For the purposes of full disclosure, I’ll tell you now that I didn’t finish this game, for reasons that will probably become obvious later on. Hence why this is a ‘mini’ review. In the wake of the glut of big-budget RPG sequels we have seen lately (OK, two), there also snuck in a plucky little unknown from German developer Deck13 Interactive called Venetica, that frankly didn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of unseating either Fallout or Fable, but still might be good for a few hours of fun.

So, it’s a game you don’t know from a company you’ve never heard of. Never mind, that’s why I’m here. Let me bring you up to speed: the story of Venetica concerns elfin main character Scarlett, who quickly finds out she’s the daughter of Death (as in Death, the universal constant) when assassins kill her boyfriend and a few people in her village. Naturally, having no training in murder but presumably some sort of genetic memory related to her unique parentage, she picks up a fireplace poker and promptly gets wrist-deep in assassin guts, dispatching several highly-trained killers before being told she’s ultimately got to stop a Necromancer in Venice, and probably a few demons along the way, which, after a very brief mourning period, she takes up with relish. So far, so RPG-standard: previously unremarkable character is told of secret heritage and hidden destiny, ultimately needs to murder a single supernaturally-powered man in order to achieve/restore universal harmony. If Scarlett was only slightly more masculine, George Lucas would probably sue for copyright infringement on the Star Wars saga.

Before we go any further, if you’re going to play Venetica, and possibly enjoy it, there’s something you’re going to have to do, and that is cut it some slack. This game will have had nowhere near the budget of comparable recent releases, and, unlike an indie film, which can still be just as enjoyable as to the latest blockbuster on 1/100th of the budget, an indie game in this day and age is going to be compromised in most key areas, at least a little. The question then becomes, do these compromises ruin the game, or can they be forgiven?

Let’s take as an example the character models, which look like a cross between Monkey Island and Timesplitters, and could probably comfortably have been rendered on the previous generation of console hardware. As influences go it’s a bit esoteric, but if you’re going to copy someone, it never hurts to start with the classics. The one exception here is the main character; it’s obvious that they spent a lot of time on Scarlett, who seems to have several times more polygons and higher quality textures applied.

As for the cutscenes, there’s nothing here that’s going to take your breath away. Though the die-hard ‘gameplay above all else’ gamer in me likes to think this kind of thing doesn’t matter, the frustrated game voiceover artist in me (all offers considered, very reasonable rates) does get very annoyed with sloppy VO work and voice acting. In the case of Venetica there’s some small excuse, as it is translated from the original German, but there is some seriously ropey work on show from people who, though they are clearly native English speakers, do an excellent job of sounding like this is not only the first time they have read the script, but also perhaps the first time they have read anything out loud in their lives.

On the plus side again, for a game, especially an RPG, where for once you are forced to play a female character rather than male (or a choice), they should be commended for avoiding taking the easy route of suggestive cutscenes, double entendre and and objectification of women. OK, Scarlett’s outfits are mostly tight fitting, and one or two might show a fair amount of cleavage, but overall they have clearly been designed to represent a reasonably period-accurate, but more importantly functional, wardrobe rather than digital Bratz outfits. The game also avoids going for the gratuitous sex-selling of the main character’s gender on the game box (see X-Blades or Magna Carta 2), though they have chosen the familiar Pervert’s Paradox pose, Scarlett contorting herself round in an attempt to show all of her arse and a hint of sideboob at the same time, also known as the ‘have your cake and eat it’:

A popular choice

The game world is impressively large for such a small production, with a healthy six hours before you reach the main play area of Venice (though I didn’t get any further, more on this later), rendered quite prettily with an expansive city to roam in, various side missions and optional quests rounding out a main story that is fairly original and somewhat linear, but at the same time does not feel too restrictive, containing a nice variety of missions consisting mostly of the usual fetch/kill quest themes with reasonably original setups.

Ubiquitous in the RPG is the ability to upgrade your main character’s skills, which Venetica handles once again in a manner half generic, half quite interesting, with novel upgrades such as the ability to see through the eyes of nearby crows (the Death reference again) along with the more irritating need to spend upgrade points to learn how to block.

Speaking of combat, the game goes for a simple approach that is one step above the single-button combat of Fable (whether you think that is good or bad is up to you), with a couple of annoying glitches related to length of certain animations occasionally making blocking and moving either pointless or ineffectual. These irritations, however, pale into insignificance when you enter a boss battle (of which I only managed one), where the weak points are constantly highlighted, but apparently you can only injure them when the game feels like it. Add to this some serious repetition and you’re approaching 15+ minutes of controller-hurling annoyance. But that’s not the thing that made me quit this game. No, that I could handle (just).

The thing that ruined the game for me was when I, new to the city of Venice and six hours into the game, entered a church and was set upon by several demons. Nothing major, but a few fumbled attacks and I died. Oh well, time to reload. At this point I discovered that Venetica has no autosave: as a spoiled gamer of the 21st century I had gone through six hours without manually saving, foolishly expecting the game to take care of that mundane and slightly archaic task for me. Faced with the prospect of repeating the previous six hours play, or turning in a caveated review, you can see which route I took. It’s a shame that it was something so simple ultimately let down a title that was punching above its weight in so many other areas- though to be honest, it was never going to get past a solid middleweight contender at best, much less heavyweight champion of the world- but it was a knockout blow for me.

As a ‘showreel’ for the development studio, Venetica is a great game. It’s clear that, where they could afford to spend money on it, they did, and it really shows what can be achieved by a small, independent games studio on modern consoles: for good and ill. It’s a fact (and has been for many years, however much I’d like it to be different) that indie games cannot stand on even footing with the Ubisofts and Electronic Arts of this world any more. Casual games and Xbox Live/Playstation Network titles are the playground of the Indies now, where gamers expect and allow concessions in terms of graphics, gameplay, scope and polish. given more time and money, I have no doubt that the team behind this game could make one hell of an entertaining product- the very fact that they have managed to produce something so close to good on such restrictions speaks volumes about their project management, at least. All in all there’s a lot to enjoy here; if you have finished Fable 3 and feel like more of a challenge, but think that Fallout is maybe a step too far, then Venetica is pretty well pitched to satisfy. For the rest of us, there’s a lot more to commend this budget effort than to condemn it, just make sure you get back into the old habit of saving often.

Alex

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