Inspired by the revolutionary climate of Ukraine in 2014, Vasilis is an adventure game that follows an elderly woman of the same name. While navigating a fractured city, she searches for her lost husband. As the game progresses, she’s caught in the middle of a society that devolves into violence, substance abuse, and even cults. All of this echoes actual events that enraptured Ukraine, something I admit that I did not have knowledge of prior.
Vasilis might be style over substance but makes up for it with a strong atmosphere
After finishing Vasilis in a 2-hour playthrough, I’m still trying to piece together what was an exhaustingly surreal and unsettling experience. Intricately constructed visual and audio design bring the game to life. There’s a sketched out hand-drawn aesthetic anchoring the game’s graphics, providing uncomfortable animations to the denizens of the town. In the town morgue, a receptionist’s mouth flaps as if she’s incessantly talking; when moving close to her, the mouth hyper-extends, leaving her face a black hole. On the streets, shapeless beings malform and pulse with each step. Vasilis herself has an upsettingly generous amount of frames to her walk cycle, and as her hands brush alongside her hunched torso, there’s almost a visible pain to her saunter.
While it doesn’t advocate for this in any explicit manner, I found Vasilis to be best played with headphones. The wails of townsfolk are chilling, and the abrasive sounds of factories and fire establish a debilitating mood. The music also contributes to enforcing an unfriendly atmosphere, with hostile, otherworldly soundscapes. Overall, this attention to detail in the design creates a thickly unsettling atmosphere that’s strengthened by the somber narrative.
Aimlessness is the point
Parts of Vasilis aren’t user-friendly (even for an adventure game), and I often felt lost in the city. There’s an in-game journal that keeps track of objectives, but instead of spelling those objectives out, they just log certain bits of dialogue. Certain sections of dialogue are then crossed out after finding the correct item or completing a certain puzzle. Despite possibly being the intention of developer Marginal Act to invoke these feelings of disorientation, I found it to be occasionally frustrating.
Yet, it’s this frustration with the game’s design that only enhances the tone that’s established by the audio and graphic design. The distraught feelings you receive when playing Vasilis are multiplied by lack of direction, as does the bleak hopelessness that the story is aiming to represent.
Vasilis is ultimately rewarding, but only if you know what you’re getting into
Vasilis is grueling to play through, and in its depiction of a harsh landscape devoid of all compassion I felt like I understood the plight of the main character. No one is genuinely trying to help Vasilis find her husband; in what’s a clever use of the adventure game genre, she instead has to do task after task that’s predicated in the interest of others. These tasks escalate to ultimately greatly influence the town, but the despair remains. By the end, the message is retained on how individual human cost gets ignored in a crumbling social environment.
The one unfortunate thing about this otherwise stellar narrative is that it’s undercut by what I can only assume are translation errors. Grammatical errors and inconsistent spelling drew me out of the experience. If the writing were a little sharper, Vasilis would’ve had the makings of an excellent game.
Vasilis isn’t going to be the type of game for someone who’s looking for a “fun” experience with engaging gameplay. Instead, it’s the sort of title that uses the artistic potential of video games to provide perspective. It excels in this area thanks to a unique presentation style and is worth the investment for those looking to play something different.
A review code was provided by the publisher.