I played oodles and oodles of games at PAX East 2015. From the smallest downloadable titles to Overwatch Blizzard’s massive answer to Team Fortress 2, the vast majority of my time was spent experiencing new stuff on the show floor. When it was time to journey over to Reverb, a certain Borderlands-esque third person shooter caught my eye. This the type of title that the world pejoratively refers to as indie-AAA, since there’s no way that a tiny independent studio could make something that looks this good, right? There was something about Prior Games’ Verona that was intriguing, and I couldn’t put my finger on it right away. Hell, I’m not sure if I can put my finger on it after spending thirty minutes in-game, but a certain part of me is still convinced that something special is there, hidden behind all of the genre conventions and general nonsense that comes with cover-based shooting in 2015.
Okay, so maybe the Borderlands comparison is a bit lazy. Verona is similar to Gearbox’s heralded shoot-and-loot series in two ways, and two ways only: the cel-shaded visuals and the fact that your character possesses a weapon with bullets. I apologize for getting you excited about independently-developed Borderlands, that was somewhat misleading. The elevator pitch for Verona is equal parts simple and complicated. Essentially, players are thrust into a dystopian future with the simple goal of harnessing resources from an utterly scavenged Earth in order to bolster the space colonies in which they now reside. Of course, these resources aren’t what one would think; for instance, in my demo I was tasked with removing a large statue filled with poison gas from Earth. Sounds pretty cool right? Well you wouldn’t be wrong in that respect, Verona‘s more interesting setting and gameplay quirks are far more interesting than the standard third-person shooting that makes up the vast majority of its moment-to-moment action.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with third-person cover-shooters; in fact, a great deal of the genre includes exciting, action-packed experiences. However, it’s easy to fall prey to the standard conventions that poison cover-based shooters, and I’m not entirely convinced that Verona does enough to combat this to be successful. Prior Games certainly has inserted a number of mechanics that make Verona feel unique at times, but its often-stale third-person shooting feels completely at odds with its creative aspects. It’s almost as if an incredibly unique game was smashed together with every bland aspect of third-person shooters like a child combining all of their Play-Doh into one massive heap.
Let’s talk about the elephant in the room that I just exposed in the last paragraph: if you’re a fan of third-person shooting, then Verona will certainly appeal to you. However, if you’re looking for a game that does anything and everything new in regards to cover-based shooting, then this may not be the title for you. In my thirty-minute demo, a great deal of my time was spent hiding behind objects, popping out to shoot enemies, lathering, rinsing, and repeating. This isn’t all that Verona has to offer, and, quite frankly, I wouldn’t feel as passionate for this game if it was. If there was a way to eliminate a great deal of its rudimentary gameplay, Verona would be the type of game that would exemplify everything that’s wonderful about the independent games space. It’s a curious case study as to what happens when ambition doesn’t necessarily go far enough.
So what about Verona‘s core gameplay strays away from convention? Simple, there are moments where your Firefly drone (yes, this is heavily influenced by the TV program of the same name) and other machinery requires to do things that you simply don’t see in other games. Lifting that giant gas-filled statue was only made possible through a bizarre series of mini-games and puzzles that were based on precise joystick movement, intriguing number-based puzzles, and general weirdness that I found myself appreciating more as time went on. Perhaps you’ll be tasked with lining up a drill in a small circle through the use of strange inverted controls that are altered by vibrations. Maybe you’ll have to navigate through a series of freezing ducts in first-person mode. Hell, you might even have to spin your joystick around in circles in order to raise a central number to a given power threshold. These moments were weird, gripping, and oddly tense even though they shy away from the type of gameplay that most look for in a video game. At its best Verona takes convention and throws it into the toilet. At its worst, it clings onto those conventions desperately, hoping to never let them go.
If there’s one thing that I hope this preview accomplishes, its to inform the developers that their odd ideas are the most interesting aspects. The team informed me that players, in general, found themselves praising the unconventional and panning the normal. If Prior Games is as open to criticism as it seems, the next build of Verona will look different from the Pre-Alpha we saw at PAX East 2015. I think there’s a wonderful game buried under standard gameplay, but exposing it is what’s going to be the challenge. Here’s to the one game on the show floor that had me scratching my head, sliding to the edge of my seat, and dreaming of an excellent final release.