Roguelites have been in a very good place these past few years, thanks to many excellent titles like Dead Cells, Enter the Gungeon, Hades, and Returnal, which have taken the typically unforgiving roguelike experience and tweaked it to make it more enjoyable for players that do not find starting their adventure over and over from scratch too enticing.
Given the nature of the roguelite experience, the vast majority of games are set in relatively small worlds that serve as the background for the procedurally generated mechanics that power them, and, as such, an open-world roguelite doesn't exactly sound like a very good idea on paper. In reality, however, it is a good idea, judging from Ravenbound, the latest game from Generation Zero and Second Extinction developer System Reaction.
Set in an unforgiving world based on Scandinavian folklore, players take control of the Vessel, a powerful being who carries the power of the Raven whose duty is to save the world of Ávalt from the Betrayer. As this is no easy task at all, the ancient gods of Ávalt have enshrined the Raven in the body of warriors so that its powers can be passed from one Vessel to the other in the long war against this Betrayer and its minions.
Ravenbound's premise outlines the experience in a very effective way. During each run, players will have to explore different biomes, locate key items to open up a tomb and defeat the powerful boss within. Once at least three bosses have been defeated, the path to the Betrayer will open up, giving the Vessel the chance to fulfill its purpose and save Ávalt. How players go about accomplishing this is left at their discretion, as they are given the option of fully exploring each open-world biome right from the start of each run.
While it is possible to collect the key items to open the tomb of each biome in a very short time, it isn't exactly recommended to rush through the main objectives, as the Vessel may end up being too weak to take on the powerful foes hidden within. The Ravenbound's progression system uses deck-building mechanics that let players customize their builds in any way they wish. They may go for a glass-cannon build that hits hard but has low defense, for a tanky build that can take a beating, or for a more balanced one with some special abilities, like getting back one potion use after winning an enemy encounter, a very useful ability in a game where healing is limited, and combat takes center stage most of the times.
Ravenbound's combat is rather interesting in its simplicity. Armed with different weapons, the Vessel can unleash strings of light and heavy attacks with slightly different properties and powerful charged attacks. Light attacks are great for knocking the enemy down and leaving them defenseless for a short while, while heavy ones can break guard and deal high damage. The game also offers a couple of effective defensive options, such as a snappy dodging maneuver which can be turned into a slide by holding down the button, and a shield that can be used to block attacks and even parry them, knocking enemies down in the process. While these are standard mechanics, when it comes to third-person action games, they work quite well in Ravenbound, thanks to how snappy combat feels. Most open-world games tend to have somewhat sluggish combat, so I was quite surprised at how fast and snappy fighting enemies is in System Reaction's game. And while no new attacks can be unlocked during a run, the different weapon types, which include sword and shield, dual axes, greatswords, and more, ensure that combat doesn't become stale after just a couple of runs. Enemy variety looks good already in the demo, featuring a selection of different creatures ranging from your typical human bandits to undead and spirits which fight quite differently from one another.
Fighting each and every enemy group on the path to the tomb may start feeling repetitive after a while, but it is something that players will want to do as much as possible to prepare their Vessel to fight the Betrayer. By defeating enemies, the Vessel will level up, obtaining Valor points that can be used to activate the aforementioned cards to perfect their builds. Cards are also obtained as a reward for defeating enemies, so it's clear how combat is one of the main focuses of the Ravenbound experience. The other will be exploration, which isn't surprising, given how the game is an open-world title. When it comes to different activities, being a roguelite, Ravenbound cannot offer the same variety as other pure open-world games, but I feel the developer is doing a decent job at offering more than just fighting countless enemies to enhance the Vessel. The first biome I accessed also featured a village complete with side-quest offering NPCs, shops, a blacksmith, and so on. Sidequests still involve more fighting at the moment, but with the game being still far from release, I expect them to be a little more varied when the game officially launches in the future.
Staying true to its name, Ravenbound's exploration is centered around the ability to turn into a raven and fly all over any given biome. As they tend to be rather big, flying around is the best way to explore them as quickly as possible. Even if one wants to take their own sweet time, flying around as a raven still feels great, thanks to the impressive draw distance and the sense of speed. Sure, there's some clunkiness to it, as turning back into human form isn't particularly snappy, but the great feel of flying makes it easy to look past any small issue that will likely be addressed in the final release.
With Ravenbound, Systemic Reaction is attempting to mix two genres with very little in common, and so far, it looks like they are succeeding. While the experience is relatively straightforward, as combat and exploration are standard fares for third-person open-world games, it already feels great to play in its current state, so I am definitely looking forward to experiencing more of Ávalt and challenging the Betrayer and its minions again when the game launches on Steam in the future.