For the past few years, I’ve been impressed with Toronto-based indie developer Cococucumber’s output.
Between 2013 and 2021, the studio released the whack-a-mole experience Bunny Bonker, the platformer Planet of the Eyes, the co-op-supported dungeon-crawler Riverbond and the retro-inspired turn-based RPG Echo Generation. Clearly, that’s quite prolific. Its latest work, Ravenlok, has more in line with the latter two titles, as it’s the conclusion to a de facto ‘Voxel Trilogy’ featuring blocky, pixel-based voxel artwork. It’s also an RPG, although unlike Echo Generation, it’s real-time.
All of that is to say I’ve had my eyes on Ravenlok since it was revealed at the Xbox & Bethesda Games Showcase last summer. That anticipation has ultimately been rewarded, as Cococucumber has done it again with Ravenlok, a gorgeous and entertaining, if simplistic, romp.
Ravenlok opens with a brief tutorial set in our unnamed heroine’s new home in rural Ontario. Before long, she finds herself whisked away to a magical land and discovers she’s Ravenlok, a legendary warrior destined to stop the evil Caterpillar Queen. As far as setups go, it’s admittedly pretty well-trodden territory, and Cococucumber itself hasn’t shied away from the clear Alice in Wonderland parallels. Beyond that, though, the dialogue and characterizations are also fairly thin, which, at times, had me missing the comparatively more narratively-rich Echo Generation.
That said, Cococucumber has really mined the fantastic setting for some wonderful environmental variety. From a zany contraption-filled mansion to a spooky, monster-filled forest and giant twisty maze, Ravenlok constantly offers up something new to explore. Better still, the voxel art style is downright stunning, especially in 4K on Xbox Series X, making everything pop.
The plentiful amount of whimsy on display is also why I initially had some mixed thoughts on the basic core combat. Essentially, it boils down to Ravenlok having a standard sword attack that she can repeat in remarkably fast succession by button-mashing. From there, you’ll unlock a few special moves that have cooldowns (such as a lunging thrust) and different elemental bombs that can be thrown. It’s pretty rudimentary and lacks any real sense of depth, which can be off-putting at first.
However, I eventually came around by viewing it more as a sort of old-school throwback to beat ’em up games. It’s less so about elaborate combos and more about punchy quick hits, and in that regard, it feels quite good. In particular, Ravenlok herself is light on her feet and controls rather loosely, affording you a good amount of mobility in both battle arenas and when simply getting from place to place. The real combat appeal eventually comes from the boss fights, which are impressively varied in both their visual and attack design. A giant putrid mushroom… A top hat-wearing mechanical bird… A giant piñata-esque four-legged bison… It’s clear Cococucumber let its imagination run wild for the bosses, and the end result is truly compelling.
Beyond that, the overall pace of Ravenlok also makes it a lovely reprieve from the many overly long games on the market. As I dug into it, I came to appreciate how I could simply pick up and play for a bit and still feel like I made good progress, be that a new boss I defeated or some sidequest I completed for a quirky animal. Back-tracking for quests and items also feels breezy thanks to a fast travel system, and the areas themselves thankfully feel manageable in size already. The addition of a questlog, too, gives this an edge over Echo Generation on the RPG side of things.That’s not to say the gameplay doesn’t have some issues, however. For one, you can only throw bombs by opening up a menu that effectively pauses the game, which does disrupt the flow of combat. Blocking is also set to the Y button, which feels a bit unnatural compared to the triggers or bumpers, which are used for special moves. The ability to remap the controller would have been appreciated. You can also only spend XP to level up at a specific NPC, making it somewhat frustrating to constantly seek him out. None of these are significant issues, though.
At the end of the day, Ravenlok doesn’t really do anything particularly new on the story or gameplay front. That said, there’s an undeniable beauty in this simplicity, giving room to showcase the game’s genuinely magnificent art direction and boss design. There’s also just an inherent appeal in an RPG that’s not weighed down by excessive systems or a plethora of sidequests. Everything in Ravenlok feels purposefully crafted, and it’s a joy to play as a result.
Image credit: Cococucumber