Ritual: Crown of Horns is a game that radiates confidence through its style and gameplay. It’s a challenging adventure through a macabre, Grindhouse-styled top-down shooter with challenging bite-sized levels where you protect a witch as an undead outlaw pulled straight out of old pulp novels. It’s not without flaws and it doesn’t exactly move the needle, but it is assuredly a fantastic way to spend your time.
You play as Daniel Goodchild, an outlaw set on his way to kill a witch and receive his bounty. Things take a turn as you’re killed by bloodthirsty cultists and swiftly brought back to life by your mark. This witch explains that the revenge Goodchild seeks would be better sought out together as you can achieve both your goals as partners. And so off you set together across a perverse hellscape that has become America to find the witch’s friends and exact revenge on those responsible.
Those witch’s friends are zany characters including a man who believes he’s the God of Guns, who you’ll need to speak to when you want to change your loadout before each mission. While their character models do nothing to denote their singularity, it is nice to read the dialogue texts before each mission as every character has such a distinct personality that you could tell who’s speaking if the character’s portrait was obfuscated. In addition, while your companions are few, the personality and setting of this game is so strong they act as characters themselves, rarely leaving you feeling lonely and isolated past the swarms of enemies clawing at your every step.
Plot and story, on the other hand, isn’t very strong. Like all pulpy Grindhouse affairs, story takes second place to the action so I didn’t go in expecting a gripping narrative similar to that other cowboy shooting game. That doesn’t mean it wouldn’t have been welcome though, but I wasn’t particularly upset about the loss.
The gameplay is the real meat of Ritual: Crown of Horns, however, and it’s very solid. Almost every mission sees you placed in a small arena protecting the witch from an onslaught of enemies coming to kill her. Using a selection of three weapons and equipable spells you’ll slaughter enemies with arrows – even ones with big claws that leap right at you as you zip around the level. If you can protect her before the timer runs out she’ll wipe the arena of all the enemies and the mission will be finished. It’s simple, but never easy.
The game pushes you to play, including learning the paths enemies walk in and completing challenges to earn currency you can use to grow stronger. It walks a fine line between being difficult yet not hard to overcome, making you feel smart and rewarded for finishing a level and not wanting to smash the controller – Cuphead is a cheap game but the controller on Amazon is not. To that point, Crown of Horns offers a fair amount of content when you include the challenge levels, those being completed levels you can replay with challenges attached. For most players, they’ll be essential visits to pass the campaign missions that are too difficult to finish. Rewards include new weapons and the game’s currency which can be used to buy clothes with special buffs. The next time you approach a level you might have new clothes with better stats, a shotgun with better range and a spell that leaves a deadly trap, ready to try again.
While this combination of a strong identity and rapid gameplay makes for a good purchase, and what the game offers is great, I couldn’t help but notice that Ritual: Crown of Horns lacked something truly spectacular. There isn’t the same kind of variety found in games like Victor Vran or The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing, or like that found in the personality and sheer thrills of the Hotline Miami games. Taking that comparison a bit further, the graphics in Ritual: Crown of Horns can’t match the story and setting like it’s counterpart so masterfully did. You really have to squint to distinguish the character models. If it weren’t for the art design this game might have been pretty ugly.
Nevertheless, Ritual: Crown of Horns on Xbox One deserves your time. It’s an engaging experience that’ll find you wanting to quickly run through a bite-sized level yet straining to put the controller back down. It’s unique Grindhouse aesthetic can’t lift it up enough to stand beside the best of the genre yet it should be lauded for being such a strong package that accomplishes what it set out to achieve.