Tuesday, 14 June 2011

You'd be better off sleeping

All these years I'd been under the impression that a game demo should show off, tease you, make you want to try out the full thing. That it should include just enough of the game features to tantalise you into wanting to see the rest, or enough of the story to make you eager to find out what happens next. Playing the demo for Vigil: Blood Bitterness, however, makes me wonder I've been dead wrong this whole time.

Yes, Vigil: Blood Bitterness. Yes, that is possibly the worst name any videogame has ever had. "Blood Bitterness?" Does that even mean anything? Well, apparently so, because in the opening cinematic protagonist Dehon tells us that 'Bitterness has entered my mouth.'

Oooooohhh... kay. If you didn't at least snigger slightly at that, you're a better person than I.

Also he tells us that there's a deadly venom in his veins, but I think that's supposed to be metaphorical. He tells us that he killed his family, and he throws around a lot of words like sanctuary and offering and unworthy. Apparently there's some sort of Evil afoot. Not just evil, but Evil, which gets capitalised like four times or something. Also, it's threatening to destroy the universe, because that's what Evil does.

All of this is related in some breathy, hoarse, whispering voice speaking in a high fantasy sounding language. The voice is probably meant to sound dark, tortured and mysterious - I just found it mildly irritating, personally, like needing to scratch the sole of your foot in public. Religious iconography abounds in the graphics, which are a cute stylised black and white affair with the occasional red wash. The visuals are certainly the first element to jump out here, even if they're almost as painfully attempted-badass as the narration. By the end of the introductory cutscene, it's fairly clear that this is the ancestral prototype for gothic power metal ballads re-imagined in game form. The music, by the way, is an atmospheric little synth-soundscape which - while far from Mark Morgan - is pleasantly haunting enough.

So then, we play, glossing over the fact that the atmosphere the game is trying to build gets kinda shafted by the sudden appearance of a blue bar bearing the legend "Loading datablocks." We find ourselves in a black and white corridor, with yellow stuff splattered up the walls. The controls have a few reponse issues but are basically fine; left click moves you to a location, right click interacts with things. Let's walk over the yellow thing. Oh, it's a body. Dehon (who looks like a cross between Voldo and Bane) stands there with his arms spread and proclaims, "Ancient slave, I devoured your face. You dared to stand in my path. I, who had purified your lineage!"

I wish I was making this up. This is terrible dialogue. It's just vaguely religibadass words strung together. It's po-faced, incoherent and rapt with its own profundity. Oh, I'm sure it'll prove to be plot relevant or something later on, but as the first thing your character says in-game? And in that same hoarse voice, with that crazy fetish getup and borderline Jesus Christ pose? I repeat: power metal album in game form, or what? And I hate power metal.

Exploring a bit shows us some nice stylised architecture, a bureau we can't interact with and then there's... an altar, but it's... oh my god, it's randomly floating up into the air and then coming down again. That shit is whack. Let's have a look.

There's a body on the altar. We talk to him and he seems disappointed with us. But he's not bouncing into the air anymore and that's a plus, right? More wandering. There's a door in the other room - of the two rooms available to us - which we can't open. At this point frustration might set in, but the stylised monochrome graphics, camera angles and general paucity of decoration all make it pretty clear that there's only a handful of things which can be interacted with. That cuts down the frustration one can feel in some games when the next step isn't clear.

In this particular case, the solution is to pray on the four large symbols in the main hall. This makes the altar descend into the dais (no, really) allowing access to the bigger symbol hanging over the room. A word on the praying - it's the same chant soundbite in that same voice repeated twice, and you pray four times which means yes, you hear the same thing eight times in rapid succession. For some reason that means that you can now go and open the door in the other room by praying in front of the same symbol again. One door closes behind you like an airlock, and after a moment, the other opens. Pleasingly, you can run around during this... spiritual decompression, or whatever, rather than the game removing control from you. The doors still take a bloody age to open, though. You walk through the door, and then another door.

And then, "You have successfully completed the Vigil: Blood Bitterness demo."

Y'what? I looked at a corpse, talked to another corpse, prayed a bit, and opened some doors. And that's the game demo. That's the entirety of the game demo. But what am I supposed to actually do in this game? Is there combat? Do I solve puzzles? Pick stuff up? What's this 'clues' business in the menu about? Answers are not forthcoming.

There's almost no gameplay to the demo, so the style surely must be the selling point. It's certainly atmospheric but personally I found it overbearing, pretentious and obtuse - and I have a higher tolerance than most for overbearing, pretentious and obtuse. I feel like maybe if I was a younger man, more into things like high fantasy and heavy metal, and thought that mixing religious and fetishistic imagery was inherently super epic, then perhaps I'd be fairer to Vigil. I'm not any of those things, though. Like Winter Voices, Vigil is a game I wish I could like for trying something different and injecting a little more art into the medium. I also wish I could have a pet leopard and a pile of gold bullion the size of a Ford Transit. Vigil isn't appallingly bad in a Deer Avenger or E.T. sense, but I still can't recommend it.


  1. The best example of a demo I've ever seen is Dead Rising 2: Case Zero. It's actually a prequal to the main game, meaning that it's a contained story in its own right, and shows off many of the more interesting aspects of the game. It also allows you to carry your save data over if you buy the full game, letting you start with any goodies you picked up on the way.

  2. Half-Life: Uplink was another good early example of a demo which was a separate full level to the main game.

  3. I remember Starcraft's had an actual separate campaign in which the hero was Raoul Duke in his siege tank... it was good.

  4. Raoul Duke? That is genius. I'm not a fan of Starcraft but I might have to check that out anyway, since I'm a big fan of Fear & Loathing.

  5. Sorry, my mind slipped there. The name's Edmund Duke, your typical "tough guy", and a general of the pretty-much-fascist Confederation. Anyway, my point was the short demo campaign works well as a prologuev: )