Rustler has such a great, great concept behind it. It’s Medieval Grand Theft Auto 2. That’s it. That’s the game. I wish I could finish this post there. I wish there was no more for you to read than that. Because the theoretical Rustler which exists inside your head, after reading the phrase "medieval GTA 2", is probably a complete riot of delight. Alas, however. After six months in early access, Rustler is getting its full release on August 31st. And unless it is entirely transformed from the iteration of the game currently available on Steam, you are probably better off playing the version inside your mind.
The good news is this: Rustler really is Medieval GTA 2. Everything about it - from the top-down camera, to the mission structure, to the minigames, to the spinning weapons - is such a direct translation that I found myself playing based entirely on 22-year-old instinct for an entirely separate game. Even the knights who act as the game’s cops, when alerted to your crimes, start flashing with blue and red lights, and emitting a hunting-horn version of a siren blare.
It feels like a novelty cover version of GTA2, somehow, in its near-perfect adherence to the 1999 crime-’em-up. Which is appropriate, I suppose, because the game’s soundtrack - probably my favourite thing about it - is made up of tracks which manage to feel like late 90s hip-hop backing beats, but with medieval instruments and melodies. It’s genuinely pretty cool (aside from the opening track, where a bard does the classic Will Smith thing of rapping about the protagonist, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself here.)
The bad news is this: Rustler really is Medieval GTA 2. And in this, it’s a bloody stark reminder of how much less we expected from games in 1999. Obviously, it looks better - it’s pretty easy on the eye, in fact. But so many of the things it does feel brutally outdated: a punch-and-block melee combat system, a save system that means redoing missions over and over again if you die in the process, indistinguishable characters, and so on.
The illusions which concealed shallow game worlds two decades ago have also grown thin. You can massacre everything around you and, should you evade the inevitable pursuing knights, you can return after a minute or so and find everything reset to normal. I know that’s often the case with open worlds even today, to some extent, but there’s a real sense here that nothing you do really has any consequence beyond attracting more cops, robbing a lot of the joy from your freeform chaos-making. Even the character progression system feels a little pointless, given most of the skills you acquire are simple numerical buffs, offering nothing in the way of new features or toys to play with.
It’s so frustrating to be saying this. Because there were so many areas where Rustler's tiny green shoots of originality shone through the GTA reskin. The fact that horses behave differently from cars, for example, or the replacement of radios with in-game bards who you pay to follow you around, and who you batter with a pole in order to change tracks. The more I saw of these sorts of things, the more I got the sense that Rustler could have really spread its wings if it had tried to be its own game, rather than GTA2.
As it stands, though, there's just not very much to do, or to be surprised by. The main storyline missions are the work of a few hours to complete, and in the course of carrying them out, you’ll more than likely have seen most of the minigames, locations and hijinks on offer. Certainly enough to get your fill, anyway. Unless you’re the sort of person who just loves finding collectables, there’s probably a weekend’s worth of fun here.
If that sounds dismissive, bear in mind I only managed 17 minutes of play in my first sitting, before I could no longer resist the urge to do something else. Because there's a second problem with Rustler, and it's borne out of its devotion to recreating a very specific flavour of late 90s gaming, which for me is its fatal flaw: Rustler is leaning very, very hard on being funny, to cover for how thin it is in other respects. And while I know humour is completely subjective, I have to say that for me, it fell gruesomely flat.
"If you find Monty Python And The Holy Grail so funny that even being reminded of its existence counts as a proper rib-tickler to you, then get stuck in."
Almost everything in the game tries to be a gag. Unfortunately, it’s overwhelmingly reference humour, doing little more than saying, “Hey, remember this joke someone made in Monty Python?” Or worse, “Hey, remember this pop culture artefact which... exists?” If you find Monty Python And The Holy Grail so funny that even being reminded of its existence counts as a proper rib-tickler to you, then get stuck in. But if that’s the case, we are probably just very different people.
When Rustler isn’t dropping dated references, it’s usually relying on the staples of shit, piss, fucking, drugs and booze to raise a laugh. And while I freely admit all those things can make for absurdly good punchlines, it’s important to remember that punchlines generally rely on having been preceded by a joke.
Generally speaking, the game felt a bit like I was in a room with a man, occasionally holding up a card with “TURDS” or “WEED” written on it, and giving me a knowing smirk as he waited for me to absolutely lose my shit.
Honestly, I very badly want this all to be a case of a bad match: a perfectly good game, which just didn’t gel with me personally, or even just didn’t gel with me on the day I played it. Because, if I’ve not made it obvious yet, I really wanted to like Rustler. In some alternate universe, a game made to exactly the same brief as this one is one of my favourite games of all time. But it is not this game.
I won’t tell you to avoid this one, come the end of the month when it releases in full on August 31st. I will, however, remind you to go in cautiously. As I say, I knew this one wasn’t for me within 17 minutes. It just wasn’t the iteration of “Medieval GTA2” that did it for me. But maybe, reader, just maybe, it’s the one that will do it for you.