Historical role-playing action with a dash of style
There are many games that fly beneath the radar undeservedly, and given its lack of publicity, you have to worry that Venetica might end up as the latest such hidden gem to find its way to cult appreciation rather than commercial success. One part RPG and one part 3rd-person actioner, it's a project that lacks a certain element of production polish that you might expect from a triple-A release, but it's also a game that partially makes up for those failings with buckets of enthusiasm and a satisfying core combat loop. It might not be the best game you'll play all year, and there are a few technical problems that contrive to make it difficult to love, but it's certainly worth a look over a rainy weekend if nothing else.
Beginning as a damsel in semi-distress, Scarlett - the heroine of Venetica's story - is a reluctant warrior. As an inhabitant of a small town under attack from 16th century-style knights, it's down to her to take up arms against the invaders and save herself from imminent death, all the while clambering for the safety of her boyfriend - a stereotypical adventurer type on the other side of the burning village. Of course, this being an RPG things swiftly take a turn for the worse, and before long Scarlett is embroiled in a plot to shape not only her destiny but that of the land and its people. Stop me if you've heard this one before.
Character design is cartoonish
Although much of Venetica is contained within a standard explore-quest-battle template, it's the action that proves a primary focus. Combat is real-time, with a similar style to that of any other melee-based game you could list from the previous few years. A quick stab of the 'A' button initiates a combo attack (it's a game best played on a 360 pad rather than mouse and keyboard), and methodical timing of further strikes chains your movements into a flurry of death-dealing force. Enemies can be locked onto, their attacks blocked and sidestepped at will, and there's a real sense of satisfaction from executing a crowd one-by-one or activating an MMO-style skill from a quick slot to pull out a last-gasp victory. It's fast, fluid and very entertaining, despite some occasionally ropey animation transitions and a camera that enjoys focusing on the wrong side of scenery.
It also turns out that Scarlett is blessed with some interesting powers (I'll bet you didn't see that twist coming). Relatively early on in the game she awakens an ability to peer into the spirit world whenever she chooses, and as such is able to locate and wield a fearsome weapon called the Moonblade - enabling her to defeat undead foes that the game infrequently throws into combat. The Moonblade also gains her a significant amount of life-force whenever it's used to finish off an enemy, granting her two full resurrection cycles before needing to reload your latest save. Those instant respawns are a frustration-free mechanic for giving you a quick extra shot at downing your foe, or alternatively you could always hop into the spirit realm for a short period to run behind a troublesome group and gain a better position for attack.
Environments are colourful and intricate
Swords, spears, hammers and axes can be swapped out at will, and their relevant skill trees levelled up independently with action points once you find the relevant trainers. Blacksmiths upgrade your weapon's prowess or your armour, and specialising in one type over another leads to a decent sense of customisation and progression. Although it's no Dragon Age or even a Mass Effect, by the latter stages of the roughly 20-hour running time Scarlett starts to feel unique to your own style - which is something for the developer to be proud of in a game with such a heavy action bent.
The rest of the RPG elements, although shallow in depth, are all familiar and largely well executed. Scarlett earns XP through combat, exploration and solving quests, and with every level comes the ability to throw points into one of four character traits that govern strength, intellect, magic and stamina. There's a basic inventory and trading system, loot to search out, dungeons to raid and passive or active skills to utilise; and it all ties together in some colourful environments that are small enough to wander around on foot and not get frustrated by the low-rent minimap.
Indeed it's those environments that arguably make Venetica a worthwhile prospect. Although rough edges and dodgy texturing are apparent in nearly every corner of the world, the intricate nature of the architectural design and a charming attention to incidental detail makes each new area worth seeking out. Venice - as the titular city - is undoubtedly the star of the show, its winding streets and sense of height creating an enticing world to explore. It might not have the production values of the Assassin's Creed rendition, but realism is swapped out for cartoonish adventure and scale here, with Scarlett's otherworldly narrative proving a decent foil for the style.
Basic combat is combo-happy
But for all its good intentions, Venetica is undoubtedly a game held back by a lack of investment, or alternatively made by a team that strive a little too hard to include features that should have ended up in the cutting room. For every well-realised character there's a teeth-grindingly awful cliche or shockingly bad voice actor, and the schizophrenic nature of quality in art assets, enemy design and dialogue lends itself to an extremely uneven experience. One moment you're dancing around a flurry of enemies and pulling off a satisfying chain of attacks, the next you're staring at the trunk of a tree and reaching for the spirit world whilst a group of foes wails on your invisible corpse.
And the good bits, for all their worth, are just that; good, but not classic. The combat engine is satisfying but could have used a little more refinement, the plot is entertainingly designed but occasionally told by characters that are a bit dull, and the overall impression is of a game that just needed a little more focus, money and time. Regardless though, there's enough here to keep you entertained for a short adventure, but don't expect anything revolutionary from Venetica's well-worn but rambling path.
And the good bits, for all their worth, are just that; good, but not classic. The combat engine is satisfying but could have used a little more refinement, the plot is entertainingly designed but occasionally told by characters that are a bit dull, and the overall impression is of a game that just needed a little more focus, money and time. Regardless though, there’s enough here to keep you entertained for a short adventure, but don’t expect anything revolutionary from Venetica’s well-worn but rambling path.