November tends to be dominated by the major players and the biggest games of the year- and it's a hell of a time for an underhyped little title to release. Flying in the face of conventional wisdom, DTP has ported the cult German RPG Venetica over to home consoles, providing a second chance to get involved with its unique brand of exploration and brutal death magic. It's already slipping under the radar... so let's find out if it's any good before it drops off completely!
For an experience that's supposed to be all about Venice, players certainly don't get to see much of the waterlogged city for a while. Scarlett, the mysterious buxom protagonist du jour, spends the first few hours in a stereotypical mountain hamlet that's populated exclusively by bumpkins with with thick West Country accents (despite the fact that the game is set in pre-renaissance Italy). When Weak-Fable-Parody-ville (or whatever its name is) suffers a devastating surprise attack, Scarlett is forced out into the world on the trail of vengeance, discovery and exploration. These first steps are undeniably gruelling and arduous due to a steep difficulty curve and the shockingly linear design of the missions, but they do an excellent job of training you in basic combat and magic.
Discovering her true identity as Death's 'daughter,' Scarlett can call upon a dizzying array of unique necromantic powers to kill or disable her foes. Enemies can be brutalised directly with flocks of ravens, blood tornadoes and even a visit from the reaper himself- but Venetica uses the unique premise for more subtle means. Lockpicking takes the form of a simon says-style minigame led by two bickering ghosts, but Scarlett's most entertaining innate power is her resistance to being killed. So long as she has some twilight energy left (which can be recharged by dispatching enemies with a particular weapon), death actually separates her soul from her body- slowing down time and allowing her to respawn in any tactical location. Stabbing your smug would-be killer in the back is intensely satisfying. These necromantic powers are unique, imaginative and thoroughly refreshing, rewarding players who stay the course through the overlong opening drudge.
Scarlett is also more than happy to swing a sword, and the combat system is surprisingly sound. Each enemy has an Achilles heel or a weakness to a particular weapon, requiring players to intelligently switch between speedy swords, tactical spears and lumbering, devastating hammers in the thick of combat. Each blow feels weighty and powerful- and whilst it doesn't reinvent the wheel, the hack & slash gameplay is as solid and satisfying as you'd expect.
It's worth noting that these numerous abilities are designed for a capacious PC keyboard rather than a console controller... which sadly means that Venetica is nigh-unplayable on the default control settings. Skills and spells can't be triggered from the menu, rather, they have to be individually mapped to one of four D-Pad shortcuts. Switching to the "dynamic" skill bar in the settings menu alleviates this problem slightly- but there's no getting around the fact that the limited controls put a damper on the otherwise impressive number of combat options. Individual block skills for each weapon are also a shockingly inconsiderate design flaw.
After mastering these abilities over several hours and engaging in a (surprisingly awesome) boss fight, Scarlett finally ends up in Venice. The game suddenly opens up; offering hundreds of explorable locations, three guilds to join, loads of side missions and a lengthy main quest. Venetica's rendering of the city is much more sparsely populated and basic than Assassin's Creed 2, but the maps are detailed and there are just enough NPCs to portray the illusion of a living, breathing city. Most impressively, the seamless time-of-day transitions transform the bustling metropolis into a bandit-infested hellhole at night (allowing canny heroes to optionally grind and beat the curve). There's a lot to do and a fair few ways of going about several objectives.
Venetica's presentation is a veritable grab bag of the sublime and the ridiculous. The visuals are capable of inspiring both slack-jawed awe and deep contempt; with beautiful vistas and nifty water effects rubbing shoulders with weak texturing and seriously ropey anti-aliasing. The voice acting is uniformly horrible despite the best efforts of the capable script. Even so, there are odd moments where characters suddenly deliver heartfelt speeches that turn apathy into empathy. Every aspect of the presentation is wildly inconsistent rather than simply mediocre or bad- but a little more polish would have made a world of difference.
Ah, there's the word I was looking for. Polish. Unfortunately it's not just the presentation that needs a little sprucing up, as Venetica suffers from a raft of technical issues that require players to suspend disbelief beyond acceptable levels. Clipping and pathfinding are both frequently caught short- and occasionally a quest-giver simply won't show up. I was good and ready to give Venetica a ripe old score up until this point... but after wasting several hours of optional progress thanks to a repeatable glitch (an important character inexplicably plummeted through a solid stone floor and disappeared forever), a significant portion of my goodwill turned to disappointment. I personally still enjoyed the experience overall- but it's important to go in with both eyes open and to practise a fastidious saving regimen to avoid problems down the line.
- Terrifying necromantic abilities are a blast to use
- Solid combat
- Surprisingly satisfying exploration
- Wildly inconsistent presentation, awful voice acting
- Major control issues and clunky menus
- Glitches, bugs, quirks and no autosaves. Desperately needs more polish!
The Short Version: Venetica is a bit of an enigma. Its imaginative highs and woeful flaws average out to create a game that's more than the sum of its parts- and I was genuinely surprised to find myself loving the experience despite its many niggling problems. Venetica eventually rewards gamers who take the time to trudge through the horrible first few hours... but for many, the prize simply won't be worth the payoff.
We'll add another point if DTP issue a console stability patch.