“Open-world roguelite” isn’t a phrase I hear used together a lot, possibly for good reason, but Avalanche Studios subsidiary Systemic Reaction is determined to make it work. Systemic shared a hands-on preview with me from Gamescom this week, and creative director Emil Kraftling explained how the heck they plan to bring these two seemingly opposing concepts together. It’s hard to judge without playing it yourself, but it sure is looks like Systemic is on the right track here. And I’m not just saying that because you can fly all around the map as a bird.
Ravenbound begins with you rolling three character options at the start of each run, randomly drawn from the species (human to start with), traits, and weapon types you’ve unlocked. At the start of each run, you’ll leap out of the Door of Gales, the first of seven, each leading to different elemental cards, and fly away as a raven.
Ravenbound immediately deviates from the roguelikes I’m used to. You’re not crawling through a dungeon room by room, or even exploring a Metroidvania-style non-linear map like in Hollow Knight. You have a literal bird’s-eye view of the forested Gales area with icons to indicate enemy groups, the keys you need to collect to advance, and the one town hub per zone.
From above, it would be easy to mistake Ravenbound for an open-world RPG, but Kraftling is very clear about Systemic not wanting players to expect exploration. It’s inspired by Swedish folklore and villains, but don’t look “draugr” and think “Skyrim”. As a roguelike, it’s still about combat, just without the linear constraint of a dungeon. The open world is all about giving players immediate choices – how much combat they want, how difficult a challenge they are willing to take on, and in what order.
In the 17 minutes of gameplay footage Systemic shared with me, lead designer Simon Laserna soars past forests, bridges and towers, finally selecting an icon with a single skull showing the easiest difficulty and also as a position one of three keys he has must open the boss door in the area.
He dives low to the ground, assumes human form, and uses a sword and shield to wield, guard, and evade a group of five humanoid wolf enemies. He can properly time his sentinel to stun them and boost a high damage sword attack. Sliding dodges allow him to glide in arcs around combat, and he can also reposition himself while leaping in the air – both of which lead to fights see a bit loose and skate-y. Kraftling assures me it feels better to play than it appears in the video. I have to take his word for it until we get a chance to play ourselves.
After defeating the party, he gains an ability card from his deck that grows over runs as a form of meta-progression. I’m a bit jaded with deck building being strapped to the hood of every genre, but not enough to hold it against an otherwise cool concept. Cards require the use of mana, which comes from the leveling up that comes from combat. Each of the zones has a level gain cap, meaning endless grinding will rob you of your limited healing potions rather than rewarding you for drawing a card you want – be it more armor, a damage buff, or some other effect.
Those initial enemies were basic stuff, but Laserna eventually takes on a group of three Vittras, flying ghostly women who are quick with high-damage daggers but easy to stagger by mastering the perfect defense. He then jumps off one of the raven pillars nearby to transform and fly into town, where he buys a new health potion before taking on the area’s boss and dying: a tall and swift knight boy with a sword and shield .
Though I can’t see the next run, Kraftling explains that the world’s landscape will be the same, but the placement of enemies, keys, and structures will change. “In one life it could be an active mining camp and in another an abandoned mining camp haunted by Draugr. Certain paths or caves may or may not be open in different runs.” Kraftling briefly reveals that Systemic also plans to provide live service updates to the game, which may include new types of structures on the map.
Kraftling estimates that it takes around 20 minutes to get through a single area and around an hour to get through the subsequent doors to the final boss. After spending about 10 hours dying, trying again and unlocking new maps as happens in a roguelite.
A light touch
“The combination of roguelite and open world isn’t really finished,” says Kraftling of the mashup. “We felt like maybe more people would enjoy roguelites than they actually do now, and maybe we can bring something to the table to educate people.”
“Open World is what we’ve done so often over the past 20 years through both Avalanche and Systemic Reaction. That’s where we start. Then we look at what kind of games we like to play and what kind of games [other] People like to play and where something overlaps, which we can be passionate about and find a strong community.”
Kraftling admits that the two genres initially clashed during development. It feels a bit like Systemic threw themselves into this conundrum of getting a fox, a goose, and a bag of grain across a river without either of them eating each other, and imposed things like the area cap to do so prevent the pieces of the open world from being engulfed by the pressure of a roguelite. And yet they may have solved it. Maybe the farmer will get all three to the other side.
I won’t deny that 3rd person action-fantasy combat creates a certain amount of wiggle room in my head. I rarely get along with roguelikes or lites. I’m not good with top down fights or bullet hells and most seem to end up with one or both. A roguelite that lets me choose my battles, with fights closer to something like The Witcher or modern Assassin’s Creed games – maybe it would be something I’d keep dying in.
Plus, being a raven looks cool.
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