Ravenlok Review – Game Pass Fodder

Ravenlok is the third game in developer Cococucumber’s self-described voxel trilogy, a series that is largely unconnected aside from its strikingly boxy visual style and a few characters. Launching straight onto Game Pass, Ravenlok is an action-adventure aimed younger gamers and casual players who want something light and breezy. It’s the gaming equivalent of a bedtime story.

You play as Lily, a young girl busy exploring the house that her Grandmother left to her parents out in some unidentified rural haven. But in the barn a secret lurks, a mirror that drags Lily into another world ruled by an evil queen that has cursed the land. In every nook and cranny, in every teapot and teacup, you’ll find C.S Lewis’ Alice in Wonderland. Ravenlok is heavily inspired by the classic tale of Alice’s tumble into the rabbit hole, from its evil Queen guarded by card soldiers to the Mad Hatter hosting a tea party. Like Alice herself, Lily has fallen into a world where the usual rules don’t seem to apply, where something strange and wonderful lurks behind every corner.

In true fantasy style, Lily is the hero of this fable, taking up shield and sword as the prophesised Ravenlok who will slay the Queen and save the realm. Along the way, she’ll make friends with a white rabbit, free the soot bunnies, help out a witch and maybe even be back in time for supper. All of this takes place in a gorgeous, vibrant world constructed of tiny cubes that give Ravenlok a striking aesthetic. While the levels you wander through are not vast, they are wonderfully realised windows into a fantasy world that I’d love to see more of, but alas Ravenlok only provides the smallest of glimpses. The use of voxels is interesting because from a distance you can’t tell that everything is made of squares. It’s not until you look closely that you notice how everything is constructed from thousands of cubes to create Ravenlok’s stunning visuals.

The story is simple and charming, told entirely through text boxes. While this means there isn’t much depth to the tale or to the characters, the simplicity is excellent for younger gamers who probably don’t want to spend much time reading through a novel’s worth of wordy waste. The biggest shame of the minimal storytelling is that the game references Lily’s bond to the various fairytale creatures she encounters without ever really showing it. At one point she refers to them all as ‘family’ and yet she’s only exchanged a few sentences with them, and those were mostly expositional.

Available on: Xbox, PC
Reviewed On: PC
Release Date: 04/05/2023
Developed by: Cococucumber
Published by: Cococucumber

That problem extends to Lily herself. She has no personality, no real motivations for doing what she’s doing. She doesn’t even appear to be fazed that she has been pulled into a completely alien and fantastical world, or that she is now busy slicing through a few hundred enemies. I’m not saying she needs to be wracked with guilt or something, but some sort of reaction would be nice.

I want to be clear, though – I don’t think this is a huge issue. Ravenlok is more of a children’s fairy tale, one that doesn’t want to get in the way of actually playing it. Considering this is aimed at younger gamers or more casual players the decision to focus on keeping people in the game is understandable, and children’s storybooks typically don’t spend a lot of time crafting deep characters and stories.

Most of what you’ll be doing exploring the small levels in order to find important items. It’s a classic piece of videogame design, really: the gate to the Queen is locked and the only way to open it is to find three special keys scattered across the world. In order to find those, you need to help out the inhabitants, usually by doing a few fetch quests and then duking it out in a boss fight, like fighting Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum. If you’ve ever played a videogame in your life, it’s pretty familiar stuff.

Ravenlok has a beautiful voxel graphics style and wonderful art design.

In the review guide sent with the game, the developers mention wanting to make Ravenlok’s combat accessible to everyone, and they’ve certainly done that. There’s a single attack button that makes Lily swipe her sword from side to side at a speed which would make Tinder users jealous. This gets augmented by four special abilities that are gradually unlocked over the 3-5 hours adventure, and these do things like hurling some balls of frost that automatically track targets or a flurry of sword swings that are perfect for large groups of foes which you’ll often encounter.

On the defensive side of things, you get two options for keeping Lily safe: a basic block and a swift dodge. Both have their uses but I admit to finding the block largely useless throughout the game and relied far more on the dodge. The reason for this is that Lily’s sword attack also interrupts enemies, so it’s pretty easy to keep even large mobs in check by swiping like mad and dashing around. Second, most of the attacks that the boss monsters hurl your way are better dodged than blocked.

If you’ve read through the last couple of paragraphs and come to the conclusion that combat sounds simple, you’d be right. The hardcore gamer in me wants to scold the developers for how basic fights are in Ravenlok, but I need to keep that part in check because the criticism just isn’t very fair. In the same review guide I mentioned earlier, Cococucumber speaks about how “special consideration” was given to younger games who had graduated from Riverbond, one of their earlier games. As someone who has been playing games for something like 25 years, it can be hard to put myself back into the mindset of someone who hasn’t spent dozens of hours playing Devil May Cry, so I did the next best thing and handed the game to my niece, who is nine years old. She found the combat to be fun and enjoyed getting to slice up heaps of bad guys, and the skills added just a touch of depth for her.

Ravenlok goes up against a monstrous mushroom beast that has been poisoning the nearby woodland.

The enemy AI is a little strange because if you ignore them and run through areas, they won’t react. I can’t quite figure out if this is a mistake or a deliberate design decision. It certainly makes backtracking simpler since you can just opt out of fighting, and even if a few of them do react to your presence they are way too slow to catch up. This could have been done to stop the simplistic combat from becoming too repetitive. Or the enemy AI is dumber than a hedgehog on heroin.

Speaking of dumb, there are a few “stealth” sections in the game. I really need you to imagine air quotes dropping heavily around the word stealth, there, because enemies can’t actually spot you, per se. It’s possible to stand in front of them and it won’t count as being caught. No, the only way to fail is to quite literally touch them. Again, this keeps it simple for kids for casual players, but it can also feel like a bug rather than part of the game, almost as though somebody forgot to program a cone of vision into the enemies.

Fallen foes will drop a currency that you can hand over to a special character to level up, increasing your overall health and damage. In this way, the game has a slightly customisable difficulty because if you forget to level up then enemies will start to take longer to defeat. In theory, then, you could avoid levelling altogether up to make Ravenlok more challenging, although I think that’s a bad option because enemies become walking damage sponges.

There are a few puzzles sprinkled throughout the game, too, just simple little brain teasers to help break up the combat. These are typically a case of finding a few symbols hidden around the area or counting statues in order to input a code. Again, for an experienced gamer, it’s all quite standard stuff but for younger fans I think they are nicely judged diversions.

Lily fights off a mob of enemies in Ravenlok using her trusty sword.

Throughout the various locales, you’ll stumble across optional side-quests, and I like that the game doesn’t try to offer grand rewards for them. In return for finding some teacups, scouring the area for figurines or engaging in a mini-boss fight your reward is usually a nifty hat or a few health potions or a bit of coin that you can use in the shop to buy some bombs. But otherwise, they really are completely optional.

Navigating said locales can be a little troublesome due to the restrictive camera. Although not completely locked into place, you have minimal control of where you’re looking. You cannot, for example, spin the camera all the way around. That can occasionally make finding things hidden in the environment a little awkward because you have to blindly stumble toward the camera so that it will shift. It bugged me a little, and on a couple of occasions resulted in me being unable to see or running headfirst into enemies I couldn’t see.

There’s an old-school design vibe to Ravenlok that I really appreciate. The button-mashy fighting, the fixed camera views and the straightforward storytelling took me back to my days on the PS1, especially the sound the little text boxes make when they pop up.

Ravenlok delights in its straightforwardness. It’s not trying to be an epic triple-A adventure or a deeply meaningful tale of morality. Instead, it’s content to be a charming little gem that’s great for younger gamers or anyone just looking for some stress-free, relaxed gaming. Provided you understand what you’re jumping into, Ravenlok will be a pleasant and comfortable way to spend 3 or 4 hours hacking through a bunch of brain-dead foes and admiring the vibrant landscape.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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