Review: Vlad the Impaler
If I mention the phrase “visual novel”, that probably means something doe-eyed and infuriatingly passive to you. Visual novels outside the realm of anime are as rare as unicorns but they do exist, and are on occasion just as magical. Vlad the Impaler is one such offering, allowing you to do battle with the forces of evil through a tight narrative structure and careful choices of words.
After picking one of the three starting classes you are whisked away to the exotic streets of Istanbul where evil is afoot. Dark forces have gripped the city, spreading death and madness to its furthest corners. Your task is to root out the source of this blight, and you do so through text adventures. Each day you can take three actions by choosing a location from the map and an event that occurs there. As you read through the event, you’ll be presented with a choice that affects the outcome, and the rewards (if any) that you’ll receive.
The events to partake of in Istanbul range from buying falafel at the market to unearthing eldritch gateways beneath the city, but make no mistake, every choice you make carries grave consequences. Helping a beggar at the docks might give you an important clue to use in a later tale, and small favors can unlock new options on subsequent days. Your character also has eight stats to track that are used in skill checks late in the game, and can be raised or lowered as the result of your choices.
Each of these events is presented in fine narrative style, describing the action and details in clear prose. Every action comes alive with sickening crunches, putrid scents, and threatening shadows. You may also have gathered there’s very little light or levity to the story, and I definitely won’t deny that. Plenty of people will die in gruesome fashion, many dispatched by your own hand. For most of the game you’ll find your character nigh immortal, pulling through ambushes and attacks with surprising ease. All of this is presented in an excellent monochrome sketch style that helps sell the atmosphere of ancient, unspeakable dread.
You’ll spend five days in the city, chasing down leads, battling evil, and hopefully getting your stats up to where you need them. That’s because day 6 opens with a steep skill check that can end your game immediately if you don’t make the right choice for your character build. If you manage to prevail, you’ll be presented a selection of powerful weapons and then head off to the final confrontation. This is a series of dramatic scenes against powerful foes, culminating in a literal boss battle with a menu of combat options. This is not at all a simple battle, for your success will depend on the order in which you use your options and whether or not your skills support those options.
The stat system ultimately is what holds this game back the most, because it is obscured in the worst ways. There’s no indication other than textual cues of what stats affect what choices, nor is there any way to know what effect story choices will have on your stats until after the fact. That means your first few adventures will end quite suddenly and ignobly on day 6, and will continue to do so until you start memorizing which events give which stat bonuses. It’s a surprisingly technical game but in a very static way, challenging you to puzzle through the same routines over and over until you find the optimal path.
I don’t think most people will have the patience to conquer Vlad the Impaler more than once, but then again I don’t think they really need to. The excellent writing and presentation will carry the game for a few adventures at least, and those intrigued by the mechanics of the game will stick with it longer. I would appreciate it more if it were more forgiving of novices, but there’s still plenty to appreciate even if you can’t best it.