Venetica: Venice Meets Death, Death Goes Stone-Carving

It's visually coarse and functionally fitful, but you could probably do worse than Deck13's Venetica, an action-angled roleplaying game out today for PC, Xbox 360, and PS3 that's fixated on death and the hereafter.

That's Venetica's twist: When you die (you being the perky sword-slinging daughter of the Grim Reaper) you can pop back to life on the spot. Not a do-over, as in Sands of Time, or 'resurrection by teleportation', as in Two Worlds, but a time-limited detour into the game's murky "twilight realm" during which you can sneak away from your assailant and re-spawn out of eyeshot. Think World of Warcraft's spirit realm with tactical perks.

The game designates the currency you'll expend to do so "twilight energy." You accrue it by killing enemies with a special weapon obtained early in the game called a Moonblade. It looks like a sickle, or perhaps it's actually a short-handled scythe. You're only death's daughter, not death itself, after all.

Making death transient in battle could have been a great way to ratchet up the tactical mix or trot out exceptionally clever monsters. Instead, Venetica offers combat that's singleminded and dreary. Enemies take forever to dispatch, and not in an interesting way, but a dull, grinding one.

Like Diablo then? Or if we're after contemporary echoes, Torchlight? Not really. No one begrudges those games their click-spam dictums. But then they sell death cheap and let you clear swathes of enemies in seconds. Not so in Venetica.

Imagine chiseling stone that can chisel back. You can block or sidestep attacks, but mostly you just hack at enemies that withstand fatal blows like rock-piñatas. Most take upwards of three dozen strikes to dispatch. Deck13's obviously shooting for tactical depth by drawing out engagements, but instead of refining swordplay by either limiting it or expanding the AI's combat vocabulary, the design team threw everything into hit points. The skill most needed to win battles is the only one unlisted: "Action Button Jam Session."

An ability panel teases supplemental skills like "Titan's Blow," "Shield Slam," and "The Bludgeoning," but half a dozen hours in and hundreds of enemies felled, most of that's still grayed out. It's also not clear how activated skill levels manifest, or how sword mastery "level three" differs from "level two." Has my swing changed in some undetectable way? Am I doing more damage when I hit? Who knows.

At this point I'd probably settle for a Ring of Bypassing.

Next: Everything's better in Venice?

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The rest of Venetica's decent enough. You dash around plucking bits of junk off the ground to trade for money to buy better stuff. Conversations with locals tease deeper mysteries, though the story's fully invested in medieval fantasy cliché (complete with sylvan village pacifist who doesn't realize she's really a superhero). The real lure here may be an eccentric version of sixteenth-century Venice, but I'm still playing whack-a-boulder on the periphery. I'll let you know when I get there.

Well, if I get there. I've been playing the Xbox 360 version and it's fairly glitchy. You don't talk much, but when you do, it's possible to select topics that elicit responses that seem to assume you've completed quests you haven't. Bodies sometimes pop in or out of existence during narrative camera pans. And climbing stairs causes your character to convulse in a way that highlights the lack of fluid model-surface connectivity. If you've played Sacred 2, think that, only worse.

Thumb-wriggling the camera into position after dodging an attack tends to get screwed up by close-quarters terrain that bumps the view out of true. When you're low on health, a darkening red miasma overlays the screen, obscuring the action and all but ensuring you bite it. Other games pull this off without getting in your way. And if you're already signaling near-death in a way most players now understand instinctively, why include a traditional health bar on the heads-up display?

The world geometry itself poses an unlikely obstacle, catching you up when you're probing the edges of areas. Venetica constantly forces you into cramped spaces, throws up undetectable forcefields, then fails to lay things out in a way that's visually intuitive. Since there's no jump or "climb over" button, you'll get stuck trying to clear terrain that's only changed by a few feet.

Add "unlovely" to the list of disappointments. The game appears to run at one of those odd, sub-native screen resolutions with blurry upscaling and weird over-bright daylighting. Stand still and you'll notice the shadows stuttering, too, like watching a black mesh solarize in slow-mo.

Which is all my way of saying buyer beware. There's the outline of a decent high fantasy adventure here, but so far it's turning out to be one that's marred by weird design choices and engine incompleteness.

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