Solving The Riddle Of Steel

HIGH I’ve rarely felt this satisfied beating a final boss.

LOW Spending ten minutes lost because an arrow wasn’t visible onscreen.

WTF The shocking number of dead clones left scattered across the map.

When a game is built around the most basic controls imaginable, those controls need to be tight, and the developer must absolutely ensure that the gameplay doesn’t get repetitive. The amount of confidence a developer must have in order to say ‘no gameplay twists and no upgrades‘ is hard to fathom.

When successful, that kind of commitment can create Super Meat Boy. When it fails, the result is any one of a million terrible flash games. Driven Out makes a bold gamble with its swordfighting mechanic, and the result is certainly… something special.

As a modern riff on Jordan Mechner’s classics Karateka and Prince of Persia, Driven Out follows the journey of a medieval farmer who, after a piece of strange technology falls from the sky, finds herself forced into combat with countless bloodthirsty foes who are more adept at fighting than she is.

I use the term ‘riff’ because the pixel-art graphics are lush and detailed in a way that wasn’t possible at the time those games were created, but the gameplay would feel right at home on an Apple 2 or Commodore 64.

As Driven Out‘s delightful animation makes clear, the farmer can barely lift her sword, let alone wield it skillfully in battle. She can’t dodge, jump, or perform any special moves — her repertoire is limited to attacking high, medium, or low, and blocking at the same locations. That’s it.

The only in-depth element to this fighting system is how to properly time blocks to throw enemies off their guard, and it’s incumbent upon the player to figure that out as quickly as possible since nearly half of Driven Out‘s enemies require perfect timing to defeat them.

Given this basic system, Driven Out‘s swordplay is all about learning to read animations. There are 11 different areas in the campaign, each with up to four enemies, and I counted a total of 31 distinct foes who all have a completely unique set of animations for their attacks.

In practice, this means that the player must learn the body language of each foe so that they can tell where each attack is coming from. Some enemies telegraph things obviously, while others cleverly feint, do extended combos, or even teleport behind the player, forcing them to spin and keep their sword on the defensive.

Fair warning — Driven Out is absolutely sadistic about being a skill-only affair. There are no cues or tips to tell players when and how to block attacks. If they want to learn how to win, they’ll have to be willing to die over and over again to do it.

In my entire time with the game, there were only four enemies I managed to kill when first meeting them. Luckily, Driven Out is oddly forgiving when it comes to continuing after death — the strange piece of technology I mentioned is a ‘witchcraft device’ that can be used to scan the player and create a save point. If the player dies, a clone spawns and and they can pick the fight up right where they left off.

This witchcraft device can be used twice in each area, and it refills after a boss is killed, at which point a additional save point is created. Choosing exactly when to use one of these precious save points is a strategy unto itself since enemies can destroy it if the player retreats behind it.

Other than the incredibly tight gameplay, Driven Out‘s best feature is how varied and expansive its rogues’ gallery is. The adventure opens with the farmer holding out against an array of sinister knights, but once they’re dead it’s up to her which of the three possible directions to visit next. Will the player take on a castle full of werewolves, a druid guarded by armor-clad animals, or a cave of brutal apes? Each new enemy was completely different, and I can’t even hint at them without spoiling the many surprises the game has in store.

To the developers’ credit, every battle feels like a new experience. Yes, the enemies can only ever attack high, middle or low, but there’s so much variation in weaponry and style that no matter how adept I got at the controls, I never found myself feeling comfortable or complacent. Some are far more difficult than others, but only one was anything close to what I would call ‘unfair’.

While its gameplay might be ancient by videogame standards, Driven Out proves that a perfectly executed concept is timeless. No matter how insurmountable a foe appeared, I knew that if I put in the work, I’d always manage to overcome it. Driven Out is hell on the fingers and it stretched my reflexes to their absolute limit, but the joy of victory was absolutely worth the agony of 500 defeats.

Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is developed by No Pest Productions and published by Jens Kolhammer. It is currently available on PC, XBO and PS4. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PC. Approximately 8 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed.

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated Teen and contains Blood and Violence.¬†While the swordfighting is violent and tense and there are some dead bodies in the game, there’s a remarkably small amount of gore. There are no gruesome deaths for any of the characters — when killed, they bloodlessly crumple to the ground.

Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: I largely played the game without sound, and had no trouble. There is no story text or audio in the game other than the menus (see below) and all plot is conveyed through the environment.

Remappable Controls: Yes, this game offers fully remappable controls.

Daniel Weissenberger
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