Vegas Tales has a lot going for it. We’re suckers for FMV games, which Vegas Tales very much is; there’s something about the format that makes storytellers go to outlandish places. It’s got Tuvok from Star Trek Voyager in it too, the mighty Tim Russ, who intros and outros the game and gives it some gravitas. And to complete the trinity of reasons why we were interested in Vegas Tales, it’s got a premise that makes us want to pick up a pad and play.
It goes something like this: Tim Russ, playing Mr Davenport, is the owner of a Las Vegas casino called the Bellflower. He’s been its manager for many years, with very little opportunity to meet new people or form friendships. Recently, however, he has learned that his time on Earth is coming to an end – not because he’s being beamed onto the USS Voyager, but because he has a terminal illness. Without friends or family to bequeath the Bellflower to, he has to look elsewhere. And this is where you come in.
You are a biography writer, drafted under the ruse of writing a book on the casino. But your real motive is to interview four prospective candidates for owning the casino. So, you are chatting to Ashley, a nihilistic stage magician; Mallory, a professional gambler who has perennial bad luck; Sara, the do-goody daughter of a Brady Bunch-style family; and Todd and Becca, a honeymooning couple. By interviewing them face-to-face on a couch, digging around in their stories and past, you can determine whether they have the chops for owning a full-blown Las Vegas casino.
We had questions about the premise, but we were in. It’s far from the horror, thriller and crime genres that FMV games tend to dally in. It gave us that simple, engaging objective, and let us have at it.
You can imagine our disappointment as things began to unravel almost immediately. Its presentation was the first red flag. After some stock footage from Vegas and a barely fit-for-purpose set of interfaces, we were greeted by Mr Davenport, who seemed to be sitting in a hospital waiting room. We wondered if that was the point – he’s terminally ill, after all – but the other actors met us on that same drab sofa and white background. It felt like a casting couch for a low-budget movie, filmed during lockdown… which this essentially is. The fantasy of auditioning Las Vegas casino owners almost immediately went out of the window. Couldn’t they have at least shelled out for a neon sign?
Tim Russ is brilliant, by the way. He chomps through the dialogue with gusto, and demands your attention to such a degree that you can imagine him as a Vegas mogul. But the problem is that what comes out of his mouth doesn’t even approach believability. You’re meant to believe that, in the process of owning a multimillion dollar casino, he hasn’t formed a single acquaintance. Next, you have to swallow that he is willing to hand it over to four strangers, each seemingly chosen for their unsuitability. You wouldn’t bequeath them a penny. After that, you’re meant to believe that these people, most of whom haven’t been in the casino for five minutes, would welcome (and not question) being featured in a biography, only to then have someone root around in their dirty laundry. Note to interviewers: if you ever want to interview us about something, don’t start by questioning whether we’re a virgin. All of the characters in Vegas Tales are perfectly happy answering, of course.
Vegas Tales’ structure is reasonably simple. After chatting to Mr Davenport, you are given the option of interviewing your choice of the four candidates. Slightly akin to Her Story and Telling Lies, you ask them a question, only for more questions to pop up. This leads you down a branching river, and you begin to uncover the truth about who they might be, really.
We wondered whether the believability might be skew-whiff because Vegas Tales should be played for laughs – a surreal take on the premises. But this hits up against a problem that Vegas Tales can’t resolve: it never figures out its tone. The actors play it straight, delivering their lines as if the characters wholly believe them (and they do it well, particularly the downtrodden Todd and perky Sara). But those lines oscillate between being grimly dark, deadly serious and willfully bizarre. One character, Mallory, has a life that’s peppered with a ludicrous amount of bad luck and stupidity, but you’re not sure whether you’re meant to be laughing or crying. We suspect a little of the two? Regardless, the actor is clearly too intelligent to have done anything that’s tumbling out of her mouth, and the idea of handing her character the casino becomes more farcical as the conversation goes on.
Which is the underlying tension (or lack of it) throughout Vegas Tales. None of these people are suitable. They’re clearly the worst possible choices, from the first words out of their mouths. So what are we searching for? What is our purpose, really? Is the premise to choose the lesser of the four evils? We completed our character assassinations with the same conclusion – they were all terrible human beings – and wondered what we were meant to do with that information.
We won’t spoil it for you, but what you do is woeful. It undermines the premise that drew us to play Vegas Tales in the first place. It’s coupled with some horrendous design choices, as you can lock yourself out of endings simply by choosing to end on the wrong interrogation. We’re still unsure if this was a bug or a design choice – regardless, we limped to a wholly unsatisfying ending, simply by asking an innocuous (but wrong) question. People simply stopped talking to us.
With the potentially bugged ending, and some investigations that have ‘switcheroos’ that add weight to every previous answer they gave, you might be tempted to replay Vegas Tales. But, alas, the final nail in the coffin is an inability to skip dialogue. If you want to play again, you have to rewatch everything at the speed it was delivered. There’s no fast-forward or ability to skip to the final interrogation question. You are in it for the full two hours it takes to finish.
Vegas Tales had potential. It had an enticing ‘choose my benefactor’ premise. It had Tuvok from Star Trek Voyager. But while the odds were strong on this being an FMV game that did something unique, none of the bets that it placed came off. Vegas Tales is blandly presented, utterly unbelievable and can’t decide whether it’s a deadly serious take on a sleuthing game or just an outright comedy. Some twists manage to brighten things up, but the ending – or lack thereof – clears you out of any remaining goodwill.
We’re sad to say that Vegas Tales is more craps than high-stakes poker.
You can buy Vegas Tales from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S