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Nelson Schneider's Video Game Reviews (416)

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I Am Setsuna 2.5/5
Assassin's Creed Origins 4/5
Boot Hill Heroes 3.5/5
The Bard's Tale IV: Bar... 4.5/5
The Bard's Tale Trilogy 1.5/5
The Bard's Tale III: Th... 1.5/5
The Bard's Tale II: The... 0.5/5
The Bard's Tale: Tales ... 0.5/5
The Technomancer 2.5/5
Tyranny 3.5/5
Pine 2/5
Victor Vran 3/5
Front Mission Evolved 2/5
Greedfall 4.5/5
The Deep Paths: Labyrin... 3/5
The Vagrant 4/5
Avadon: The Black Fortr... 2/5
Mass Effect 3 3.5/5
Mass Effect 2 3.5/5
Mass Effect 2.5/5
Knightin'+ 3.5/5
Indivisible 3/5
Final Fantasy XIV Onlin... 2/5
A Total War Saga: Troy 3/5
Stardew Valley 3/5

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Victor Vran   PC (Steam) 

The Monty Python of Hack ‘n Slash    3/5 stars

Occasionally within the world of videogames, celestial twins are born. Brothers from other mothers, in these situations, two titles with nearly identical premises and concepts release from different developers within a couple years of each other, at most. The most well-known example of this phenomenon amongst the MJ Crew is the release window of “Dungeon Defenders” and “Orcs Must Die!” two Tower Defense titles that each tried to hybridize-in some Hack ‘n Slash mechanics, with varying amounts of success.

As of now, the MJ Crew has experienced a second coming of the celestial twin phenomenon, this time in the form of Eastern European-developed Hack ‘n Slash RPGs based heavily in Slavic mythology and the writings of 19th Century Horror writer, Bram Stoker. Back in 2019, we played through the ‘Final Cut’ version of “The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing,” by Hungarian developer NeoCore Games. Now in 2021, we’ve played through “Victor Vran,” by Bulgarian developer Haemimont Games. Both games set their foundational concepts upon the same bedrock, and both games come to us from developers whose prior experience is almost entirely with RTS, Sim, or various hybridized wargames, not dyed-in-the-wool RPGs, nor even the bastardized subgenre we lovingly(?) refer to as the Hack ‘n Slash due to its lack of any meaningful content outside of those two words.

We knew, going in, that “Victor Vran” would bear a disturbing resemblance to “The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing,” which is the primary reason we played other coop games between them, as a sort of palate cleanser. But with our list of potential coop candidates looking relatively thin, and the fact that we all had the game and its DLCs waiting in our Steam libraries, Nick ultimately pulled the trigger and said it was time to delve back into the world of Slavic monster hunting. And while I can’t say “Victor Vran” was a ‘bad’ experience, it definitely took more liberties with Hack ‘n Slash conventions than “Van Helsing” did, leading to a game that feels simultaneously feels unique and just a little bit… off.

Presentation
“Victor Vran” doesn’t try to break any molds when it comes to visuals. It’s a top-down isometric affair, as Hack ‘n Slashes have been since the original “Diablo” created the subgenre. The only difference is that, as a modern game built in a 3D engine, the player can freely rotate the camera… well, the visuals are also pretty good compared to the old sprite-based stuff. Huge mobs of enemies fill the screen at most times, and it’s usually pretty easy to tell what’s going on. The only time the visuals get cluttered an confusing is during multi-player coop games, in which three other Victor Vran doppelgangers are running around, filling the screen with their own splashy effects and magical spells… which look identical to enemy spells, except there’s no friendly fire. Can you see the problem with such a system?

Audiowise, “Victor Vran” tried pretty hard for a low-budget game from an Eastern Bloc nation. The game is fully voiced, and the voiceacting is shockingly good. The studio even managed to snag Doug “Geralt of Rivia” Cockle to voice the titular character, even as he was right in the middle of doing work on “The Witcher 3!” Of course, Victor Vran and Geralt of Rivia are, functionally, the same character doing the same things in the same types of places…

The soundtrack in “Victor Vran” ranges from ‘good’ to ‘downright strange.’ While the base game and the second DLC take place in a fairly standard Dark Fantasy setting with excellent orchestral accompaniment, the first DLC takes place in a world inspired by the heavy metal band, Motorhead, and includes ‘music’ by said band. We all had to turn down the volume while playing that one.

Technically, “Victor Vran” is… fine. Really, there’s nothing remarkable about it, aside from the fact that it hits minimum expectations for a modern game by including Xinput support out of the box and not crashing constantly. We did run into one instance where we couldn’t play because our coop night aligned with server maintenance for the game, which apparently prevented us from P2P matchmaking directly through Steam, for some reason.

Story
Victor Vran is a gravelly-voiced monster-hunter who wears a dapper fedora and lives only to rid Eastern Europe of its demons. Hired by the young queen of a nation called Zagoravia, Victor must investigate the source of an overwhelming demonic outbreak that has ravaged the land, whilst simultaneously dealing with a mocking, sarcastic voice coming from inside his own head.

Victor’s path from the initial mystery, through deeper discoveries, to an ultimate resolution of both major story threads is fairly short and straightforward. It is, however, reasonably well-written and cohesive, even while the tone wavers between seriousness and comedy. See, while the setting is grim, the plot drags Victor through dreadful locations, and Victor must face-off against dire foes, the entire time, the voice in his head is teasing him, telling jokes, and making Monty Python references. While it’s easy to see how this discord in the game’s narrative tone could come off as grating, I personally thought it was a fresh and enjoyable concept.

Things continue to get weirder as the player delves into the two “Victor Vran” DLCs: ‘Motorhead’ and ‘Fractured Worlds.’ The narrative in Motorhead amps up the discord between ‘dark’ and ‘funny’ by plopping Victor into a world inspired by Motorhead’s songs and imagery, which abruptly takes the game from ‘slightly weird’ to ‘wholly surreal.’ Hitler even makes an appearance!

Unfortunately, things really fall apart in the ‘Fractured Worlds’ story, as it’s not so much a ‘story’-based DLC, but a proxy for the never-ending Adventures or Rifts found in other popular Hack ‘n Slashes that simply spew an infinite amount of procedurally-generated content at the player. Sure, there is a story, but it essentially forces the player to engage with the procedurally-generated content on 5 different real-world days, which is artificial padding, and would mean playing for over a month longer with our weekly sessions. No thanks!

For a fairly brisk playthrough, “Victor Vran” can last as little as 30 hours for a bare-minimum effort. However, I spent closer to 50 hours playing, as I was more engaged with the gameplay systems than any of the other guys and actually spent all my gold to make my Victor more powerful. Someone who is really into the game’s optional challenges, achievements, and procedural content could easily get 100 hours out of it, so “Victor Vran” is really a variable game that will provide different quantitative amounts of fun to different people.

Gameplay
“Victor Vran” is a Hack ‘n Slash, so if you know anything about that particular subgenre of videogames, your head should be filled with all sorts of ideas and assumptions about the gameplay mechanics. Kindly dump all of those off the nearest cliff. “Victor Vran” is something completely different. Case in point: Victor can jump.

While most Hack ‘n Slash RPGs are obsessed with throwing bigger and bigger numbers at players to make them believe they’re progressing, “Victor Vran” has shockingly flat stats across low-level gear and high-level gear. Really, the only traditional stat Victor has that improves as he gains levels is his health bar, which increases in increments of 100. Victor starts with 1000 health, and caps out at level 60 with 6000, which, in the world of Hack ‘n Slash numbers, is a trivial amount.

In addition to low-level and high-level loot not really having particularly wide stat variations, the player is allowed, and indeed EXPECTED to upgrade their good (read purple-rarity) equipment instead of endlessly farming for better ones. As a goal-oriented person, I found that this upgrade clicked very well with my play-style, yet I was continually stymied by just how expensive (using in-game currency only, as there are, thankfully, no freemium pay2win options) the upgrade process is in practice. Instead of just using gold, the player must engage with an alchemy system that typically requires three same-rarity weapons to upgrade a weapon’s damage stat, three same-rarity Destiny Cards to upgrade a weapon’s critical hit stat, and three specific Demon Powers to upgrade a weapon’s two perks. While the other Crew members all had millions of gold, I was broke from buying these materials when they randomly appeared in the in-game vendors’ stocks.

“Victor Vran” is also a generally loot-light game in that Victor only has one armor slot and there are only a handful of armor suits with fixed starting stats and abilities. Victor can equip two weapons at a time and the player can swap between them with a single button press, but all of the weapons in the game are drawn from a fairly small pool. Non-legendary weapons have the most diverse range of prefixes, suffixes, and modifiers that can spawn on them, but they’re generally not that great when compared with the almost-fixed-stat legendary weapons, which each have a unique gimmick.

Outside of his small stable of traditional gear, Victor can equip two Demon Powers and a handful of Destiny Cards, which is where the real customization starts. Demon Powers are fairly straightforward magic spells that are cast by demons. Any demon that casts a given Demon Power has the possibility of dropping a copy of that power when slain. Demon Powers are wildly diverse in effect, but all of them are powered by an Overdrive Meter that sits in the GUI next to Victors health meter. Like the Limit Breaks in latter-day ‘Final Fantasy’ games, Overdrive is generated by dealing and receiving damage, and when the meter reaches certain thresholds, Victor can fire off a Demon Power. Unfortunately, the default behavior of Overdrive is that it drains away quickly when Victor is out of combat, which make an armor suit that modifies Overdrive behavior fairly essential.

Destiny Cards are the final piece of the puzzle in creating actual character builds in “Victor Vran.” Did you wonder why I haven’t mentioned character classes yet? That’s because there AREN’T any. Instead, Victor is just Victor, and all of his non-basic skills, perks, and percentage-based modifiers come from the collection of tarot-inspired Destiny Cards he holds in his hand. These cards, like Demon Powers, run the gamut in capabilities, and it’s possible to get special Divine or Wicked variants that have a random extra power on top of a card’s fixed power. Likewise, Destiny Cards come in different rarities, with more powerful versions of the same card requiring more Destiny Points to hold in hand. Like other forms of gear, the player can heavily customize their Destiny Card hand via alchemy, combining multiple copies of a card to increase its rarity; adding, rerolling, or improving Divine/Wicked effects; etc.

Unfortunately, the result of all of these novel character building systems is a game in which it never really feels like Victor gets much stronger. Of course, this is because he largely doesn’t. But the expectation is that after grinding through 30+ hours of Hacking ‘n Slashing, the player should be able to return to an earlier dungeon and curb-stomp everything. Nope! In “Victor Vran,” enemies in early areas remain a threat even to highly-tuned Victors.

And there’s the rub. See, “Victor Vran” is also obsessed with making monsters stronger, even as it insists on leaving Victor in roughly the same state he started. Each and every stage in the game (many of which are, absurdly, optional, and the player will never visit them as part of the story) has a number of challenge objectives to meet, and many of them revolve around the Hex System. Hexes come in five flavors, and when active apply specific buffs to all enemies Victor faces. Moreover, when playing in a cooperative game, enemies also receive ridiculous enhancements to their health. The result is that, for the vast majority of the game, “Victor Vran” feels like using a glass cannon against damage sponges, as numerous enemies can one-shot an entire team of 4 Victors, while those same 4 Victors chip away at seemingly endless amounts of health. Really, the only upside of the game’s unfortunately skewed ‘balance’ is the fact that there’s no penalty for death.

Overall
When it comes to the Hack ‘n Slash subgenre, a number of expectations have accumulated over the years since 1996. Like a certain British pop-comedy group, “Victor Vran” subverts those expectations in unique and thoughtful, but frequently misguided and irritating ways. Genre fans might really enjoy it, provided they’re in the mood for something completely different. But if given a choice between this game and its twin, I’d pick the other one.

Presentation: 4/5
Story: 3.5/5
Gameplay: 3/5
Overall (not an average): 3/5

 

 


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