Welcome to another edition of "Indie games are just like big boy games only streamlined in some intelligent ways". We've discussed this recurring phenomenon in countless IGotWs past, most recently with the moderately fun Heroes of the Monkey Taverna fortnight prior, but the example I've covered in the past that comes to mind most readily for Victor Vran is Aarklash: Legacy. Both have formats that, from the UI down to the general atmosphere and themes, immediately invoke a familiarity to certain much larger franchises - in Aarklash's case that was the Infinity Engine RPGs, but for Victor Vran it's specifically Diablo III - but it's when you start digging into the game's systems that you realize, due to the absence of a lot of complexity, its compact whole has a very distinct feel and gameplay loop that, while not necessarily a massive departure from its more famous cousin, is definitely its own thing and not any the worse for it.
Victor Vran drops the titular hunter in the cursed nation of Zagoravia: a fictional eastern European monarchy that has fallen to an army of demonic creatures. Initially looking to grab his missing compatriot and make tracks, Vran decides to stay behind to end the curse after discovering how quickly it has chewed through his venerable order of demon hunters with an almost deliberate malice. As with Diablo, the gameplay is broken up by overworld areas that are a little more open and feature multiple dungeon entrances, the dungeons themselves which tend to be a little more compact, linear, and occasionally themed around certain types of enemies or a single boss encounter, and the peaceful hub area where you'll find vendors, item storage facilities, transmutation tools, and quest givers. Due to the necessity of keeping things relatively simple, both due to the lack of resources at the developers' beck and call and the lack of time needed to balance so many skill trees, there is only one build for Vran and his stats increase at a fixed rate determined by level. Gameplay variance instead comes from the weapons Vran can equip, each class of which comes with two skills (which have cooldowns, rather than draw from a mana pool), as well as "demon abilities": stronger offensive spells and buffs that requires the player build a gauge called "overdrive". These demon abilities tend to useful as room-clearing nukes or emergency buffs, best used when you're surrounded and need a quick escape but should also be used liberally due to how quickly they drain after battles are over: they're definitely a case of "use it or lose it". Between the weapon variance and demon abilities - you can eventually equip two of each, and weapons can be swapped instantly with a middle-mouse click - there's also a passive buff system determined by "destiny cards" and outfits Vran can wear to provide various benefits, often relating to the way he accumulates overdrive. It sounds like a lot, but it's considerably fewer moving parts to be concerned with compared to the dozen items of equipment and expansive skill trees of Diablo, for better and worse.
Victor Vran also has more mobility to it, at least compared to what I recall from playing Diablo III where most encounters involved battles of attrition you could only mitigate with potions and regenerative buffs. Vran moves fast, has a dodge roll with limited invincibility-frames, and a jump that's honestly better used for finding secrets than getting out of jams, which all combined allow for more acrobatic crowd management and projectile evasion. At times it can feel a bit more like a top-down Bloodborne than a Diablo, though that might be giving it too much credit. At either rate, it compensates for the lack of strategic RPG consideration the player can put into their character's stat build and skillset, shifting the action-RPG a little more towards the "action" side of that spectrum. The enemies also feel more impactful too: each has their own methods of attack and defending themselves, from exploding after death to dropping large debuff zones, and weapons that work better against them. The quick wraiths, for example, are hard to hit with the slow hammer but the hammer in turn is excellent for pushing back the melee-focused spiders and zombies, and certain weapons are better against small enemies that approach you in large groups rather than large foes that come at you solo (and vice versa). My favorite weapon right now is an electricity rifle that, once an enemy is hit with it, inflicts the "electrocuted" status: this allows it to take damage even if you're aiming at something else. Catching a whole throng of enemies with this shock status and having them all take damage simultaneously can clear a room fast, though against a single boss enemy it's a little more limited. The weapons are a mix of the medieval and the steampunk: swords, scythes, hammers, rapiers, and spell tomes on one side; grenade launchers, electricity rifles, and shotguns on the other.
The game's masterstroke is how each map carries with it five challenges: each challenge rewards a gift of XP, gold, or a free item, and might range from killing a certain number of enemies within a time limit or without getting hit, defeating specific champions (elite enemies), or playing with any number of "hexes" active - totems that make the game harder in some way (faster enemies, more champions) in exchange for higher XP and item drop percentages, similar to those seen in Bastion. These optional challenges regularly prompt you to move out of your comfort zone, getting used to boosting the game's difficulty if it's too easy or trying new weapons out if you've been sticking to your faves. The rewards for these challenges aren't absolutely essential, but they make for good carrots on sticks to break up each region of the game. I've learned how to fight effectively with almost all the game's weapon types, to not sleep on using overdrive regularly, to move quickly through areas and build crowds of pursuing enemies to take down fast for those time limit challenges or more cautiously by way of roll evasions and enemy pattern memorization to hit those no-damage challenges, and to consider applying some of the more milder hexes (like a damage-over-time debuff which isn't too severe) in easier areas to maximize my rewards.
Victor Vran isn't the most sophisticated action RPG out there and there comes a time when diminishing returns sets in, as the game only has so many variables for weaponry, skills, enemy types, and level environments. You really have to get used to fighting giant spiders and undead, as they make up about 70% of all the enemies you'll meet. However, what systems the game has are fairly robust - there's a lot you can transmogrify back at base, and I've spent upwards for thirty minutes trying to turn all my vendor trash into valuable upgrades or legendary weapons - and its emphasis on fluid action and cooldown abilities makes it more palatable in longer sessions than most loot RPGs of its type. The challenges also add some necessary longevity to an otherwise slight game. The game's one big downside? Its sense of humor is atrocious. All the obnoxious video game and "GabeN" memes you could never ask for. (Though to some extent I can appreciate that this is how international audiences are able to communicate humor to one another, as the Bulgarian developers Haemimont Games probably aren't as confident about the global accessibility of Bulgarian jokes. Doesn't mean I wouldn't want to hear one over "I took an arrow to the knee," mind.)
: 4 out of 5.
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