With so many games taking place in fictional, fantastic worlds, Velvet Assassin provides a stark contrast. The game is loosely inspired by the true story of Violette Szabo – a Special Ops agent during World War II – and asks you to infiltrate secret bases, execute important military figures, and sabotage key German strongholds to help turn the tide of the war. Her in-game representation, Violette Summer, is a fragile soldier that can’t take fifteen bullets to the stomach or regenerate her health. This forces the player to utilize stealth at all times. These aspects make Velvet Assassin stand out from the pack, but unfortunately repetitive game design and frustrating difficulty handicap the experience.
Velvet Assassin’s twelve missions take you through Nazi-occupied Europe, from the crypts below a gothic cathedral to a burning, pillaged town in France. These locations are packed with enemies including traditional soldiers and flame-throwing armored guards. Every level requires that you avoid troops by sneaking from shadow to shadow, using stealthy kills and distraction techniques to clear a path. Once an enemy has turned their back to you, you’re able to instantly silence them by getting close and tapping the A button. This triggers one of the game’s fifty silent kill animations, which range from a simple throat cutting to a graphic ‘knife in the crotch’ maneuver.
If sneaking isn’t your thing (and if it isn’t, stay far, far away), you can pick up weapons like a shotgun, sniper rifle, and even a flare gun that lights enemies on fire. Players are also provided with a few environmental hazards to help take out unsuspecting villains like ignitable gasoline puddles and electrical cables that can be thrown into water. Most of your time will be spent creeping in and out of the darkness, though. While these weapons are functional, the combat of Velvet Assassin works best when the enemy doesn’t see you. The developers opted to make Violette a realistic character, and as such she won’t survive long when engaged in a direct firefight. Taking a few bullets drops her into a near-death state, sending you hunting for cover or a timely medkit. This enforces the stealth gameplay of the game, preventing you from relying on the ‘run and gun’ approach.
While this overreliance on stealth is implemented well enough, the mission design doesn’t offer enough variation from this formula to keep it interesting. Occasionally you get to don a Nazi uniform to walk amongst the enemy or engage in a fast-paced shootout, but the majority of the game is spent sneaking from one dark spot to another with little deviation to provide a break. It also doesn’t help that the environments surrounding these dark spots are fairly uneventful, as you will wander through many villages, bases, and undergrounds that don’t really stand out. The story – while interesting – isn’t told well. You will have to decipher what is going on from fragmented cutscenes and voiceovers.
Unfortunately, Velvet Assassin is also riddled with frustrating design choices that will hurt your enjoyment of the game. The robotic enemy AI has each soldier walk a predefined path that they will not deviate from unless you make some noise or get spotted. They also tend to make odd decisions as they will walk right past dead bodies, never open doors to chase you into a different room, and always ignore the disappearance of fellow soldiers. They will also discover you in total darkness at times, which leads to more aggravation. All of this is made even more infuriating by the lack of checkpoints in each level, requiring you to traverse multiple Nazi-packed rooms before reaching the next save point. Since one mistake can lead to instant death, you will dread what waits around every turn.
The lack of any frontal instant-kill maneuver augments this, leaving you helpless whenever an enemy catches you in the open. The only real counter is your morphine injection, which slows down time long enough to eliminate one soldier. While helpful, they only provide a few morphine shots per level, so they don’t come into play too often. The game’s upgrade system, which awards Violette with points as she finds hidden items, also doesn’t do much for the unforgiving difficulty. Earned points can be used to upgrade Violette’s health, stealth, and morphine, but the effects of these upgrades don’t make a dramatic difference in the gameplay, leaving you with little reason to hunt down all of the goodies.
Regardless of the gameplay issues, the Velvet Assassin’s visuals do a solid job at setting the somber tone of the Nazi-occupied countryside. Outside environments feature beautifully drawn landscapes with plenty of vivid colors, such as the autumn field in the opening level that is covered with a bed of brown and orange leaves. Indoor areas are far more generic, and enemy character models lack any distinctive features. Audio, on the other hand, does an amazing job at adding authenticity to the experience. Aside from the nicely implemented ambient sounds, the Germans in the game actually converse in German, further cementing the dread you feel from being in a hostile foreign land. The rest of the audio is solid as well, with impactful sound effects that will make you cringe every time Violette slashes her knife and music that provides a tense background medley.
Velvet Assassin isn’t a bad game, but the repetition, lack of checkpoints, and aggravating AI bring down what would have been a solid and immersive experience. If you are a patient stealth-action genre lover, Velvet Assassin will make a very enjoyable weekend rental, but gamers with heavy trigger fingers will not find their action fix here.