Someone had to do it. An immersive action role-playing game with the look of Morrowind and the accessibility of The Legend of Zelda, Ravensword: The Fallen King tries to pack a lot of fantasy into its small, portable frame. There’s the fantasy of knights, mages, ogres and demons. There’s also the fantasy that epic swords and sorcery can or should be ported to the iPhone. The game makes a strong case for the contrary.
The story is typical, though the writing is one of the game’s two highlights. You wake up in a countryside village without having a clue who you are. You quickly learn that demons are encroaching upon the land and that the king has not been seen or heard from for years. Put two and two together, and you’ll likely be the hero of Ravensword. A wry sense of humor pervades the characters and items. For instance, the inventory screen advises you to keep the fabled magical Ravensword out of the hands of children, and the local food stand is tellingly named Rat Donald’s.
The village sets the mood for the game, which is a pleasant one. The other highlight, the lovely music, draws you into the world of thatched roofs, prairies, fortresses, dungeons, ice and flame. For the most part, the game is smart about keeping things simple. The villagers give clear hints about who to talk to, and where, for new quests. The environments are evocative but concise: Walk toward the castle and you’ll see the bodies of fallen knights. Pass a hillside entrance to a dungeon and you’ll notice a troll pointedly standing in front of the door. No further explanation is necessary (or given).
Don’t expect a deep role-playing game. All the depth is implied, and rightly so. Apart from health, there are no real stats to speak of. You don’t know whether a mace does more or less damage than a sword before you buy it. Magic usage is limited to a small selection of runes that you trigger a limited number of times. Movement is performed by swiping to look around the world and using a virtual joystick to strafe and run.
These decisions keep Ravensword fast and straightforward, which is the way to go for the iPhone. You’ll most likely want to do your questing in short, sudden bursts rather than over an hour-long session. Your objectives, of course, include fetching items and slaying monsters. They also include herding sheep and exterminating bees. Because of the simplified design, it’s unfortunately impossible to tell which quests are important to progressing in the story and which are optional side quests. (Some are obvious; others are borderline.)
Which brings us to the flaws with the game. If high fantasy is about traveling to a faraway land and smiting fell beasts, then Ravensword is no fantasy. Combat is a matter of standing before your opponent—an ogre, a polar bear, a rat—and mashing the attack button. While this isn’t objectively different from the RPG mechanic of trading blows until the one with lower stats topples, it feels bothersome and pointless in execution. And if you are attacked from behind, then chances are you’ll want to throw your iPhone into the toilet as you swipe frantically to wheel around and find yourself looking into the ground. Swipe, mash the attack button, repeat.
While the scope and variety of the world is impressive—it ranges appropriately from pristine heights to murky depths—it fails to become an immersive world, feeling instead like a series of tunnels and boxes holding creatures that await your company. This wouldn’t be an issue if battle were more dynamic. Instead, it makes questing feel like a chore.
The game will take several hours to complete, after which you are free to continue exploring the world. But much of the game’s length comes from being charged from behind by an overpowered beast, getting killed (you’re resurrected in the same bed where you first awoke, which at least makes playing and failing a seamless experience), and trudging back to where you left off. While you can touch enemies to view their stats, it’s hard to gauge your odds against them in a fight based on your level. And there is no particular way to grind for experience. This makes the meat of Ravensword more a matter of trial and error than of swords and sorcery.
The game looks great on paper, but the premise of compressing a three-dimensional, open-world RPG to fit on an iPhone seems paper-thin. Role-playing fans are better off trying Chillingo’s other ambitious title, The Quest.