Strategy games must always undertake the arduous task of balancing seemingly tedious decision making and number crunching against a sense of player agency and the feeling that those “spread sheet” decisions the player made actually meant something. Great strategy games master this balancing act, and can make the very act of using number sliders a matter of life or death; success or failure. Bad strategy games just become an unbearable slog through over complicated systems that just don’t appear to have any bearing on the game’s eventual outcome.
As a strategy/simulation game about trading goods in Renaissance Italy, Rise of Venice needed more than anything to make its decisions meaningful and interesting. At times, it gets things so right, so much so that I had to double take at how much excitement could be gleaned from selling oil to Athens for a slight profit. Look hard enough, thought, and the cracks soon start to appear in ROV’s hull, giving way to a game that feels unbalanced and clunky, albeit conceptually sound.
In Rise of Venice, the player steps into the finely crafted shoes of one Giacomo Da Narni, a member of a wealthy mercenary family. At the outset of the game, Da Narni promises his dying grandfather that he will give up his dreams of becoming a mercenary in order to take on the life of a merchant, as a means of bringing respect and greater wealth to the family. The aim of the game is to trade goods between cities by sea, eventually amassing a great fortune and a business empire that will allow you to rise in the Venetian political ranks. You’ll need to buy low from producing cities, then sell high to the cities that need those good, and natural disasters should always be taken advantage of to maximise profits.
After a short, beautifully animated exposition dump of a cut scene, the player’s foray into the adventure that is capitalism can begin. Shortly after said adventure begins, some pretty huge roadblocks appear.
Once presented with the game’s map – a map that covers the main areas of the Mediterranean – a pop up appears that simply says “Familiarise yourself with the basic controls. Then sail your convoy to Zara”. Now while the game’s UI is relatively clean and lacking in clutter, there is a certain amount of prior knowledge that cannot be taken for granted when throwing oneself into a deep strategy/sim game. It took me an embarrassingly large amount of time to even decipher which convoy actually belonged to me, since there is no indication in the beginning that “the blue convoy is yours”. Without so much as a simple tutorial or introduction, Rise of Venice throws a lot of information at the player without allowing for much time to breathe.
Many of the game’s more advanced gameplay aspects like setting up trade routes or owning businesses are not explained until about 3 hours into the game, meaning that when tried to increase the efficiency of my convoys via trade routes, I couldn’t even work out how to create one, thanks to the game’s frankly unhelpful “hints” system. Sure, there’s information there when you hover over an icon, but this usually takes on the form of a few words to explain what the hell the icon actually meant in the first place.
The campaign map itself is at least rather beautiful to behold, with the magnificent Mediterranean rendered in striking and glossy 3-D. The same can also be said for the game’s painted character designs, which, while technically unimportant, make for a more charming and authentic experience on the whole.
Once Rise of Venice’s steep learning curve has been conquered, things do open up into a more routine strategy game that feels generally solid. Certain cities specialize in the production certain goods, and will sell them for a low price to you. These goods can then be traded at other cities that might have a higher demand for said good. Although the initial rush of finding a great line of trade can be a fun experience, and the systems put in place all work reliably, this mostly gets washed away over time through monotony and repetition.
There are also campaign missions to take into account, and the occasional city specific mission to take on, but these usually just take on the form of “Take all these bricks we have lying around and deliver them to a city in need”, or “Can you bring us loads of fruit because our shipment got lost”. The city specific missions, too, are often difficult to find, and are often only obtainable by chance upon entering a city’s port. At times, the main campaign mission is simply to advance to the next merchant level, which basically involves trading to make money (and isn’t helped by the senate to whom you must plead your case for advancement, and whom only seem to respond to bribery and apparently your willingness to buy their treasure maps). To criticize a game for focusing on its own gameplay quirk too much might seem a little harsh, but there simply aren’t enough variables or random happenstances on offer in Rise of Venice to distract from the endless slog of trading goods, at least when compared to Crusader Kings II or anything in the Total War series.
The game’s trading might not feel like such a slog if things didn’t feel so unwieldy to control. In order to trade at a city you’re docked at, the convoy that is docked there must first be selected. The problem is, it takes a precise click to select the convoy without accidentally clicking on the city itself; thus bringing up unwanted menus that must be clicked off. The most efficient view of the world map is a zoomed out perspective, but this makes precisely clicking on a convoy even harder, particularly when a city’s name icon can oftentimes hide the convoy itself. This might seem like nit picking, but the amount of frustration this over-clicking can cause was enough to ruin many a trade for me.
This is where Rise of Venice’s biggest problem rears its ugly, disheveled head. The game lacks a pause button. Don’t get me wrong, the game pauses time when the trade menu is up to allow you to work out the maths and calculate what quantities you want to trade, but without an actual “pause time” button, entire game days can be spent on simply making a decision or looking around the map. As each game day passes, money is lost on convoy costs and other expenses, so any wasted time is also wasted money. Now imagine trying to click on a fast moving convoy from a zoomed out perspective, as it enters a port. You can’t pause to stop the convoy moving, and your clicks just keep landing on the surrounding city. All the while your fortune is slowly slipping away thanks to poor design choices. It’s infuriating to say the least. A dedicated pause button would allow for more decision making, and would result in more complex and satisfying trades, instead of rush jobs to the nearest city that has no fruit.
As well as trading and political wringing, the player can also engage in naval battles with pirates who are out to steal your goods. These naval battles, although often satisfying to watch, feel a little flat and awkward; like two cardboard cut-out boats circling each other. At times, it didn’t even seem like the ships under my command were responding to my orders (in one instance a ship of mine just continued to sail towards the edge of the map, without even having engaged in battle).
In addition to its admittedly robust campaign mode, Rise of Venice also features a free play mode, and a multiplayer mode (which I was unfortunately unable to access during the review period). Free play mode essentially resembles the campaign, only without missions, which makes for an even more monotonous experience, albeit a less reigned in one.
I really wanted to like Rise of Venice. It has a unique flavour and charm to it that cannot be found elsewhere, and on the odd occasion that it does manage to impress, the florin signs start rolling inside my eyeballs, and I truly feel like a capitalist machine.
If the game’s mechanical issues were fixed (probably through keyboard shortcuts), Rise of Venice’s strong concept and aesthetic would probably hold their own and result in a truly intriguing game. With this kind of sloppy design though, the game just feels like a frustrating grind. It might well be that the game itself is a commentary on the hardships of mercantile life, and if so they’ve certainly captured that aspect. That said, these archaic design choices just make for an experience that isn’t particularly fun, it’s just a chore. It’s possible that the truly hardcore strategy fans among us may find a place within Rise of Venice’s unforgiving world, but for most people it’s just a clunker. I came into Rise of Venice feeling optimistic, excited and eager. I left Rise of Venice feeling tired, sunken and unashamedly angry. Being a merchant is a bumpy ride, and Rise of Venice is no different.