Every so often, along comes a game sporting a sense of style and rocking a ‘tude, making itself known with a crash and a holler. Much like a toddler who’s climbed onto the counter and tossed a dish onto the floor.
Vengeance forces you to sit up and take note, is what I’m saying. Emulating the likes of Payback, Kill Bill, and the snazzy digital Hotline Miami, it’s the sort of game that sends you bum-rushing into a room packed full of no-gooders, swinging and shooting until they’re dead and you’re barely limping, then hitting repeat until some nebulous concept of revenge has been fulfilled.
It also happens to resemble one of those corpses your protagonist will undoubtedly leave sprawled behind them. But we’ll get to that.
If nothing else, the elevator pitch for Vengeance does manage to make it sound appropriately grungy. As an earthy run-of-the-mill joe, you’ve been kidnapped by gangsters and tortured in various terrible ways, but later you wormed loose, got your poop in a group, and decided to wreak awful revenge on those who wronged you. It’s even called the wronging, that portion of the game where you draft the bodily harm your character was dealt. Here’s the card where Dae-shi chopped off your finger. Remember when Vuk crushed your knee and Roxy drilled into your molar? Now you do. Oh, but Bandaboi’s electrocution fetish feels like too much? Better pass that one along.
From there, Vengeance plays out as two alternating phases. There’s the montage, where your character heals up (picture Anton Chigurh swiping morphine from a West Texas pharmacy and you’ll get the gist), learns new tricks, and scouts out the warehouses, back alleys, and, um, playgrounds where they’ll be bashing skulls that night. That’s the second phase. The bashing of skulls.
Both phases are cast as dice puzzles, though that’s a bit like saying Once Upon a Time in the West is about railroads. In practice, the montage is both a dice draft and an ultra-light card programming minigame. Dice are rolled and claimed, then paired with cards that represent the various activities your character will be undertaking — though don’t fret too hard over your options, because regardless of which card actions you select, you’ll be free to spend any of your unused dice at the end of the round. After all, we wouldn’t want anybody to regret their actions or lack of preparation in a revenge flick, now would we?
The skull-bashing part is where all those miniatures of bat-wielding toughboys and crotch-grabbing gun-thugs come into play. Your antihero starts at one end of a surprisingly compact arena — usually only three or four rooms — and is permitted three chucks of the dice. It’s a simple procedure, and easily the highlight of Vengeance, with each result providing a different action that may or may not provide any value. There are movements for getting around, guns for shooting dudes in adjacent rooms, machetes for largely the same purpose but closer up, and the dreaded balaclava. Roll that one and the baddies will get up the nerve to do something other than watch agape as you rupture them a half-dozen new orifices.
Oh, and there’s a three-minute sand timer that you will literally never see run dry. If I were in a generous mood, I’d say that’s because each of these spasms of violence is projected with supernatural momentum. In reality, it’s more because there just isn’t all that much to do. The big draw is your character’s abilities, which let you change your dice at crucial junctures, and it’s possible to outfit yourself with the right moves and equipment to sidestep almost anything, in particular the possibility of rolling a few too many balaclavas. But outside of the occasional tricky den packed with shooters and chain-grabbers and other sorts who you avert gazes with at the gas station, most of these rolls play out in the most straightforward way possible.
Neither of these dice puzzles are bad, and there’s certainly plenty of enjoyment to be wrung from Vengeance, especially by those who enjoy a bloody tale of revenge. But after a few rounds, the whole thing takes on a whiff of bloat. Why is it, for instance, that your character can purchase extra abuses from their tormentors? Are they being tortured anew, or merely remembering past wrongs? Why is this particular deck so slim that players clamor for new hurts, only to groan when they can’t combine two of their cards to show that so-and-so really gave it to them? Getting double revenge, that’s where the big points are. In fact, why are we playing match-the-baddie when we’re supposed to be blitzing drug dens? Were the additional achievements and other micro goals really necessary to the tale being told? If so, then why do they feel like afterthoughts rather than being a part of the montage before each raid?
Oh, and were we supposed to feel like our characters were done training before the game was half over? Once you have a full roster of abilities, there’s rarely any reason to swap them out. And come to think of it, why are there two types of damage when one of them is almost never used? Serious hurts fit the setting perfectly, requiring extra heart markers to remove during a montage, but you’ll never pick one up by being stabbed by a thug in a chop shop. “All serious damage must be requested in triplicate and delivered in person to the gang underboss of your choice,” it might as well say.
And don’t worry about one of the city’s other vengeance-inebriated vigilantes showing up, since this is one of those affairs where the sole interaction between players is by clearing out a den that maybe somebody else wanted to hit. All that fuss and grit and you’re blocking one another.
For all its many constituent parts, Vengeance can’t escape the nagging sensation that each could have been tightened up, perhaps via a montage of its own. Lose the flab, do some chin-ups, and give me a call when you’re ready to hit the bricks.
Perhaps the biggest pity is that Vengeance feels like it inhabits two divergent spaces at once. Its fights and montages are so lightweight that it might have gotten away with this sort of behavior in a brisker game, but its sprawling tale of revenge and revenge and revenge and revenge, then getting yourself bruised on purpose so you can do more revenge, starts to feel like an old joke with a forgotten punchline. If it opens as a crowd-pleasing Under Siege, then by the end it resembles five of Steven Seagal’s direct-to-video sequels viewed back to back.
Which is a shame, because there are plenty of great ideas here. By choreographing each scene to parrot John Wick’s sense of speed and improvisation, it really does overflow with style and velocity. By the time a montage rolls around, the breather is welcome. The setting and central ideas are excellently realized by the game’s production.
So what gives?
Gordon Calleja’s previous game, Posthuman, was shot through with similar problems. It doubled down on theme and setting, then decided the solution to each crack in the rules was to spackle over it with an extra ruling.
Vengeance is a definite improvement in that regard, and shows Calleja migrating in the right direction. This is a functional game that can be played by functional people. The rules work, and spin a rollicking yarn about blood for blood. More than that, it’s genuinely enjoyable for the first few spins. There’s a real thrill to clearing a den without taking a scratch — or even better, taking a whole bunch of scratches and spending your montage relearning how to do push-ups.
Still, for a topic as straightforward as revenge, Vengeance sure has a tendency to muddy its waters. And the result is a game that can’t see its own heart thanks to the sprawl of its vascular system.