A great introduction is not always a portent of things to come. Venetica begins in the middle of chaos: Murderous bandits have taken their swords to a small mountain village. They move with deadly precision, laying waste to the meager buildings while slaying any red-blooded protector who tries to stem their violence. And just when this vile rampage draws to a close, you find out that the heroine, Scarlett, is the daughter of Death. It's an opening that's worthy of an epic adventure, but it becomes clear before long that Venetica's potential has little chance of being realized. A deluge of repetitive quests weighed down by tiresome combat and a map system that doesn't function properly remove much of the delight from your vengeance-fueled adventure. Because of the problems plaguing the core of this role-playing game, it's difficult to find a good rhythm and enjoy the finer aspects. A strong protagonist whose personality you mold throughout the game is the main draw, and eye-catching sights make it a pleasure to explore this world. Venetica has enough aesthetic rewards to make it worth playing, but you have to put up with lots of gameplay problems before you can experience them.
Scarlett does not embrace her role as a hero willingly. In the midst of the dying cries emanating from her formerly peaceful village, one soldier's sacrifice cuts much deeper than the rest: her beloved Benedict dies protecting her. It is this act that fuels Scarlett's quest to seek vengeance on those who caused her loved ones so much misery. The primary story thread in Venetica revolves around the doge of Venice and his unseemly counselors who have turned the fair city into one teeming with mercenaries and necromancers. Cutscenes sprinkled throughout the game highlight the villainous individuals at the heart of the problems, but their evil laughs ring hollow because they're depicted as one-dimensional caricatures. Victor is the mastermind behind this insidious plot, and he does fill the part of evil megalomaniac adequately enough, but his predictable motivations give him only slightly more life than the people whose strings he's pulling.
That's not to say the story is without any lure at all, though. There is a chance to get invested in this tale when you have a choice in how certain situations play out. Unlike in many other role-playing games, decisions are not tied to a morality bar, nor do you need a certain amount of charisma to say specific things. Instead, options are open to you from the beginning, and you mold Scarlett into whatever character you fancy. These decisions shape the way people view you and make various quests open up, depending on what road you choose, but more importantly, they give Scarlett a personality you can relate to. Many times, the choices you have are small, limited to the situation directly in front of you with no long-term ramifications. Ultimately, it doesn't matter if you choose to attack a tight-lipped prince to find out a password or befriend him with kind words: you get what you need either way. But by having the option to approach this situation from different angles, you form a connection with the protagonist that you may not have otherwise formed. You have many open-ended choices throughout this adventure, and they serve as the strongest hook tethering you to this world.
It's when your character interactions switch from wordplay to swordfighting that things take a noticeable turn for the worse. Combat in Venetica is shallow and repetitive, relying on little more than rhythmic clicking to get you past any foe. You have a few different weapon types at your disposal, each with a unique strength and weakness, which does open the door for some mild strategy. For instance, your heavy hammer cracks the shells of bioluminescent crabs in a pinch, and you need your cursed moonblade to put down any demon who threatens your life. But that's the extent of the planning required to slay the men and beasts that stand in your path. Being Death's daughter, you do have one handy trick up your sleeve. If you should fall in battle, you are whisked to a plane that resides between the living and the dead. In this shadowy realm, you can regain your lost health and move to a more advantageous location, provided you have enough afterlife energy stored up. This momentary reprieve from death doesn't have a significant impact, but it's nice to have a "get out of coffin free" card when you die by unfair methods.
Even though Venetica's combat requires little more than shallow button mashing, it's so riddled with problems that it can be frustrating if the tides turn against you. First of all, each of your four weapon types has a unique block you have to unlock. You have plenty of hotkeys to map your many block commands to, but remembering which command to perform is confusing because you're so often forced to switch between weapons midbattle. Thankfully, you can just roll out of the way of most attacks, but this presents a new problem. It's far too easy to get stuck on pieces of the environment or even your enemies, and the camera is often so tight that it's impossible to get a good look at your surroundings. Furthermore, for as docile as your enemies are for the majority of your outing, they can be downright vicious when the mood strikes them. In a blink of an eye you can be cut to shreds, and this can be maddening because it usually happens when you're trying to roll away but get caught on a doorway.
Mediocre combat in a role-playing game can often be mitigated by a wealth of unlockable abilities, but the uninspired spells in Venetica don't provide a strong incentive to keep playing. The magic attacks are quite tame--you can summon crows or slow enemies down, for instance--so don't expect any fireworks for your hard effort. However, unlike in the console versions, you do need to rely on your magical repertoire if you're going to survive the soldiers and beasts attempting to take your life. Enemies often take a defensive stance that can't be overcome by mere sword slashes or hammer blows, so you need to dip into your bag of tricks to lower their guard. There isn't much strategy in what you need to use--the powerful health drain works against most foes you square off against--but because there's a long recharge time for the higher-end spells, you have an incentive to mix up your attacks while avoiding any retaliatory blows. The tougher battles in Venetica do fall into a pleasing rhythm, but combat is still too shallow and repetitive to provide long-term excitement. Once you unlock some of the handier spells, it's just a matter of casting magic and slashing your sword a few times before you move on to face your next opponent.
Sadly, questing isn't any more entertaining than combat. There are tons of missions to embark on in Venetica, but most boil down to killing a certain group of hostiles or collecting a set number of a rare object. Because the quests are so straightforward and the combat is so simplistic, it's possible to go through large portions of the game on autopilot. Walk through creepy catacombs or mysterious jungles until you find your target, click the attack button a few times, and then reap your rewards. It's a sleepy rhythm that turns your entire journey turn into a tangle of indeterminate threads. It's tough to remember where you were or where you're going because everything gels into an indistinguishable mass of nothingness. Much of the game plays out in this mindless manner, and there are long stretches that are even more directionless, so much so that you'll be begging for the return of the turn-off-your-brain quests. The map system is the biggest issue here. A green mark is supposed to show you where your next objective is, but it doesn't always appear, and oftentimes it appears in the wrong place altogether. The quest descriptions are equally unhelpful, so you find yourself wandering around cities until you figure out what you need to do to move on.
The quests are often directionless and repetitive, but Venetica isn't always arduous. The odd missions where you have a choice in how things play out help to keep things fresh, and the scenic vistas do a good job of giving you something pretty to stare at while you walk from one area to the next. Despite the aged technology on display, this is a good-looking game that has many thoughtfully constructed buildings and eye-catching nature preserves. Whenever you enter a new area, the camera pans out to give you a sweeping view of your surroundings, and it's a land that just screams to be explored. Granted, when you actually poke into every nook and cranny, you find only old coins and worthless swords to collect, but the intangible rewards make it a pleasure just to walk around. Frame rate troubles do distract from the view at times, but Venetica is generally a stable game and runs much smoother on the PC than on consoles. There are other touches that separate this from the troublesome console experience as well, creating a game that looks so good that it's possible to look past the problems and lose yourself in this enticing adventure. The use of lighting is particularly impressive. Dimly lit catacombs are teeming with monsters, and seeing an animated skeleton emerge from a shadowy corner can set your hair on end.
Venetica makes excellent use of its strong artistic direction and sympathetic protagonist to hide many of its obvious faults. It's a pleasure to explore the different cities you travel to because the world is so well realized, and Scarlett is such an interesting character that it's easy to get caught up in her story. But those good elements are often overshadowed by the abundant problems in the other areas of the game. The action sequences that make up the bulk of your activities vary between boring and frustrating, so to enjoy Venetica you have to prepare yourself for long stretches of directionless questing before you find your way back to the enjoyable portions. There isn't a unique hook to make this game stand out from other role-playing games, but it's not without its charms. If you've already exhausted the wealth of superior offerings out there, Venetica offers a decent diversion.