Ritual: Crown of Horns is an unforgiving, brutally challenging top-down twin-stick shooter/tower defense hybrid set in an occult Wild West setting. You are Daniel Goodchild: a man containing many of the tropes that make up your typical Western hero. He’s a mountain man; an ex-soldier turned bounty hunter; a legendary frontiersman whose tales are told in dime novels across America. He’s also dead. Death is just the start of his epic journey to kill half of the United States of America, however, but let’s start at the beginning.
An ever-dutiful patriot, Dan is called upon by the U.S. government to track down and eliminate a witch. Once he arrives at her hut in a forest clearing, things take a turn for the worst. As he’s speaking to the witch, strangely dressed men with axes charge him, overwhelming him and cutting him down with their sheer numbers. As he lay dying, the witch explains how the men that killed him belong to a cult, and that they were also sent by the government to kill her. She gives him an ultimatum: serve her and get your revenge on the cult or die. After a brief tutorial you are resurrected and stronger than ever. After killing the cultists surrounding the witches hut, she gives you the lowdown. The United States is covered in powerful magical ley lines fueled by the suffering souls of the tormented and deceased. She has mastered a ritual that can cleanse the lines and aid the souls and for that, the government decided that she should die. So basically, you’ll travel across America and guard her with your life while she completes the rituals. Due to your unnatural alliance, if she dies you die.
This story concept translates quite literally into the gameplay. The level interface is a map of the United States covered with lines branching East, West, and North from the main hub (Which I’ll explain soon). The progression is non-linear so you can head in whichever direction you want. Your objective in each level is more or less the same: survive until the timer runs out. Most of the time you simply need to protect the witch while the hordes steadily encroach on her during the ritual, which is easier said than done. Crown of Horns is a soul-crushingly difficult title. The challenge is one of the main draws of the game, but some gamers may be put off by it. If you die, game over. If the witch takes too many hits, game over. There are a lot of variables that go into the levels as well. Often the witch will be behind some barricades that the rank and file will focus on destroying. In the more challenging levels, there will be hazards to avoid. In others, there will be an increased amount of enemies but you’ll have special totems that the witch constructs to distract them from her as long as they’re active. In the more frustrating scenarios, the witch will teleport to different locations in the level. In my opinion, some of the most difficult levels don’t contain the witch at all: you’re separated from her for whatever reasons and the enemies come straight for you instead.
To put it simply; the gameplay is quick and vicious. Your basic means of self-defense are your guns and your dash. You have to hold the trigger button to aim your guns. The problem with that is, you move slower and can’t dash while doing it. You have unlimited ammo but each weapon has a clip and must be reloaded. You can use up to three weapons, each with their different strengths and weaknesses. For example, the sawed-off shotgun is very powerful but shoots in a small cone and only has 2 shots before reloading. Your revolver can fire quickly but if you hold your aim on an enemy and wait for a red skull to appear over him, you’ll do double damage. Matching your weapon to the task at hand is a vital strategy. One very important piece of information is that, while you can reload manually at any time, switching to the next weapon just as you run out of ammo will automatically reload the previous weapon, theoretically allowing you to never stop shooting. Believe me; this is an essential and absolutely necessary strategy. The hordes are implacable and don’t even give you enough time to reload in most cases, so you need to develop a sort of circadian rhythm. Move and shoot, count your shots. Weapon clip is empty: switch to next weapon and don’t stop moving and shooting. To stop or mess up that rhythm is to die.
Goodchild also has limited access to some magic. They require souls from defeated enemies to cast but are very helpful to your survival. Personally, I think the first spell you gain access to is also one of the most useful. It makes you temporarily invincible as saw blades spin around your body and damage surrounding enemies. It is essential to your survival since a lot of the levels are tight and can feel especially claustrophobic when it’s clutch time and you’re down to standing over the witch, frantically blasting away at the cultists and staving off your impending doom. There are also a few powerups that can appear around the playing field, offering an extremely time-limited advantage such as faster movement speed, increased souls, or faster reloading. Occasionally you can find a health restoration item, but they’re hard to see since they are red and the floor is usually covered in blood.
Before you can start the game proper, you are introduced to the main hub and must recruit two NPCs to help in your quest: The Trickstress and the God of Guns. The hub is the witch’s interdimensional hideout colloquially known as ‘The Bloody Heartland’. There are a number of important functions to help gear yourself up between levels. As you complete the levels, you will be rewarded with new spells, gear, and blueprints. Upon completing certain levels you will also unlock entries in Dan’s journal if you want to read up a bit of lore. You can map up to three spells to your controller by speaking to the witch. The God of Guns allows you to choose which three guns you have equipped. The Trickstress has a few functions to take note of. She sells pieces of gear that enhance your capabilities. Unlock the spells and guns, the gear needs to be purchased with Demonic Horns, a currency earned by beating a level. She also offers a way to earn more Horns by letting you replay previously beaten levels and completing special challenges.
Ritual is a hell of a dark game with some badass scenarios. One of the levels is a mausoleum dedicated to Daniel Goodchild. When you arrive, the cultists are in the middle of paying their respects and espousing your virtues as a great man: a true patriot. One of the cultists turns to you and asks how you know the deceased and what brought you here. Goodchild simply replies “I’m here to bury you all in my own grave.” Another wicked line comes from the witch when you are about to embark on a mission to find the God of Guns. When Goodchild asks exactly what they plan to do, she explains: “We’re going to go into the church, kill all the corrupt parishioners and use their energy to summon God.” It’s so damn Metal I just about threw up a pair of devil horns. Though not plentiful, the pre-mission dialogue goes a long way to setting the dark tone of the game. If you’re a gamer who craves a bloody violent challenge over all else, then Ritual: Crown of Horns makes for quite the solid choice.
*Note: A copy of the game was provided for the purpose of the review.
Final Score: 7/10
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