I’m going to kick this review off by stating a few things.
Firstly, I love cowboy-themed entertainment. From some of my earliest memories, I recall my grandfather having a Western on the TV every Saturday. The likes of John Wayne & co. helped the old man drearily waste away many a weekend in front of the fire.
My father also had a collection of Western books which I thumbed through in my teens. Couldn’t tell you any of the characters names now, but the stories always had me hooked.
Secondly, I’m quite a fan of the supernatural. I like the idea of practising voudou, though that may be more for the iconography than the actual religious aspects.
And I’m acutely aware of the impact the paranormal has had on the medium of video games over the years.
Why have I opened with those two weird anecdotes that nobody asked for?
Simple, my latest reviewed game – Ritual: Crown of Horns – combines them both. Sadly though, where my idea of what a good paranormal cowboy game should be and what Ritual actually is don’t make for good bedfellows it seems.
The premise is an interesting one. You start as the very much alive (initially) lawman who is tasked with bringing a witch to justice. Through some dubious shenanigans, you wind up dead. No spoiler alert, because this is literally all in the opening moments of the game.
However, whilst you may have died, the witch is able to bring you back to life. In return, she asks but small favour of you; your undying servitude to her. Sounds fair.
So, the pair of you go on a demon-slaying, dead-resurrecting, rootin’, tootin’ Hellish tour-de-force through Americana. You bring the witch’s fallen friends back to help her, who in turn help you out with new weapon upgrades, magic, or skills to use in combat. You know the deal by now.
This keeps going until retribution is found for the witch.
Sounds interesting enough, if somewhat familiar. Where Ritual differentiates itself from other games is the way it handles gameplay. A top-down, twin-stick, dungeon-cum-horde-shooter with added magic.
You have a precise aiming mechanic with your rifle, which allows for better damage if you wait to take your shot. Or a widespread but inaccurate burst from a shotgun to take out a couple of enemies at a time.
Shoot-Out With Your Guts-Out
As you progress further down the line, you get bigger and better weapons. With that, though, comes stronger and more menacing enemies to take on. You have a wide range of magical abilities to use to try and aide you, but unless you’ve picked up enough Demon Souls by defeating enemies, you’ll be limited to the number of times you can use these powers.
Of course, if you are good enough to make it through the timed level without dying or letting the witch succumb to the demonic forces, she’ll unleash a level clearing spell that wipes the field for you. Which is decent of her.
The problem – for me, at least – is the sheer difficulty the game brings. Even within the first few missions (tutorial included), you’ll find yourself struggling against wave after wave of demons. The game demands a level of skill that, at first, you simply won’t be ready for.
I know in the past I’ve bemoaned the level of hand-holding modern games give players these days. The opposite of this is not to have a game that is difficult from the opening. Especially when it only gets worse from there on out!
Oh, You Devil
The loading screens even taunted me throughout my playthrough saying:
“If you find a level too difficult, go back to earlier ones and practise your skills”.
Cheers guys! Way to rub it in! That advice is great, save for the fact that the only “previous” level I could practise with at the time was literally the first mission. A bit of overkill in difficulty spikes really.
I’m sure that fans of horde games would find the gameplay in Ritual a doddle, quickly eschewing from the problems I’ve encountered with their gusto. Unfortunately, unless you already find yourself as part of that clan of players before heading into Ritual, you won’t build up decent enough skills to tackle the bigger guns out there.
Practice, patience, and a lot of forward planning are needed to succeed in this game. It isn’t a game that you can get away with going in guns-blazing and trying to blast everyone around you to bits.
Unfortunately though, at least, at the very beginning, you’ll struggle to plan effectively for a while.
Cowboys and Demons
The hordes come in thick and fast, and the demons who go straight for you can do some real damage in a flash. Most enemies can be one-shotted, but whilst you’re taking down ghouls on one side of the map, you have to make sure the other side is defended at the same time. Otherwise, you’ll soon find yourself seeing the game over screen.
Aesthetically, Ritual is immense. The Hellscape-take on the Wild West is beautiful. It drips with demonic deliciousness and oozes with evil elegance.
The player’s avatar even goes full hog with it as he loses an eye to the act of dying, and his clothing becomes tattered and dishevelled like he’s crawled out of the grave. The witch is eerily attractive – I mean, threatening, yeah – to the point that you wouldn’t wish to meet her sober.
The music sounds like the classic Play-It Piano, saloon-bar style music you’d find in any Western music. If the piano was on the fire. And the pianist was Beelzebub’s version of Beethoven himself. So, spot on really.
However, a game’s looks (and sounds) will only get it so far. Unfortunately, for me, Ritual promised a lot with its aesthetics and let me down in more ways than one. I can’t even say that the game would probably handle better on a different console as this style of gameplay is almost suited for the Switch in handheld mode.
Whilst Ritual: Crown of Horns may be a decent-looking twin-stick shooter with plenty of gameplay elements to differentiate itself enough from the pack, the gameplay won’t have you coming back for more.
The difficulty peaks come too fast too often and too soon. Whilst the game looks stunning and as metal as Black Sabbath coated in Adamantium playing The Devil Went Down to Georgia, the gameplay feels like the work of Satan himself.
So, I suppose, in that instance, it’s actually pretty good and perhaps the best game ever. Alas, not for me.
Ritual: Crown of Horns was reviewed on Nintendo Switch, though you can pick it up on Steam as well. As an extra delicious side piece, you can purchase the game’s soundtrack from Steam as well, which might be the best thing to do with your money as far as this game is concerned.
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Ritual: Crown of Horns Review
- Overall - 5.5/105.5/10
Ritual: Crown of Horns is as difficult as it is beautiful to look at (in a gothic, living undead kind of way). That’s both good and bad, in case you hadn’t gathered from the review itself.
+ Vivid landscape and scenery (a real treat for the eyes)
+ Musical score is perfect for the tone
— Difficulty spikes come way too fast, too often, and too early
— Earlier levels throw you in at the deep end
— Gameplay is difficult to get a handle on
— Shooting mechanics underwhelm