Victor Vran Review

Eschalon: Book II

Publisher:Independent
Developer:Haemimont Games
Release Date:2015-07-24
Genre:
  • Action,Role-Playing
Platforms: Theme: Perspective:
  • Third-Person
Buy this Game: Amazon ebay

Introduction

Victor Vran is a new action role-playing game from Haemimont Games, which is probably best known for its work in the strategy genre, including Tropico 3-5 and Omerta: City of Gangsters.  The game features the voice work of Doug Cockle in full Geralt of Rivia mode (or maybe that's his regular voice), and it takes place in the steampunk middle European city of Zagoravia, and so it feels like it's the child of The Witcher and The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing, just with a heaping helping of difficulty added on.

Characters

In the game you control Victor Vran, a demon hunter with a checkered past.  You don't get to make any permanent choices about your character.  There aren't any classes or races or attribute points or skill points or anything like that, and obviously you can't change your name or your gender.  Each time you gain a level, you simply earn a fixed bonus -- usually extra health, but sometimes a new equipment slot or something else.  That means the only way you can define your character is by the equipment you wear.

Fortunately, the game gives you some nice options for equipment.  There are eight kinds of weapons, including swords, hammers, and shotguns, and each one behaves a little differently.  For example, hammers are slow but powerful, while swords are quicker but weaker.  Weapons also have two abilities associated with them, which helps to differentiate them even more.  Swords can daze opponents, shotguns can knock enemies back, and hammers have built-in life-steal.  Using one weapon isn't anything like using the others, and since there aren't any weapon proficiencies, that means you can try them all out until you find one that suits your playing style.

Your clothing makes a difference as well.  There are something like ten outfits available in Victor Vran, and what they primarily do -- other than provide you with some defense against attacks -- is affect how you gain overdrive, which is the "mana" in the game.  By default you only receive overdrive when you damage enemies, but some outfits generate it automatically (with no defense) while others hinder its growth (but provide extra defense).  Once you've earned enough overdrive, you can use it to cast demon powers, including Sanguine Aura (which restores health), Meteor (which causes fireballs to fall from the sky), and Time Bubble (which slows down enemies).

But probably the most interesting type of equipment in the game is the destiny card.  As you gain levels, you eventually unlock five destiny card slots and 20 destiny points.  Each card has a point cost and some sort of passive bonus that it gives you.  Some cards are standard, like The Vampire (which gives health steal), The Moon (which causes an explosion when you deliver a critical hit), and Strength (which increases your critical chance), but others are unique, usually one for each weapon type.  There are also "divine" and "wicked" prefixes for the cards, which give extra bonuses, and wildcards, which give bonuses based on how many cards you have equipped.  I liked the destiny cards.  They're a fun optimization problem to try and solve.

In total, characters can equip one outfit, two weapons, two consumables (potions or bombs), two demon powers, two weapons, and 5 (or 6 with the right outfit) destiny cards.  That's not a lot of items, but everything you use can be upgraded in some way through transmutation, which allows you to combine items together.  There are lots of recipes for this, and in general they require you to find lots of high-quality items, which in turn requires lots of grinding.  Grinding is par for the course for most action RPGs.  The problem with the grinding here is that there came a point when I no longer cared what the equipment was -- there wasn't any way anything I found was going to be better than what I had -- I only cared if the item was usable in a transmutation recipe.  And so it's grinding that's more boring than usual.

Overall, the character / equipment system was a mixed bag for me.  I liked the versatility.  Changing your loadout is essentially the same as changing your character, and you can do it whenever you want -- even during combat.  But I felt like I was playing a character rather than my character, and since characters don't really become more powerful, I also missed out on the feeling of evolution I get with other action RPG characters -- advancing from weak stripling at the start to all-powerful demigod at the end.  Combined, I didn't form an attachment to my character, and I never developed any sort of drive to get him through the game or improve his gear.

Gameplay

The world of Victor Vran is presented using an isometric view.  You're allowed to rotate the camera (which stays focused on your character), but you can't zoom in or out or change the pitch.  Most foreground objects disappear when they're in the way, so for about 95% of the time you're given a clear view of your surroundings, and for the other 5% rotating the camera solves the problem.  So the camera system works pretty well.


Victor Vran has three control schemes available.  You can use a controller, you can use a typical mouse-dominated scheme (where left-clicking moves and attacks), or you can use a more keyboard-heavy scheme (where the WASD keys control movement, and left-clicking attacks).  I used the latter scheme, and it worked really well -- so well in fact that I suspect other developers will copy it for their games in the future.  One of the highlights of the scheme is that you don't have to press shift to attack without moving, which has been a fairly consistent headache in other action RPGs.

However, while I loved the engine for the game, the campaign didn't work as well for me.  Like a lot of action RPGs, Victor Vran has a thin storyline that's just there to direct you through the world and set up the major boss fight at the end.  What's unusual about the campaign is that there are barely any characters of consequence, and there aren't any side quests.  It's pretty much Victor Vran against the world.  The main exception to this is a character called the Voice, who snarkily narrates your activities, and who spends a lot of time insulting you and your hat.  As an example, at one point you get surrounded by enemies, and when you execute a "tactical retreat," the Voice starts singing the Brave Sir Robin song from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Instead, the campaign focuses on challenges and secrets.  There are 41 maps in the campaign, and each one contains 5 challenges and a handful (usually 1-3) of secrets.  Challenges include things like killing a certain number of enemies without taking damage, or killing a boss within in a time limit, or killing a certain number of enemies using a particular weapon or demon power.  Secrets are always secret chests, but they're well hidden behind illusionary walls, or on platforms that you have to jump to, or at the end of lonely hallways.

The problem with this -- if you agree that it's a problem at all -- is that the challenges are actually challenging, even on the normal difficulty setting.  I started out by trying to complete all of the challenges, but somewhere around the halfway point in the game, I threw in the towel.  For example, early on you get a challenge where you're supposed to kill 70 enemies without taking any damage.  I repeated this challenge over and over for about an hour before I finally got it, and later challenges are way tougher than that.

I don't mind beating my head against the wall every so often to get past a tough encounter, but I don't want that to be the focus of a game.  As an analogy, if you've played Pillars of Eternity, then you no doubt remember the adra dragon, which presented by far the toughest battle in that game.  Well, the Victor Vran version of Pillars of Eternity would have an adra dragon on every map, and laugh at you during your struggles to defeat them.

And if the challenges weren't enough, Victor Vran also includes hex cards, which can be used to increase the difficulty of the game even further.  The hex cards can do things like make enemies move faster or hit harder or regenerate health, and while they can be toggled on or off at any time, they're linked to a lot of the challenges, so there are situations where you have to use them.  Worse, if you make it through the campaign, then each map suddenly comes up with 5 elite challenges, just in case the regular challenges didn't aggravate you enough.

Now, that being said, the challenges (and the secrets) are completely optional, so you don't have to complete them, and the main quest objectives are about as difficult as you normally see in an action RPG.  The thing is, you only really have two ways to play the game: you can accept the pain of completing the challenges, or you can skip the challenges and feel inadequate.  Which is worse?  To me, Victor Vran was designed for those people -- and you know who you are -- who post in game forums about how easy the games are, and how they need a difficulty setting above "insanity," which wasn't any challenge at all.

If you're still not sure if Victor Vran is the game for you, here's a litmus test.  Shortly after the game's release, Haemimont Games released a free DLC called Cauldron of Chaos.  It generates a random map with random boss fights every day, which is great if you're trying to grind up some better equipment, and you're tired of repeating the existing challenges and boss fights.  So I tried it out, and after playing for about a half hour and defeating the first few bosses, I finally died -- and got sent back to the beginning with all of the boss fights reset.  If your reaction is, "Wow, great, more games should be like that!" then you're the kind of masochist who is going to love Victor Vran.  But if your reaction is more like mine -- a mixture of irritation and annoyance -- then not so much.

Conclusion

So clearly I didn't enjoy Victor Vran very much.  But I always try to separate the quality of the game versus how much I like it, and Victor Vran is a well-made game.  It looks good, the voice acting is solid (particularly from Doug Cockle as Victor Vran and Andrew Wincott as the Voice), the maps are distinctive, the enemies are diverse and interesting, and I never experienced a single crash or bug.  Plus it includes free DLCs, which is always a plus.

So if you enjoy tough games, and like the idea of grinding away to improve your gear, and don't mind the idea of studying and thinking about and frequently repeating challenging battles, then Victor Vran might be for you.  But if you play RPGs more for the stories, the character development, and, I don't know, the fun, then maybe not.  Either way, Victor Vran is pretty reasonably priced at $20, so it's a game you could check out if you're at all curious.