Venetica and ERPGs

Note: This is an old post ported over from a gaming blog that I used to write alongside my longtime friend Mento. Images did not survive the import process, and unfortunately I have no idea or record of what they were, so these posts are presented in all their jacked-up, ugly glory. 

So hey, I haven’t written much lately. My bad. I’ve been super busy (at least in terms of internet blogging about games, which isn’t perhaps busy by any traditional sense of the word) writing about cutting down my Steam backlog in a daily series of blogs on Giant Bomb throughout this month. But whatever, that’s like half the internet away. Today I’m here to talk about the Deck13 Interactive-developed, dtp entertainment-produced German ERPG Venetica.

In a nutshell, Venetica follows the adventures of Scarlett – the estranged daughter of the Grim Reaper (or at least the democratically elected spectre of death; they do things a little different in this world it seems) – as she avenges the death of her beloved Benedict and saves the world from the machinations of a tricky antagonist that has defied the laws of God and nature to become immortal. This all takes place in a fictional version of Venice, if you’re wondering where that title comes from.

The actual gameplay is runs along the similar vein of other prolific German RPGs like Gothic or Risen (the sequel to which has recently come out) with third-person real-time combat and the usual XP-funded character development that requires you find skill trainers to procure new abilities rather than picking them off a menu after hitting a new level. The combat starts off rather button-mashy, but you soon get a tutorial on maximizing your damage output with careful timing as well as evasion, blocking and using your uniquely macabre powers to your advantage. Nothing ground-breaking, but it’s an adequately enjoyable system to carry you through the game.

Poker? I hardly know ‘er.

The game is broken up into a traditional “hunt down the henchman boss of the week” format, with each new chapter opening up a new region of the city (and primary setting) of Venice. With each new area, there’s a smattering of new side-quests, explorable regions that often have some connection to same and a higher calibre of treasure. There’s not a huge emphasis on equipment in this game, with each new set of armor (which, cleverly, requires some altering before it’ll fit our svelte and distinctly unmasculine heroine) incrementally doled out or well-hidden beyond the leather set you find towards the start of the game that will more or less suffice for the remainder. Weapons are a bit more varied, giving you a choice between your default scythe “Moonblade” – necessary for some of the more supernatural foes you’ll face – and player-preference mainstays like the quick swords, the safe spears and the slow and powerful hammers and axes. Spells can be useful against crowds, with mana recharging slowly or instantaneously with items.

In Venetica, death is but a door and time is but a window, as losing all your health will drop you into a Soul Reaver-esque ghost world which, besides costing a considerable portion of a tertiary status bar (“Twilight Energy”), isn’t going to inconvenience you too much. This, of course, directly ties into Scarlett’s uncommon heritage and the concept with which this game attempts to set itself apart from its contemporaries. Scarlett’s other twilight powers don’t lend themselves quite as frequently to combat (unless you really want to keep replenishing mana constantly), but do feature heavily in solving the puzzles behind many story and side-quests, such as eventually being able to talk to the dead and dissolve magical barriers.

A neat little inclusion I wanted to point out, worth as much as the customary “game complete” achievement, is another achievement that asks you to beat the game without using any curative items. The game is extremely easy if you’re popping potions constantly, since it’s not like the game’s “death is a slap on the wrist” and “save anywhere” policies make it a Herculean task to begin with, so I’d actually recommend you follow this unusual requisite if you want a little more enjoyment out of the game. It’s a good example of an achievement actually improving a playthrough, rather than being the sort of inconsequential/incidental bonuses given at various checkpoints in the story or the grind-fests that usually inundate any given game’s achievement list.

I’ve mentioned “ERPGs” a few times, which is something I’m tentatively introducing as a separate subgenre from the Japanese and Western RPGs. ERPGs (the E is for European) frequently take a classic PC RPG model and try and build on it without diminishing the level of strategy or depth that the North American RPGs are frequently scaling back to broach a wider audience. This isn’t to add my voice to the unfairly reductive criticisms of “shallow” BioWare RPGs like Dragon Age 2 or the Mass Effects, but rather to simply observe that their model of the classic RPG is evolving to be more widely approachable thereby leaving an enterprising and burgeoning game development community to pick up the slack. Thus, what we have now is the once cottage industry of European developers creating deliberately old-fashioned CRPG experiences for PC and consoles becoming more widespread and visible.

German RPGs aren’t lacking for oddball characters.

The grand-daddy of this format is probably Piranha Bytes’ Gothic games, which have been around since the 90s and show no signs of slowing down, even if the most recent entry (2010’s Arcania: Gothic IV) didn’t exactly set the world alight with dragonfire. A better example would be the highly acclaimed Witcher games, from Polish studio CDProjektRED (who also owns – the best source for the CRPG classics of yesteryear). There’s the Divine Divinity series from Belgians Larian Studios, Two Worlds from Polish Reality Pump Studios and the Sacred series of Diablo-clones from German team Ascaron.

If there’s anything to link these games beyond geography and their predilection for a well-aged style of RPG, it’s that they are generally less well-funded than American studios. It sounds dismissive, but this actually gives them space to experiment with the format some. They don’t have the fervent, expectant fanbase of, say, Blizzard or BioWare to contend with, so the games they produce – while varying in quality – tend to be breezy, fun, “let’s see what works” ventures that the developers can then learn from and use to create vastly improved sequels; sequels which might feasibly challenge the Blizzards, BioWares and Bethesdas of the RPG market.

And this is pretty much where I stand with Venetica. It has some janky design decisions, which can only be expected from a fledgling studio, but there’s also a lot of heart and soul, some goofy Teutonic humor you’re unlikely to experience elsewhere and a 30-hour+ RPG experience that didn’t feel like a slog or a waste of time. I’m damning it with faint praise, perhaps, but Venetica’s not bad at all.

It’s not terrible-looking either.