force the player to reach towards the top of the screen to move, leaving a large empty wasted space. Blocking is not responsive, as it requires the player to hold the attack button, and the animations make it difficult to time attacks. Combat doesn’t provide much in the way of tactical variety, nor do any of the enemies differ significantly in their behavior. Even your spells don’t have different icons to label them, leaving you confused mid-combat. Also frustrating are the non-combat controls. Ravensword places the player in scenarios where precision platforming is needed, and the fidelity of the control combined with the fact that every time you move your character will take a few steps forward made those segments nearly unbearable.
I will say that general movement and attacking does work well in Ravensword, and I mostly wish that they hadn’t tried to ape Bethesda’s combat style.
Ravensword’s main story is brief, something I also expected considering the game’s price. While it does feel like a complete story arc, I didn’t find myself invested in the story. Part of this goes back to the writing, but also troubling is that right from the start one can see that the game will be structured into a series of four fetch quests followed by a final boss. Each of these quests is brief, lengthened only by repeated content. Any story beats along the way feel hollow, worsened by the fact that the world feels so empty. The game tries to thrust variety into the quest line, but once you play the pterosaur sequence (in which the only way to dismount your pterosaur is to crash it until it disappears) you will see that there are some things the game just should have left out. In then end I would have rather had a more densely packed, small experience in an expanded version of any single area from the game.
iOS gamers have come to expect bugs in their games. While errors in programming are a reality that find their way into even the most expensive of software, the bugs in Ravensword have game-breaking effects. I spent a good portion of my time in Ravensword replaying segments after having the game crash to my device’s home screen. I have fallen through the floor of the world into nothingness and died. I have even seen giant versions of the armor or weapon I have equipped floating in the game world in several places. There is a battle leading up to the final sequence that involves a good character and a villain. In my version, the villain’s character model was swapped out with the good character’s, so that I was stuck confused wondering if I the villain was a clone of the good character or if I was being forced to murder the good character himself. Once I got past that sequence, and after fighting my way to reach the game’s final boss, I beat him down to a sliver of health and decided to use an ice spell to lock him in place. I then watched to my dismay as the frozen, but alive, final boss floated upwards into the air and out of the game world. I had to kill myself in game and replay the whole fight because I could not proceed, making the whole ordeal a bit anticlimactic. Some of the bugs add flavor, like the occasional goblin that has spawned on top of another goblin’s head, but the crashes and progress destroying bugs are a burden on Ravensword.
Ravensword Shadowlands is a game that tries to do too much for its own good. While clear effort was placed into visual effects, and creating a wide variety of environments, the elements to fill out these areas are just not present. The core gameplay loop of combat grows tiresome, and the spells don’t do enough to add variety. This is a game that lacks character, and what little character it has is spread far too thin across its large world. Players will see that significant effort was put into having feature parity with an Elder Scrolls game, but this is only on a superficial level. Some parts of the game simply run out of steam and disappear, like voice acting. While I certainly don’t feel entitled to an experience comparable to a full console release, I can’t help but feel that the considerable effort placed into Ravensword 2 was misguided.
Ravensword: Shadowlands is available as a Universal App for $6.99