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Velvet Assassin starts with a few points against it. For one, it’s a stealth game, which is a turn off for many people, and a genre that has slipped into obscurity in the current generation. It’s also set in World War II, a time that gamers have visited all too frequently, to the point where many refuse to return. However, there are also aspects of the game that count for it, including the historical relevance. With games like Assassin’s Creed, gamers have become interested in alternate looks at the world’s history, and Velvet Assassin seems to tie into that very well. Sadly, though it had a chance to stand out, Velvet Assassin isn’t any better than the sum of its parts.
While not truly based on historical fact, Velvet Assassin does have some ties to reality. The main character, Violette Summer, is based on the life of a real World War II saboteur named Violette Szabo. Szabo worked with the allies to fight against the German occupation of France, but eventually was captured and executed after her second mission. This, obviously, wouldn’t make for an extremely interesting game, and Summer’s journey branches off and expands on Szabo’s tale. Instead, the game is told through flashbacks as Violette lies in a coma, with each level detailing a different mission.
As players play through the missions, little hints are dropped about Violette’s current predicament. People standing around her hospital bed talk about her life, adding more mystery to the story. The actual missions, however, can seem completely inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. Each feels like a stepping stone, a slow build-up towards a climax or revelation of some sort. Unfortunately, it never comes, and the loosely tied together missions never turn out to be any more than they seem. There’s a conclusion at the end, but it feels like there could have been something more to the game.
Having a weak story isn’t enough to damn Velvet Assassin. No, its issues are more compounded than that. Being a stealth game means players need to exercise patience while playing in order to succeed. Violette must observe her enemy’s movements and actions, waiting for the perfect opportunity to strike. Each enemy has a pattern they follow, and there’s usually a few ways it can be altered or manipulated. If it ever seems that an opponent is locked to a specific spot that it might be impossible to access, there’s usually something to pull him away. Turning off a radio, smashing a fuse box, or if all else fails, whistling will pull them out of their comfort zone. Once it’s possible to move behind the soldier, Violette will sneak up and deliver a brutal killing blow, before pulling their body into the shadows. When everything works perfectly- that is the enemies’ movements are memorized, and the level’s layout is well known- the gameplay is fluid. It’s incredibly rewarding to take down a room full of enemies without raising suspicion using only a knife and a very limited amount of ammunition.
However, getting to that point is another story. In order to memorize the best tactics, trial-and-error is usually the only way. Violette Summers is completely at home in the shadows, blending into the background, and emitting a calming purple glow when invisible. This, however, isn’t a guarantee she won’t be seen, and enemies in close proximity can still stumble upon Summers. The problem is the exact distance doesn’t seem consistent, and enemies will oftentimes spot the hidden assassin when experience would dictate that she should, by all means, be invisible. This is an ongoing issue in the game, and takes away from the stealth mechanics immeasurably. Further, since Summer isn’t a fighter, it can take several tries before a working strategy is discovered. This mixes poorly with the game’s sparsely placed save points, and is amplified even more by the enemies’ tendency to engage in long-winded conversations in German. Because the enemy AI is inconsistent, a seemingly unavoidable death can mean repeating ten or so minutes of gameplay, much of which is standing around and listening to soldiers talk about nonsense.
It’s possible to fight after being discovered, but it usually doesn’t end well. There’s a very limited amount of ammunition, which means attempting to slice down enemies using Violette’s knife or going into Morphine Mode becomes a necessity. Needles full of morphine are scattered around the level, but there are only ever a few in the level, turning them into more of a last resort than a true addition to the game. While in Morphine Mode, Violette can either find a place to hide or take down a guard, limiting it from being any more than a panic button. There’s a leveling system as well, in which Violette can either upgrade her stealth speed, morphine time, or health, but these never really feel like they have an effect on the game, and are basically a cosmetic upgrade.
To break things up a bit, Violette can occasionally don a Nazi uniform and engage in some urban stealth, attempting to avoid detection while fully visible. While a good idea in theory, the execution is flawed, and pales in comparison to the disguise system used in other stealth games. If anyone comes even remotely close to Violette, she’s detected and fired upon, and she can’t enter “stealth mode” while wearing the outfit. It’s simply too hard to remain disguised, and the enemies seem to have such a good grasp of their comrade’s appearance that it’s barely worth the effort to change clothes. Being able to sneak and use the disguise might help, but it isn’t an option, and these segments, while infrequent, are annoying.
In another attempt to shake things up, the game will occasionally throw stealth out the window in favor of action sequences, forcing Violette to engage in combat and turning the game’s focus into that of a third-person shooter. These segments don’t work out too well, relying too heavily on the game’s shooting mechanics, which aren’t as developed as the stealth. It feels like a reward for the stealth-heavy levels, but falls short of being anything more than an additional frustration. The game’s final level has Violette guns blazing through a town, and might be one of the most frustrating and unrewarding sections in the game. She’s simply not a fighter, and the game wasn’t built for what Replay Studios seems to think it was built for.
There are plenty of good ideas in Velvet Assassin. Sadly, they’ve all been done before. The issues in the game are simply too great for more people to give it any thought, and everything besides the basic stealth mechanics aren’t fleshed out enough. While fans of stealth might enjoy the story of Violette Summer, most gamers will end up being left in the dark, and it's likely not worth more than a rental.