Editor’s note: Having been informed of a launch day patch (not made known to us prior to publication of this review) that improves various performance and stability issues on Switch, a reviewer's note has been added to the end of the text below.
Jutsu Games' Rustler attempts to take us back to the chaotic top-down craziness of early GTA games in a "historically inaccurate" medieval romp that has a few good ideas and plenty of potential in its choice of setting, but then squanders the vast majority of this with bland missions, clunky controls and toilet humour.
The idea of transporting the chaos of classic Grand Theft Auto to this highly irreverent olde worlde setting is certainly something that had us excited to play Rustler when we first heard about it. Rocking around medieval towns and cities on our trusty steed, getting up to all sorts of mischief and then having stampedes of comedy red-and-blue police horses attempt to put an end to our rampage is something we desperately wanted to get down with. However, in practice, it's all very disappointing.
Rustler tells the tale of two pals, Guy and Buddy, ne'er-do-wells who hatch a plan to fake some IDs in order to enter a grand tournament, best the toffs who rule the roost there, and take off with riches and fair maidens to a better life somewhere new. It's a fair enough narrative conceit that has more than enough about it to propel the short story here, but it fails at a fundamental level because Guy and Buddy are immediately highly unlikeable characters, proper miscreants who never show any charm whatsoever. Instead all these absolute lads seem to want to do is drink all day, throw abuse around and murder at the drop of a hat.
The humour here is a mixture of fart jokes and burping — there's even a fart and burp button — foul language daubed simplistically on walls, overweight mum jokes, weed, booze and some more fart noises. To be fair there are one or two Monty Python nods thrown into the mix but the unexpected joy of these is almost immediately drowned out by a sea of childish, brutish, braindead nonsense. In short, there's just none of the smarts in storytelling or humour that you'll find in a Rockstar joint here, and it makes spending time with the main characters, or caring about their fates, a proper chore.
But hey, wait, this is meant to be a raucous, adult-themed sort of game, we get it. Guy and Buddy are meant to be unlikeably coarse; they're medieval madmen. Fair enough, and we could probably let the awful characterisations and poor attempts at humour slide, if it wasn't for the fact there are many more problems here, on a purely technical level, that make for a generally unpleasant experience which feels as though it's making minimal effort on most fronts.
Controlling your character, whether on-foot or horseback — but most especially on horseback — feels properly janky. We spent a lot of time during the campaign getting stuck on simple pieces of scenery, unable to rotate our steed around and having to abandon it as a result. The simplistic combat is hugely hit-and-miss, too. Sometimes you'll slice and dice through a crowd of attackers, other times one strike from an enemy weapon will result in instant death.
This then feeds into frustrating mission checkpointing that very often throws you right back to the start of a level and makes you do the whole thing again when you die. There were a handful of stages in Rustler where we ended up having to play through the same mission multiple times because we just couldn't get out of a combat sequence alive; not because it was tough or challenging, but because it was janky, clunky stuff.
These combat problems are also exacerbated when the game is played in portable mode. Rustler's top-down action should be a perfect fit for Switch but in practice it's often difficult to make out what's going on during a scrap when playing in handheld due to how small everything gets. Constant framerate issues when being chased by a lot of enemies or indulging in a properly big fight further add to the problem. Not that there are many big fights here, as the action in Rustler is pretty lame for most of its running time — repetitive, small-time encounters against the same enemies ad nauseum.
The wanted system, which should just be a straight copy from GTA, is a mess, too. You can reduce your wanted level by ripping posters from walls as you flee, an act that requires you to dismount your horse during chases, but these posters aren't marked on the game's map so you'll just have to ride around in circles until you find one. You can also use one of the game's paint shops, jump in and get your horse resprayed, but there are only two of these in the game so it becomes a highly repetitive case of riding to exactly the same location every single time.
Enemy AI is dumb as a rock, horses giving chase to you will very often catch up and then rub alongside you harmlessly, refusing to attack, spinning around in circles and getting trapped on scenery. It's also hilarious to watch a scrum of guards immediately disengage from fighting you as soon as you tear a poster from a wall. You don't need to worry about cones of vision here, it's a simple shoddy on/off switch that tells the AI to give it up and walk away.
Progress through the five-hour campaign is also artificially lengthened by the game gating off main story quests, letting you do one and then forcing you to play a certain amount of bland side missions before another story critical stage appears on your map. The side activities are also rough, straight copies of stuff you'll find in old-school GTA, taxiing folk around, getting into fights, racing and so on, but all of it is hampered here by those shoddy controls. I just isn't fun to engage with.
We could go on and on here. The story is dull and disjointed, the game crashed back to the Switch several times during our playthrough, unlockable skills don't give you any new moves so the action stays the same from start to finish, it's far too expensive for what it is...
There are some good ideas in Rustler. We love the setting. We love the beat-boxing bards who you can slap into changing their tunes. The world itself it pretty enough. There are some fun pop culture references here and there, and some late-game jousting shows promise. However, there are just too many problems weighing it all down. In the end this feels like a classic missed opportunity — a neat concept wrapped up in a basic, short, clunky game that just never rises above very, very average and is then dragged down further by performance problems. It feels a big step back from the 20-year-old games it's attempting to emulate, games that are available for a fraction of the price and offer a lot more in the way of enjoyment.
Reviewer's note: Since reviewing Rustler, we were made aware of a launch day update (version 1.01) that dropped after we were done with our playthrough. We revisited the game for an hour and can confirm that performance has been noticeably improved. Where the frame rate was annoying choppy previously (while being chased by guards, for example), it held pretty much steady when we tested the new patch.
We also noticed that the controls seem to have been tweaked slightly – we can’t be sure if this was just down to the smoother framerate or an actual fix. Overall, you can add another point to the score below thanks to these performance tweaks.
Rustler attempts to take us back to classic top-down GTA action in a neat medieval setting but poor performance, shoddy controls, weak humour and a dull, short campaign hold it back from reaching its potential. There are glimmers of good stuff here, a few fun pop culture references, those beat-boxing bards and a good-looking world to stomp around in, but the game underneath is just so underwhelming and uninspired and, in the end, it all feels like a big step back from its most obvious inspirations.