Friday, October 16, 2015

Vlad the Impaler - Thoughts

Vlad the Impaler has a lot going for it. The austere, grayscale art style is what drew me in and the low price point is what prompted me to buy it; I don't have many "choose your own adventure"-type of games in my Steam library and wanted to give this one a shot. What's here is quite competent—though notably flawed—and I can't help but adore Vlad's unabashed charm. Something like The Yawhg is obviously superior, but I'd be lying if I didn't confess that I think Vlad the Impaler is pretty cool too.

As this is a particularly niche game, I'll give a brief rundown of Vlad the Impaler's general flow: the player chooses from one of three classes and is tasked to discover the source of Istanbul's looming evil before the city is consumed by bloodshed and violence in 15 days. Every day you'll choose an action to do in one of six areas you have to investigate, and the outcome of these encounters will either add to your stats or diminish them. Your class will level up based on the general morality of your decisions, and at the end of the game you'll have an epic battle with the Lord of Darkness himself, forced to use your accumulated skills and weapons in order to survive. Sounds interesting, right?

Well, here's the catch—Vlad botches the gameplay part of its execution. While the outcome of each event is predetermined, the pending results are difficult to predict your first time around. For instance, mercy killing tortured prisoners increases your Strength, and saving someone bitten by a ghoul will increase your Charm but decrease your Intelligence. There is a method to the game's madness if you think on its reasoning, but trying to capitalize on your class's highest stats is impossible to do and you're basically forced to roll with whatever stats get the highest by the end of the game. Therefore the different classes and abilities are purely a superfluous coating, completely unnecessary to the central mechanics except for making pivotal decisions.

And those decisions may not always be clear at times. For instance, if you have the choice to "cut an assassin's head off" or "throw a dagger at her", which stats do these use? Strength and Dexterity? Does Agility contribute to either of these? Does casting a spell use my Magic or Intelligence stat? If it uses my Magic, then what is my Intelligence used for? Since the game clarifies nothing, you're left to assume what your stats do, and that can be detrimental to your playthrough—I thought having high Constitution would allow me to use my physique to push an attacker off a roof, but instead I was the one that fell to my death. Fortunately there's not many situations where choosing between your stats means life or death, but at least indicating what they contribute to would be helpful.

Luckily Vlad doesn't need to rely on its gameplay to be enjoyable. The best thing the game has going for it is the clean, evocative art. Each of the game's instances are carefully drawn, aiding the gruesome text written below. Corpses and beasts are exquisitely embellished; Vlad's true form that you'll face for the game's final (and only) battle is probably the most awesome depiction of Dracula I've ever seen, and I say this as a massive Castlevania fan. The music is also moody and helps to establish the tone, though the soundtrack during the investigation section is far too short—it's basically a two minute loop that plays over and over.

The text itself is the meat & potatoes of the game and there's a bit of a quirk to it as well: the grammar. Conjunctions are routinely missing from sentences and occasionally entire words too... I'm quite surprised given the number of people that worked on the game that there wasn't a natively English-speaking editor that flipped through the script, as the game definitely needed one. Beyond that, the plot likes to throw you in medias res a little too often and doesn't have much consistency; all pathways are unlocked by the end of the game, meaning that even if you've never interrogated people that know about the King of the Catacombs or the Ship of the Damned, you can still encounter these phenomena as if you've been tracking them the entire time.

These irritating gripes aside, the game does something tremendous by infusing Lovecraftian dread into its text. Istanbul is a grim, terrible place filled with unspeakable horrors, and almost every adventure in it has a surprising outcome. Underpinning your mission is a sense of futility and disgust, the people of the city either doomed to a sanguinary death or secretly monsters themselves. It feels as though there is no reprieve for the world, try as you might to save it. My absolute favorite encounter is with the lady under the docks, who drags those that kill her worshippers down into the briny depths of the Bosphorous by strands of seaweed being endlessly vomited from their mouth. It is a deliciously dark and horrifying game with a plot that is far more interesting than one might think—the source of Istanbul's evil is both clever and captivating.

Perhaps it's damning praise, but pricing this game so low is an excellent idea. Vlad the Impaler has a fascinating blueprint but it's built on shaky ground, not giving much support to the systems in place. Vlad doesn't have very long legs to support itself, but it doesn't really need to—the eerie atmosphere, tense situations, and enigmatic world benefit most from remaining unknown and uncovered. Trying to optimize a build and earn all of the achievements is sadly counterproductive to the title and only serve to accentuate its flaws; the best way to play Vlad is to go in blind and attempt to see the end before the end sees you.

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