Gamevil‘s latest, VANQUISH: The Oath of Brothers, entered the fray Friday, descending upon the app store’s plentiful hoards with long spears and wrath, on horseback. With each swing of its mighty shaft, one-thousand apps were swept from the face of the store and sent sprawling into the digital abyss. A rain of arrows blotted the sun. The wounded fell in droves, gushing binary code into the fabric of cyberspace. The app store collapsed, and many a good app did perish. Luckily, Apple’s tech team was quick to sign treaties with the vanquishing forces of the merciless and militant Chinese heroes, resuscitated the app store to life and restored the fallen apps from their backup servers. But with treaties now forged in the digital blood of ones and zeroes, VANQUISH shall reign forever upon the app store. Or … not …
Stories of the Three Kingdoms era of Chinese history were passed down orally for generations before ever they were committed to ink on paper. In the process of the telling, the real-life exploits of lords, generals and warriors became largely overshadowed by fiction. Exaggerated far beyond the furtherest fringes of reality, the figures and their exploits passed out of history and into legend, and were lionized during the 14th century in Luo Guanzhong’s epic historical novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the most famed and enduring work of Chinese literature ever written. The novel is a beast, as decadent with names and deeds as with blood and conspiracy. I read it some years back unabridged, cover-to-cover and found it an epic undertaking, one of the most complicated and convoluted works I’ve ever encountered. Despite its complexity, in many areas of China — a nation which, until recent decades, had one of the highest illiteracy rates in the world — Three Kingdoms heroes such as Guan Yu are worshipped as deities even today, proving that the oral tradition, the names and the deeds live on in the present, as fiercely as ever they did in the past.
It should come as no surprise then that the stories have spawned myriad comics, films, television series and video games based on their characters and events. In Western homes, the stories have most effectively been popularized by Koei’s Dynasty Warriors franchise on the PlayStation and XBox video game consoles. But Asian gamers had been delving into these tales long before that franchise was conceived. VANQUISH: The Oath of Brothers is only the latest in a long line of Three Kingdoms titles.
Given the long history of the backstory and the familiarity with which it is embraced by Asian cultures, Western gamers will be forgiven if, upon beginning Vanquish, they don’t have a friggin’ clue what’s happening. The game briefly explains the famous Oath of Brothers, vowed by the heroes Guan Yu, Liu Bei and Zhang Fei — who were not brothers in blood — in the peach orchard. Events are then swept forward many years as players assume the role of Guan Yu, who has fallen into the service of the nefarious Cao Cao, having been separated from his brothers and their whereabouts unknown to him. Having caught wind of where Liu Bei may be found, Guan Yu liberates Liu Bei’s wives, who have been Cao Cao’s prisoners, and drives hard to escape Cao Cao’s grasp and to return to his rightful place at his vowed brother’s side. Along the way, Guan Yu will battle through Cao Cao’s forces, become waylaid by the armies of the Yellow Turban rebellion, and fight a plethora of named opponents the significance of whom will be lost on most gamers unfamiliar with their origins in the literature.
For the uninitiated, Gamevil attempts to make sense of this whirlwind by including summary texts of the storyline in the Info menu, driving home the point: to get the most out of VANQUISH: The Oath of Brother’s story, you will need to play with an encyclopedic companion.
Moving on towards gameplay and presentation, VANQUISH is a game that falls victim to its own high concepts. The game is presented using “innovative ink & wash painting graphics”, and “exotic effects using brush stroke art style” all of which falls apart when you take a good look at the screen and realize that Gamevil has — as with all of their other games — rendered all artworks in pixels. Pixels imitating brush strokes on a device that is perfectly capable of pushing brush stroked graphics. And thus, the fluidity of painted strokes gives way to the bland reality and jagged edges of square pixels, and much of the game’s visual mystique falls by the wayside. That said, VANQUISH certainly isn’t a bad looking game. It’s very pretty in fact. And yet, the visuals which clearly do not live up to their intent, also present significant gameplay hinderances.
In keeping with the inked aesthetic, most everything in the game is rendered in black, white and gray including stage backdrops and scenery pieces, enemies, heroes and NPC things like Liu Bei’s wives’ carriage. And as the screen becomes flooded with assets all of the same color — black — it becomes extremely difficult, nay impossible to discern what in the hell is going on. In this, the gameplay very closely parallels the story.
Acerbating the problem is the game’s perspective, a pseudo-3D view of two-dimensional action that keeps the camera wheeling wildly around the battlefield, distorting everything in the process. Enemies which first appear closely bunched and easy targets reveal themselves, as the camera swings wildly about, to actually be widely scattered. As you charge into their midst only to find them grouped not as you’d anticipated, you find yourself swinging at air and empty space. As it is impossible to line up your attacks in any reliable way, the game quickly devolves into moving your avatar haphazardly around the battle field with only the vaguest intent, swinging wildly as you go in hopes of coming into contact with something in need of killing, while the camera wheels around the carnage, distorting perspective and depth perception, and all the while the inkish black everything blending together into Rorschach blots. I see an elephant chewing caramels, riding two dolphins like roller-skates while balancing a barrel of eels and astronauts on its trunk. No wait, it’s a butterfly.
On the field, you can move about using a virtual joystick. There’s an attack button you can tap for standard attacks, or hold to charge a special attack meter. There are three types of special attacks, called Royal Flights, unleashed according to the fullness of the meter when the attack button is released. Being struck while charging your meter will cause you to lose your charge. There’s also a dash attack button, which requires some recycle time after use before it can be used again. Throughout the game you will collect souls which have various affects on your character and his charges, and gather items which can be equipped one at a time for use in combat and which provide various boosts.
Despite being labeled and Action RPG by the developers, VANQUISH is primarily an action game with only the slightest hints of RPG character progression. Calling this an Action RPG only proves that the “Action RPG” label is the new “Alternative music”. :-/
High Concepts: I like developers that take risks. The ink stroke graphics, the pseudo 3D/2D perspective, the audacity of attempting a horseback action game, and the balls to base it all on Chinese stories largely unfamiliar to the casual gaming market from which the iPhone primarily draws. I applaud you, Gamevil, for your efforts, for taking risks, for trying something new and different. But I lament the fact that in VANQUISH, your efforts just don’t succeed.
Visual Presentation: Good concepts don’t always make for good games, but the visual presentation is worth calling out nonetheless. Pixels do not brush strokes make, and black on white everything and lots of it makes games hard to play. But it’s still pretty.
Convoluted: Unless you’ve read Romance of the Three Kingdoms, are familiar with either Koei’s Dynasty Warriors or Romance of the Three Kingdoms video game franchises, or come from a traditional Asian family, you’re either going to have to get educated or give up on understanding the game’s story. This is thousands of years of backstory being crammed into an iPhone game; you can’t really expect it make sense standing on its own.
Dizzying: The spinning camera, the distorting perspectives, the pulsating Rorschachian masses … the way it all comes together, it’s like having spilled the inkwell all over my screen and trying to play games upon returning from a long night at the local watering hole drinking rice spirits …
VANQUISH: The Oath of Brothers is a game that should not be taken as a game, but as an artistic experiment in interactive media and storytelling. It puts forth a lot of interesting ideas, but comes crashing down beneath their weight. As the player, you are left to make sense of the chaos and debris following the collapse. The game is worth a look if only to experience the imploding experiment firsthand. But if you’re not the sort of gamer to be bothered with lofty, but struggling attempts at innovative gameplay, you’d do well to pass this one by. While I suspect the game may draw a sort of cult following, VANQUISH is not a game destined for mainstream success.