First two weekends of August got taken out by Space School, as always. We return to a (hopefully) more regular posting schedule with Victor Vran.
Victor Vran is a brand-new action RPG from developers Haemimont Games, previously known for taking on the Tropico series after PopTop imploded over a decade ago. Making an ARPG in the Diablo mold is quite a departure from their usual strategy-management fare, and Victor Vran has a decidedly budget look to it to boot (very much like the Van Helsing series, to the point where I initially thought it was the same developer) so I wasn’t exactly expecting great things from it, but it did have one very attractive feature: while it might have had a budget look, it also had a budget price tag that was reduced even further after I bought a two-pack and threw the second copy at long-time partner-in-mayhem Innokenti.
Kenti: Sometimes I feel you can tell something about the calibre of the game by how much fun you can have endlessly repeating its name to each other. I am not sure if it means it is good or bad, but I think we’ve said Victor Vran an awful lot. The silliness of its name matches well with the general lighthearted approach the whole thing takes. Even if the intended humour falls flat on its face.
Hentzau: I started pretty much every session by singing “Victor Vran, Victor Vran, does whatever a Victor can…” under my breath.
Kenti: Victor can do quite a lot of things. Perhaps the most important skill that sets him apart from other Vampire Hunters, Demon Hunters and miscellaneous adventurers is the ability to jump. It’s not the biggest variation to the formula presented in the game, but it did immediately make it feel fresh and set me in the mood to believe that Haemimont actually had some new ideas.
Hentzau: It felt different, certainly. Victor Vran looks a lot like a cut-price Diablo, and even steals many of the best ideas from Diablo (the way elite monsters are generated along with some of their special attacks are outright copied, for example) but it has more than enough ideas of its own that it successfully carves out its own little niche in the genre.
Kenti: The jumping, for example, is not just an alternative dodge (which is present), but can be used to navigate the map and its various height variations. It also propels you into jumping puzzles, hiding chests of loot away behind a few leaps, or, borrowed straight out of Prince of Persia, jumping between two close walls to ascend even higher. Remarkably this didn’t feel out of place, and the hunt for secrets enhanced it, much like it did Guild Wars 2 for example.
Hentzau: Diablo 3 didn’t really have secrets. It had plentiful easter eggs as well as some secret levels and bosses that you have to grind through several playthroughs’ worth of content to unlock, but the way its levels were generated ruled out the conscious placement of the nice bonus loot chests you’ll find scattered throughout the world of Victor Vran.
Kenti: To some extent that is because of part-procedural level generation – there is none of that here.
Hentzau: Yes, all the levels are static with no random attributes. That in itself gives the game a distinctly different feel, though; in D3 the levels were just these huge containers for the hordes of monsters that you hack your way through, and exploring them as actual pieces of geometry didn’t really throw up anything interesting. By contrast Victor Vran’s hand-built levels have you scouring the length and breadth of the level trying to find those goody chests – at least to start with. You believe in them a little more as places, even if the level design and visuals themselves aren’t particularly outstanding.
Kenti: For me, the biggest addition is actually a logical extension of the Adventure Mode in Diablo 3: Reaper of Souls – in-level challenges. Every location gives you a selection of objectives ranging from simply killing X number of enemies, to killing them with a particular weapon, with both hands tied behind your back and blindfolded. For each challenge completed, a reward of items, XP or gold was showered on you. This worked really well to give each map area a purpose beyond the uninspiring goals set by the pedestrian story and something more interesting than simply killing things on a screen to get more levels and loot.
Hentzau: Again, it worked to start with. The idea of challenges is a good one, even if I do have objections to the way some of them were structured. Kill 100 skeletons with ranged weapons? Sure, I’ll do that, it gives me an excuse to change up the way I’ve been playing so far and injects a little bit of variety into the game. Kill the level boss in 90 seconds without using magic spells or dropping below 80% health? Fuck right off, there’s nothing particularly interesting about chipping away at a bloody great health bar without my full toolkit available. Where the challenges incentivise the player switching to a different playstyle for a bit they work well, but we tended to ignore the ones that were just artificial handicaps after a while.
Kenti: To be slightly fair – they don’t all have to be tackled in one go, you can revisit the area to pick the harder ones off individually. Although we didn’t end up hitting all of the challenges, they weren’t exhausted on even the first play-through. After completing the game, it does introduce the option for another batch of even-harder challenges for the masochistic of us. So, not us.
Hentzau: Another of Victor Vran’s good ideas – and very possibly the best one – is its implementation of player abilities. Just like Diablo you’ve got a core set of 4 abilities (plus a couple of Demon Powers, which function as powerful magic spells), but in Victor Vran your abilities are not determined by the class you pick. There are no character classes in Victor Vran at all, in fact, because every single thing about your character is determined instead by your gear.
Take those player abilities, for example. Which abilities you’ll have access to at any one time is dependent on the weapons you have equipped on your character. Victor has two weapon slots, and each type of weapon has two different abilities associated with it, as well as a slightly different basic attack depending on what sort of weapon it is – the scythe will hit enemies in a broad arc in front of you, while the rapier hits a single enemy with a flurry of quick jabbing attacks that have some armour penetration. The special abilities are also themed to the weapons, with the scythe giving you access to both a stunning ability where Victor reflects light off the blade to temporarily daze enemies, as well as a whirling dervish ability that hits all enemies around him for massive damage. The rapier has a lunge that goes through multiple enemies and takes him halfway across the screen. The hammer has him leaping twenty feet into the air and then striking the ground like a human meteorite. The hand cannon lets him rocket jump. There’s six different weapon types in the game, and since you can equip any two of them this alone allows for a huge amount of variety in the sort of character you can build.
Kenti: The way you build your character is entirely dependent on bits you tack onto him, which reminds me a little bit of Card Hunter, but also some of the ideas that Blizzard were throwing about in the development of Diablo 3. At least the developers in this case were listening. To some extent, this gives you a little less control over your character, as you are constrained by loot drops, but it also gives you a reason to hunt more loot (and complete those challenges) or to take a look at what you do have and try and put a strong build out of that.
Hentzau: D3 is doing much the same thing with its endgame legendaries, in fact, but Blizzard haven’t embraced the idea of equipment intrinsically defining what your character can do with anywhere near the amount of enthusiasm as Haemimont have here.
Kenti: It’s not just the weapons – you also quickly unlock the ability to add ‘Destiny Cards’ to your character. These add a variety of boosts to your stats, from improving your health, to damage, to speed or ability to heal. There a good dozen different ones (with lovely Tarot card illustrations and names) which can also be Divine or Wicked giving you another different kind of buff or debuff on enemies you can have. There are the aforementioned Demon Powers, a pair of which also slot into your character and are powered by a meter that fills up with kills. Finally there are the clothes that Victor gets to wear, turning him from traditional Vampire Hunter to Wild West Gungslinger to Awkward Steampunk Person in appearance. Unlike most ARPGs, there aren’t hundreds and hundreds of different armours, and you pick up a scant handful during the entire game, but they can affect fundamentally the core of your character – from big boosts to critical damage to changing how your power meter fills up.
Hentzau: You get given a pick of three outfits on hitting level 3 or 4. I picked mine on the basis that it had a bitchin’ top hat, but was pleasantly surprised to discover that it also turned me into a very effective mage as I started every fight with a full power bar – usually you have to kill monsters to charge it up and unleash your Demon Power, but I could cut loose with the incinerating beams of fire as soon as I laid eyes on a suitably large target. It was just one item with one passive ability, but it had a huge effect on what I could do with my character.
Kenti: After slaughtering enough monsters to give you a dozen levels or so, you are also allowed to start putting all your unwanted loot to use by recombining it into different and sometimes more powerful items. The ‘transmutation’ system works on almost everything dropped and equippable on Victor and in a few cases allowed me to actually get items I was looking for and improve the buffs on the ones I was already using. It wasn’t the most engaging system, but it gave you a little more power of your character that you would have otherwise lacked.
Hentzau: You had to transmute your legendaries? I just picked mine up.
Kenti: I do have a bone to pick with that. I got maybe two legendary weapon drops the whole game. There is no trading with online buddies. So that is all I was stuck with.
Hentzau: Whereas I had a definite surplus of legendary hand cannons and shotguns as the game was disgustingly generous to me (I picked three up in an hour), but I couldn’t donate them to you. Which was a shame, as the legendary weapons are very much worth using even if some of them are a little… off-kilter, shall we say.
Kenti: There was a pretty powerful combo I got into by the end of the game thanks to a legendary potion pick-up (which wasn’t a potion at all, it was a foot. A lucky rabbit’s foot thankfully) which allowed me to dish out a lot of damage with my spinning scythe of doom. That was very very satisfying.
Hentzau: My endgame build involved stacking crit chance and crit damage everywhere that I could – destiny cards, demon powers, outfit attributes, everything. Unfortunately for Kenti the best weapon with +critical change I had was the chicken cannon, which fired a set of three clucking, exploding chickens every two seconds. It was undeniably effective at taking out everything I fired it at, but I imagine he still hears the “CLUCK CLUCK CLUCK BORK” sound effects in his dreams since I was using this weapon for about half of the game.
Kenti: So plenty of fun there, but enough about the innovations and qualities of the game. I don’t want to oversell it too much, and have already alluded to the atrocious attempt at humour and the lacklustre stab at a story and characters.
Hentzau: Oh man. I was asking myself the other day which game had the least offensive story out of Diablo 3 and Victor Vran. D3’s story was legendarily bad, to the point where I wrote an entire post about it. Victor Vran’s main storyline is just the vestigial structure required to support the premise of “Behatted man hits monsters” – which would be fine if they’d just left it there, that’s all the story a game like Victor Vran really needs — but Haemimont have made the staggering error of having the game’s primary antagonist constantly talk to you throughout your adventures, and his dialogue is some of the most cringeworthy, atrociously written tripe I’ve ever heard in a videogame. That’s not because it’s technically bad or poorly-delivered, it’s because it’s constantly, constantly laced with precisely the sort of Internet Humour that was tiresome the first time I encountered it and which hasn’t exactly improved after millions of chortling nerds ran the joke into the ground.
Kenti: There’s an ‘arrow-to-the-knee’ joke. That’s almost inexcusable.
Hentzau: As well as several ripoffs of Monty Python. It’s like the awkward family member who has just discovered lolcats about a decade after the rest of the world did and just won’t shut up about them because they think they’re just the funniest thing in the world. I’ve flat-out given up on other games that weren’t as mechanically accomplished as Victor Vran (step forward, Chroma Squad) because I couldn’t stand this particular type of writing, but here I was quite enjoying the actual gameplay part and so I had to grit my teeth and put up with it.
In the end I think it’s a tie. D3 has had more far more resources thrown at it to produce something irredeemably stupid that Blizzard eventually made entirely optional, such was its awfulness. Victor Vran has the excuse that it has a much lower budget and so could have gotten away with… well, almost exactly what’s there, but Haemimont just didn’t know to quit when they were ahead and instead lumbered it with this millstone of an excruciatingly unfunny bad guy who will not keep his mouth shut.
Kenti: The control scheme wasn’t the most successful overall – you drive your character like a tank instead of point-and-clicking (although it offers and option half-way to letting you do that, it’s even worse) but sometimes it really does feel like you’re driving a tank rather than a Vampire Hunter. I mostly made peace with the system on my mouse and keyboard, but it’s a long way off from similar but far more smooth and responsive system used in Dungeon Siege 3 for example. It sounded like you struggled more, and for longer.
Hentzau: Yeah, I tried mouse and keyboard for a while but I couldn’t get my head around it – I was too used to the classic ARPG system of targeting attacks by clicking the mouse, but in Victor Vran a click merely launches an attack in the direction Victor is currently facing. I found this so counterintuitive I had to go back to the default set of WASD tank controls, since these at least made more sense in my head. Even after eight hours of play I never quite got the hang of it.
Kenti: I would be curious to try out the console version of Diablo 3 to see what they did there. I struggle to imagine how you would play D3 with a controller, but apparently it’s really rather good.
I know we bring connection issues up a lot when faced with co-operative games because it’s really quite embarrassing when it can’t quite hack letting you connect to another player. Victor Vran was entirely free of connection or general multiplayer issues. In fact, although the whole thing is not lithe and streamlined as a user experience, it let us connect, play and refused to throw one of us out or anything like that. Ideally all games would work at minimum this smoothly and we could consign comments about how the online mode remarkably works fine to the history books.
Hentzau: Although absolutely no comment is made about there being two Victor Vrans in the game. The game just ignores this inconvenient narrative-breaking fact, which I actually admire a little bit – by naming the main character and giving him a backstory they’ve made it extraordinarily difficult to justify why there’s multiple copies of him present, so they just don’t bother.
Kenti: I’m Victor Vran, he’s also Victor Vran, and so’s my wife.
Hentzau: I have my doubts about Victor Vran’s longevity. There’s not a huge amount to incentivise a replay, and I guess part of that is a result of having the skill system be so fluid – by abolishing character classes and linking all the skills to equipment it’s removed the typical ARPG behaviour of completing the game as a Necromancer and then levelling up a Barbarian. There’s no point in a restart unless you really want to sit through the godawful plot again. It needed some post-endgame feature that was specifically tailored to provide repeatable content for this skill system, but this just isn’t present.
(In fairness it wasn’t present in D3 either to start with – it took them six months to add Paragon Levels, and two years to add Adventure Mode and Nephalem Rifts. But D3 at least had its class system and Hardcore mode to fall back on.)
Kenti: I think I did see at least a glimpse of where the game could go with some of the legendaries that change what you can do. The Lucky Rabbit’s Foot, which replaced one of your potion slots, opened the possibility of an entirely new build based on dealing a huge burst of damage regularly and predictably. How many more legendaries of that type were there? How many different legendary weapons of each class could be found? I would have liked to know and have been more teased with it to provoke a journey past the first outing.
We’ve put Victor Vran very much in the shadow of Diablo 3 and other ARPGs, and while all games in a genre are likely to have to be compared to its titans (hey, we haven’t mentioned Titan Quest yet!) I also think it’s a little bit unfair here. Victor Vran has clearly set out to carve its own little corner, inspired by moving the genre on, learning lessons from past games (and outside of the genre) and I would be quite happy to say it succeeds. It’s not going to turn heads, but I don’t think they’re rolling either. I had fun, I enjoyed the direction it took things and I really hope that that other ARPG developers (and indeed developers in general) take a good look at the game and see that it makes for a fun experience.
I might not pick up the game again now that we’re done, but if the stars align I’ll be reaching for it more surely than Van Helsing. I, II or III.
Hentzau: The constant comparisons to Diablo 3 may be a touch unfair (for all that Victor Vran invites them by copying large chunks of it), but for me at least that’s the current best game in the ARPG genre and Victor Vran needs to offer something substantially new to be worth my time. It says a lot for both Victor Vran and Haemimont that it largely succeeds in providing this, and for a fraction of the budget – both theirs and mine. I spent a grand total of £12 on Victor Vran, and while it might have “only” lasted eight hours I definitely feel like I got £12 worth of entertainment out of it. So yeah, it might look like a budget game and it might have a budget price tag, but it punches substantially above its weight; as innovative as its skill system is I don’t think it’s going to change the genre, but it does provide a credible ARPG alternative if you’re in the mood for something a little different.
Kenti: So… see you in Season 4 of D3 next week then?
Hentzau: Yep, there’s a Malthael’s Steed with my name on it.