There are lots of ARPGs around at the moment. This is a great thing. Few manage to join the elite group of Diablo, Fate, Torchlight, Path Of Exile and Titan Quest, which is a less great thing. With the Van Helsing series making great work of combining the genre with tower defence (no, really, it works, and I hate tower defence) and others inevitably chasing the collectable card game angle, Victor Vran takes it’s own spin on things: challenges.
Large sprawling areas, of which there are many, come with a list of five challenges to try to complete within. Then each contains five or six further zones, they too with their own to-do list of five. Things like, “Slay monsters within 120 seconds (0/50)”, “Slay monsters without using potions or demon powers (0/80)”, or “Slay essences of fire with ranged attacks (0/5)”. Indeed, if it’s not “Find 5 secrets” then it’s going to begin with “Slay”.
The further you get in, the more specific these tasks get, and the harder they are. After a few levels, Hexes are added, which are voluntary additions that make the game harder – monsters get tougher, or faster, or you get weaker, and so on. Challenges start requiring that one or a few are switched on for the star to be earned.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Why? Well, just cos. In fact, I’m struggling to think of a more “just cos” plot in years. So spare and completely dismissible is the attempt at a narrative that it doesn’t remember to explain who Victor Vran (you) is, nor why he’s there, until about a dozen hours in. Spoiler: it’s a boring reason. And where is he? Zorogoroeogovovvia or something. Some place, infested with demons and beasties, after Princess Placeholder accidentally spilt a bottle of fizzy pop or something. From a central hub of a room in her palace, you go off to new zones on spurious reasons, while the ghost of King Keyhat waffles nonsense and oh look eventually I stopped even listening.
And that’s the best choice, really, as proper goals are there none. The list of challenges is the reason to be anywhere, rather than the notional “main quest” that really appears to be “Go there, then come back again, then go there.” That, and of course the real reason anyone plays an ARPG – incrementally improving loot.
Loot is handled nicely. Weapons (armour is a very rare addition) don’t come flying out of every enemy. Rather, they’re rewarded for completing challenges, killing bigger foes, or opening chests. However, so many are the enemies and things to do that you’ll still end up dragging a big haul back to the merchants in the hub after every trip. Amongst the weapons are swords, rapiers, hammers, shotguns, mortars and lightning guns, each with their distinct attributes, later possible to be augmented through sacrificing their kin, and of course graded from grey through to purple. Two can be equipped at any time, meaning you’ll likely have a melee and ranged at the ready, switching out for others when required for a particular challenge. Alongside weapons are the usual array of potions, then Vran’s own unique extras.
First up are Powers. These are demonic abilities Vran possesses thanks to a devilish pact he made in his youth. They rely on your building up Overdrive – a yellow meter that is gained through combat (or time, if wearing a particular outfit), and then let you fling magical boomerangs, put up defensive shields, rain down fireballs, and so on. Then there are Destiny Cards. You can equip an ever-increasing number of these from your collection, adding in bonuses such as increased melee damage, health rewarded for kills, longer buff duration, and the like. Lastly are the Hexes, which as well as making foes tougher, also improve XP and item finds.
And it all works. It all neatly fits together to create the compelling experience an ARPG should. Without having a journey, no A-Z or tower to climb, motivation is a little wayward. But the ever-expanding map of locations you can leap to, and the silly urge to return to old ones to pick up more stars that you missed (for no real reason), means it’s hard not to just keep ploughing forward.
Enemies are well mixed, if a little too repetitive. Spiders are first, with some exploding on death, others spitting ice at you, and some just bloody enormous. Then come the skellingtons, who will put themselves back together after the first time you kill them. Then there are undead, wraiths, essences (which are a huge pain to kill), and so on, with later levels adding new to the mix, rather than abandoning old ones. Different skills are required for sub-categories in each type, so it keeps play a lot more interesting than just clicking.
And shockingly, I haven’t been clicking at all. I’ve been tapping. Vran feels far more comfortable on a gamepad than mouse and keyboard. I know this sounds like sacrilege, and of course mouse/keyboard controls are in there and work well, but this game just fits so well on a 360 controller. If I weren’t me, I wouldn’t believe me either, but give it a go.
It does let itself down in places. Larger areas containing smaller zones are permanent until the moment you return to the hub. After that, the map’s fogged out again, and the enemies have all returned, which is pretty damned infuriating if the reason you left early was because the game crashed (this has happened to me twice), or, say, you had to go to bed. Even if you wanted to get rid of some loot from your inventory (although generous space means this is never a pressing need). Since you’re returning to that area to reach entrances to zones you’ve not yet entered, it’s deeply irritating to have to re-clear your path there for seemingly no reason.
And, yes, well, there’s the matter of the “comedy”. For reasons best known to Haemimont, Vran is accompanied by a wacky-wacky voice in his head, who tells you his name is Voice. He attempts to sarcastically narrate your experience, but it falls horribly flat. At one point, a slight similarity between the actor, Andrew Wincott’s voice, and that of The Stanley Parable’s Kevan Brighting, leads to a fist-chewingly dreadful attempt to spoof/tribute Stanley’s narration. Oh gawd, it’s so bad.
Even more strange is the lack of interaction between Vran and Voice. It happens, occasionally, but despite both being voiced characters (with Vran’s speech coming from Geralt himself, Doug Cockle), they mostly appear to ignore each other. Vran will growl some severe-sounding but vacuous rubbish as he walks through a doorway in one level, then Voice will try to mock the nature of the ARPG in a clumsy and ultimately off-putting way in the next.
And it misses so badly. At one point Voice attempted to mock me saying I didn’t care about the plot, just about gathering loot. (Well, duh.) And to prove this, starts dropping piles of gold around me. A nice idea, in a completely different game, perhaps. But follow the trail, as he mocks you for doing so, and it leads to the entrance to another challenge zone. One I’d already completed, five stars. Voice declares that I’ll be too scared to ever go in there. Um.
So, as I said, I found it far more enjoyable just to ignore the dialogue altogether, and focus on the fun of the fights, and the attempts to complete the often pretty difficult challenges. And there Victor Vran shines.
I can only imagine Haemimont’s faces when Van Helsing appeared on the market before them, so similar are they in style. But Vran does enough to make itself distinct, and it does it well enough to create the imperative to keep going and going.
It certainly doesn’t get to join the elite group, but if you’re after some ARPG entertainment, it more than fits the role. I’m far from finished, after spending a hefty amount of time with it, so there’s a lot on offer here, not least with the incentive to replay older sections to perfection. Turn the voices down, put a podcast on, and sink in.