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Gangs of Sherwood review

 Gangs of Sherwood.
Gangs of Sherwood.

Need to know

What is it? Third-person cooperative battler with middling comedy and combat

Expect to pay £35/$40

Release date November 30, 2023

Developer Appeal Studios

Publisher Nacon

Reviewed on AMD Ryzen 5 3600, Nvidia RTX 2080 Super, 32 GB RAM

Steam Deck Unsupported

Link Official site

Like its babbling crew of outlaws, Gangs of Sherwood tries to compensate for its fundamental shortcomings with a brash persona and propulsive energy. It's a fast-paced, four-player shooter-slash-brawler with a vividly drawn alt-fantasy world, a knockabout comedy tone, and lively, occasionally spectacular combat. Unfortunately, these colourful distractions fade away all too quickly, revealing Robin Hood rummaging through your purse as he tries to lift 35 quid out of it.

Oddly, what I like most about Gangs of Sherwood is the thing I was least convinced by before playing: the setting. Gangs of Sherwood takes the familiar Robin Hood tale and plonks it in an alternate, sci-fi history. Here, King Richard's discovery of the magical Lionheart jewel has propelled Medieval England into the industrial revolution about 500 years early. But that hasn't stopped the villainous Sheriff of Nottingham from usurping the throne and turning the country into his own personal munitions factory.

Staring at a castle
Staring at a castle

Now, I'm not a fan of gaming's fixation with alternative takes on Robin Hood. While the traditional tale has been told countless times in other mediums, we're yet to see a decent version of it in games. I'd love a Robin Hood experience in the vein of Kingdom Come: Deliverance, one that made a concerted effort to simulate the medieval outlaw life. But nobody's made that game yet. So like Hood: Outlaws and Legends before it, Gangs of Sherwood feels like it's trying to solve a problem that doesn't exist.

That said, Gangs of Sherwood quickly won me over with its vivid combination of steampunk and medievalism, blending looming stone fortresses and cramped half-timbered townscapes with elaborate, soot-stained industrial complexes. For what is clearly a budget title, Gangs of Sherwood chews through some impressive scenery, with dramatic backdrops aplenty and some monumental combat arenas. Some enemy designs are neat too, like the low-level grunts who prowl environments wearing gasmasks and Brodie helmets.

Unfortunately, the environmental artistry is spoiled by some of the worst UI design I've ever seen. It's a horrifying mess of clashing colours and incongruent text fonts that constantly obscures the action. It makes Gangs of Sherwood look like one of those dodgy fake game adverts you'll see before a YouTube video. All it's missing is the pregnancy fetish.

UI crimes
UI crimes

This isn't the only area where Gangs of Sherwood undermines quality foundations. The game adopts a distinctly British comedic tone, shooting somewhere between Fable and the games of Planet Moon Studios. It made me laugh several times early on. I'm particularly fond of the puppet-show briefings that take place before missions. These are charmingly goofy and more elaborate than they need to be. Sadly, the script provides diminishing comic returns.

Since the characters never stop talking, the humour runs out of ideas after a couple of hours, and the jokes become increasingly recycled. There's a running gag whereby all the bosses are related to Maid Marian, implying that her father, the Sheriff of Nottingham, is a randy little scamp. It's funny the first few times, but after encountering 10 bosses with the suffix "of Nottingham", it grows stale, and the sheer delight Marian takes in murdering her brothers shifts from amusing to concerning.

Merry murder

Likewise, combat shows initial potential. Each of the four playable characters has a different fighting style. Friar Tuck deals big melee damage with his big club. Marian is a fleet-footed duellist, Little John batters the Sheriff's goons with his fists and Robin is all about remotely turning enemies into pincushions.

Exploring mines
Exploring mines

Whichever character you play as, combat is about combining light and heavy attack combos to deal massive damage to enemies. For example, Robin's baseline moveset involves using close-range melee attacks to generate magical star arrows that hover in the air around the battlefield. By hitting an enemy with a charged shot from your bow, you can unleash these purple arrows at enemies all at once. The game quickly bolsters these basic abilities with several other abilities, like a drill arrow that deals damage over time, and an explosive arrow that throws enemies into the air, letting you play human keepie-uppies by shooting them repeatedly.

It's a sprightly and satisfying system, letting you pull off some tasty manoeuvres after just a couple of missions. There's some pleasing visual flair behind all the horrible UI text too. Even when played solo, the screen is alive with shimmering arrows, flying enemies, and explosive AOE effects. Add extra players into the mix, and the spectacle is further enhanced. It can get pretty chaotic, but that chaos is generally more fun than frustrating.

So what's the problem? Well, there are a couple. First, Gangs of Sherwood is far too easy. Your characters don't just level up across the game. There's a separate, in-mission levelling system that gradually bolsters your health as you progress through the map. This means missions are always hardest at the start, whereas dying requires active effort beyond the halfway point. Moreover, combat is so formatted around arena-based encounters that it becomes deeply repetitive, and while characters initially have pleasing skill progression, later abilities tend to be less useful or interesting.

Looking out over a bleak city
Looking out over a bleak city

The deeper you reach into Gangs of Sherwood, the more perfunctory its systems feel. The game has loot, but it's very basic, either just gold to buy skills and the odd outfit, or relics that afford minor stat or effect boosts. There are occasional side-quests or NPCs to talk to, but they don't fit with the game's propulsive forward momentum at all. The main missions are enjoyable enough to fly through, but little of the story has any lasting impact. And at just 5 hours long, the game wraps up so fast that you won't have unlocked all your character's abilities by the time the credits roll.

Even at the cut-down price of £35, Gangs of Sherwood's flawed, frivolous co-operative battling makes it a tough sell in a year so stacked with fantastic games. It isn't entirely devoid of merit. At half that price, you'd just about get your money's worth provided you can wrangle a full complement of players. But mostly, Gangs of Sherwood made me wish someone would make a proper Robin Hood game, one that ditches the multiplayer gimmicks and builds a dedicated roleplaying experience around the character. Because let's face it, nobody really wants to play as Little John, no matter how good at punching he may be.