Sometimes it is enough that a game has a certain appeal. For Metroid, it was the sense of isolation, fighting one’s way out of an alien planet. For Life is Strange, it’s the quirkiness of adolescence mixed with the fantasy of reverting one’s choices to achieve a more satisfying conclusion. Other aspects apply, but the initial appeal serves as the hook to get one to start, which can be the most difficult step. Vasilis hooked me within seconds of viewing its trailer; the power of the uncanny is something I feel is underrepresented in the video game medium.
What I feel Vasilis wants to do is something I find a lot of horror stories wishing to do: scaring the viewer with the reality of the situation. Ghosts, monsters, and jumpscares are one thing, exaggerating situations that actually take place in the world is another. The best of horror, of the uncanny, and of the stories that inspire true dread are ones that make those who listen believe it. This quality applies to Vasilis in a variety of ways; what will ultimately matter is how effectively it brings it all into a consistent thread. Its experience depends on it.
Vasilis is available on Steam for your regional pricing.
Vasilis is an older woman who lives in a town of constant disarray and rioting. Death and structural destruction is nothing new to her or any denizen laying within its walls. In a perpetual night, where all the world seems thrown together by life’s last whim, a chain of events occur that place Vasilis on a path to find her long-since dead husband, who strangely resurfaces. The level of disorder seems to fluctuate to levels unfathomable to humankind, bringing to life a week of unnatural chaos which Vasilis is forced to withstand.
What makes criticizing the story of this game tricky is that it is based on true events. Mirroring the political events that took place within the country of Ukraine in 2014 (which Google cites as the “2014 Ukrainian Revolution” or “Euromaidan Revolution”), Vasilis instills much of the atmosphere one could reasonably attribute to a hostile territory full of uprises, police presence, and a scattered standard of living. Of course, what occurs within the game’s story is an amplified version of the events, such that involves supernatural incidents and brain-bending visuals. Such is what brings the horror to new levels, knowing that the atrocities committed here are just as formidable as what the species is truly capable of. On this facet, the game succeeds.
To generalize, Vasilis is much like another game I have reviewed in the past called The Thin Silence. Both involve little variety in player input, with most game mechanics minimized to basic movement and interactions with people and items. A majority of each game is heavily influenced by the narrative importance of the setting each character is placed in, slowly revealing the details of their situations as the events transpire and more of the overall map is revealed. This would infer that those with an urge for something fast-paced and tactical would be sorely unsatisfied with the slow nature of these games. This would also infer that the writing and dialogue plays a key part in the immersion one has in the game’s world. This I find absolutely certain: writing is crucial to the success of these two games.
In The Thin Silence, it works. In Vasilis, it does not. And part of me wonders if it’s even the developer’s fault.
I do not believe the developer of this game is a natural-born English speaker. Based on various conversations I’ve had with him prior to writing this review, he seems to speak it sufficiently enough, though not perfectly. Vasilis is prone to many English slip-ups and basic grammar inaccuracies, so much so that it feels almost completely unpolished. Words being in wrong places, statements made in an almost shorthand style as though they were writing text messages, and basic spelling typos tend to pop up on a semi-common basis, throttling the full immersion one could have when playing the game. This seems to be an issue of a loss in translation, and had I any knowledge of the language the developer likely speaks primarily, I may not be prodding the topic as harshly.
At the same time, there seems to be a lack of knowledge in how to naturally progress a story through the involvement of characters and setting. Throughout the hours playing through this game, I was able to memorize characters’ appearances based on strange distinctions, but I very rarely knew their names, their motivations, or their thoughts on the events taking place around them. Almost as though the major points take precedence over the details, Vasilis is told in chapter summaries instead of paragraphs. Characters and events move upon the necessity of the game’s structure, almost inhibiting the player’s ability to understand whatever importance the developer had in telling this story when they’re left to figure it out on their own. It’s interesting through its ties to real-life events, but all that spurns imagination without it is the absurdity that comes with later chapter summaries.
Not to sound like an analogical machine, but the praise surrounding Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door is one that I feel lessens the grievances caused by some of the more aggravating parts of its game—namely fetch quests. To put it bluntly, if you do not like fetch quests, you will despise Vasilis. A large portion of the game consists of (slowly) walking around the areas Vasilis calls home and retrieving various items to give to others, who will in turn give you other items to use for yourself or to give to others in a neverending cycle of give and take. Progression is based on how many items one can retrieve and disperse onto necessary people or objects, everything else is simply frosting. There is one puzzle I recall coming across that involved spinning gears to collect an item up near the top of a large room; otherwise, one is giving and taking the entire game. That’s pretty much it for direct player input.
Paired with the generally underwhelming attempt at telling a grand story, many could find the experience of Vasilis rather dull. My brother had watched me play the game for a few minutes during my second sitting and asked how much of a “walking simulator” it was. Hard to argue that’s more of one than less of one. Much of the time spent in the fictional setting will be wandering around, figuring out what to do based on vague hints by townspeople and slowly getting a feel for the town’s layout. Many times one will be expected to backtrack to various areas the farther one gets, which only adds to the time spent simply getting from place to place—Vasilis is old. She doesn’t walk too quickly. There comes a point where the amount of walking overtakes the amount of actually doing things or reading things, which is rarely a compliment for any video game.
With a flurry of fetch quests and a substantial workout via walking, is there anything else that could drag the game down further? Unfortunately, there is, and it’s something on a technical level. I have not beaten Vasilis at the time of writing this. While this statement is true, the following statement is also true: I couldn’t beat Vasilis. Knocking upon the door of one of the last (I assume) objectives in the game, the game failed to recognize a key item needed to open the final area, leaving me stranded in time with no resolution. With nowhere to turn, I looked to a specific area in the game that features a river of water that I had encountered earlier, which I was able to cross. This, too, was a glitch, and interacting with the poorly-implemented vehicle near the end of the trail will trigger a death sentence—preventing any further movement, and trying to re-load the save file will provide moot, forcing the player to start a new save file and play through from the very beginning.
The game is unpolished, and at worst, features death traps. Indeed, I played through a portion of this game twice, completely against my will. Even the main menu, the very first thing one interacts with when booting the game up, struggles to register the button used to access options. One has to hammer the “E” button multiple times in order to progress, a sign of the flimsy finish the game has upon release. If the other two concerns weren’t enough to steer one away from Vasilis, the promise of a partially broken game will likely seal the deal.
Graphics & Audio
After all the negativity, I’ve finally come to a topic I can applaud Vasilis for. The hand-drawn art put into every fiber of the game’s aesthetic is something that appealed to me almost immediately. The creepy designs, the stark black and white contrast, the strange physical make-up of the citizens, and the promise of abject horror was one I couldn’t pass up. To some degree, it delivered on every expectation, creating an environment that generally had the hair on my arms a little stiff. I feel there were a lot of missed opportunities to incorporate genuine fear into the game through visual manipulation and terrifying characters, but the uncanny nature of the aesthetic in general did well to unnerve, especially when circumstances began to grow existential. Even the walking cycle of Vasilis was a sight to behold at times.
On an auditory note, there’s not quite the amount of praise to be had, though it’s still commmendable in its anxiety-inducing qualities. There isn’t actually much of a soundtrack to Vasilis, indulging more in ambience and background sounds to create a further feeling of hopelessness and isolation. One part that did genuinely frighten me was hearing the moans of various passersby that were unknown to me, unaware of whether or not they would do anything to my person. This quality is something that, again, feels a bit like a missed opportunity to instill fear into the player, playing with a sound that keeps the player guessing as to the source or the reason. Adequately suitable, but nothing more.