Alright, enough for now of 2016’s Greatest Hits. Let me use this first February of 2017 to tell you about a game called Vidar. I saw this game in some Steam recommendation list or other, I honestly don’t remember where or how or why. I do remember liking the premise, adding it to my wishlist, and fully expecting to forget about it until it was released. Scant hours later, I got an email from Razbury Games, courtesy of a friend (you know who you are) who suggested they’d look us up. What are the odds, right? That I would eventually write something about Vidar was pretty much a given at that point.
Now, Vidar has very recently released into very Early Access. I’m normally not super comfortable reviewing Early Access games. In this case, though, Razbury Games did put me at ease that no major changes to the overall game structure were planned. That helps. And while I still don’t want to call what I’m writing here a ‘full’ review (for reasons that will become obvious), Vidar in its current state is definitely interesting enough to want to tell people about. Let’s see if I can’t convey what I liked about it.
(Spoiler levels: Narrative, medium. Mechanical, medium. Early Access level: Very early at time of writing, including some serious functionality bugs.)
(Game source: Developer key.)
Vidar, Or: Don’t Get Too Attached To People
What is Vidar? This is Vidar:
But also, this is Vidar:
Vidar is a game about the small town of Vidar, somewhere in the snow-covered mountains of Basically Fantasy Siberia. 24 inhabitants, to the dot. The town is caught in perpetual snowfall, essentially trapping everyone inside until the weather clears… until one day, a Stranger wanders in through the white. That’s you, the Stranger. You don’t talk, nobody knows where you came from or how you made it through the snow, and for some reason — at least if you’re male — you look like a lo-fi McCree.
The town of Vidar consists of about eight buildings, but the real tourist trap is probably the immense, multi-level Cave to the north. None of the residents feel comfortable going into that cave, but you Stranger have less compunctions. And it does turn out that everyone in town wants things from the cave. Or with the cave, or to do with the cave. Gunter, the town doctor, needs mushrooms that grow in the darker parts to make medicine. Gunter’s son Robert wants a glowing flower for his belle, Cecilia, who’s been in a gloom ever since her parents died. The archeologist Szabine is interested in relics and bones. Dani saw Borbalo the priest hide a bottle of good alcohol right past the entrance. And so on, and so forth.
The first half of every Vidar day is spent walking around town, talking to everybody. Maybe turning in some completed quests, or getting new ones. And then it’s time to delve the Cave. This is the more game-y part of Vidar. The Cave consists of a variety of puzzle-y levels, sets of four generated around a theme. The first four levels are the ‘Ice Cave’, themed around sliding on ice and creating paths with rocks and gates. The second four levels are the ‘Dark Cave’, where you need to light torches to create magical bridges. The third four levels… actually, I’ve never made it past the Dark Cave. But you get the idea.
What drives Vidar is a combination of puzzles and time. Every day you get ten real-world minutes to explore the cave. You can start at the top and work your way down, or automatically move to lower levels you’ve reached — at the cost of precious seconds. You might have done better by just walking, especially if you’ve been diligent in opening shortcuts. In fact, ‘opening paths’ is the strongest of Vidar‘s gameplay loops: find a puzzle, work your way through the puzzle, and then find the switch or the rope that opens the back passage, so you won’t have to do the whole thing again if you ever come back here. And you probably will come back: Vidar‘s quests are by and large collection and fetch quests, so it’s not unlikely to walk around multiple levels looking for the stuff you need.
So you explore the cave, you solve puzzles and open paths, and if you’re lucky you might even complete a quest or two. And when the time is up, or you’ve run out of options, you return to Vidar, and sleep off the rest of the night. And then someone dies.
See, the reason nobody in Vidar wants anything to do with the Cave is because a Beast lives there. Capital-B, unknown, bloodthirsty, real scary stuff. And every night, after everyone goes to bed, the Beast emerges from its lair and kills one person in town.
Any one of them.
“Jarenth, surely you don’t mean anyone? What about quest givers, or important story NPCs?” The Beast doesn’t care. Rosza, the friendly innkeeper who takes you in and shelters you when you first arrive? She can die. Gunter, the town doctor, who asks you to get mushrooms to heal the sick? He can die. Csaba, single mother of Tomi, who lives in abominable conditions that would be perfect for a heroic player character to solve down the line? She can die. And little Tomi? He can die, too. Right before or after his mother, or weeks apart. It’s all up to fate, and the hunger of the Beast.
And when a character you were interacting with or questing for dies, Vidar is merciless. They’re dead, quest failed. On my (second) run, first day, Borbalo the priest asked me to consecrate five graves in the Ice Cave, to ‘restore Vidar’s faith’. The second day, he was dead. That quest’s in my log forever, now: I did the thing, but every quest has to be turned in. Maybe if I’d been quicker… but maybe not. I’ll never know what would have happened, not in this playthrough.
I read ‘somewhere’ (Steam forums, maybe?) that Vidar boasts something in the vicinity of 600 quests. But you’ll never see all of them. Hell, in any given playthrough, you might not even see a fraction of them. Quests become available as you reach the areas they’re applicable for, so if — say — Lilja the treasure hunter dies the second night, you’d never know she asks for your help with digging later down the line. Or if Dani and Mihaly both die, the entire hidden library cave might as well be so much kindling. And so on, and so forth.
But simply saying ‘anyone can die’ is selling it a little short. Vidar‘s hook isn’t just that life is finite and that the grim spectre of death hangs over us all, the hook is that the game adapts to incorporate what happens. Not just in quests, though that’s the most obvious example. But also in dialogue. Characters will mourn their friends the day after they die, and change their outlook accordingly. And quests are offered, or not offered, based on who’s feeling what. As an example: I got pretty far into Gusztav’s mushroom questline before he died. I figured that’d be Quest Failed, but then his son Robert decided to take over the family business… modifying the quest a little bit to fit his own personality better. I’d also collected a flower for Robert to give to Cecilia, but he actually had extra dialogue rejecting that — the death of his father put his life in new perspective. That’s Vidar‘s hook. It’s not just a series of quests in a Russian roulette: the town of Vidar feels like a living place, full of people with hopes, dreams, and the very obvious fear of not waking up in the morning. The writing sells this, and that’s admirable.
I’ll tell you what game Vidar reminds me of, and that’s Ice Pick Lodge’s gloomy disease-fighting cult classic Pathologic. The two share similarities: Like Pathologic, I wouldn’t necessarily say that Vidar is fun. Movement is slow, almost plodding, and the controls are somewhat obtuse even at the best of times. If this is intentional, it’s an incredible simulation of what it would be like to drag your feet around a slowly dying frost-locked city. And this game is not a power fantasy. Hell, I’m twelve days in and I still barely know what I’m doing. Dragging my way into the Cave day after day, sometimes for the vague and uncertain benefit of quests that I might not even be able to complete. And sometimes just because it’s there, and what else would I do? And make no mistake: going into that hole in the ground means signing someone’s death sentence. Barring rare exceptions (I’ve had one so far), you enter the Cave absolutely certain that there’ll be one less person waiting for you the next day. It’s a relentless, grinding, oppressive experience. If you’re video game savvy, you might imagine the tiny light at the tunnel of ‘figuring out some way to stop the Beast, and saving everyone (who’s not dead yet)’ — and thanks to one particular quest outcome, I actually already have a semi-decent idea of what the Beast might be and what everything means. But it’s a long-off goal. In every individual moment, there is only plodding, uncertain puzzles, and death.
Like with Pathologic, you can see how this sort of experience is a hook for some people. I have to admit, it’s working for me. And — I say that the gameplay is mostly oppressive plodding, but that does sell the puzzle design short a little. It’s particularly noteworthy that all puzzles in a single playthrough are procedurally generated at the start of that playthrough (or so Vidar claims). In the two plays I did, not even the tutorial ‘save little Eric’ quests were the same, or even similar. It’s impressive technology. But all the same, even Vidar‘s decent puzzle solving is loaded with the weight of inevitability. Every day you don’t make progress — within your 10-minute action window — is a day that someone dies for no reason at all. Another voice lost from the village, and another set of quests and possibilities lost forever.
So, if this is your jam, should you buy Vidar? I’m going to say yes, definitely… but maybe not right now. This is where the Early Access thing rears its head. Vidar in its current state feels functional, but in no way done. For instance: it’s currently not possible to ‘progress’ more than one Cave level per day. Even if you’re done with Ice Cave 1-1 inside a minute — and you will be, because it’s small — you’re not actually allowed to move to Ice Cave 1-2 on the first day. It just won’t let you. I can’t tell if this is a design decision or not; I could make a case for either ‘intentional decision, but poorly communicated’ or ‘weird bug that makes the game much deadlier than it’s intended to be’, and the fact that I honestly can’t tell is a warning flag. Much worse, though, is the fact that (in my game) tool-switching doesn’t seem to work yet. Early on I received a shovel from Lilja, for treasure hunting purposes, that I could use with the S key. I never found a place to use it in the Ice Cave. Then when I entered the Dark Cave, the S-key prompt was suddenly a lantern — that I’d never received, and that I’m pretty sure I should have used to get into the Dark Cave to begin with. Good that I had it, because I’d be stuck without. But then I found Obvious Treasure Digging Spots, and my shovel was gone. By which I mean it’s still in my inventory, but the assigned keys for ‘switch tool’ (Q and E) do nothing. It’s frustrating; doubly so because Lilja stubbornly refuses to bite it, meaning I have every chance to complete her quest — if only I was allowed to hold my shovel.
This is also the reason I didn’t make it out of the Dark Cave. In Dark Cave 2-4, I’m pretty sure I’m supposed to do something with dragging around mirrors and reflecting light — the handy visual explanation crab makes that clear. But I can’t make it work. It was purely by chance that I worked out how to move the light posts, and I can’t replicate that trick with the mirrors. As far as I can figure out, I’m stuck.
If you absolutely have to try Vidar right now, and/or if you’re interested in helping Razbury Games with their dev process, then by all means — Vidar runs 20 Steam bucks, have fun. For my money, though, Vidar is a game that’s best experienced as-complete-as-possible. I doubt many people will play this game to full completion, let alone play it multiple times — and definitely not in quick succession. What makes Vidar cool is the individual narrative that unfolds as you quest and the dice roll. I already found myself narrating events together, weaving a personal story of sorts. I think I’d love to use this as Let’s Play inspiration. So I think I’ll wait for Vidar to reach full completion — whatever that still means in this day and age — before rolling another story and diving back in for real. Let’s see who manages to kick the bucket first this time around.
Jarenth is a habitual completionist, so imagine how much fun it must be for him to not be able to save everyone. Share tales of woe on Twitter or hang out with him on Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?