Before the film that Tim Burton and Johnny Depp had way too much fun with, and before even the Stephen Sondheim musical that more people should see a production of, Sweeny Todd was a Penny Dreadful. People don’t really know what these are anymore, but they were once wildly popular in the UK as a genre consisting of cheap serialised stories published in weekly parts, and each costing a penny. They were crass nonsense of zero literary value that was pulper than pulp fiction, but were enormously successful because they dealt with sensational material, supernatural thrills, criminals and detectives. I cannot recommend them enough (they’re available now and then as collections in books). They are a wildly good time.
Ravenous Devils claims to have been inspired by the film, but really the entire production is a “Penny Dreadful”: an enormously cheap little game with a grotesque, sensational theme that’s both entertaining and yet worthlessly shallow. I enjoyed it a great deal, but it’s also junk I’ll not play again.
In Ravenous Devils, you play as a duo of anti-heroes reminiscent (okay, an explicit carbon copy) of Sweeny Todd and his baker/landlord, Mrs. Lovett. One of your characters is a tailor (yes, that is different to a barber, I know, but it’s literally the only difference), who murders his customers, takes their clothing, patches it up, and then sells it to the next customer. He deposits the body via a trapdoor to the basement, where the other character butchers up the body and uses it as ingredients in pies, sausages, and other such things.
As a theme, it’s fun enough, and plays into the modern joke we have today about how you really don’t want to see how the sausages are made (implying that if you did know you wouldn’t eat them any longer). There’s nothing more to it than that, really, and Ravenous Devils doesn’t even have the light-touch theme that later Sweeny Todd adaptations have whereby he’s doing all that to get back at the corrupt elites of society. There is a bit of a story here and there, especially when they introduce a kid who becomes something of an adopted son to these monsters, but it’s fair to say the developers weren’t out there to write a narrative that’s more than functional.
The real meat of the game (c’mon, you knew that pun was coming) is in its cyclical gameplay routine. It’s basically a time management thing, where you aim to harvest bodies quickly enough to bake the pies and pastries and sell them to customers in time to keep them happy. At the same time, you’re managing the tailor shop for a bit of extra cash. Take the extreme, explicit animations of grinding people into mincemeat and mopping up blood off the floors, and you’ve basically got the same thing as any of those hyper-casual cooking simulators like Diner Dash, or Overcooked. It’s basically about turning efficient factory lines into a gameplay mechanic.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with that formula. I have a half dozen of those games on my Switch already, because when you’re in the mood for something thoughtless, playing within the route functionality of a factory line is certainly that. However, I have a really big problem with this gameplay structure in relation to Revenous Devils, and it’s as simple as this: you’re going to be desensitised to it within an hour. That’s a big problem for a game that’s inspired by one of the more pure examples of schlock horror.
Sweeny Todd works as dark humour because it’s over quickly. The extreme quality of the violence and the grotesque quality of cannibalism – the last frontier taboo as far as our aversion to violence goes – works because it doesn’t stop being high impact at any point during its runtime. Ravenous Devils isn’t the longer game, but you’re going to find yourself going through the motions, and at some point grinding people up into chunks of “beef” for a casserole stops being squeamish. Then, when the cannibalism becomes mundane (a phrase I never thought I would write, but there we go), the humourous elements lose much of their bite (another pun!) because the dark edge is no longer there, and you’re left playing another video game for video game reasons.
It looks the part, don’t get me wrong. Ravenous Devils has some exceptional production values for something that is so inexpensive, with a delightfully B-grade spin on the concept that, once again, reminds me of the Penny Dreadful aesthetic. In-game there was a slight issue with the interface (in that it’s terrible and easy to click on things you don’t mean too… particularly when you’re playing with a controller), but the environments look suitably grisly or comfortable, depending on whether you’re in the kitchen or the shop facade, and the contrast between the world that the patrons see and what’s going on underneath is, momentarily, one of the neatest “you don’t want to see how the sausage is made” effects in the whole game.
I just wonder who this is made for. I don’t necessarily associate R18+ games with “super casual mechanics”. All the mobile games are designed to be as brightly inoffensive as possible precisely because that matches up with the intellectually unchallenging gameplay. They’re there to be light time-wasters, not make you think through serious implications or be shocked out of your comfort zone. Ravenous Devils, meanwhile, belongs to the world of Manhunt, Dead by Daylight, Killing Floor or whatever other viscerally gore-first game you can imagine. I imagine the people sitting down to play it will be in the mood for something a little more ambitious than this, and the hyper-casual gameplay that they’ll get instead doesn’t exactly help with that desensitising effect I mentioned earlier. When you’re just going through the motions to hit your customer KPIs, you’re not exactly going to care about where the meat’s coming from.
I’m 100 per cent certain the developers went into this with all the right intentions. They wanted to deliver a grisly and gratuitous homage to Sweeny Todd, and spin it into a casual business simulator for players. They’ve achieved that. I’m just not sure it was ever going to work as a concept. Things aren’t visceral when they’re rote and the Penny Dreadful heritage of the game doesn’t lend itself to particularly interesting themes over long periods of play. Finally, casual business simulators are light & fluffy for a good reason, while Ravenous Devils doesn’t do anywhere near enough to transgress and challenge that. It’s an earnest effort that a bit of market research might have advised against ever making.