Of all the action RPGs out there — sheesh, there are a bunch of them! — you’ll find plenty that know how to situate the mindlessness of hack-and-slash in a larger and less mindless context. Soldak’s Zombicide drops you into evolving worlds to navigate a web of creatures and factions chasing their own agendas. The hand-made geography of Grim Dawn, a game built to encourage you to explore its nooks and crannies, trumps any procedural arrangement of dungeon tiles under forest paths next to castle walls. The intricacy of a Path of Exile character build, wending its way through that ridiculously complex chart, like some advanced celestial navigation. The breadth, personality, and dynamism Guild Wars 2 brings to traditional MMO world-building.
All of these action RPGs offer compelling reasons to wade through potentially repetitive slaughter to level up a character. They all understand how to answer the question “Why?”. But none of them compares to Diablo when it comes to the moment-to-moment hack-and-slash. The animation, the rhythm, the variety, the information-rich chaos. Where the blade meets the bone, where the arrow meets the artery, where the fireball meets the flesh, that’s where Blizzard truly excels. The why of Diablo falls away before the glory of its what.
And then there’s Victor Vran.
I’ve already reviewed Victor Vran on the PC, and there are a few things worth mentioning now that it’s on the Nintendo Switch. But its relevance here is that it’s still one of the few action RPGs that gets hack-and-slash as well as Diablo. Not necessarily for the production values, which are passable if not Blizzardly. But for the sense of interactivity. For a game that has no skill tree, a fairly understated loot chase, and only one class (the Victor Vran), there’s a ton of meaningful variety and unique interaction based on which weapon you use. From the review:
these weapons all have some sort of skill-based component. Not skill-based in the sense of putting points into your character’s skill so that a sword is only as good as you’ve paid to make it. Skill-based in the sense of you have to get good at them. Timing tricks or synergy patterns are a part of how you use each weapon. Sure, you can just mash the buttons. But to get the most out of a weapon, you’ll want to learn it. You’ll want to practice its particular rhythms and idiosyncrasies. The shotgun timing, the hammer positioning, the lightning gun’s homing balls, the build-up and release of the scythe, picking your targets carefully with the rapier.
Replaying Victor Vran on the Switch, I’d forgotten how gratifying it is to get into the flow of the shotgun, which has a unique sound based on whether you’re hitting the timing. Normally, the shotgun just makes the usual “pow” sound. It’s a shotgun, what do you expect? But if you hit the correct timing, tapping the button about once a second, each shot inflicts vulnerability, which means the next attack will be a critical hit. That also inflicts vulnerability. Which means the next shot is a critical hit. That also inflicts vulnerability.
This is the shotgun’s unique basic attack. And just to let you know it’s working, that you’re hitting the right timing, the shotgun’s usual “pow” has a sort of fiery “skeeow” sound effect that plays over the “pow”. Of course, the words “vulnerability” and “critical” are also popping up over my target’s head. But I’m paying more attention to the rhythm of the sound. Putting to use those valuable Patapon skills. To get the timing right for the shotgun, play Van Morrison’s Moondance. I am not joking. It’s right around 60bpm. It’s perfect. “Skeeow well it’s a skeeow marvelous skeeow night for skeeow a moondance.”
Victor Vran is mostly a great fit for the Switch. Loading times can be an Achilles heel for Switch ports, but here they’re short enough and infrequent enough. The bigger issue is the size of the text when you’re playing undocked. I love being able to carry Victor Vran around with me, but like many good action RPGs, the text and numbers are important. There are lots of them. Since the interface is identical to the PC version, you’re going to be staring at small print. That’s just an unfortunate reality of the level of detail in Victor Vran. Bring your reading glasses — this is the sort of thing us old people say in reviews now — or keep it in the living room.
And while you’re in the living room, bring a friend. The local co-op isn’t quite as slick as Diablo and there’s no way to muck around with inventory and character builds without taking over the whole screen while the other player waits. You also have to be careful not to trap each other in dead ends, but you can always pause the game and teleport to your friend if that happens. But as a Diablo alternative, it’s not a bad pick. Victor Vran’s saved game slots will happily save progress for multiple characters and multiple playthroughs.
And, of course, you can also use one of the saved game slots to play in hardcore mode, which was added after the PC release. My main complaint about Victor Vran was the lack of any sort of disincentive for getting killed. Without any death penalty, the risk/reward balance that’s so important in action RPGs is all but missing the risk. Hardcore mode will decisively take care of that for you. Good luck with that. Bring the Van Morrison with your shotgun and you should be fine.