Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Review: Visions & Voices

Title: Visions & Voices
Developer: Krazuman (aka. Craze and Karsuman)
Genre: RPG
Program: RPGMaker VX

This isn’t a game that needs much of an introduction, seeing as it has been such a massive success in the indie-game making community. Nearly 5,000 downloads (that landmark will be passed soon enough), a bunch of favourable reviews and its own page on TV Tropes just go to show that this game has been extremely well-received. It almost makes writing another review pointless, but considering how much has been said about this game I really wanted to play it and since I have played it, it deserves a review.

From a storyline point of view, this game is very enigmatic. Promising several routes through the story and a slew of different branch points, this game is also strange as it is built upon a foundation of complete mystery because – and I don’t think I am out of line in saying this – it has one of the most uninformative opening sequences ever. Pretty much everything you are going to find out about the setting, storyline, characters etc. is going to be found out whilst you are playing and, needless to say, this isn’t the traditional way of doing things. Most games get their setting in place as quickly as possible and seek to keep you immersed in that setting right from the get-go, this is the way they suck you in. Visions & Voices instead attempts to hook you by forcing you to find out more; it is this sense of mystery that is supposed to grab you and I have to admit that it works quite well at the start of the game; the slender scraps of storyline you are fed in the opening sequence are enough to get you wandering around.

I guess this game goes to show that, sometimes, less is more.

So, how about those branching gameplay sequences? Well, they are a bit hit and miss. Sometimes it seems like the developers wanted you to take a specific route through the game and, in order to do this, they made it so the game punishes you for choosing an option that wasn’t meant to be chosen. For choosing a path that wasn’t considered… canon? I suppose “canon” is the closest I am going to get to what I am trying to describe. In any case, I sometimes felt harshly punished for choosing to go about things a certain way and this took away from the immersion the game tries to achieve.

The best example of this comes from the very first branch you encounter, a branch in the opening sequence that gives you a choice between taking another character with you or leaving her behind. Considering how annoying this character seemed to be in the opening sequence, and having no interest in listening to childish dialogue throughout the rest of the game, I decided that my Wanderer was going to go it alone. Big mistake, as thirty minutes later I found myself in an unwinnable state because one character simply isn’t enough to get through this game with (and this was whilst playing on the “normal” difficulty; I’d hate to think how far I would’ve gotten if I had chosen one of the more difficult options available). Perhaps some unfavourable treasure rolls had meant I didn’t have enough healing items to get through a gauntlet of unavoidable battles and perhaps my stat-choices hadn’t been perfect, but I felt harshly done by. Especially after wasting half an hour and seemingly getting nowhere with the storyline (more on this later). Not wanting to make a judgement on the whole game based on this experience, though, I decided to try again; and this time I would take the silly girl with me.

Moving on from this, I found the early gameplay to be quite intriguing. The basic premise is that you wonder about the village and look for clues to what happened in the village; amongst the unwelcoming locals and the more unwelcoming enemies there are clues to be found and, for a little while, they will lead you on a trail. Each time you sleep a day will pass and things in the village will change, giving you new things to find and new clues to lead up on. However, this doesn't go on forever, and it is at this point where stuff starts becoming weird. As the days pass by, you are slowly given less and less direction and are left to wonder aimlessly more and more. This happens alongside the game revealing basically nothing about the storyline; all the game does is pose you more questions. Once this starts happening, it is hard to tell what is a significant interaction as you have no idea how your "progress" is affecting anything. Any initial intrigue is washed away by a flood of frustration and questions and this is a massive shame because this game genuinely hooked me early on. It is fine to have a game that doesn't offer you many answers if the player knows where they are supposed to be searching, or at least has a clue to follow up on; but a game that doesn't offer you any obvious progression whilst, at the same time, offering you no direction, is a game that gets very dull, very quickly.

I think my disinterest was compounded by a frustratingly slow battle system. Even with several party members I found the battles were going by far too slowly. Since there isn’t really any way to grind and since I was collecting every bit of treasure I could physically get my hands on, I don’t think it was a problem with my characters being underpowered; the battles were just tedious by design.

Basically, this game let me slip off the hook.

These problems are a shame when you consider the presentation in this game as, from a graphical standpoint, this game is excellent. The mapping was brilliant and I appreciate the work that has gone into creating an ever changing town like the one in this game. I also appreciated the music selection which, throughout the game, manages to set the tone perfectly. The music used for the village, in particular, was nicely chosen. Some of the monster choices were baffling but the sprites themselves looked good and I didn’t have many complaints on either the musical or graphical front. Well, except trees that are only just as tall as the main character, but that is a problem for all RMVX games!

In the end, this is a hard game to rate because it is a game that starts off really well; it grabs you and makes sure you head into the first few days of the game with high expectations. In all honesty, the first half of this game is definitely 10/10. The setting is well-presented from an graphical standpoint, the musical choices are emotive and you will plug away merrily for the first 1~2 hours. The problem is that the game doesn’t do enough to keep you hooked, starting with the fourth of fifth day, mostly because it doesn’t give you enough answers. The continued build-up of questions, coupled with increasingly more tedious battles, becomes frustrating; no progress seems to be made no matter what you do and you will simply lose interest.

What was it Brickroad said: "The bad ending of V&V will have to do"? It is looking that way.

If you like Lost then you’ll probably like the way this game deals with answering questions. I do not like Lost. 5/10.

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