Voxel artwork has always had a soft spot in my heart. Ever since I fell in love with the designs in 3D Dot Game Heroes a decade ago, it has been a visual style I’ve wanted to see more of. Similarly, my brood of kids all adore Minecraft and gravitate towards anything that looks even remotely like it. I didn’t need much convincing then when my clan of children stumbled across Riverbond – a 1-4 Player co-operative adventure that’s entirely built on voxels – on the PlayStation Store. It only took a single “Please Daddy, can we have this game?” plea before I caved. A new record low.
Riverbond puts you in control of a colourful cast of characters – a rabbit in a hoodie, a donut with anime eyes, a watermelon with a headband, a happy pug and guest stars from indie hits like Bastion and Shovel Knight – in a world entirely made of voxel art. It’s played via an isometric viewpoint high above the action and is controller much like a twin stick shooter, the left Dualshock 4 stick controlling movement while the right determines attack direction. There’s 8 distinct mini-campaigns that make up the game, each of which challenge you to fight your way through a bunch of enemies, complete objectives and finally take on the big boss waiting at the end. Each campaign has its own thematic feel too. From the Minecraft-esque Restwater Valley to the neon and florescent trees in the Sky Garden, the dark Ash Fortress to the ice covered Stonefrost Peak, the game goes through a myriad of different biomes and does them all justice.
Each campaign in Riverbond is made up of several interlinked levels with locked gates separating them. Each individual level tasks your team to complete an objective in order to unlock the gate blocking your progress so that you can move on. These tasks come in 4 different varieties – Kill all the enemies on the level, Find 1 particular character and talk to them, find and activate objectives around the level or find and destroy a number of objectives. While it’s not a wide variety of things to do, the framing around each mission and the fact that the objective changes each level means it manages to stave off a feeling of repetition for the majority of its 8-10 hour length.
While there’s no narrative tying everything together in Riverbond, each mini-campaign contains a few characters that can be spoken to who give a background to what’s been going on in their region, what needs to be done, helpful hints and the occasional joke. Almost all of this is opt-in, meaning you can go through the entire game and converse with just a hand full of characters. Handy if you just want to get into the action.
There’s a very impressive array of beasties to fight in Riverbond. Almost every level in every mini-campaign introduces something new to brawl, progressively getting more deadly as you head towards the boss battle. There’s a good mix of enemy attacks too with some doing ranged attacks and others focusing on getting in close to hack at you.
It’s the visuals that really separated Riverbond from its competition. Everything you see in game that isn’t a floor tile or solid wall is made up of voxels and 95% of it can be destroyed if you hit it enough times. The detail on everything from the enemy models to book cases, trees to mine carts is truly stupendous. It’s a truly eye catching art style with a high element of interactivity. Chop down some voxel grass and after you’ve sent the blocky blades flying, they’ll grow back which keeps the levels from becoming too baron too.
To fight back, your cast of characters can use ranged and melee weapons. You start each chapter with nothing but a simple sword and a rapid firing pistol but as you explore, you can find chests in all kinds of nooks and crannies that contain new, more powerful weapons. You can only carry 5 of them at any one time however and if you go rooting around each level, you’ll find far more than this. Choosing your weapons to suit the way you want to play and the threats you’re facing can add a shallow tactical touch to proceedings, should you want to indulge in it, but it’s far from necessary.
While Riverbond might be too easy for experienced gamers, this game truly shines when played with a brood of children. The difficulty doesn’t scale depending on the number of players in your team but there’s always enough enemies around to keep even 4 players engaged. When played co-operatively, the camera pans ever so slightly to keep everyone in the frame (there’s no split screen here) but if anyone does go off screen, they’re teleported back to the location of Player 1 after a few seconds. This meant even my 4 year old could sort-of-play despite not being able to traverse some of the more difficult terrain sections. The game is designed to be easy to read and navigate but also hides a myriad of secrets just off the beaten track should you go looking for them. There’s no traditional failure criteria in Riverbond either. If you run out of health, you fall to the ground and a countdown starts, during which time you can be revived by a co-op partner. If they don’t manage to get to you in time, you’ll simply respawn a few seconds later anyway. Everything in this title is designed around providing younger, less experienced players with an experience that is simultaneously challenging and accessible while not compromising too much for the older, experienced player. For the most part, it pulls it off.
Boss fights, for example, are a section that could have been improved. Each boss is quite imposing compared to all of its minions and the sheer size of them gives an impression that they’re going to put up a big fight. Aside from the last boss, The Knight, which requires some tactical play to overcome quickly, the bosses feel almost mundane to fight. They’ve got far more health and they hit harder than other foes but with 4 players standing back and firing at them, even with pistol you’re given free at the start of each campaign, they’re defeated all too easily.
There are a few things that might have made it more accessible to youngsters too. As you go through the game, you can find new character skins in chests hidden in each level. Of course, children being children they all then want to play as the new hotness. Unfortunately, the characters look exactly the same no matter how many times it is chosen in co-op. At one point we had 4 different Bastion Kid’s on screen and the only indicator of who was who is the coloured ring at the characters feet which is easily lost in the commotion on screen. It wasn’t uncommon to have all 3 of the kids playing along with me to be asking “where am I again?” which might have been solved if, say, the characters changed colour to match the ring at their feet if chosen more than once.
Riverbond breaks no new ground but is an enjoyable romp through a highly detailed and eye-catching voxel world that accommodates younger players better than most in this genre. The bosses, as menacing as they look, aren’t quite up to scratch and in co-op, you can easily lose yourself in the action, but if you’ve got a brood of kids to entertain and a few Dualshock 4 controllers handy, you can easily get 7-10 hours of fun out of this game before the repetition sets in. Perfect for a rainy day.
Riverbond is available now on PS4 (reviewed on base console), Xbox One, PC and is launching on the Nintendo Switch later this year.
Developer: Cococucumber. Publisher: Cococucumber.
In order to complete this review, we purchased a copy of the game. For our full review policy please go here.
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