Thursday, January 13, 2011

Review: Venetica

Platform: PS3 (also on Xbox 360, PC)

Developer: Deck 13

Publisher: Atari

# of Players: 1

ESRB Rating: T (Teen)

Official Site

Score: C+

As a huge fan of role-playing games developed around the world for at least 20 years, one thing I've learned is how to appreciate the best parts of every game no matter the overall quality. Simply knocking a new title for what it doesn't have compared to similar entries within the genre is a wee bit too easy for some critics that fail to see that not every game needs to be "state of the art" nor "perfect" to be an enjoyable experience. US gamers never saw retail releases of imperfect Euro-made epics and non-epics such as Hard to Be a God, Vampire World, or Dragonfire: Well of Souls, but each of these (plus many others) have appeal as singular experiences thanks to levels of immersion distinct to each game. Deck 13's Venetica is another one of those really interesting games with similar rough spots that keep it from becoming an instant classic. However, once you overlook its quirks, it's an ambitious project that features an attractive and interesting lead character as well as a few nice twists to the standard RPG formula.

You play as Scarlett, a pretty young woman whose medieval world is shattered after an invasion by a nicely sized army of assassins. After her betrothed is killed defending her, Scarlett barely has time to grieve before suddenly finding herself in front of a strange hooded figure that informs her she needs to head back into the real world and seek out here true fate. It turns out she's the daughter of Death and daddy knows best. You're offered three choices by Daddy Dearest and it's here that the game offers your first taste of its light morality system. As you play through the game, you're presented with a few different response/reaction choices such as letting an angry villager who wants Scarlett dead live or die. While your choices don't directly affect Scarlett's overall fate or the overall storyline, there's actually a Trophy/Achievement based on sticking to a particular path.

Combat relies initially on a lot of rolling to get to an enemy's back or side, striking fast and getting the hell away if you didn't do the job in those strokes. Unlike other RPGs that offer up a massive selection of weapons, including ranged gear, all of the weapons Scarlett uses are melee or close-combat based. Spears are the closest thing you'll get that can keep away some tougher foes and like the big hammers in the game, they're slow, but can do some great damage. If you really want to get the most out of Scarlett, it's magic as well as weapons that need to be relied upon. She'll learn some very handy dark spells during the game and you'll have the choice of joining one of three guilds that can add different spells to her roster.

For the record, this isn't God of War, Assassin's Creed or any other game in that vein where you're a total bad-ass with pinpoint moves. Venetica feels more like a mash up of a few genres and older action games that require both patience and persistence for success. Rush into a fight and poor Scarlett will be embracing the floor before you know it. Take your time, learn the skills and which weapons work best against which enemies and the game becomes a LOT more fun. Yes, the camera can get problematic in tight spaces and yes, the lock-on can be a bit troublesome when you're attacked from two directions. But I rather liked the fact that the game doesn't template every other current action game or RPG in how it's meant to be played other than "swing weapon, kill stuff, collect loot, move on..."

The coolest weapon in the game, the Darkblade, is the only one that can kill most standard as well as certain types of dark enemies, storing up Twilight energy with each kill. This energy actually saves Scarlett's bacon when she's killed, as she's revived in the Twilight World, invisible for enemies for a brief period. You can run for the hills, heal up (there are beds located not too far from most combat zones) and head back into battle or take out the bums that killed Scarlett as they're walking away from her "corpse". Given that the game ramps up in difficulty dramatically as it goes on (and if you select Hard mode, it's brutal from the start), you might find the dying part a wee bit too easy until you learn and use all the combat skills from the different instructors located in a few key spots.

By the way, your mantra for Venetica (as well as ANY sort of RPG you play) will be "Save Frequently" - sometimes you'll want to explore a different option and get hooked into an area where an overwhelming amount of enemies appear and it's always better to replay five or so minutes than five or so hours, right? I never had any issues with the save system or the game freezing, although I've heard reports of this on a few message boards. Heck, after playing about 30 hours of Fallout: New Vegas in its unpatched form, Venetica's occasional wonky bits were a breeze to deal with (sorry, Bethesda!).

There's a skill tree for physical and magical talents that's well done, but could have been deeper. Heck, you can max out your sword skill before you even get to Venice and a few other skills within a few hours after that. Granted, I'm sure the developer didn't intend this to be an 80-hour plus epic, but there are some design decisions that kick the game in the shins every so often. Anyway, the first time through, I stuck to the path which has a bunch of nice magic where ravens can be used to attack enemies from a distance, act as a sort of medieval GPS or spy camera of sorts. None of the spells are useless once you start experimenting and seeing what they can do. You can whittle down the HP of a creature that's immune to a particular weapon and kill it before it gets to you or scope out enemy locations for a bit of tactical advantage.

While the combat can indeed be fun and the Twilight World aspect mimics Raziel's plane-shifting powers from the Soul Reaver games, it's not used enough here. I'm gathering the developer had a host of ideas they wanted to implement, but simply ran out of time or funds, as there's some actual near-greatness going on under the game's technical issues and slightly undercooked elements. Scarlett seems to be modeled a bit on Lara Croft, but other than the lovely accent, nice figure and the fact that she can swim and her face animates as she attacks and interacts, she doesn't share the same "attitude" as Lara does. That's a good thing, actually, as I've played a few too many games that have tried too hard to mimic Ms. Croft's antics and failed at it miserably.

I actually liked the uniqueness of things such as found armor needing to be fitted for Scarlett by a smithy or the way side quests are optional, but you actually can use any Skill Points gained for beefing up abilities (extending the game by quite a bit if you want to max out skills). There's no "new" ground being broken here, but this is a case where you're getting a game that's not pretentiously pretending to be the "ultimate" in its class. Intuitive controls include shortcuts for weapons and skills, no jumping nonsense and plenty of invisible walls to keep you from falling off some of the architecture. Normally, I gripe about the latter, but when you're running down a huge spiral staircase with no railing or fighting near a cliff ledge, that's actually a GOOD thing to have in a game.

The visuals are very stylized Fable-inspired niceness with some interesting level layouts that reminded me a tiny bit of Galleon (the supremely under-appreciated Xbox game from a few years back). Yes, there are some frame rate hitches, unpolished textures in some areas and occasional glitches, such as the map navigation system or the occasional object or NPC suspended in midair. None of these kill the fun factor at all, for the most part. Unless you're really picky about this sort of thing, you'll chuckle at the weirdness of seeing someone sit in midair or a bird stopped mid-flight and move on to the next area.

Scarlett and some of the enemies get the most love in terms of modeling, but the NPC's could have really used some extra care, as they look pasty-skinned and tend to have jagged shadows on their faces in cut scenes. Nevertheless, the environment size, day/night cycle and some nice lighting in choice areas help keep the game intriguing. Sure, it looks like a beefed up Xbox title upscaled into HD, but a great deal of work went into putting this game together and despite the flaws, it's just pure fun to explore and experiment with different weapons and skills. While not "Game of the Year" material, Venetica has a way of slowly creeping up on you until it becomes less of a guilty pleasure and more of a game where you actually want to put time into just to see how it all ends. There's also replay value if you want to hop back in and join a different guild. I actually played the game twice for this review and plan to go back a third time once the pile of stuff in my inbox has been whittled down.

Sure, the game has its problems and yes, Scarlett tends to be a bit too emotionless at the oddest moments. However, what's here is enough of a template that could be expanded upon in a sequel with a bit more attention to detail in terms of polish and plot development.
Taken as a whole rather than taken apart piece by piece, Venetica spins a simply told fantasy tale set in a massive, fictionalized (and non-romanticized) version of ancient Venice. If you're looking for the next "big" RPG along the lines of a Dragon Age, Demon's Souls or Elder Scrolls game, you may be a bit disappointed. On the other hand, if you happen to love the genre for all the different game worlds developers can craft, can overlook a few bugs and want a game that's easy to grasp yet challenging, give Venetica a shot - you might be pleasantly surprised.

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