While E3 has dominated the conversation in video games this month with its yearly fanfare of upcoming blockbuster titles, Riverbond released as a timely indie palate cleanser. With charming visuals and satisfying gameplay, Cococucumber's "slash and shoot" dungeon crawler provides a great deal of relaxing entertainment but is limited in scope and challenge.
Riverbond's concept is simple but effective, which is made immediately clear as soon as you enter one of the game's eight dungeons. You're thrown into a cutesy world of charming characters, with talking animals providing your next objective in humorous chit-chat dialogue. Quests can be as basic as retrieving an item or clearing the stage of its aggressive NPCs (if you can imagine feeling threatened by a cute penguin with a tiny sword) before advancing toward a dungeon's end boss.
The gameplay is incredibly easy to get to grips with, using a combination of melee and ranged weapons to slice or shoot your way through groups of enemies. The combat is simple but hugely satisfying, which is in part due to the responsive, smooth controls but also the visual aesthetic.
One of the first things you'll notice about Riverbond is its vibrant voxel art style. Not only does it look gorgeous, but it pairs excellently with the feel of the gameplay. Everything you see in the world before you - cubes making up shrubbery, crates and other environmental clutter - is all completely destructible. After being obliterated, objects and enemies disperse into a cloud of small fragments. It feels endlessly satisfying to slice through a horde of piglets while a shower of colourful cubes rains over you like confetti, making every enemy you defeat feel like a small celebration.
Whilst the combat and visuals provide oodles of fun and stimulation, there are times when the game will start to feel repetitive. After storming through a couple of the first dungeons, you'll notice the later tasks will be overly familiar and somewhat tedious. Without offering much of a development in the story or even a little increase in difficulty, you'll be mindlessly mashing your way through levels, reaching a dungeon's end in anywhere between 25 and 45 minutes.
That being said, the developers have managed to keep dungeon design relatively diverse, ensuring there's a dash of variety sprinkled into each level. You're encouraged to explore your environment due to valuable treasure chests hidden around the stage, each packed with an outrageous new weapon to play around with or a stupidly adorable skin to add to your collection.
Weapons can be as ridiculous as stabbing your enemy with an upvote arrow, slapping them around with a giant cartoon hand, or opening fire using a gun filled with rainbows. The types of weapons are differentiated by speed and damage, which helps keep combat fresh with up to five slots in your inventory to fluidly switch between. The only issue with this is that there aren't any weapon stats provided when making the decision to pick up something new.
Skins on the other hand only make cosmetic changes to your character, allowing you to play as an anthropomorphic taco, avocado, boom box or some other visual oddity. There are also cameos from indie classics, with skins for Juan from Guacamelee, the Kid from Bastion, Raz from Psychonauts and more. The sheer amount of unlockable costumes provide you with a little incentive to replay stages, as one run through likely won't be enough to collect 'em all.
Being a couch co-op compatible game, there's also a scoring system. You gain points for collecting miscellaneous jewels, slicing through enemies and chatting with NPCs. After defeating the dungeon's boss, the player with the highest total receives the glory and a gleaming crown to go on top, but if you don't have any friends to compete against, the score feels ultimately meaningless.
The main problem is the lack of consideration for solo players, as high scores are only saved locally, without support for online leaderboards or friend list comparisons. The scoring system provides little to no incentive to play a stage as perfectly as possible, which is a shame considering the lack of content there is after finishing the adventure mode in full.
It's incredibly frustrating to see the longevity of the title squandered, considering how surprisingly enjoyable it is to spam and slash your way through baddies. Additional game modes to suit more styles of play would have been nice to see - as the dungeons are so short and easy to complete, it seems absolutely daft to not add in a speed run mode to ramp up the replay value.
With such minimalism in concept and content, Riverbond somewhat presents itself as baby's first dungeon crawler. It's certainly an enjoyable experience and would be a worthy choice for your next family game night, but single players should be wary of the limited amount of fun to be had. The arsenal of zany weapons and ludicrous skins can only provide so much comedic value, the same way the charm of the environments and characters can start to wear thin without an overarching narrative. If you're looking for mindless enjoyment in short doses, however, Riverbond delivers in spades.
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