Rustler – developed by Jutsu Games and published by Modus Games – is a self-professed attempt to recreate the classic Grand Theft Auto experience in a medieval setting. The live-action opening sequence – which adds an instant +1 to the score – is a clear throwback to GTA 2 but, despite the top-down view, it’s closer in design to the GTA III-era games with some modern features thrown in to offset the more frustrating elements. That said, it emulates those games for better and worse, so it helps if you have a nostalgic love of simpler times.
Strip out the modern dialect and the world of the Rustler probably isn’t too far off the miserable experience you’d have as a peasant in medieval times. Your protagonist, the sullen, belligerent, and thuggish “Guy” is backed up by his permanently drunk companion, “Buddy”. They start off working for a local crime boss – stealing horses, delivering packages, beating locals – but soon stumble upon an opportunity to take part in a royal tournament that could see them claim land, money, and woman. The problem? They’ve got no real plan, no noble lineage, no gold, and the competing ambitions of their current boss.
Just like the classic games it emulates, Rustler’s narrative is told through short missions that serve as a series of roadblocks for Guy and Buddy to overcome. Several even require a certain amount of gold to progress. Thankfully, a dozen or so side quests, typically weirder missions with quirky characters, dole out enough gold so that you’ll never be forced to grind repeatable activities. I found the writing and scenarios entertaining, thanks to the combination of juvenile humour and far, far too many popular culture references. Character and mission names, dialogue, and gameplay sequences all pull from decades of movies and series. As someone in their mid-30’s, I enjoyed it but you expect your mileage to vary.
Rustler is full of terrible characters, saying and doing terrible things, all in the name of power and profit. Pretty much the only reason you’ll root for Guy and Buddy is that they’re often screwing over people worse than them. That said, Rustler plays it safe by sticking to topics like the hypocrisy of the church and their inquisitors, archaic beliefs, and the wealthy nobles exploiting the poor peasantry (reminding us that some things never change). If you wanted to be cynical, you could argue with so few female characters and no one of colour, there’s limited scope to offend. I’d say only avoid this if you’re a member of PETA, averse to alcohol and drug references, or believe the earth is round.
Rustler’s gameplay loop is simple – sticking closely to the top-down GTA formula – and probably is probably a consequence of the limited mechanics. You ride between quest givers, follow checkpoints, beat up or kill targets, steal some horses, escort braindead NPCs, flee the law, and all of this is often done against the clock. Few missions last more than 10-minutes, usually involve only or two major steps, and there are now checkpoints to mitigate the frustration of losing your gear and trudging back to the mission marker. The map is large enough to provide unique locations for each mission but small enough that you’ll travel the same routes and see the same intersections one too many times.
The isometric viewpoint and simple thumbstick-driven movement work well, with the camera pulled back far enough to ensure you can always respond in time, even when moving a full gallop on a horse. This makes the many quests that revolve around travelling between locations on a timer, or fleeing from the law, easy enough to handle. What isn’t so great is the reliance on melee combat for most of the experience. You aim your strike with the right stick, attack with the right trigger, block or parry with the left trigger, and manage a stamina meter. It’s simple and there are several weapon types, but lacks feedback and the distant camera makes timing attacks or parries difficult.
Thankfully, most missions in Rustler give you leeway and don’t punish you for leaving the immediate area. You can dash off to regain health or lose some heat, return on a charging horse to crush your foes, or purchase a slow but powerful crossbow to pick them off at range (not always an option in some scripted events). Some missions involve novel gameplay mechanics (or variations on the existing mechanics) but the checkpointing system ensures you’ll be able to restart the encounter if you mess up. There are repeatable activities like racing, taxiing passengers, collecting and delivering packages, and jousting (all on horseback or cart, of course), and the ability to purchase safe houses (some of which generate gold).
Further aiding your progress, every primary and side quest you complete rewards skill points that can be invested in a basic skill tree with several overpowered abilities. Sure, you can increase the basics like health, stamina, and damage output, but other abilities allow you to survive a lethal blow with 1hp, summon a horse from anywhere, or lose heat while racing through wooded areas. So long as you’ve got enough points, you can invest in any of these skills, and cheaply reset them at any time for a negligible amount of gold. It feels a bit broken at first but ensures you can always progress by resetting and picking skills that suit the current mission.
When it comes to the presentation, Rustler is great for an indie title but has a problem with variety. Whether you’re exploring the vast open farmlands and woods, or the bustling and polluted cities, it looks good given its modest budget. Textures are reasonably sharp, light sources all cast dynamic shadows, there are dozens of destructible objects, combat animations and gore look detailed, and everything has a subtle cell-shaded look to ensure they stand out at a distance. Unfortunately, the western portion of the map looks exactly the same as the eastern portion, and the second city is simply a large variant of the first. Rustler desperately needed a bigger tileset.
The audio is mixed, with underwhelming battle sounds, drunken gibberish for voice acting, and occasionally overloud ambient audio, but music is handled in an unorthodox and entertaining way. Bards are found in abundance throughout the world, providing a shifting soundscape as you move from point to point. However, if you want, you can hire them to accompany you, pick a style of music, and they’ll dynamically change the tempo depending on the action. Some strum out medieval folk music, others scratchy and distorted rock, while some beatbox rap tunes. There are not a lot of tracks – though this is rarely an issue given the short missions – but all are a riff on the unlicensed music from GTA 2 and the GTA III-era games (the mission completion jingle is a prime example).
All things considered, Rustler is a game that feels simple to play, moves at a brisk pace, and strips out most of the frustrating elements of older GTA-style games. However, the medieval setting means travelling on horseback, a focus on melee weapons, and a sparsely populated world. As a result, it ends up feeling like a laidback interpretation of GTA, and you’ll rarely experience the emergent chaos those games did so well.
On several occasions when I maxed out the wanted level, I could still tear through mostly empty city streets or open countryside, chased by only a few knights on horseback and stumbling upon the odd crossbowman. You can fire a crossbow or swing a sword from horseback, sure, but there are no dramatic high-speed shootouts, no roadblocks to smash through, and certainly no chain explosions involving horses.
That said, Rustler moved along at such a brisk pace I enjoyed most of the 9-hours it took me to reach the climax. It made me appreciate classic mission design and pacing, but also appreciate how far we’ve come in the genre. The longer you play, the easier it is to see the limitations and flaws, but Rustler doesn’t outstay its welcome and feels like a smartly constructed indie homage to the classic GTA games.
A review code for Rustler was provided to Gameblur by the publisher.
Rustler (Xbox Series S) ReviewRustler (Xbox Series S) Review
Story7/10 GoodGuy only has one clear objective but a ton of roadblocks to overcome. Thankfully, the writing and scenarios are entertaining (though this is subjective).
Gameplay7/10 GoodBrisk and entertaining missions will keep you coming back. However, the longer you play, the more obvious the limitations and flaws become.
Visuals7/10 GoodDecent and sometimes impressive given the indie budget, but more environmental variety would have been nice. Also a bonus point for the live-action opening scene.
Audio8/10 Very GoodThere's no voice acting and generic combat sounds, but the limited soundtrack, which consists of bardic riffs on classic GTA tunes, is excellent.
- Brisk mission flow and entertaining side quests
- Modern features (like checkpoints) remove the frustrating elements of classic GTA-style games
- Entertaining dialogue and scenarios – so long as you enjoy coarse humour
- Solid visuals and a great (unorthodox) soundtrack
- The melee combat is clunky
- Environments lack variety
- The medieval setting means you never experience GTA-levels of emergent chaos