Ritual: Crown of Horns is not the western twin-stick shooter you might expect it to be from the off. The game’s story takes an immediate ninety degree turn and proceeds to throw off any sort of sense you’ve made of it up until take point.
From there on it drags you kicking and screaming through the unknown wilderness, until you emerge as something completely different on the other side; for better or for worse.
Ritual: Crown of Horns
Publisher: Feardemic, iFun4all
Platforms: Windows PC (reviewed), Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Release Date: November 7th, 2019
Without spoiling the story too much, Ritual: Crown of Horns puts you in the shoes of Daniel Goodchild in an alternate version of the 1800s. Goodchild is a legendary bounty hunter who has been sent to take down a powerful witch in the dusty hills by a dark and secretive sector of the US government.
When you arrive at the witch’s home, everything is turned on its head. A cult takes Goodchild down, and the witch offers him a chance at living once again, as long as he agrees to protect her while she travels the land performing rituals.
From here you’re thrown into the gameplay. Each mission follows a similar structure, protecting the witch, while she performs her ritual, from the incoming waves of enemies. More and more enemies pile in as the timer counts down, making the minutes stretch for days.
In later levels, the game mixes things up a little by having the witch move around a bit, but for the most part she’s stationary. Goodchild however, is not. You’ll be moving your undead bounty hunter around each small arena at speed, looking for enemies to target and kill as soon as possible.
The controls are satisfying to use once you’ve got the hang of them. Left trigger locks onto an enemy, and right trigger fires. The game is playable with just a mouse and keyboard, but as the loading screen at the start points out, “The west was won with controller in hand”.
You’ll only start out with a six shooter, but additional weapons such as coach guns, shotguns, and hunting rifles are acquired over the course of the story.
You can only equip three weapons for any one level, forcing you to think about what you want to use. While you’re in the thick of combat, your unequipped weapons will automatically reload over time. This is a nice touch that keeps the action flowing without providing too much of a helping hand.
In addition to the range of munitions on offer, there are various spells to help you fight the witch’s enemies. These include throwing weapons, and even mines, which you can place multiples of in a single level, allowing you to cover most bases without fear of leaving your charge exposed.
Enemies drop souls upon death, which are then used as you cast your spells, creating at least a little tension between the onslaught of enemy waves. Souls are also used for dashing, meaning that dodging away from incoming attacks is a finite resource that you must replenish in battle.
One thing I did find jarring initially was about the game’s controls. The way that it looks and plays like, it should be a twin-stick shooter, but it behaves more like a tactical top-down shooter.
In each level I found myself aching for the mobility that comes with slick, fluid controls that let you shoot and move your aim all at once. The restriction that Ritual: Crown of Horns feels out of place as a result.
However, if you aim at an enemy for a few seconds before firing, you’ll deal additional damage, often killing them in one shot. In a way this mechanic overcomes the lack of mobility that you feel should be present, and gives the game more of an identity as an individual within the twin-stick shooting genre.
Each mission’s arena is a tight space that you’ll need to learn the ins and outs of over the course of multiple attempts. Enemy spawns and paths aren’t procedural, so a particularly tough level can be overcome by playing through it a few times and learning the enemy’s patterns.
Occasionally orbs will drop that provide various buffs to Goodchild, though these are short-lived. More than anything they offer a brief bit of diversity to gameplay that is sorely lacking in it otherwise.
Between missions it’s possible to upgrade Goodchild with new hats or other gear. These provide meaningful boosts to the character, but don’t go deep enough to offer anything in the way of build diversity. If nothing else, they’re a nice distraction, and a reason to play just one more mission.
As the story progresses, and missions become harder, everything starts to feel a little on the repetitive side. In short sessions, the game could be fun over the course of several days, like a 1000 piece puzzle.
But playing the game for hours at a time will lead to at least some fatigue with the action. Thankfully the game is saved somewhat by other elements. The art style is extraordinary, for example.
The old west has been charred and painted with blood, bringing in influences from voodoo mythology. Combined with papercraft character design, it’s a very pretty game to look at no matter how long you’re playing for.
The soundtrack in Ritual: Crown of Horns is also great. It doesn’t always stay true to the setting, but it keeps that undertone while adding in a few punchier themes to help you feel excited about the gameplay, even when you aren’t.
Finally, the story is really well-written. This shouldn’t be a surprise, given that a game of any size can have an incredible story, but here it’s a saving grace. Yes, you do need to protect the witch one more time, but at least you’ll get a nice cutscene out of it.
For me this harks back to the days of PlayStation 2 games, when you played Final Fantasy X for hours just to get to the next incredibly beautiful cutscene before ending your session at 2am.
Unfortunately this can be as frustrating as it is addictive. In a way, Ritual Crown of Horns relies on death as a mechanic as much as any soulsborne.
It’s only through attempting a mission that you’ll learn the enemy’s spawn and approach patterns, but in many cases you’ll die with each bit of knowledge gained.
At times, this learning pattern felt like difficulty which had been artificially built into the game. It’s hard to tell if that’s the case, but there are certainly times when it feels like it.
With that said, Ritual: Crown of Horns is a punchy shooter that’s satisfying to play. It’s got a great story for those who want to experience it, and it’s a real looker. As I mentioned at the start of this review, you will emerge from the game as something completely different to when you started it.
If frustration isn’t for you, then you’ll never emerge, but if you can get past all the challenges the game throws at you, then you’ll get to experience almost the same level of smugness a Dark Souls player feels when they beat Gwen for the first time.
Ritual: Crown of Horns was reviewed on PC using a review copy provided by iFun4all. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here.