You might expect the sudden revelation of being Death's daughter -- as befalls the protagonist of Venetica -- to conjure some deep, introspective questions. What secrets from the beyond should you reveal to others? Is killing someone such a terrible option now that you know there is another plane of existence? Was having someone die at every dance recital really bad luck, or was daddy just doing his best to balance work and family?
Perhaps that last question isn't so poignant, but Venetica, while possessing such an intriguing concept, seems unwilling to run very far with it. Instead, the afterlife flavors a rather straightforward and unpolished action-RPG.
The plot is essentially a standard one-by-one takedown of an evil group bent on total domination. They have made themselves nearly immortal by exploiting a loophole in the laws of necromancy but Scarlett, above-mentioned daughter of Death, is a bit of a loophole herself and thus has the power to snuff them out. How's that for a legal battle?
The abilities Scarlett develops through the course of the game allow her to briefly transcend and interact with the "Twilight World," an afterlife dimension of the environment. It can be used to sneak up on enemies, discover portals to hidden rooms and eventually converse with the dead, but its most important benefit is providing additional chances. Having enough energy stored up will automatically send Scarlett into the Twilight World upon death, allowing an opportunity to re-equip and reposition before daddy slaps "Return to Sender" on her soul. It's a devious, satisfying way to help turn the tables when overwhelmed, suddenly slashing back into existence after the enemies sheath their weapons and start walking away, but by the end of the game I was able to resurrect up to six times in a row. Even Jesus would find that a bit excessive.
The trans-dimensional aspect of Venetica is its most shining feature, but suffers from trite decisions made in other elements of gameplay. The city of Venice and surrounding countryside are provided for exploration during the quest, with plenty of locks to pick and portals to discover. Unfortunately, the skimpy rewards for doing so are a motivation killer. There are extremely few weapons, items or secrets to discover this way; most chests provide only money, things to fence for money, or healing items.
If you run out of resurrections -- or the game freezes, as it once did to me -- you may be forced to relive hours or, heck, even the entire game up to that point.
The sidequests that bloat the game function similarly. Most quests are of the "fetch this" or "kill that" variety, and the reward is often nothing more than experience points. Very little, if anything, appeared to have an effect on the main storyline, although you have a choice of three guilds that will change with whom you interact. There are choices to be made throughout, but the same plot-pushing conclusions always seem to be reached and the only real consequence appears to be whether your ending will be virtuous or villainous.
The scarcity of satisfying loot and secrets is especially disappointing given the design of Venice itself. Although Venetica's graphics feel somewhat dated, the composition and sheer scope of the city is impressive. The individual districts feel alive with personality and nooks and back alleys beg to be scoured. There just isn't much to find.
Another nail in Venetica's coffin comes in the form of bugs and design flaws, perhaps arising from its port over from PC. Some can actually be quite amusing -- a sword will occasionally be suspended, motionless, in the middle of an empty path, characters will sit on benches and miss, squatting in mid-air instead. Other flaws can be extremely annoying, such as the camera losing sight of you while you're getting pounded, or the map plotting your next destination incorrectly, forcing you to play lost tourist.
The biggest and most damning lie the game tells, however, is that there's an auto-save. A text box in the manual says so, but even if someone didn't read it, the "don't mess around while this symbol is spinning" message whenever you start the game is equally misleading. You can manually save anywhere, gratefully, but remember to do so frequently. If you run out of resurrections -- or the game freezes, as it once did to me -- you may be forced to relive hours or, heck, even the entire game up to that point.
Even with its deficiencies, Venetica is not unplayable. Combat itself is solid, with simple yet useful skill trees and combos for four different weapons types. Each weapon type can also be outfitted with its own quick-select arrangement and switched between in the midst of battle. The game, despite its repetitive nature, doesn't force a droning narrative upon the player. I reached the credits in just under 14 hours with plenty of sidequests left to complete, had I wished, and the story does pick up toward the end.
Venetica contains hints of a compelling quest but feels like its development life was cut short. The end result is a potentially grand concept that just can't flourish within its forced, generic confines. Functional yet capable of so much more, death's daughter just doesn't die up to her full potential.
This review is based on the 360 retail version of Venetica provided by Atari. Tim Latshaw is a freelancer from Western New York whose work has appeared in The Escapist and LeftStickRight.