I am so happy that it is finally time to review Venetica. At first my excitement was driven by the fact that Venetica is an action-RPG that seemed to have disappeared years ago shortly after it was announced, only to re-appear in stores last week. A mysterious title like that just had to pique my interest. And as I played through Venetica, I realized that this is the kind of game I love to review. I could easily write two completely different reviews for Venetica, one entirely of praise and one solely critical, and both would be equally right. It falls squarely into that illustrious category of flawed masterpieces that are almost just as fun to dissect afterward as they are to play. And like a frog on a high school lab table, dissect I shall.
Let's start with the story, shall we? Venetica tells the tale of Scarlett, an orphaned girl who is betrothed to the knight Benedict. As often happens in RPGs, within five minutes the whole town is engulfed in flames and brave Benedict is dead. Death appears to Scarlett and sets her out on a quest fueled either by lust for revenge or lust for her lost fiancé. The choice of motivation is given to the player, and is one of many moral dilemmas posed during the course of the game, ultimately leading to one of three endings. And while the story isn't the most original, it still has its fair share of twists and turns. The atmosphere of the game and its setting of 16th century Venice (with a minor trip to Africa for some variety late in the game) adds much to the story's appeal, especially if you get involved in side-quests and meet the colorful characters who inhabit the city of Venice. Even if the inhabitants of Venice all inexplicably speak with British accents.
Now, I'm more of a visual person, so I like to play with subtitles on so that I can read along as characters speak. And thank heavens I did, because Venetica's voice acting is awful. Not a Metroid: Other M type of awful, though there was one odd line spoken deadpan despite subtitles that included no less than two exclamation points and a question mark. No, this is a type of awful where there is information actually missing from the spoken dialog. Some conversations simply wouldn't have made sense if I didn't have the subtitles to fill in dialog holes. Or worse, the spoken dialog and subtitles sometimes contradict each other. For example, a character once gave me a quest saying that I must find someone in the Southern Bay. However, the subtitles for that very same line of dialog clearly read Northern Bay. To further confuse matters, it turned out that the location was simply called the "Southern Bay" but located to the North of where I received the quest and on the Northern edge of the world map.
Thankfully, Venetica's core gameplay is quite strong. Combat can be surprisingly deep despite implementing the same one button combat of Fable. That depth comes from the four types of weapons Scarlett can wield. Swords are your standard all-around weapon, while hammers and axes are slower but provide more power and can fight off larger groups. Then there are spears, which are fast and give you the extra defense of a shield. Then there is the moonblade, which controls similarly to swords but is unique because it is the only way to kill undead enemies. Using the right weapon in the right situation adds much needed variety to the combat. Scarlett can also use necromancy powers in combat to send swarms of ravens at her foes, drain health, and later in the game summon fallen enemies to fight for her. Using abilities can be a bit of a pain in the 360 or PS3 version, as abilities can only be used if they are set as one of the d-pad shortcut commands. Four shortcuts would normally be fine, but blocking with each weapon is treated as a separate skill that must be assigned a shortcut. It should be noted that this is slightly less of a problem on the PC where you have all of the number keys to assign shortcuts. Since I was playing on the Xbox 360, this basically meant that I used dodging (the X button) more than blocking so that shortcut buttons would be open for the more interesting necromancy skills.
With necromancy being a key part of the game, Venetica has a very interesting way of dealing with player deaths. When Scarlett is killed, instead of getting a game over screen, she is resurrected as a ghost. As a ghost, time moves slower and enemies forget about her, allowing you to make a quick escape to recover or get into position for stealthy revenge on her killers. At the start of the game Scarlett can only resurrect once, and then must refill a twilight meter by killing enemies with the moonblade, but later in the game she can fall in battle four or more times before the twilight meter runs out. I thought this was a very clever way of handling death in a game, allowing the player to basically earn back their life rather than being immediately forced to start over.
But as is always the case with Venetica, with the good comes the bad. Venetica is a fairly buggy game, though mostly in a harmless way. Floating swords and gondola poles that magically hover in the air are a common occurrence. But there is one bug that is absolutely atrocious: the autosave feature simply doesn't work. When you load a save file it will tell you that the game autosaves when you see a certain symbol, but this is a lie. The symbol appears on every loading screen and the game will never save for you. Ever. When I first turned on the game I played for over two hours, and saw the autosave symbol many times, but when next went to play I discovered that none of that progress had been saved. If you want to save, do it manually through the menu. I'm telling you this because the game never will.
In addition to the autosave fiasco, there are still a number of minor issues that I would be remiss not to mention. For example, the map screen doesn't clearly show objectives, and sometimes objectives vanish entirely for no explainable reason. In fact, explanation is something Venetica is rather short on in general. Venetica's version of Venice has three guilds for Scarlett to join, each representing a good, bad, or indifferent moral stance, but the game does a poor job of explaining that joining any guild excludes you from joining the others. Venetica doesn't provide players much leeway to play as a morally complex character, which could put off role playing purists.
Despite all of my complaints, I would still strongly recommend Venetica to fans of action RPGs. It may not have the same degree of player choice provided by higher profile RPGs like Fable, Dragon Age, or Mass Effect, but I'm perfectly fine with that. Venetica is a more focused experience. And with over 30 hours of gameplay, Venetica will more than fill the RPG void until Dragon Age II comes out. When Venetica is at its best, smashing giant lobsters with war hammers or getting revenge on a bandit who just killed you, you'll get lost in the atmosphere and forgive its faults. It's not the best RPG out there, heavens no, but that doesn't mean it's not still a good one.