V Rising Review – So Goth, It Hurts

Let’s face it: gamers love vampires. We love killing vampires (as numerous iterations of Castlevania can attest) and we love playing as vampires (as evidenced by The Legacy of Kain series, the various Vampire: The Masquerade adaptations, and Dontnod’s Vampyr). There’s something primally satisfying about playing both as vampire and vampire hunter. And let’s be honest, aside from Vampyr, we haven’t had a really good vampire game since probably the last entry in The Legacy of Kain series. Stunlock Studios figured that it was about time gamers got a chance to indulge the need to make new entries in their vampire diaries with V Rising, and with the game having finally left Early Access, they didn’t do too shabby.

V Rising puts you in the role of a recently returned vampire, awakened after countless years of slumber to the world of Vardoran. The place is just absolutely lousy with humans, with some wildlife and the occasional unholy abomination created by morally reckless applications of science thrown in for flavor. All the old fortresses, gone. All the old vampire families, gone. All the awesome weaponry and armor used to keep humans under the thumb of your people, totally gone. You’re going to be starting from scratch as you painstakingly rebuild castles, create new retinues of revenants to serve you, rediscover the old magics, and learn the new technologies which have appeared during your absence. In short, you’re on your own. Unless, of course, you run into some “old friends.” Then you’re either in position to bring about your triumphant return a lot faster, or you’re going to be spending a lot of time watching your back.

“It’s almost like I’ve been trapped in a small room, without sunlight, playing video games too much.”

Visually speaking, V Rising knows what it’s doing. Pseudo-Gothic architecture combined with fashion that runs the gamut from High Middle Ages to the Victorian Era, there’s no question that Stunlock nailed the necessary aesthetic. Right from the start, V Rising‘s visual style is on display, allowing you a chance to create your character’s appearance however you like, from suave Christopher Lee-style vampire lords to Nosferatu-grade monstrosities. The prevailing style is not “cartoonish” as such, but closer to “storybook illustrations,” representative yet a little bit interpretive as well. Visual effects are very well done, from the slowly growing sunbeam which focuses on you when you’re out in the sun too long to the various special attacks you and your opponents launch at each other. The UI is nicely laid out and very useful. You’re rarely questioning what is going on when you’re not actively doing something. About my only nitpick would be a lack of mechanism to hide the “quest log” in the upper lefthand corner of the screen. Sometimes, I want that extra little bit of visibility, and getting it out of the way would have helped at times.

The audio in V Rising is something of a pain point. On the one hand, what’s there is really quite good. Voice acting is minimal, mostly barks and voiced “I can’t do that” messages, but the actors definitely work to establish their characters, especially the different “V Blood” bosses you need to defeat in order to unlock new goodies. The sound effects are nicely done and almost (literally) ringing in some spots. As for the soundtrack, Aleksandria Migova has given us a collection of pieces that sits in a strange intersection. They sound too small to be from a full orchestra, yet too large to be from a chamber orchestra. It’s a very moody and well composed soundtrack, not something you’d go down the road with, but definitely evocative. Yet a large part of all this good work is lost because of very strange sound balance issues. The sound effects are clear enough, but the voice work sounds damped out slightly and that lovely soundtrack can barely be heard most of the time. And yes, I made sure all the volume sliders were all the way up. In some ways, I almost feel a bit cheated, particularly on the soundtrack. Good boss fights and exploration demand good music, and the fact I wasn’t hearing it 90% of the time is deeply irritating.

“Forget the Spanish Inquisition. You face…the Vampire Pope!”

Gameplay in V Rising has definitely been through several evolutions since it’s initial Early Access launch. The final form keeps a lot of the things that worked well, but has made some last-second reworkings in some areas. The basics have been pretty constant, and hew to the typical survival ethos. Craft gear to raise your level, gather resources to craft new gear, build up your castle and all the necessary refinements, go out to hunt V Blood bosses to unlock new gear and refinements, and start the cycle over again. There have been a lot of new bosses added since the last time I played while in Early Access. Of course, there’s also been a lot of other new additions since last I played. New weapon types such as Pistols and Whips certainly add to the arsenal, as well as helping to keep things from going completely Victorian or completely medieval. Even with the new weapons, combat is pretty simple. Different types of weapons have different inherent special attacks, and higher quality gear has more special attacks to utilize. When the fighting starts, you make sure you’ve got the cursor over your target, and click till they’re dead.

Probably the biggest change from before entails the way new spells and special abilities are unlocked. Previously, certain V Bloods had very specific spells you learned by defeating them. As a result, if you wanted to go purely Frost based, for example, you’d have to start with Keeley the Frost Archer and go from there, trying to find the targets you needed to complete the set. Now, with so many new V Bloods (and new spells), Stunlock wisely went to a “point-based” system, where certain bosses don’t have specific spells, but rather a tiered “spell point” which can be used to unlock one of several spells within a certain school. It’s not a bad system, and definitely allows for a lot more flexibility when crafting your particular vampire.

“If I drink him dry, is Konami going to demand a cut?”

Another new change comes from the much more streamlined difficulty selection. Before, you could twiddle various settings to make the experience of playing a little less of a slog, but there really wasn’t a discrete difficulty setting. Now, you’re presented with the choice of “Relaxed,” “Normal,” and “Brutal.” The Relaxed mode lowers the amount of damage done by enemies and the environment, while Brutal correspondingly amps it up. However, even with these new modes, V Rising is still not what you’d call “easy,” particularly for the solo player. The process of ramping up and getting your character to a point where they can challenge higher level V Bloods is painfully slow, even on Relaxed. Using Servants to run resource hunts helps mitigate things a little bit, but you’re going to be spending a lot of time trying to eke out what you need in order to properly challenge those bigger bosses. Playing with a group of friends on the same server instance can, to some extent, reduce the grind because your resource collection is multiplied, as is your combat potential in boss fights. But even so, it’s still not going to be what you’d call rapid. There are serious bottlenecks which are a pain to overcome in a group and actively frustrating for the solo player.

One of the big sells in V Rising is creating your own castle. And, arguably, that can be a lot of fun. However, even here, the fun is somewhat hampered by design choices which feel ill-considered at best and antagonistic at worst. The biggest single offender has to be how elements such as stairs snap to floor segments, or don’t as the case may be. Trying to create a single straight staircase going down more than one level requires you to essentially build from both ends, or put in single square landings which inhibit the “flow” of the stairs. Probably easier with a group, less so solo.

Vampires are sexually suggestive. This V Blood saying she forgot the safe word is…less suggestive.

Beyond that, the various “flooring” requirements to help improve the efficiency of crafting and refining workstations is sometimes a serious headache, and only contributes to the sense of punishing lethargy in the grind. It would also be nice not to have every single construction element highlighted when passing the mouse cursor over it, interactive or not, whether in Build Mode or not, but it seems to be a consequence we as players are stuck with. But the real kick in the fangs is that we’ve got no good way to step back and appreciate our work. We can’t really get a bird’s eye view of the castle, and that feels like something of a missed opportunity.

All things considered, V Rising really is a good vampire game. Yes, it’s got problems. Yes, it’s all too heavily centered on the multiplayer experience. But it does tickle the right spots. It gives us the feeling of being a vampire lord trying to rebuild in a world full of humans, with all the joys and frustrations that might entail. It carries the right sense of atmosphere, giving us a mix of dark magic and tragic heroism in a lovingly rendered realm. Given the lack of recent good titles in this niche, one has to be prepared to make certain allowances in presentation. Throw on your cloak, make sure you’ve brushed behind your fangs, and go forth to own the night.

Axel reviewed V Rising with a copy originally purchased during Early Access

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