Ravenlok review - haste makes waste in Wonderland
Like a writing desk?
Take one good look at Ravenlok and you’ll see Lewis Carroll’s fingerprints embed onto every voxel. Alice’s two literary adventures in Wonderland (plus several other adaptations) have clearly influenced developer Cococucumber, from the outsized teapots, off-brand Queen Of Hearts, and fish-out-of-water-into-a-fairytale-world setup. Ravenlok shares more than just surface-level nods to that classic book, though. Yes, it’s beautiful and dreamlike, but it’s also just as disorganised and nonsensical as Alice’s growing brain - for better and for worse.
Ravenlok is another gorgeous voxel adventure from Cococucumber, the delightfully named studio behind Echo Generation, only this time the turn-based combat is replaced by real-time slashing, and the retro-80s vibes get switched with a storybook world. The journey begins with your heroine chilling under a tree in the regular old world, before walking through a strange mirror and into the magical world of Dunia. A white rabbit quickly explains that she’s the nondescript chosen one, the titular Ravenlok, and you’re then swiftly sent to deal with the evil Queen plaguing the world.
What follows is an endless cycle of MacGuffin after MacGuffin that runs so deep, you almost forget why you’re tumbling down this rabbit hole. As you’re pushed through a revolving series of fetch quests, the game speedruns through important events and quickly abandons potentially interesting characters, meaning everything feels paper-thin. Even Ravenlok (the hero, not the game) feels one-note, as she’s never given enough time to meaningfully interact with the wacky cast; most of her conversations are polite and frictionless, almost like she’s keeping us at arm’s length. The credits roll before you truly understand either how the world works, or who any of these colourful characters are.
On the other hand, though, this quick-cut pace gives Ravenlok its dreamy quality. Since we never stay in one place for too long, the game is free to whip up new environments, new ideas, and new circumstances constantly. It rarely makes sense, but Wonderland was never a sensible place anyway. Everything lacks elaboration, but that lets Cococucumber throw interesting sights at you without interruption.
I’ve already mentioned the world’s good looks, but it’s worth emphasising. This is a collision of expressive voxels, epic painterly skies, a heavy dose of lovely lighting, and it all forms one big sensory overload. The game delights in smaller sights too, whether it’s the oddball character designs, the absolutely packed decorations, or even your character’s ability to dance at any given moment. Ravenlok’s audiovisual effort does a lot of heavy lifting to inject the game with personality. Sure, every environment is littered with Alice iconography, but there’s always something a little extra thrown in. A little off-kilter.
Remember that one mushroom in Alice? Well, Ravenlook has an entire forest full of luminescent mushrooms - really putting the magic in magic mushrooms. How about the hedge maze from the Disney film? That’s here, it’s pretty, and it also has a demonic, fanged cave entrance hanging to the side. In this way, Cococucumber carries over Echo Generation’s deadpan spirit where everything seems initially innocent, although it’s really a bit twisted inside - it likely helps that everyone’s eyes are actually deadpan, despite their cheery grins. Essentially, every new environment in Ravenlok makes you want to stop and stare, to appreciate either a grand vista, or the small hidden details.
A mostly fixed camera angle works hard to frame the world in the most attractive angles, but it’s unfortunately a major hindrance when it comes to combat. When battling regular enemies - through Ravenlok’s corridor-shaped levels - the camera’s fine. It only becomes problematic in the boss battle arenas when the towering baddies run behind your field of view. Rather than turning to look at them, like you would in most action games, you instead need to run backwards into the unknown, potentially putting yourself in harm's way.
Sadly, that’s only one of many frustrations with Ravenlok’s feather-light combat. You have a sword for standard attacks, a shield for reducing incoming damage, a few bombs that pause the action while you select them, and a handful of flashy magical abilities that shoot out icy projectiles or cover the floor in flames. Despite these options, most one-on-one fights turn into a button-mashing fest. Ravenlok’s sword strike doesn’t have a lengthy animation, at all really: the faster you can press attack, the faster she’ll swing her sword. Since common enemies are usually stunned when you attack them, you can essentially bully them with a flurry of non-stop slashes, turning battles into busywork. Group encounters fail to be any more dynamic, as the same button mashing is intact, but you’ll instead have to dodge and switch up targets to avoid damage, which only serves to elongate the same process.
The main problem is simply the monotony that sets in. Rather than feeling like a reactive dance - one where you’re learning an enemy’s behaviour and responding to their movements accordingly - combat in Ravenlok is almost always one-sided.
Boss fights fare a little better - when they’re in view - since they’re not so easily pushed over and they have their own cycle of moves you can learn, dodge, and counter. In that sense, boss battles feel quite old-school; almost as if they’re an obstacle course to fail at and retry. Unfortunately, most of the time though, combat has no learning curve, just some nice flashy effects. That sums up most of Ravenlok, I think.
Sword swinging aside, there are a handful of clever puzzles here too. The best ones force you to whip out your inner detective hat, and sometimes your real-life notebooks, to investigate the environment for clues, finding patterns in paintings to crack a code, for example. These were so fun because they encouraged me to take a closer look at this wondrous world and the small details I’d otherwise have missed. I wish the game were filled with more of these exploratory puzzles since it plays to Ravenlok’s strengths and really lets you soak in the magic.
Overall, my time with Ravenlok can be summed up quite nicely with the original Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland book. It ends in a way that’s pertinent to this game: The King and Queen Of Hearts hold a trial for an innocent man using an illogical, almost unreadable poem as evidence. Having found new perspective through her journey, a braver, bolder, and literally bigger Alice defends the innocent, arguing that the evidence is meaningless. That’s a debate that followed the book in the real world - was this trippy novel childish nonsense, or could it have deeper connotations?
That was a question that kept popping up in my head during this playthrough too, although the answer here is probably the former. Ravenlok never sits in the moment, never bothers to ask if there’s any meaning to the madness, never twists language in the ‘curiouser and curiouser’ kind of way. Ultimately, my enduring memory of the game is a hazy collection of visual snapshots, and that was admittedly enough to hook me through an 8-hour playthrough. It’s endlessly alluring to look at and think about, although scratch beneath the surface and you won’t find much else to grab onto.