Games that deal with social and political themes have become a more frequent occurrence over the last few years. I am reminded of experiences like 1979 Revolution: Black Friday that deal with historical events and try to entertain and educate the gamer along the way. In Vasilis, we’re once again transported back to a destructive time in our world history. In Ukraine, in 2014, there were a series of events including rioting, protesting and demonstrations which led to the overthrowing of the government and removal of the president. This game uses that as a backdrop but deals in a personal story for good measure.
Vasilis has been in development for four years and it is easy to see why as the game’s visual style looks like a huge amount of work to execute. The game follows the lead character, Vasilis, who is a retired school teacher living in the city. She wakes up and discovers that her husband Peter is missing, so she has to venture out into the dysfunctional city to find him. What happens from there is an adventure centred around following clues and trying to find out, through chatting to characters and visiting locations, the whereabouts of Peter.
The story and the writing are good, but the main narrative of Vasilis is told through several conversations and is almost abstracted in the way the tale is told. You get an idea of what is happening to make the events of 2014 occur, but it’s told in fragments and due to this you will quite possibly find yourself wanting to fully research the real events afterwards, attempting to get a grasp on the whole story. The game does a good job of telling the take uniquely and once again abstractly through the visuals. For example, you enter a building called the administration and all the dimensions of the building are strange and elongated. There is a weird body collapsed on the floor holding a knife covered in what looks like barbed wire. There is a desk with a faceless person at the end who you can talk to, but their only response is “go away, your Peter isn’t here”. This is just a quick example of how the whole game tells the story through representation and impressionistic visual storytelling rather than straight up narrative.
The gameplay that accompanies everything is pretty straightforward and doesn’t require much in the way of skill and sharp reactions. You walk around – very slowly at times – through the locations of the city starting in Vasilis’s torn down house, and watch the game play out over 5 days or chapters. You enter locations like hospitals, bars and factories and you can have conversations with those you meet, as they hint at where you need to go next. Objects can be found and these can be used in fetch quests, sold to raise money, or used to pay someone for an item. And honestly, that’s about it in terms of gameplay as aside from a couple of minor puzzles it’s very simple to play.
The problem I have with Vasilis is the pace of the game; mostly how it never changes. There is never any urgency with what unfolds and the gameplay doesn’t mix things up with any tense moments. Yes, there are times where it can get very confusing about what to do next, but you do get to keep a journal that records conversations and tasks that get ticked off if completed. But still I had moments where I was wandering around aimlessly trying anything and everything, working through multiple combinations, in order to discover any progress. In fact, there was a time where I needed to get more money and I was left to spend an age trying to find enough and work out where I could raise more from. By that time my involvement and interaction with the game itself – and the story it attempted to deliver – had waned somewhat.
The visuals of Vasilis are the star of the show though and you can see the hard work that has been put in. The game employs a black and white hand-drawn visual style that reeks class from the moment you set eyes on it. The way the town, characters and situations are drawn is in an abstract and off-putting manner whereby watching it makes you feel uneasy at every turn. But for as bad as that sounds, I think this is exactly what the artists have attempted to achieve with the terrible situation we find ourselves in. The soundtrack is minimal to the bone too, and by doing this it comes across as a huge success, accompanied by a series of almost silent distorted sounds, effects and drone noise that gives you that feeling of unease.
Vasilis on Xbox One is a very interesting take on an intriguing and social-political premise that is steeped in recent Ukrainian history. The visuals are really exciting and as a game it manages to tell so many stories with its abstract hand-drawn style mixed with the terrifying reality of the situation. The gameplay itself is less satisfying though and you may well find yourself lost far too many times. It’s not helped by the overall pace either. It could also do with more in terms of actual gameplay and maybe some additional bits added to the story. But ultimately for a game that is under a fiver in cost, it’s just about worth taking a chance on.