Venetica – hands-on preview
The first thing that you will notice about Venetica – the upcoming fantasy role-playing game from German developer Deck 13 – is its low production values. It looks old, there’s no escaping it, but if you can look past those smudgy textures, you might appreciate its large scale, strong lead character and interesting setting. There is potential here to offer a rich and rewarding experience to the sadly underserved fans of the fantasy genre.
Venetica’s setting is sixteenth century Venice, where Death walks among the living, carrying out deeds for an ancient council called Corpus. For each generation, Corpus selects a new Grim Reaper, but they’ve made a grave error with their latest choice, selecting a blood-thirsty necromancer, who is determined to destroy everything and everyone.
A young heroine called Scarlett is the only person who can stop this maniac. Unbeknown to her, she is the daughter of Death, and, for this reason, she has extraordinary powers, and it’s your job to take her on a journey, where she will learn these hidden powers and use them for good, hopefully.
Aside from the main quest, there are a number of side-quests to complete. These can be anything from sorting out a dispute over a will to retrieving a necklace for a grandfather, whose nephew had been killed by monsters. XP and items can be acquired by completing these quests.
Interestingly, different choices can be made – like choosing between vengeful and loving motivations – and these different choices will affect how the story pans out. Choices can also come into play in smaller situations; for example, you may decide to keep hold of the item you were asked to retrieve. The benefit would be getting to keep the item, clearly, but you may not get the added XP or other rewards. It’s your choice.
There’s also a trading system in place where you can buy and sell items from merchants. You will pick up a lot of tat on your journey and it can be sold to fund the buying of new weapons and armour. You will also find blacksmiths and grocers (food replenishes health and magic) around the map and even trainers, who can teach you new attacks.
You start with nothing, but a simple swing attack, you can’t even block, but your attack options should grow significantly as you progress through the story and meet new trainers. In our hands-on time, we didn’t get far enough to see the combat being fully fleshed out, therefore our fighting was mostly repetitive button-pressing, but we were starting to see promising signs before our session ended. The success of the game hinges on this development.
There are three aspects of Venetica that struck a chord, while we were playing: Scarlett, its setting and its depth. Here’s a run-down of each:
The game begins with Scarlett’s home village being ransacked by raiders, and during the event Benedict (Scarlett’s lover) bravely fought the raiders and tragically fell and died. The helpless Scarlett just managed to survive.
For us, it felt strange to see Benedict dying. We’re probably influenced by the patriarchal attitudes we’re used to seeing in games, but Benedict seemed like the natural hero of the story – he was an adept swordsman, and he looked the part in his sparkling armour. Scarlett on the other hand was weak, and her white nightdress intentionally emphasised her helplessness.
But isn’t this the way it’s meant to be in a role-playing game? The character should start weak and helpless. What is important, however, is that she was weak because she lacked strength and not because she lacked character – something she was developing plenty of by the time we finished.
Our first task was to get her looking the part. We went rummaging through the houses looking for an outfit. The one we found was too big for her so we had to visit the blacksmith and have it tailored for her. (a strange person to take clothes to.) Our next task was to find her a sword, and we found a very nice scythe-like blade – Deck 13 know the art of making a fearsome looking weapon – and she certainly had no trouble using it, showing that she wasn’t as helpless as she appeared to be at first.
The most pleasing thing about Scarlett is that Deck 13 hasn’t gone down the sex appeal route. Sure, Scarlett wears a relatively low-cut top, her midriff is on show and those laced-up shoes clearly are not for practical purposes, but she’s designed like this for style reasons, and not to titillate young boys. The team certainly didn’t try to recreate Lara’s “boobie-physics”, for example. What’s more, she has a likeable personality, and doesn’t have to talk seductively to get her way.
There aren’t enough strong female leads in games, who developers don’t have to use sex as a means to display their personality, so we’re glad of the job Deck 13 has done with Scarlett, and we’re looking forward to seeing how her character develops. Did we mention that she’s very good with a sword?
The thing that will draw most people to Venetica is its settings, especially their representation of a sixteenth century Venice. It’s the perfect place to set a fantasy role-playing game. It’s all there: its distinctive architecture, canals and rivers, right down to the gondolas and harbours. However, it’s not an exact representation of the city, the studio has added their own stylistic touches; for example, you’ll notice the buildings are a lot taller than they actually are. This adds a sense of scale to the place.
Venice is obviously the big attraction, but it’s not the only place you’ll visit. In fact, as already stated, you begin in a small village in the country, and the early stages of the game are spent roaming around the forest and exploring copper mines – basically, you’ll visit all the places you would expect to visit in a fantasy role-playing game.
A role-playing game is not a role-playing game without a strong sense of scale; Venetica should succeed in this department. Its large free-roaming maps, many quests and side-quests and scope for training and character development should guarantee a massive adventure. Each area is full of people you can speak to and merchants, grocers and blacksmiths for you to trade and deal with.
At the time of writing, we’re only a few hours into Venetica, and that’s nowhere near enough time to explore all that it has to offer. It feels like a slow burner, one that will offer a lot more as you progress, so we cannot give you a definitive verdict at this time.
Yet, it’ does certainly do a lot of things well; however, it also does some things very badly, and potential buyers should consider some of the following points:
- It’s not an original game, it follows all the well-worn conventions of the fantasy role-playing genre.
- It doesn’t look pretty. Its textures are muddy and lack detail, and the frame rate can be very lazy at times.
- The voice acting is alright at its best but dreadful for the most part.
- There are some real signposting issues. A properly implemented journal system would have solved a lot of the confusion we were experiencing.
- It’s just not that refined in most departments.
However, if Venetica can deliver on its promise of an engrossing fairytale story, likeable characters, deep combat and large scale, it will be easy to overlook many of these negatives. We hope so because we’re looking for a game to satisfy our fantasy needs until March, when Dragon Age II is due for release.
Hopefully we’ll be able to bring you the definitive verdict on Venetica sometime over the next few weeks. If it takes a bit longer than that, it will likely be a sign that Venetica is even bigger than we have anticipated it to be.