Venetica: Venice Meets Death, Death Goes Stone-Carving

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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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