Version tested: PC
With its skill-trees and levelling system, the 16th-century-themed Venetica is unmistakably an RPG. But combat is the main focus, and while there's room for improvement in a lot of areas, it's the hack-and-slash department in which it really excels.
A couple of hours in, you're gifted with one of the most satisfying melee weapons in any game, ever: the warhammer. It's a monstrous, two-handled lump of metal; visibly heavy, incredibly slow to heft, and far from perfect against smaller, more nimble enemies. But when it hits... man, it's good.
The audio-visual feedback loop of impact is almost physical, and its lumbering chain attack can reduce any foe from lively threat to meat patty in just three swings. Strike one staggers the enemy; strike two knocks him to his knees. Just as he starts to rise, the final overhead smash provides the money-shot. It's bullet-time slow, and of such crushing finality it's hard to resist a fist-pump. Goodnight Vienna. Or Venice, to be precise.
The early part of the game is set in your home village, which is in the process of being sacked by raiders. You help beat them off – in your nightie, with a fire poker – but your plate-clad boyfriend Benedict falls. And now, protagonist Scarlett has her motivation to get out into the world: revenge.
There's something a little otherworldly about Scarlett, which we discover early on. She has no real parents, only a caring aunt, and an early quest-chain endows you with two key assets: a skill called The Passage, which lets you slip into the spirit world, and a weapon called The Moonblade, which is the only weapon capable of killing the undead, which you face periodically.
While exploring the village and its environs, you also learn how to pick locks, and it's one of the more colourful approaches we've seen. Scarlett soon meets two bickering brothers, who assist you in opening doors and chests through a Simon-says style mini-game in which they demonstrate the order in which to jimmy the four coloured lockpicks.
They also fight alongside you briefly on the road, which is a relief, for at this stage your combat skills and weapons are far from effective. The hapless duo soon meet with a sticky end, however, and you feel a wee sense of loss at their passing. They were your pals, and who's going to help you pick locks now?
The critical path soon leads you down the coast to the world's main attraction: Venice. In short order, you find yourself locked in a temple. Approach the offending door, and the two brothers appear as spirits, lending you their lockpicking skills from the hereafter. There's something cute about it.
The game's fantastical interpretation of Venice is beautiful, and built with a sense of scale and grandeur that many higher-budget games lack, although lo-fi details like square ropes and rough textures abound. Venetica also has more than its fair share of graphical glitches, probably down to poor driver compatibility in this PC version. But the overall effect is impressive, and in a structural sense, there must be some pretty proud designers at Frankfurt-based developer Deck 13.
The city is split into five major districts, several with catacombs beneath. Apart from a side-excursion to Africa, this is where you spend most of the game, performing quests as you advance towards your ultimate aim of deposing Venice's ruling Doge and his four undead lieutenants. There's variety in the quests and the environmental design, and you soon find yourself improving and expanding your skill-base through the various magical and combat trainers around the city.
Certain quest-critical spells are given to you by the ghost of boyfriend Benedict at key points in the story, but for the rest, it's up to you to find the trainers and place your skill-points where you want across the melee and magical disciplines. I found myself choosing spells that complemented my melee capabilities – necromantic life-leeches, root spells and the odd direct-damage ability – and heavily upgrading my combat skills to ensure that I could block blows with every weapon-type and perform the longest chain-attacks possible.
Venetica's combat runs along pretty simple lines. You can hammer the mouse button for quick, repeated attacks, which has its place against enemies low on health. But the art lies in chaining attacks. At the end of each swing, your weapon twinkles to let you know it's time to initiate the next swing. Levelling up your chain attacks is generally preferable, as it's harder for an enemy to slip in a combo-breaking strike between chained blows, as opposed to button-mash blows. This gives combat a kind of cadence which you begin to chase in every fight.
There's always a get-out clause with combat, and that's The Passage, the spell that lets you pop into the spirit realm. This removes you from enemy sight, and it's downright necessary when your back's to the wall and you have a group of three enemies attacking you simultaneously. It gives you a burst of health, and lets you reset the terms of the engagement from a more beneficial position.
Boss battles are a different kettle of fish. Each of the big cheese's lieutenants has two phases of combat: one based in the physical realm, and one based in the spirit realm. In time-honoured fashion, each requires a spot of pattern-recognition to defeat, and by and large, Deck 13 is fairly creative in what it throws at you. One of the bosses, an African Princess, appears in the spirit realm as a giant bird. After her initial aerial attacks are dealt with, she sheds a feather and a scale, which are used as a spear and a shield against her.
There's lots of character and creativity on show, and that keeps Venetica interesting right until the end. But there's also the kind of corner-cutting and lack of polish that speak of an under-budgeted game with high aspirations. This is a tremendous shame, as it devalues the experience in a constant, niggling way.
NPCs block your passage, and if you press against them, they sometimes halt completely until you back off and wait. In narrow corridors, when you're trying to run past a dawdling friendly, it's nothing short of infuriating. Their voice-acting ranges from triple-A to bargain basement, and the typo-riddled subtitles often don't match the script spoken by the actors.
Likewise, the lack of conceptual signposting in all areas of the game may lead to the joy of discovery in some cases, but irksome guesswork in many others. Why has your newly-earned block skill suddenly stopped working? Because you're fighting a new enemy type that ignores blocks. How is that fair? And what's the reason for it?
Little situations like this occur throughout the game; inexplicable oversights which leave you guessing because they're never explained. Why is there no axe skill-tree when you can use axes, but there's a skill-tree for every other weapon type? It took a little while to twig that they fall under the hammer skill tree.
One quest actually broke the game completely, when a critical scroll disappeared from my inventory as soon as I'd collected it. Googling the problem turned up only half the solution until I finally found a developer-built hotfix (which also inserted a much-needed quick-save function).
In spite of all this, Venetica has some soul. Don't expect an RPG of depth – it's heavy on the action, light on customisation, and rewarding loot is rare. It's also in desperate need of more time in the womb, and the results of that are felt all over. But by and large, the sense of location and the constant weft of combat meant that I spent much of the fifteen hours it took to complete in a state of gentle enjoyment – and that definitely counts for something.
6 / 10
Venetica is out now on PC and Xbox 360. The PS3 version will be released soon.