Playing a video game from the perspective of the weak and ostracized is uncommon. Even when players are helpless, like in the survival horror genre, they are still at the center of an important tale – given the empowering task of uncovering some mystery or defeating an evil. Vasilis, developed by Marginal Act, bucks such trends in favor of portraying a character whose life is devoid of importance.
Players take on the role of the eponymous Vasilis, an elderly woman searching for her husband during a revolution that is inspired by the Ukrainian political unrest of 2014. Featuring such a unique perspective, Vasilis is a game with promise, however, the end result is nothing short of painful.
Vasilis‘ world has the potential to tell a compelling, moving tale but fails to create any attachment; it settles for an anemic narrative. The story, replete with spelling and grammatical errors, would have been at home on the Atari, when gaming had no quality control. The game runs fine, it’s not the horror of E.T. by any means, but it has about as much contextualization as those archaic games. For example, by the game’s end, it seems like Vasilis and her husband have some ties to the rebellion, but it’s all unclear. The rebellion is only mentioned in passing with the game’s online plot summary providing the clearest context. Sure, there are images of the dead and burning cities but the game offers no explanation or human touch; the violence may as well be caused by demons or aliens. Vasilis gives no reason to care about the story behind its opaque dialogue and imagery.
Consider the following mid-game quest: the player must search for body parts so that a man can rise from the dead whole (yes, there are supernatural elements, but they’re undercooked like everything else). Finding these body parts amounts to revisiting buildings you’ve been to before. The only difference is that they now have pictures of said body parts on the outside – removing any challenge of ascertaining the items and eviscerating any sense of an organic world. Also, there is no emotion through out any of these sequences. Characters speak purely transactionally, functioning as objects to point you to more objects. Bland from a gameplay perspective and mundanely morbid, no one even cares that body parts have been strewn about – and this body-part hunting mission encapsulates everything wrong with Vasilis.
There are impressive visual tricks, like how the entire screen goes into a seizure fit when something disturbing happens, but they fail to bear any emotional heft. No one, including the protagonist, conveys any coherent ties to another human being – including themselves. Even though her husband is missing, and probably dead, Vasilis never emotes. She just shuffles along without reacting to anything – unless it’s to tell the player a pot is breakable.
The gameplay itself is serviceable enough for an adventure game. You collect items and use them to advance to a new area. It’s a classic formula to be sure, but it’s one anchored in compelling worlds. Vasilis, as is now obvious, does not have a compelling world. It does not even function like a place. For instance, when required to find a certain item, the game will outright tell you the item’s location by having banners with said item on the side of a building. The building in question may not even have anything to do with the item in question, like the library containing a human eye for some random reason.
All these faults are tragic given the game’s high-concept and evocative visual-style. At first glance, the game appeals to achieve its unique promise. The visuals evoke a desperate wonder. On one hand, the graphics are crude, but they feel appropriate to such a repressive context. Imposing characters tend to have their faces crossed out, violence is grisly, and characters animate with seizure-like spasms. Reminiscent of a visual journal, the hand drawn graphics seem crafted by a frantic, precocious child who’s trying to understand the horror that cages her. That said, the visual style eventually becomes tiresome under the pressure of holding up the entire game. Every other aspect of the game feels half-baked as if someone had a rush of inspiration one day, wrote down five minutes of notes, and then created narrative out of said notes – without adding any further care or detail.
Stay away from Vasilis. The only worthwhile elements are its graphics and concept – both of which can be seen in the trailer. There is a story worth telling behind Vasilis; it’s just one that exists only in the pitch rather than the game itself.