Ravensword: Shadowlands — Skyrim, Minus the Depth

Some games go big. Not content to produce a tiny slice of virtual reality, they craft entire worlds for you to wander and inhabit. Bethesda’s latest Elder Scrolls title, the enormously popular — and just plain enormous — open-world fantasy role-playing game Skyrim stands as one of the best examples of this epic scope, and this appears to be what Crescent Moon’s Ravensword: Shadowlands tries to replicate.

Ravensword doesn’t have Skyrim’s hundreds of hours of questing and exploring, but it still manages an impressive few dozen hours — which is doubly notable for the fact that it was made on a budget a fraction of the size of Skyrim’s and it’s being sold at a fraction of the price.

Blank Slate

You take control of a warrior who alone survived a great battle between man and the forces of the underworld. In typical video game fashion, he has no memories and his skills have atrophied. You will, over the course of playing, mould his talents according to your play preferences, levelling up skills in different weapon classes other abilities and developing your four main attributes (strength, agility, endurance, vigor).

Oo-kaay, strange lady.

Oo-kaay, strange lady.

Most skills improve with practice, although you can also bump them up by paying for “training” or by equipping special items. Each level has a ceiling number for maximum ability in skills, which serves to keep all the systems balanced and to give you a challenge in every new area.

You can get body and shoulder armor, helmets/hats, pendants, rings, magical stones, shields, and weapons — which fall within one of five classes: blade, blunt, bow, powder (gun), and crossbow. These all change your appearance, and many can be imbued with special attributes (such as extra strength or agility) by fusing them with enhancement stones.

Picking one or two weapons classes to focus on gets best results — there’s very little difference between fighting with a sword versus an axe, or a bow versus a crossbow, but it helps if you can hold your own in close quarters and weaken enemies from a distance. Low attributes limit the accuracy, power, and speed of attacks, and there’s only so much you can do to compensate with weapon enhancements and stealth attacks.

I focused on swords, crossbows, and stealth attacks.

I focused on swords, crossbows, and stealth attacks.

Not the Sharpest Tool in the Shed

Ravensword offers a large, beautiful, detailed world, and all the elements you’d expect of this sort of game — horses, magic, stealth, quests, upgrades, reputation, lockpicking, combat, optional subplot mysteries, hundreds of items, and much more. But Ravensword’s world is mostly empty, and its inhabitants are dumb as bricks.

This bucket was perhaps the smartest foe I encountered.

This bucket was perhaps the smartest foe I encountered.

Non-playable characters stand motionless or wander back and forth as though lost, then offer wooden, boring dialogue that adds little to flesh the plot or backstory — with a few humorous exceptions and corny pop-culture references. Enemies and animals patrol set patches, mostly standing still until they see you. You can often pick them off at your leisure by strategically standing in a direct path blocked by some obstacle — like a log or broken boulder — or, if you’re skilled with ranged weapons, just outside their detection area.

Combat would be decent if it weren’t for issues like this. With enemy AI so inept, it tends to degenerate into a battle of brute-forced wits. A bit of strategy creeps in on the rare occasion you’re not just slogging at each other, though. You have limited energy. Each weapon attack uses a small amount of energy, as does each use of magic. Magic is more effective at stunning foes — even when you’re not using the freeze attack — but it also costs more energy than even swinging an axe.

You can only equip one magic attack and one weapon at a time, although there are six quick-change buttons for swapping between them. This quick changing works remarkably well, saving you from repeatedly going through the clunky menu inventory.

Quick changing to the sword for the kill strike. There's a first-person view option, by the way.

Quick changing to the sword for the kill strike. There’s a first-person view option, by the way.

Interfacing

The menus, as a whole, suck. It doesn’t seem like any effort was made to adapting them to mouse and keyboard instead of the original touch controls (Ravensword debuted on iOS). Inventory appears in a row that you have to drag left and right — a gesture that’s comfortable with a finger but annoying with a mouse. The Stats, Talent, and Quest menus translate well to the Mac, but the Map leaves a lot to be desired.

You have two ways of accessing the map. You can pull up the tiny mini-map that sits in the top right corner of the screen and varies between totally and partly useless. Or you can press Escape and select the Map menu item, which brings up a complete stylized map of the game. This shows a few basic terrain details and marks out each of the different areas. If you’re not inside a building and you’ve visited an area at least once, you can use fast travel.

I'm somewhere where I don't know where I am.

“I’m somewhere where I don’t know where I am.”

The trouble is that the Shadowlands are really big, and neither map actually helps you figure out where exactly you are. Both provide some general direction, but if you want to go to a particular place within an area you’ll have to just wander around until you stumble upon it. Going on visual landmarks helps you if you’ve been playing for a while, but even then I had trouble distinguishing one spot from another — in the main town especially, buildings look the same.

Victim of Its Own Ambition

That’s not to take away from Ravensword’s visual splendor. It often throws up breathtaking vistas, and there’s plenty of character in the design of each area and enemy type. The Shadowlands are indeed huge; it’s just that Ravensword fails to make full use of the space, and it struggles to convince you that you’re more than a tourist — just stopping by to soak in some of the sights and sounds before moving along. People still play Skyrim, two years after release; how many will stick with Ravensword after two months?

Sometimes Ravensword is really pretty; I'm on a horse.

Sometimes Ravensword is really pretty; I’m on a horse.

It plays and looks like what it is: a well-produced ambitious mobile game ported to OS X with little consideration for the Mac’s extra horsepower or the different needs of the platform. Along the way, its ambition turned half-assed; Ravensword is a poor man’s Elder Scrolls game. It’s good, but with way too many caveats to recommend on merit alone.

If you can play Skyrim or Oblivion, do that instead; for the rest of us, Ravensword’s a decent imitation at a bargain bin price.


Summary

Like a poor man's Skyrim, Ravensword: Shadowlands offers an epic open-world role-playing adventure with an enormous world and loads of features, but it gets too big for its boots and suffers from a lack of depth.

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