Fretless Impressions: Live to shred

We've been hands-on with Ritual Studios' upcoming indie adventure, all during our time in Cologne for Gamescom 2023.

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Music can be a very powerful tool. The talented folk over at Ritual Studios know just this and have decided to create a turn-based RPG where you have to shred and riff to defeat powerful foes and save the land from monsters. This title is called Fretless, and as part of my time in Germany for Gamescom 2023, I had the opportunity to sit down and to play through a portion of this very project to see how it is shaping up ahead of its launch next year.

Fretless is set in a pixelated world that is defined by rhythm and music. The idea is that players will need to step into the shoes of Rob the musician as he sets out on a quest to stop the evil boss of Super Metal Records, Rick Riffson, from using the thrilling Battle of the Bands contest to take control of music and the land's best artists with devastating contracts. Needless to say, it's a rather clear caricature of the state of the entertainment industry. To complete this quest, Rob heads out into the world armed with his trusty guitar, and soon after ends up visiting various towns and important locations, where he can upgrade his guitar or replace it with a different instrument (such as a bass or a keytar) altogether.


From what I saw of Fretless, the world is an entertaining but not particularly complex place to explore. The art style is stunning and well detailed, but the actual level design is quite straightforward and isn't built in such a way that you will find yourself getting lost or confused. You can meet with locals and chat with them, or even pet the friendly dog, and can visit stores and vendors for helpful items to use on the road. And you'll want to do this as when out in the wilderness you'll come up against all manner of dangerous creatures, including spiders and vicious mushrooms, and your only form of defence will be your ability to shred.

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This is where Fretless really comes into its own, as the combat is designed to be a turn-based strategy system with deckbuilding elements. Essentially, you set up your guitar with a specific number of riffs that you can use within a battle (with these acting similar to cards in typical deckbuilders), and then when it comes to combat, you have to select three from your deck to cast within one turn. So, you can decide to use an area attack riff, followed by a shield, followed by a single attack, but the catch is that the riffs and the instrument of choice, well...riff off one another, meaning you can strategically combine them for high damage moves or for interesting effects.

One that really stood out to me was when using the bass. Unlike the regular guitar, this instrument requires health damage to use its moves all in return for more devastating attacks. I found that by building up a shield and then combining them with an attack that deals additional damage depending on the size of your shield was the way to go here, as you would not take any damage from riffing on the bass, but would still get massive attacks thanks to the instrument's intrinsic effect. The developers over at Ritual Studios promised me that the other instruments will open the door to more playstyle options, as will the various physical add-ons and abilities, which pave the way to adding bridges or changing the strings of your instrument.

As this is a game about music and rhythm it wouldn't be complete without some rhythm gameplay elements, right? Correct. In combat, after you use enough riffs over any number of encounters, you will get the option to use a powerful crescendo effect that increases the damage depending on how you perform during a rhythm mini-game where you have to tap buttons to the correct beat. It's a fun and entertaining addition that just makes the gameplay that little bit more thrilling.

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Fretless didn't come across as a game-changing title, but it did wow me with its charm and combination of rhythm and RPG elements. Regardless of whether you're a musician or not, this indie title has something to engage you, as it boasts plenty of customisable options, has an intuitive deckbuilding suite, a colourful and vibrant world to explore, and catchy soundtrack and audio offering. I think Fretless has a lot going for it when it arrives sometime in 2024.

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