18 July, 2014

Review - Impaled by Vlad

Text-based adventure game, Vlad the Impaler, sets you the rather unsavory task of purging evil from a city positively overflowing with a menagerie of monsters. 

Vlad the Impaler

Vlad the Impaler straps you into the boots of adventurer - explorer, soldier or mage, sent questing into the terror-gripped city of Istanbul. A text-based adventure game, with a spot of role-playing, each day, you visit a location of your choosing within the city and undertake a quest. Each quest is in itself, a small, isolated tale or part of a larger story thread (several chained quests), there are more than fifty quests in the game and you have fifteen days (therefore fifteen quests) until you are ushered into the ending. Three days equal a chapter, between each chapter a short exchange, effectively a quest but without any player interaction takes place, these serve to progress the overall narrative. In my second play through of the game I encountered three repeated quests from my first play through of the game, which took less than an hour to complete.

You’ll always find yourself on top of a mosque, with a bearded knight. 

There is very little preamble, your quest - your purpose for being in Istanbul, is outlined in a curt letter, read to you by your alarmingly baritone ‘Friend’. This is the only point of voice-over in the game. Gameplay consists of choosing from one of two actions in a quest, each choice may raise or lower your stats (your character’s attributes). There is no explanation as to what these stats do, or even what they are; Dex and Agi (presumably dexterity and agility, respectfully). At no point does the game tell you the importance of these attributes –but obviously, as it’s videogame, you want to raise them. Additionally, there are charm and morality systems, charm works like any other stat, in that you can use it in the game’s singular combat encounter.  I remain unclear as to what governs the morality system, presumably the choices you make, although many quests  or more importantly, the player’s choices within said quests, are not moral quandaries. Obviously, stopping an out-of-control carriage amidst a crowded square or opting to following a potential lead instead, has clear moral impact, but many player choices are as simple as; press on through a creepy tomb or run away. Morality alignment unlocks advanced classes midway through the game, it is again unclear what impact these have, they are class specific - soldier may become a knight or assassin, changing you character’s image.

If something is described as beautiful; it will either try to kill you, or it will be killed.

The city of Istanbul is a melting pot of cultural influences – east and west meet in the streets and the palaces, the game does an admirable job of stressing the points of contrast between the two cultures. You meet Sultans and Contessas in the same palace, are confronted by knights and janissaries, and hear preaching of Muslim and Christian faiths. The dialogue, rather excellently, is written in a manner that distinguishes quite clearly between European and Middle Eastern characters, with requiring visual description. This attention to detail as well as the definition of the European and Middle Eastern cultures, gives a unique feel to the city and it’s districts that you travel through. Furthermore, the world is plagued with fantastical creatures; upir (vampires) are found just about everywhere, seaweed monsters dwell in the depths of the Bosphorus and all manner of ghouls crawl through the city’s shadowy catacombs.

The visual art is austere and evocative, successful in capturing the dark themes expressed in the writing, each quest is accompanied by a unique illustration, often depicting the particular act of barbarity taking place in quest. Much like the writing, the visual presentation is dark, predominantly black and white, with very sparing use of red (restricted to the user interface), perhaps too sparingly – there are times when key features are described as red and shown in illustrations. For example, a fish-serpent creature you encounter, ‘It’s eyes
are deep red…’, yet the illustration remains monochrome, strategic use of color have could helped energise the otherwise muted illustration. However, the chosen style complements the writing well, but much like the stories told, the illustrations vary in effectiveness – some simple fit into the game noticeably better than others. In a game as short as this, impact and effectiveness is crucial, because there aren’t many other reasons for the player to keep playing, or replaying.

Multiple smaller narrative threads exist in Vlad the Impaler, for example; upon my first play through I encountered a Contessa (countess) – who I promptly stabbed and behead (also stole her wine).  I did not have agency in my actions – my choice for this quest was far more mundane; to meet the lady or not. Naturally I was shocked that I inexplicably ran the woman through, the game offered only the explanation that; I had been fooled by vampires before and it would not happen again. During subsequent play through, I met the same Contessa as she was entering the city and it was made apparent as to her true nature as a vampire, unfortunately, I did not meet her again later in that play through.  Similarly, I found myself leaping aboard, and slitting the throats of the crew of the ‘Ship of the Damned’ - which I had never heard of. Yet in a later game I met the gentleman who told me all about the horrors that took place aboard!  The multi-quest threads are frequently far more harrowing and compelling than the game’s primary narrative, but you are lucky if you are able to acquire them all in a single run, and many are written in a manner which will leave you bewildered if you are unfortunate enough to stumble into the middle of them.

The conclusion of the game felt surprisingly rushed. My character’s own dialog indicated that she/he knew far more than I did about the nature of the evil you pursue. Furthermore, the sequences that guide you towards the ending are both narrow and contrived, the finale itself is quite drab and meaningless.
The music, composed by Kevin Riepl (credited with music on a number of games – Gears of War and Aliens: Colonial Marine being amongst the most notable), elevates the ambiance of the world. Discordant strings and dark tones complement perfectly, the foreboding writing and the inevitable gory twist in each quest. It must be noted, there isn’t a lot of music, and scarcely an hour in I found it to get quite repetitive.

At times gripping, but more often sparse and scattered.

Vlad the Impaler paints a lucid picture of a city ensnared amidst chaos and darkness. The presentation of this macabre picture is, at times quite fantastic. However, too often the narrative and the smaller tales within become disjointed and confused, as a result of the player’s choice of location and the randomised quest structure.  Players may be fortunate and uncover some of the grisly gems that Vlad the Impaler can offer, but central arc of the game is short and ultimately, feels contrived. By the end your choices amounted to little more than a rather uninteresting fight sequence.

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