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.