Victor Vran Review

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Secrets Abound

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One of the hardest parts about getting steam gifts for folks… is trying to pick a game that you think they will really like.  I know in one case every single game I thought “man that is perfect” for a friend of mine, it turned he had… and had already beaten.  Every now and then someone completely nails it though, and I think this year my friend Ashgar did just that.  As a kid I envisioned this game that I wanted to create, that was a lot like Castlevania in setting, but while adventuring you might see something in the background of a level.  Then through doing a specific ability sequence you would be able to enter the background and find secret areas.  The concept was pretty straight forward, and I’ve mentally conformed it to lots of different genres.  The game I have been playing however… Victor Vran… does this thing and does it extremely well.  You cannot imagine how exited I was the first time I played the game and saw it doing pretty much that thing I had always wanted to do.  The game has old school secret areas, that are accessed by blowing up walls, jumping over seemingly impassable objects… or sometimes wall jumping your way up to a higher game field that you didn’t notice at first.

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The gameplay itself is this strange amalgam of Diablo, with a setting that feels like the love child of Witcher and Castlevania.  The monkey wrench into the traditional Diablo model is that the Z axis exists… you can jump and even deliver jump attacks.  In many ways there are aspects of the game that remind me of Guild Wars 2, where there are several different types of weapons you can pick up and wield:  sword, rapier, hammer, lightning gun, shotgun, spellbook, scythe, and mortar.  There might be other weapons available but these are the ones that I have seen so far, and each of them comes with a specific main attack… as well as two special attacks that are bound to Q and E if you are using the keyboard and mouse controls.  In addition to this you have two demonic power slots, which serve as spells that you pick up while playing the game.  These are extremely varied and do everything from hurling down fireballs at the opponent, to shielding the player… to throwing you into a frenzied rage increasing your melee damage…. but also causing you to take more damage yourself at the time.

Your Destiny

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Finally you have a series of Destiny cards that tweak your character in certain ways.   At level 18 I have 11 Destiny points worth of cards that I can use at any given time… and as I open chests, kill monsters, and complete quests I often times have the chance of picking up additional cards.  These vary greatly in their effect… so for example The Sun that I have equipped gives me a chance of proccing a huge explosion anytime I “overkill” a mob… meaning deal more damage than is needed to kill them in a single hit.  Others like Hope simply increases your hitpoint pool directly, and others still add additional combat traits like The Vampire which causes all of your attacks to life steal.  The game feels like it has just enough customization to let you feel like you have some measure of control on how your character feels, but not so much as to cause a quagmire of possible build options.  Diablo almost suffers from this at times, and it feels like in order to really play your character efficiently you need to do a lot more planning than I really want to do while playing a game.  In this game I often fiddle with my equipped items in the middle of levels just to see how it feels differently, and the ability to hot swap between two different weapons comes in extremely handy when dealing with different monster types.

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The aspect of the game that most endeared me, was that every single area of the game feels like it is part of the larger game as a whole.  What I mean by that is that there is one big play field for an area, and then linked off of that are a bunch of smaller sub dungeons.  Then those dungeons often times are cross linked to other dungeons as well, giving the progression of play field an almost MMO like quality.  Sure this exists in Diablo, but it feels almost accidental rather than “these are the building blocks of this zone”.  What I like quite a bit is the fact that you can get a preview of a zone before you actually enter it.  The above screen is an example of that, it shows what the new zone is, some examples of what kind of critters might be found in it… as well as a listing of all of the challenges.  So in the above example I know that I probably want to have a scythe at the ready, so I can swap to it in order to kill a certain type of mob in the zone known as the “Volkavs”.  I know the area has three secrets to find, and that I want to try really hard to power up my demon abilities so that I can kill lots of mobs with them.  Then while going through the level each time you trigger one of those objectives it spawns in some sort of a reward.  Finding all of the secrets will reward lots of gold, or slaying the champions will spawn a banner that starts to spit out experience globes for example.  Each of the symbols out beside the objective means something different.

Not Perfect, But Fun

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When I initially looked at this game, there was a lot that made me interested…. but the big turnoff was that you seemed to be playing a single character named Victor Vran that almost felt like this generic demon hunter character.  Now that I have gotten into the game, the setting itself is way cooler than I gave it credit, but at the same time… it does feel a bit like a heavy metal video.  You are a lone demon hunter entering a city that has fallen to the demons…  one that has been a death trap for so many other hunters.  As you go through the zones you are constantly seeing reminders of other hunters fallen and dead, and as the plot unfolds you get an understanding of why exactly this one city has been so besieged.  There are so many common tropes here that the story itself could be a bit of a turn off for many players.  The gameplay and moment to moment fun of the game however is amazing.  You end up picking up a “Bob the Skull” like companion that serves as a voice in your head… and a running narration of your actions.  There is a moment when if you don’t head towards the clear objective… but instead wander around trying to make sure you have cleared everything out… he accuses you of going in the wrong direction…. and then begins to sing the “Brave Sir Robin” song from Monty Python.  So at times this ever present narrator feels like it does in say Thomas Was Alone or Bastion.

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The other negative is… you are stuck being Victor.  You don’t get to create your own demon slayer, but instead are dumped into the role of this existing one.  So much like playing Uncharted where you are always going to be Nathan Drake…  you are always going to be Victor Vran.  I mean I get why they are doing what they are doing, because it makes a much cleaner and more simple narrative path for the game.  That said you encounter other cool characters, that I had hoped maybe you would be able to take them out adventuring instead.  You meet another Demon Hunter pretty early on named Irene, who eventually serves the role of selling advanced gear back in the castle.  It would have been really cool if when you met her… you could have chosen to take her out adventuring instead with Victor guarding the hunter stores.  Similarly you bump into a royal guard, that I could see taking out for a spin, or a grumpy old military adviser or priest.  The feeling that you are adventuring with a team and rather than just one dude with a sword would have been welcome.  I guess they are still adding content and planning on releasing expansions, so here is hoping at some point they will flesh out some of that.

Team Play

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Last night my focus was less of working through my own story, and more on hanging out with Grace and Thalen who now also have the game.  At first it felt like there was not much challenge at all, but I think maybe the game has trouble scaling up content the moment a new player joins.  As we started moving around more the challenge level seemed to increase to something of an average of our levels.  So for Grace and Thalen the mobs probably felt really rough, and for me… since I was as eight levels over the next closest player in the above example…  it felt something on the easy side.  What I enjoyed the most about group play, was that even though I had already completed the objectives… I was still able to get rewards from helping Grace and Thalen complete them.  Additionally “Kill X” type tasks… count for the entire group so every hammer kill counted for a hammer kill objective… regardless of who got the final blow.  The game seems to use Diablo style personal loot, and the exploration aspect was really cool when one of us would figure out how to get up to some secret… then have to show the others how to get there as well.  My only real complaint about grouping was that there is no trade system.  I would have happily dropped some decent weapons on my friend when we first started, because I personally have ended up favoring a specific set of weapons that is different from what they ultimately ended up enjoying.  All of this said…  the game works well, is gorgeous to play through… and controls better that I would expect.  If you are looking for a fun dungeon crawler with some unique twists on the Diablo model… I highly suggest you check it out.

 

 

Chasing a PVE MOBA

A Meaningless Term

League of Legends 2013-04-30 20-12-49-94 Yesterday I witnessed a conversation unfold that I have had a dozen times myself with various folks.  A friend of mine made the idle comment that they would really like to see a “PVE MOBA”, to which someone else predictably replied that you cannot have a “MOBA” without PVP.  The problem is that there is absolutely no clear definition of what exactly a “MOBA” is.  Additionally each player seems to refer to a slightly different set of mechanics when someone says “MOBA-like”.  So for some people it is all about the match based pvp action, and others it is all about the interesting class design.  If you simply dissect the term “MOBA” you get Multiplayer Online Battle Arena…  which in itself is another absolutely meaningless term.  Multiplayer Online is clear enough but the Battle Arena part is complete nonsense.  What are you battling and what sort of arena are you battling in?

For me personally the key elements of what make a MOBA intriguing have nothing to do with player versus player combat.  I like the different characters and their unique sets of abilities, and the way they interact with other characters and their abilities.  In fact I would be happy spending my time in lane killing creeps because I honestly enjoy doing that way more than engaging with other players.  When I play League of Legends I will almost always play against bots, and have long thought that it would make an interesting game to make it purely co-operative against interesting challenges.  The problem is if you say this.. you get the reaction above that it cannot be done… because MOBAs are PVP games dammit!  But what I am presenting is that folks are assigning a specific mindset to a term that is absolutely meaningless on its own merit.  Multiplayer Online Battle Arena can describe so many games and is likely why the term gets blurred so much to describe games that are absolutely nothing like the original Defense of the Ancients roots.

Keep the Interesting Bits

HeroesOfTheStorm_x64 2014-12-02 22-35-45-233 For me the interesting bits about what we generally refer to as a MOBA are the Character design that I have talked about before, and ultimately the payment model.  I like this concept of purchasing individual champions, and having a rotation of free champions to play to consistently keep testing the waters and trying to branch out.  The key part as well for me is the way that MOBA titles grow over time.  If you look at the evolution of League of Legends and Heroes of the Storm, in both cases they are constantly releasing new content to satiate the appetites of players.  I think this has been key to the success, that every few weeks there is something new being introduced to the game to shake up players expectations.  League for example has over 120 different unique champions that they are doing a decent job of keeping balanced against each other, and Heroes is adding at least one champion a month it seems to catch up.  So I feel like the big success of this genre has been constant incremental evolution of the product.

This variety helps deal with the “special snowflake” syndrome that happens in MMO design.  Often times there is a demographic of players that wants to play a specific class in a manner that was not intended to be played.  Granted this happens to some extent in build system MMOs like league, but it is always clear that this is not necessarily a “supported” play style.  The champion system instead lets companies roll out lots of hyper focused characters that play to very specific niches.  So in this case what would be a “special snowflake” like the “melee hunter” would simply just be another champion they could build to fill that desire.  So instead the focus becomes on mastery of a specific set of abilities unique to that champion, rather than a much larger set of abilities as seen in most “talent tree” systems.  I feel like this is crucial in allowing someone to adapt to a brand new champion quickly, but at the same time feeling confident enough to branch out into things they have yet to try before.  There are game play modes like ARAM (All Random All Mid) that encourage this branching out because it forces players to play with a random champion.

Chasing a PVE MOBA

Diablo III 2013-08-21 20-12-09-60 So the quandary I am in is that I love the League of Legends lore and champion design, but don’t love the game itself.  I have long thought that it would be awesome to have a PVE centric version of League of Legends where you play the same champions with the same abilities in a Diablo like setting.  Instead of fighting in Summoner’s Rift against five other players in a battle to destroy the opposing teams nexus, it would be a co-operative experience as five players venture into a procedurally generated dungeon with a treasure at the end.  The idea is that each map would be harder than the previous until you reach a boss battle for the final treasure in the dungeon.  You could even keep the build mechanic in the form of at the beginning of each map level you could have the same merchant that exists just outside of your teams Nexus in the Rift.  After venturing a certain way into each map level he could travel to the next level, making it so that players could only buy new items at the beginning of each map.

For the hyper competitive players, you could still keep all manner of stats from number of monsters killed, their average difficulty rating, how fast it takes your team to clear a map, and of course how many times you have died during a specific encounter.  Personally I would go with a counter strike approach where each player gets a single life per map, making it progressively harder the more players that you have lost.  I would introduce the ability to purchase resurrection potions, but again that is an opportunity cost… since you have limited item inventory slots and limited gold to keep purchasing items with.  Similarly I would introduce a “lives” mechanic in the number of times your team can retry during a specific dungeon crawl sequence.  This would encourage the team to stick together and work on group tactics rather than going off on their own and risking getting overwhelmed.  The thing is… I would absolutely pay to play a game like that, and would probably rope my friends into playing it to.  The key impediment however is that folks seem to keep thinking that “MOBA” style mechanics cannot also apply to PVE game design.  Someone make this game happen…  I am looking at you Riot.