Since its debut in 1865, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has provided inspiration for too many other stories to count, or even comprehend. Without it we may not have a lot of the realm traveling fiction we have today, including classics like The Wizard of Oz. This is just a long way of saying that the story’s impact upon fiction and storytelling has been so great that it’s impossible to put into words. In fact, we’re still seeing hints of it today, thanks to good novels like Stephen King’s latest, Fairy Tale, and a brand new game from Toronto-based indie developer, Cococucumber, which they call Ravenlok.
The fantastical adventure found within Ravenlok begins as a young girl moves to a house in the middle of nowhere, along with her mom, her dad and her dog. The first thing you really get to do is customize what small pieces of what the girl (whom you can name though it hardly matters) and her dog are wearing, but don’t expect to see a lot of the canine. After this, the two help the older couple find and move things into the house, before stumbling upon an old mirror with unknown magical properties. Soon after, our young heroine finds herself drawn into the mirror and into a different realm. This fallen kingdom, and the lands which it inhabits, is under the spell of an evil caterpillar queen who’ll stop at nothing in order to keep her reign or tyranny going. It’s up to us, as the fabled Ravenlok (a mysterious girl with black hair, although it looks kind of purple if we’re being honest), to save the day or at least try to do so.
What originally caught my eye was how much this resembled something from The Legend of Zelda series, through its box art, screenshots and trailers. However, after playing through it over the course of a few hours, I can safely attest to the fact that this is its own beast, though it does borrow from other tales and different video games like Zelda. Then again, it’s kind of hard not to when you’re an action-adventure RPG where the main character traverses fantasy worlds carrying a sword, a shield and several special attacks. There’s that, plus the fact that the camera can’t be moved much from its slightly overhead and behind-the-player location, making us think of older games in Nintendo’s iconic series.
Once you land in a new world you’ll meet talking animals, including a rabbit who helps guide our heroine through her unexpected and surprising adventure. The problem with the start of this game, though, is that it’s too much too soon. The developers created quite a few quests for Ravenlok and, while taking them on makes it feel more like a more traditional RPG, it’s far too much at once. You’ll be getting new quests from almost everyone you speak to, and may not have any idea of how to progress. Thankfully, the game isn’t that big, and once you make it to the mushroom forest you should be decently okay. That is, unless you’re me.
I kept getting my ass handed to me by the first boss and couldn’t figure out why, which led to me thinking that this was some sort of frustrating Soulslike. However, after contacting the developers I learned that I’d missed something, which I don’t remember being pointed out to the player. You see, I was level 1 and could’ve upgraded my character to level 5 by that time, which certainly made the boss a lot easier. Instead of taking one third to half of my health bar away with one hit, he’d take a notch, and I beat him during my first refreshed try. Don’t be like me. Make sure that you level up by the witch’s house!
Of course, Link is able to find numerous different weapons and items as he ventures through Hyrule or somewhere linked to it. That isn’t the case here, as Ravenlok only provides the player with a sword, a shield (which isn’t that important, and was something I honestly forgot about later on), health potions and bombs, with the latter two being available for purchase at a couple of different markets. In order to use a potion or a bomb, one must press down on the D-pad (once for potions and twice for bombs, if I recall correctly), select what they wish to use and press A. If you’re able to use a bomb it’ll show a target on top of the nearest enemy, but sometimes they’ll be out of range. Meanwhile, potions — be they small, medium or large — are pretty self-explanatory.
Outside of your basic sword attack, one can use up to four different special abilities, all of which are mapped to different buttons on the controller. You’ll have to unlock each one first, though, and it’ll take time before all four are available. They’re helpful, though, because they can cause a lot of damage. For instance, the last one you’ll unlock allows you to slam down towards the ground and emit fire, whereas another lets you spin around a few times, causing extra damage. The other two involve shooting frozen projectiles and dashing towards an enemy with your sword out. They’re all helpful in their own ways, but the last one is better than the others because its area of effect is larger and it causes more damage. You won’t be able to spam any of them, though, because they take time to regenerate after use.
Boss battles are plentiful, but they’re generally not that challenging, especially once you realize what their patterns are. It also seems like, the more you level up, the easier the game becomes. I know that’s common for almost every RPG, but it doesn’t seem like foes scale to the player; at least not after a certain point. Getting to the max level by continually defeating a certain group of enemies near the end of the game allowed me to have a pretty easy time with the final boss and those who came before it. That’s not to say that the others were much harder, but I always made sure to level up as much as possible. Generally speaking, they’re decently designed and not very frustrating at all.
Over the course of two to four hours, players will venture through this fallen kingdom and its different areas, including the mushroom forest, a clock tower, a hedge maze and more. Unlike a lot of other RPGs, though, you’ll have to travel between these areas quite a bit, especially if you want to buy items or level up enough to compete against the surprising amount of boss battles found within. Thankfully, each area has one or two mirrors to find, clean and use, allowing for almost instantaneous travel between regions. There’s really no loading to mention, and it’s quite impressive. I used the mirrors a ton, myself.
Granted, a lot of the travel is made necessary by how Ravenlok was designed. It’s not your typical point A to point B type of game, and makes you move around a lot. You may find the need for one item, but then not find it for a while, causing you to have to travel back to that area later on. Meanwhile, progression is often locked behind quests you’ll be given at one point but won’t be able to complete until later, once you’ve found a particular item or done something. This is why I struggled to enjoy this game at the beginning and stopped playing it for a while. The beginning is very overwhelming, and quests are coming at you from everywhere. I got overwhelmed and a bit confused, and then had that issue with the boss because I didn’t know I could level up. Once I returned to the game after a little while, leveled up and played on I didn’t do as badly, but there were still a couple of confusing parts.
Needless to say, it can be easy to get stuck here so be warned.
As you progress you’ll come across the odd puzzle, but they’re generally not all that difficult to complete and are thankfully pretty rare. Puzzles are one of my least favourite things about video games, especially when it comes to this genre. You may feel otherwise, but they’re often more obtuse than they need be. These aren’t too bad, though, and I can only think of a few. Granted, there are also side quests and optional missions to undertake, which involve finding certain things for NPCs.
One can also aim to 100% Cococucumber’s latest by looking for all of its hidden rabbit dolls, which serve as collectibles. You’ll have to press up on the D-pad to dance in front of them in order to collect them, and can turn them into a dealer (who’s also located by the witch) in order to unlock rewards for hitting different plateaus. I believe there are 18 of them, overall.
In the end, Ravenlok ended up being shorter than I’d expected it to be, but it got better as it went along. This game started as something overwhelming and frustrating, but then blossomed into a fun and memorable RPG that I would play a sequel to. The developers did themselves, and us players, a disservice by handing out far too many quests at the start of the game and creating something that lacked cohesive structure for a little while, but the end result is far from a bad one. Just don’t expect a ton from the story, because it’s more of a reason for the adventure than a star of the show, itself.
On the presentation side of things, this particular experience excels. At times it can look downright beautiful, and almost never suffers from frame rate issues, unless a ton of bombs are being thrown at once. Ravenlok is a really nice looking game with lots of colour and quite a bit of detail, and it uses different art styles to its advantage. While most of the adventure is 3D, there are a lot of objects, items, and pieces of the environment that have an artistic, almost 16-bit look to them, which really accentuates the look of the game. Enemies and NPCs also feature such stylizing, making them stand out and fun to battle, even if the combat is relatively basic with its repetitive slash-slash-slash-roll away mechanics.
The music is also a highlight, thanks to some unique and very fitting original tunes. I’d be interested in listening to the soundtrack by itself because of this, as it stood out to me while completing my play through. That said, the sound is limited to music and quality sound effects for combat, exploration and the like. There is no voice acting to be found here, which is perfectly fine.
If you’re looking for a good, relatively original and not-too-long action-RPG fix, Ravenlok is well worth checking out.
This review is based on the Xbox Series X/S versions of the game, which we were provided with.