Well, we’ve got the next action RPG to look forward to!
aRPGs are an odd genre, with there being so popular, but with so few that stand out. Obviously the Diablos, the Torchlights, and the Titan Quests. There’s Path Of Exile, there’s Grim Dawn, and then it gets trickier. The dreary Dungeon Siege games? The clumsy Sacred series? The almost there Van Helsing silliness? I think we may have a game that could sneak into the list, however, with Victor Vran [official site], currently in Early Access.
It looks, at first, very similar to those Van Helsings, a fun, distracting also-ran. But then, even in this early access build with its placeholder elements and lack of story, Victor Vran (gosh that's a terrible name) really rather comes to life. A surprise offering from long-time Tropico devs, Haemimont Games, this is stripped down in terms of elaborate extra features, instead choosing to focus on a wealth of overlapping battle tactics, that somehow manage to feel coherent rather than overwhelming.
As I say, motives and purpose are mostly missing in this build. It says it’s deliberately keeping the story secret to avoid spoilers. Hmmm. Anyway, such things are rarely a huge motivator when it comes to hack-n-slashing, with the click-click-click compulsion of tearing your way through crowds of enemies far more important. And it’s really getting that right for me.
Things start off incredibly simple. A neatly implemented tutorial drags you through the three main styles of weapon: sword, hammer and shotgun. And then you equip one and kill stuff with it. Each comes with a couple of cooldown extra attacks, with variation depending upon the particular style of weapon type. All very standard.
Then in come Powers. These use “Overdrive”, meter filled by doing attacks, that let you say power up a shield, launch an AoE attack, or create a time bubble to slow enemies down around you. As you progress you gather more and better Powers, picking which to equip depending upon the circumstances, and indeed which of the special challenges you may be trying to complete.
These are five bonus challenges for every area, dungeon and zone in the game, which might be the likes of being asked to kill 50 enemies without taking any damage, or summon seven particularly nasty nasties in an area, or take out 75 bads within 180 seconds of entering a dungeon. Completing these gets you bonus items, XP or gold, and adds lots of incentive for re-entering dungeons (which reset every time you go back) to tick off another on the list.
But we’re not done with the customisation. Alongside the obvious weapons and powers, you’ve also got Destiny Cards. These are an ever growing deck of passive abilities that affect the tone of your approach. There’s the norm, like cards that secure you extra gold for kills, or boost your chances of getting criticals, but something like The Sun gives a chance of causing explosions when making an overkill attack. Use that perhaps alongside a life drain (The Vampire) and The Rogue to gain both focus and critical damage improvements. Then there’s which two potions you have equipped at any time. You’ll likely have healing potions in one slot, but do you choose a vial that lets you fill your overkill bar, or maybe some Barkskin potion to temporarily raise your armour? You can switch them out at any time, but which is currently assigned still further tweaks your approach. And then there’s the outfit you’re wearing (here very simplified, down to literally a choice of an outfit, rather than the more familiar doll dressing your character. You can even add Hexes, which make the game deliberately tougher in specific ways, to increase the challenge in exchange for extra XP. A Hex Of Tenacity will give monsters 120 armour and regeneration abilities, but your XP gain will go up by 10%. The Hex Of Tyranny causes more enemies to become Champions and offer tougher fights. The Hex Of Malice gives enemies a 50% damage boost, and adds the potential of “cripple” to their crit attacks. And so on.
The point being, what the game takes away for not having elaborate loot drops and armour balancing, it gains in how you tailor your setup. After a while you have two Power slots to fill, extra slots to play Destiny Cards, and room for that second potion. Which all means it fits extremely neatly onto a 360 controller.
HERESY! you cry. And gosh, yes, I’d be with you if I hadn’t been playing for so long. Hack-n-slash RPGs are for wearing out your mouse! But Victor Vran (blimey, it’s such a bad name, isn’t it?) has you move about in a way far more reminiscent of a third-person action game. You can even jump! You can even wall-jump! And yet, despite this, it still feels defiantly like an action RPG. Powers go on the triggers, potions on the d-pad, weapon swap is on the shoulders, and attacks on the face buttons. Move on the right trigger, and shock-of-shocks, rotate the screen on the left! (You can of course play with the mouse and keyboard, and the menus are far more easily negotiated this way, but I’m really surprised how much I liked playing on the gamepad.)
Of course, this is still early access, and there’s an awful lot of work left to be done. It needs a good dose of balancing, and I hope they’ve had the sense to riddle this thing with Steamworks so they can see where players are getting killed too often, or (more likely) breezing through too simply. And while I am surprised to not miss the inventory Tetris of looting hats and shoes so much, and despite all those elements mentioned above, it needs even more personalisation.
Absolute musts include gem slots (or equivalent) on weapons. Right now there’s almost no attachment to a particular item, merrily junked for another with higher stats. If I’d made it my own, and tweaked it in various ways, then there’d at least be that tug as I moved on. And levelling up needs to become far more meaningful. At the moment it might give you an extra equipment slot, and a bonus item, but there’s no upgrading or improving of stats in a particular direction. I’d really love, say, to be able to emphasise my character’s talents with a rapier over a sword, or give myself a more embellished set of ranged abilities at the cost of melee extras.
And of course it needs the narrative it will eventually get. It’s already very rewarding to explore the enormous sprawling maps, replete with expansive dungeons offering unique challenges, but without even a vague reason to keep rolling forward, the inherent frippery of the genre is far too starkly exposed. It’s their choice to release the game into early access with this element missing, but they do need to recognise that the way people encounter a game for the first time always has a significant impact. As it is, find an area that’s too tricky, and realise you’ll need to return to areas that aren’t, and the incentive to bother can be much harder to muster.
But this is already, accounting for its large holes, a splendid time. The combat is pleasingly involved, despite fitting neatly onto the comparatively simple button selection of a gamepad. The enemies are plentiful and brightly splattered in the grim locales (although I think having every damned skellington need to be killed twice is a touch tedious). And best of all are the five challenges for every location, constantly adding an extra level of motivation for the click-click-clicking (or tap-tap-tapping).
The perennial issue of recommending an unfinished game faces us once again. Honestly, I’d wait, because why not experience a good game at its best, rather than half-finished? But I’m definitely going to be keeping an eye on this one, and certainly coming back to it once the narrative is included and the flow thus induced. Oh, but gawd, change the name.