The version of Middle Ages Nottingham shown in Appeal Studios’ Gangs of Sherwood is a pretty odd mix. This is a game where heroes and outlaws fight with both normal swords, or bows and arrows, but also super-heated mechanical fists and giant explosive hammers. It’s a world where rooms are lit by flickering torches, yet people have full-on RGB displays on their armour. There are no cars, but there are dropships that ferry enemy troops around. Troops who then, having entered the fray via flying people-carrier, attack you with crossbows and halberds.
Usually this wouldn’t bother me much. I’ve played over a dozen Final Fantasy games and know that artistic license counts more in games than any other type of media, but it’s the complete lack of context for it all that gets to me. People still live in castles and stone houses, mining ore, while the enemy carries them away in floating carriages illuminated by blinking violet lights.
In this universe, the Sheriff of Nottingham is some kind of tyrannical overlord working to enslave the whole of Britain. From their hideout in the clumsily named Major Oak, Robin Hood and his band of merry men and women strike out on daring guerrilla missions to hamper the regime. They do this by attacking enormous cannons capable of shelling entire towns into rubble with rapiers and arrows.
Essentially, this is a multiplayer character action game. It’s like a messier version of Devil May Cry but with a simpler combo system and the ability to play with others, which makes an already busy screen even more difficult to navigate when every special move is an explosion of particle effects and slow motion acrobatics. Each character has different abilities, but there’s not a great deal of synergy to be found.
Marian has a rapier that can turn into a chain whip, or she can fling magnetic daggers that hover near an enemy until a special move looses them. Friar Tuck uses his hammer for massive swings and ground pounds. Robin can fight at range with his bow, and Little John has power fists that can set enemies on fire. The first two are considered small characters, and can squeeze through certain gaps, while the second two are large and can smash through walls or lift debris from their path. But combat isn’t precise enough to combine their strengths properly.
For example, all characters can launch and air juggle enemies, but you can’t really set that up so you launch a soldier and your partner tags in for the juggle. There’s no move to freeze an enemy while another shatters it, or stagger an enemy ready for a ground pound. It’s all just mashing buttons and hoping for the best.
Enemies come at you from all angles and an attack indicator warns you of incoming damage. Some enemies will call reinforcements, though good luck reaching them before they do. 9 times out of 10, they’ve launched the flare by the time the voice over has told you it’s happening. Likewise with the tax collectors who you can catch for extra gold. Sometimes stopping them is simply impossible with certain characters.
Which leads to the dichotomy of Gangs of Sherwood: you can absolutely play it solo, but you’ll absolutely suffer for it. Case in point: defeating enemies earns gold. When you reach one of Alan-A-Dale’s checkpoints, he’ll bank the cash and boost your health. Now, when playing with friends you will enter a state of Agony when beaten and can be revived. When solo, you have to pay with your banked cash to resurrect with 25, 50, or 75% of your health. But if you can’t afford it – and you frequently won’t as it only counts the banked cash not the sum of gold you actually have – you’ll need to restart the entire mission again. All of it. And as some missions can take upwards of 25 minutes and feature multiple secret paths and boss fights, this is simply too much of an ask.
I hit this wall during Act II and decided I’d drop the difficulty. If it made any difference, I couldn’t see it. Enemies still depleted my health in a couple of hits, large enemies were still damage sponges. There was no extra gold or healing granted, so I don’t understand the point of having difficulty settings at all.
You can replay earlier missions to earn gold to buy upgrades, but these upgrades come in the form of extra combos and techniques rather than damage or health buffs. And they cost so much to buy, with the price increasing by almost double each time, that you’d need to run those earlier levels over and over to earn enough gold. With single linear routes through the level (there are minor diversions here and there but nothing of note), it becomes boring very quickly.
So the only option really is to play with others, either friends or strangers. I don’t have a problem with this, other than that the game explicitly tells you it can be played solo. And it can, of course, if you don’t mind making it exponentially harder on yourself. You can head back to Major Oak between missions to unlock techniques and mission-gated outfits, but besides the training room and trophy room (which shows off boss trophies and secrets you’ve found), there isn’t much to see or do.
The only other way to improve your fortunes is to find Artefacts in levels that convey passive buffs and abilities. Some apply burn damage to your attacks, or make your attacks uninterruptable. It takes a long to even unlock a second Artefact slot, though, and their appearances in chests are completely randomised, so good luck.
Finally, each character can build up a meter to activate their Rebel Instinct, which overpower their damage and triggers health regen. Outside of checkpoints, this is the only way to heal. So if you exit a fight with low health and low Instinct, you’d better hope there are no environmental hazards between you and the next checkpoint.
Despite these issues, there is fun to be had with Gangs of Sherwood, particularly if you play with others. The combat is messy, janky and imprecise but it’s also quite fun, awarding a letter grade after each encounter and increasing your gold reward accordingly. The number of attacks and combos goes up too slowly though, and you’ll end up finding a method and sticking to it, then forgetting you’ve unlocked new moves to factor in.
The cast of characters is diverse enough to offer something for any playstyle, but don’t rely on the target lock: it’s awful. The frenetic camera often disables your lock-on, as does launching an enemy or turning the camera any more than the width of a gnat’s arse. There’re some weird moments in the script where characters phrase something a bit weird, and the voice acting is very hit and miss, but overall the gobbledegook story is told as well as it can be.
Gangs of Sherwood is a hodgepodge of a game. The setting and characters are inventively handled but also really jarringly anachronistic, the voice work is just a little off, and the combat is far too erratic to be considered on the same level as many of the action games it apes. There’s an enjoyable time to be had here, especially with others, but it just doesn’t do anything well enough to stand out from the crowd.
Combat can be fun
Inventive take on the setting
Unreliable target lock
Harsh on soloists