By Evan Norris 22nd Nov 2019 | 2,617 views
From Gun Fight to Red Dead Redemption, games inspired by the Wild West have captured the imaginations of video game players for decades. One of the latest is Ritual: Crown of Horns, a top-down twin-stick shooter that presents a twisted, alternate version of American expansion in the second half of the nineteenth century. While the game sports an interesting story, decent replay value, and a handful of interesting weapons—some inappropriate for the era—its unattractive assets, cumbersome shooting mechanics, and punishing difficulty make it a middling take on the genre.
In Ritual, you play as Daniel Goodchild, an infamous bounty hunter commissioned by the US government to destroy a reclusive witch. When he arrives at the witch's lair, he finds himself surrounded by cultists who quickly kill him. Resurrected by the mysterious witch, Goodchild learns a horrible truth: thousands of Americans, including his employers in the government, belong to an evil cult manipulating the souls of the dead. In exchange for his life, the ex-bounty hunter agrees to serve as the witch's bodyguard as she moves west, north, and east across the United States performing rituals to destroy the cult.
The weird premise of Ritual, part Old West folktale and part gothic horror, is one of the game's strongest features. It's a warped, corrupt version of 1800s America, with bloodstained sands, endless railways, destroyed Native American villages, haunted prisons, and infernal factories. The NPCs are equally unreal and larger-than-life, like characters out of American Gods: the Trickstress, a disembodied fortune-teller; and The God of Guns, the patron saint of firearms.
Ritual is a twin-stick shooter, but since you'll be protecting the witch most of the time, the game plays less like Hotline Miami and more like a horde-mode/tower-defense game. While there are a handful of stages with bosses or where Goodchild must survive an onslaught by himself, the majority of the time players must keep a rampaging horde of cultists from reaching the defenseless witch.
Ritual works acceptably as a tower defense game, thanks to developer Draw Distance adding different victory conditions, enemies with unique attack patterns, and stage-altering gimmicks like portals, totems, and a teleporting witch. Unfortunately, it never quite satisfies in its moment-to-moment gameplay, due to perhaps its biggest drawback: controls.
Ritual adopts a counter-intuitive control scheme that plays differently from your standard top-down twin-stick shooter. You still move with the left stick and aim with the right, but you must first slow down and aim before firing a projectile weapon. By pressing ZL within reach of an enemy, auto-aim will activate and lock on. You can then manually shift targets with the right stick. In a fast-moving game with many berserk enemies, this fussy system of aiming and locking on ends up being a significant handicap.
Connected with unfortunate controls is a burdensome level of difficulty. Death comes fast and easy from the very beginning of the game. Only through failure and via trial and error can you hope to topple some of its most extreme challenges. Remember, you'll need to keep both yourself and the witch alive for sometimes five minutes at a time. Surrounded by cultists in 360 degrees and hampered by a deliberate aiming system, you'll find it difficult to do so.
It's not all bad in Ritual, though. The game hosts a welcome amount of replayable content, including 25+ maps that can be beaten in story mode or replayed in challenge mode with different goals, e.g. take no damage. Using Demonic Horns earned from completing maps, players may purchase new gear from the Trickstress in The Bloody Heartland, an inter-dimensional hub. They can also add and subtract spells by visiting the witch, or swap out weapons courtesy of the God of Guns. Speaking of guns, they're fun to use in Ritual, whether a sawed-off shotgun, a crossbow that can penetrate three enemies at a time, or a slightly-anachronistic Lewis light machine gun.
While Ritual impresses with its blood-red stills and detailed character portraits, its in-game graphics are blocky, clumsy, and unattractive. It has a cheap, thrown-together look. Music, however, is a different story. Twangy and driving, it's like an unholy mixture of folk, country, and metal music. The song "Smoke and Tumbleweed" is particularly good. On the technical side, the game runs fine, although watch out for unusually long loading times.
Ritual: Crown of Horns is a second-rate Wild West title, in the end, due to ugly visuals, overly difficult scenarios, and some counter-productive controls. Yet it also shows a lot of promise, thanks to its genre-mixing gameplay, soundtrack, and storyline. There's a core here of interesting mechanics and conceits that needed more time in development and an extra layer of polish.