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Release dates: April 28th, 2009 (N.A.), May 8th, 2009 (Europe)
Cover art for Velvet Assassin.
What Is This Game?
Velvet Assassin is a World War II stealth action game which follows the exploits of a British intelligence agent named Violette Summer; a character based on real-life French-British secret agent, Violette Szabo. The game starts off with Violette Summer lying in a hospital bed in a coma; after the opening, it dives into the memories of Violette, which is where the bulk of the game and its missions take place, as Violette recalls various missions against the Nazis which lead her up to this point. Velvet Assassin plays similarly to the stealth-action ninja series, Tenchu. With guards following set routes through environments, the player is tasked with sneaking behind walls and in the shadows, while finding the best way to either creep past them or, more often, sneak up on them and perform stealth kills, and the ultimate goal usually being to get from point A to point B as stealthily as possible.
Violette preparing to dispatch an unsuspecting Nazi.
I was one of the few people who was not only aware of this game since the first previews and screenshots of it surfaced, but was also very interested in it. Ya see, this game had me at first glance for two reasons: it was a World War II game that was NOT a first person shooter, and it was a stealth-action game. As a bit of a World War II buff, I love to see any World War II game trying something interesting or different. And as a fan of old-school stealth action gameplay (see: Tenchu fan), I’m always excited to try anything in the genre. Long story short, I ended up picking the game up within its first week of release.
From its very beginning, Velvet Assassin captured my interest with its rich style and atmosphere. Velvet Assassin is one of the most purely atmospheric releases I’ve played in a while, and while the story itself is minimalist, it creates a mood, style and atmosphere so unique, so thick and dark, that it almost feels like a horror game at times; which is a good thing. Velvet Assassin goes a long way towards showing how great art and sound design and creative stylistic choices can not only create a game that is moody and atmospheric, but can also look great graphically even without the highest tech in the business. The atmosphere it captures is one I’ve found nothing quite like in a World War II video game before, and it is in this that the game stands out as a unique and memorable experience, despite a minimalistic story and some dated (though, to be clear, still often very enjoyable) gameplay mechanics. Velvet Assassin is not a “perfect” game, nor is it particularly high-budget or “next-gen”, but it also hits many high points in areas big-budget, high-profile releases often neglect or take for granted….
Velvet Assassin has some disturbing themes and images throughout.
History, Release and Reception:
Velvet Assassin was created by German developer Replay Studios, a studio found in 2002, but at the time of Velvet Assassin’s release, had only two previously released titles. Its development cycle was relatively low-key, and typical of a somewhat low-profile release. First announced under the title “Sabotage,” details and screenshots trickled out here and there, but the developers and, subsequently, the press, made a point to emphasize the game’s inspiration: real-life World War II French-British agent, Violette Szabo.
And, indeed, this is a point worth emphasizing, because Szabo was a very interesting woman, and a game inspired by her story was sure to be, at the very least, a unique and fresh idea. It should be clear, though, that the game is not ABOUT Miss Szabo herself, but is just that: inspired by her. The main character of Velvet Assassin is the fictional Violette Summer, and while Velvet Assassin takes places over six missions spanning 12 levels, the real Violette Szabo completed one successful mission, and was captured during her second, tortured, and eventually executed by the Nazis. To be clear, however, the developers were not deceptive on this subject, and made it clear in interviews that while the game was inspired by a real-life hero, it was, in fact, a fictional story. And it did indeed make for a game that stood out from the crowd to those who looked into it, despite its relatively low-profile prior to release.
Violette Summer (left) was inspired by real-life WWII secret agent, Violette Szabo (right)
The title was eventually changed from “Sabotage” to Velvet Assassin, and the game was released first in North America on April 28th 2009, and in Europe on May 8th 2009. Critical reception of the game was generally middle of the road, with scores ranging from mediocre to slightly above average. Gamespot gave Velvet Assassin one of its high scores, a 7.5, and noted, as I have, the game’s rich atmosphere and tense moments as positives. Meanwhile, IGN put it on the slightly less-positive side of the road with a 5/10, emphasizing the game’s “dated” mechanics and lackluster storytelling. Either way, the game was quickly lost in the shuffle and has been rarely mentioned since. Which is a shame, since it is a unique title which gamers interested in stealth action or World War II would do well by themselves to experience….
Velvet Assassin is not a terribly flawed or broken game, really; most setbacks it has are really just what you’d called “dated” or “last-gen” elements. Velvet Assassin works and looks fine, but just isn’t necessarily “next-gen;” a point that has proven to be a setback for many lower-profile games critically in the current generation, where large leaps forward in budgets, game design and mechanics for high-profile releases, as the industry moves closer to the “mainstream,” have increasingly widened the gap between big-name titles and smaller releases. While this has had positive effects for big-name releases, it’s also made for a tough critical environment for games like Velvet Assassin, which don’t have the budget for the highest tech, don’t have the quickest A.I. or are grounded in design choices that have quickly come to be considered outdated as the industry hurdles forward.
This is particularly applicable to Velvet Assassin’s “problems” because many of them are either elements of “last-gen” game design, or are small issues that would have been forgiven or overlooked much more readily just a few years ago. Essentially, I understand the issues which some have pointed out with Velvet Assassin, but feel that, to anybody who has enjoyed video games for more than the past five or six years, and can still have fun with a game from a previous generation, Velvet Assassin’s “dated” game design will most likely be very enjoyable, and its inherent flaws will seem miniscule and forgivable to fans of the genre.
Velvet Assassin's gameplay is reminiscent of older stealth-action titles from previous generations.
Velvet Assassin does have some moments of foolish or basic enemy A.I. that will be immediately familiar to fans of the stealth action genre. Guards follow set patrol routes through areas of environments, and if the player is spotted, will chase them for a moderate length of time (or call for help, if you’re unlucky), enter a state of “searching” when they lose them, and then eventually return to their original patrol as if nothing happened. It’s the player’s job, as in most titles of this nature, to dispose of the guards without being spotted by or, if they are spotted, to run away, hide, and try again when they calm down. While fans of old-school stealth action will take no issue with this type of enemy A.I. and the gameplay process surrounding it, it could also be seen as old-fashioned and a bit rusty to others.
While the aforementioned A.I. and old-school stealth game design choices are less flaws and more a matter of taste, Velvet Assassin does have a couple of other minor, but more legitimate, gameplay flaws. In particular, I found it odd that, in a stealth action game of this type, there was no way to press up against or move along walls, and as such no real way to peer around corners naturally. Theses staples of the genre are almost expected and, while the game is designed around the lack of them well-enough that they’re absence is rarely too much of a problem, it’s still an odd choice to exclude such a basic function, and can at times leave you wishing it was there.
There’s also a general lack of replayability to the game, which isn’t a huge issue with the experience itself, but still means you’ll have little reason to go back to it after your first playthrough. Aside from different difficulty levels, there’s not much to unlock or see after finishing the game, and stages are, of course, the same the second time as they were the first. Clocking in at around 10 hours on your first playthrough, with 12 missions, the game isn’t terribly short, but isn’t terribly long, either, and without any real incentive to play through it again, besides earning extra achievements or finding some mostly inconsequential collectibles, there’s a good chance the game will end up shelved after your first playthrough.
Velvet Assassin’s other, more noteworthy and serious problem, is with its storytelling; or lack thereof. While the game and its cutscenes are extremely heavy on atmosphere, style and mood, and do an excellent job of establishing these elements, what they fail to do is convey a real, cohesive story with any real characters or dramatic effect. As mentioned earlier, the bulk of game takes place with Violette in a coma, recalling in her mind the missions which lead up to this point. And from that point on all we really get in the way of story is Violette’s narration during cutscenes explaining what each mission was about and the events surrounding it; while the cutscenes are filled with stylized visuals to underscore Violette’s narration, we never get a real story out of them; Violette’s narration is the only real speaking role we get, and the story is told more as a series of diary entries than it is a cinematic, progressive story. I am all for non-traditional storytelling, especially in a game so focused on style and atmosphere, but the result really is that the story never feels fleshed out or fully engaging. Which is a shame, because with such an interesting concept, such a mesmerizing style, such dark and serious themes, and such an interesting person serving as inspiration, the game could have made for a fascinating tale. Instead, by the end, I was left feeling as if an amazing story about a really fascinating character had just happened……and the game hadn’t really bothered to fill me in on it.
Velvet Assassin's cutscenes are stylish and pretty, but do little to convey the story dramatically.
Why it’s Worth a Second Look:
Storytelling issues aside, Velvet Assassin really is a fun, satisfying and unique game, and it has a lot going for it which make it more than worth a look. While the storytelling left a bit to be desired, the style and atmosphere the game so expertly creates go a long way towards making up for that shortcoming. The game oozes dark style and atmosphere, and establishes an incredible sense of darkness, dread and evil surrounding the main character. Many games in the horror genre could, in fact, stand to learn something from Velvet Assassin. While Velvet Assassin is not a horror game, it creates a mood and atmosphere so oppressively dark and, sometimes, morbid, that the game is genuinely depressing and scary at times. Which works great, too, because this oppressive atmosphere makes your enemies come off as all the more dangerous and the situations you are placed in that much more dire. This does a great job of unnerving the player and creating a fitting sense of danger as they sneak behind enemy lines and carefully attempt to avoid detection.
Velvet Assassin's visuals are filled with dark, brooding style and the game is heavily atmospheric.
Contributing to Velvet Assassin’s powerful atmosphere are its beautifully stylish visuals and understated but highly effective sound and music. Visually, the game is vibrant and rich. While the graphics aren’t high-end technically, they prove that great art, environment and character design, along with great lighting and shadows, and a vibrant color palette can more than offset such shortcomings. Violette herself’s character design is unique and appealing, and while Violette is meant to be a darkly beautiful woman, the game doesn’t exploit her, or feel like it’s trying to make her the “sexy female lead.” From her hairstyle, to her costumes, to her perpetually sullen face, Violette is a visually unique and striking heroine. Likewise, enemies have a tough and menacing look about them; most of them look like mean sons of bitches that’d kill you without hesitation, and that’s good, because when you’re sneaking around trying not to be spotted, it’s good to feel like there’s a reason for it.
Violette Summer is a unique and visually striking heroine.
Environments look great and are possibly the graphical highlight of the game. Colors are rich, and even bright environments have a rich darkness to them thanks to a choice of deep, dark, rich colors; colors that look almost ready to bleed off the screen. For a game so shrouded in darkness, its impressive how simultaneously rich and vibrant its color palette is. Even in its darkest environments (which there are many of), the game still never looks dull or drab. The use of shadows in the game look great, too; and since hiding in them is a central element of gameplay, they serve as more than just an cool effect. Buildings, people and objects cast long, dark shadows which both provide cover AND add to the nightmarish ambiance of the game. Meanwhile, the trippy, time-freezing “morphine mode” sequences continue to add to the dream-like effect with saturated colors and overwhelming brightness.
Environments are vibrant and richly detailed, and the game in general often looks gorgeous. Proof that great artistic design and style are often more important than a huge budget.
Cutscenes, while they may not do a great job of conveying the story, still look great and add to the dream-like (or nightmare-like) atmosphere of the game. With some gorgeous stylistic choices and interesting camerawork and visuals, Violette’s cold, depressing narration and good sound work, they may not convey the story as best they could, but still look good and are just as atmospheric and moody as the rest of the game.
Speaking of sound, the game’s sound work and music are at times minimalist, but always effective and well done. Distant screams and gunfire often add to a sense of uneasiness in outdoor areas, while indoor environments echo with damp footsteps, dripping and clanking, and the resounding echo of enemy soldier’s voices. Gun sound effects are fitting and give off a satisfying sense of impact and power. Music is incredibly effective and stylish and contributes greatly to the sense of unease and horror throughout the game, as well. Filled with creative and unusual sounds, I would compare much of it to the soundtracks of the Silent Hill series. The music can fade into the background at quiet moments, and then become overpowering and frightening at more tense moments. When sneaking around, it does a great job of subtly heightening the tension in the background, while in more tense moments, or when the player is spotted, it can become overpowering and intense; in any instance, it’s always fitting and contributes heavily to the sense of unease and horror throughout the game.
Gameplay-wise, the game may be a bit dated, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t satisfying or enjoyable. Anybody familiar with old-school stealth-action will feel right at home, and especially fans of Tenchu will find the pattern of sneaking around, finding enemies, observing their routines, and waiting for the right opportunity to execute them as satisfying and enjoyable as ever. Some may point out that the gun combat when caught in a firefight is a little clunky, but since this is a game which emphasizes stealth, that is less a flaw, and more a gameplay element which encourages and rewards stealth and strategy over going in guns blazing. The element of gunplay is really the difference between Velvet Assassin and Tenchu’s gameplay, and while the majority of the time it is most effective (and satisfying) to sneak up on an enemy and dispatch them with your knife through a brutal stealth kill, your silenced pistol makes it possible for dispatching enemies at long-range with stealth, and will inevitably help you out of some of the game’s tighter situations. The only time gun combat became a bit frustrating is in the game’s few moments where an unavoidable firefight occurs, but these moments are few and far between, and overall it is never a major issue, nor is the gun combat broken to any degree that it is an unforgivable problem.
Stealth kills are brutal and satisfying.
While the absence of a mechanic which lets you creep along walls is a bit odd, the game’s other stealth elements are well-implemented and provide for a good amount of strategy and variety to the stealth gameplay. Carrying and hiding bodies is possible, and often essential, to not alerting the enemy of any disturbances. Use of disguises in certain levels is also a fun and different way of eluding the enemy, and acting casual in said disguises is key to not giving yourself away. Peering through doors, or creeping underneath objects or through small openings is also a strategic element which allows the player to scope out and assess the environment ahead of them while developing a good strategy of how to navigate the upcoming area and take out the enemies in it. You can also hide inside certain object or behind doors to get the jump on enemies that are close by.
The ability to disguise yourself as the enemy is available in some stages.
One of the most noteworthy strategic elements of stealth in the game, though, is the “morphine mode.” Since the majority of the game takes place through Violette’s memories while she is lying in a coma, most stages (with the exception of the last couple) allow you a limited number of morphine shots; which essentially freeze time momentarily, while the game enters a dream-like visual state. This allows you time to gain the advantage in tougher situations, and to reposition yourself to a safer spot, or run up on an enemy and quickly dispatch him. The limited time and number of uses make it a good mechanic for getting out of sticky situations, but also requires the player to make careful us of it and save it for times when it is most needed. Plus, it makes for an interesting and stylish visual effect.
Morphine mode creates an interesting visual effect.
The game also employs a basic leveling system which lets you upgrade Stealth, Strength and Morphine levels. It’s not of huge consequence, but does allow for you to adjust Violette’s abilities to your playstyle a bit. While basic, it is still a welcome enough addition.
The core element of stealth in the game relies on darkness and a good hiding place, however. Shadows and darkness play a key role in the game, and taking out the lights in an environment or sticking to its shadows are essential for remaining hidden. The darkness can mean the difference between an enemy spotting you or walking right past. Like much of the enemy A.I. in old-school stealth action games, it’s not always completely realistic all the time, however, it does make for fun gameplay that is satisfying, while not utterly overwhelming.
Light and darkness play a huge role in stealth.
Velvet Assassin is a stylish and atmospheric game with a unique setting and concept. Its old-school stealth gameplay may be labeled as archaic by some, but to old fans of the genre, it will probably feel more like a welcome return to genre conventions than a broken or outdated gameplay style. However, while fans of the stealth genre will no doubt find fun and satisfaction in the gameplay, the real star of this game is definitely its dark, moody style and atmosphere. The game shows that high tech isn’t all it takes to create a good looking game, and its great lighting, environments, stylistic effects and character design, along with eerie and unique music and sound work, combine to create a game with a visual and aural style that is strong and original. The game isn’t terribly long, but provides an experience that is fun, refreshing and different. With the game currently all but forgotten, and its price tag not much more than ten dollars, curious gamers should check this one out: it’s a dark, atmospheric experience that you won’t find anything else quite like.
Velvet Assassin's gameplay may be "last-gen," but it still proves to be an intense, extremely stylish and unique experience.
Who Should Play It?
Fans of stealth-action titles, namely the “Tenchu” series and similar games. Those interested in World War II video games, especially if they are looking for one that is out of the ordinary, with a unique style and genre. Also, some fans of horror video games may find the extremely dark and sometimes eerie or frightening atmosphere intriguing.