When it comes to video games, balance is a very important thing to bear in mind. Sure, the same could be said of anything else in life, whether it's how you manage your downtime and luxuries, how a story is composed, or when you're fucking a clown on a unicycle balanced on a tightrope. When it comes to video games, though, the balance between your average game and its various elements is extremely important. Adult games add another layer to this, as the balance between the erotic content, the gameplay, and sometimes even the story is a very delicate one; skewering that balance can result in a very lopsided experience that has the potential to leave you dissatisfied.
To help illustrate the concept of balancing a game's different attributes, let's take a look at today's title, Ghost Hunter Vena.
Ghost Hunter Vena is a 2018 PC release by Vosmug, the same man who brought the world Xenotake back in late February of 2014. A few months after Xenotake's release, Vosmug began working on Ghost Hunter Vena — taking nearly four years to complete. While it might not look like this game took longer than your average modern Ubisoft release, Vosmug's blog seems to suggest that development was rather rocky, beset by external and internal complications. After a string of demo releases and semi-regular blog updates, the title was finally released on February 24th, 2018.
Ghost Hunter Vena is comparable to its predecessor in a lot of ways, particularly with the surprising prominence of its story. The premise of the game is simple enough: a trio of schoolgirls make a bet that hinges on whether they can prove a nearby abandoned mansion is haunted by ghosts. The bet takes a more interesting turn when their teacher, Ms. Sui, overhears the details and decides to join in on the fun. Before long, the group meets up at the mansion in the dead of night, where things take a swift turn for the worse. The group is separated almost immediately, leaving one of the schoolgirls, Vena, bound in a room with a sentient, otherworldly hand as her only company. It is then Vena learns ghosts are all too real, and Hand (as the otherworldly hand soon comes to be known as) is the only thing keeping them at bay, but Hand can only do so much. Vena is forced to make a choice: either help Hand repel the ghosts, gain the power to save her friends, and maintain the balance between two realms; or do nothing.
Given the very title of the game, it shouldn't be hard to surmise what happens next.
While the very premise of Ghost Hunter Vena doesn't sound all that original or spectacular, the game's writing may be among its strongest assets. Rather, how the characters in the story are written and how they interact with one another was handled with more care than I expected. Each character has their own defined traits established early on that get explored and occasionally flipped onto their head as the 5-hour adventure unfolds. The dynamic between Vena, Ms. Sui, and Hand is of particular interest — Vena struggles to accept her role as the hero, feeling Ms. Sui should have taken her place instead, while Hand can't fully comprehend the emotions of either.
By no means is any of this breaking new ground; hell, the very premise of the game brings to mind the Namco's 1988 arcade classic, Splatterhouse. Seeing characters this fleshed out and developed in a game of this nature was admittedly unexpected, and is definitely welcome. Do bear in mind all of this just applies to the main cast of characters, as there are bigger shortcomings with the main story as a whole. Unfortunately, these shortcomings aren't something I can brush aside so easily, as they tend to directly impact the gameplay.
Alright, first off, let's paint the picture of what Ghost Hunter Vena is. At its core, the title is a sidescrolling action game, comparable to Vosmug's previous work. You control Vena as she navigates the intricately interconnected estate, warding off any ghosts as she does so. On paper, this sounds just like any old game, but Ghost Hunter Vena isn't just any old game. No, that would be far too simple. There is a healthy variety of different ghosts to fight, but that variety is completely mitigated because every single enemy encounter goes the exact same way: wait for the invincible ghosts to attack, causing them to become vulnerable, stun them with your only attack, and then perform a follow-up sealing attack to deal massive damage. Barring the final boss and one rare toad-type ghost, that order of operations is true of every enemy in the entire game.
Compounding this issue further is the fact that both the ghosts and Vena herself occupy a large portion of the screen. The main issue with combat is that some ghost types fly around the screen aimlessly until they decide to attack, but because the amount of breathing room is so small, it's very easy for them to get a cheap shot on you when there simply isn't enough room. If that's not fun enough, there are numerous instances when multiple enemies or enemy types are on-screen at once, further exacerbating the issue.
Fortunately, ghosts are transparent by default and cannot deal contact damage, so if you just want to avoid fights altogether, you can get away with walking through ghosts more often than not. That is if you enjoy gimping yourself.
See, ghosts drop small orbs upon being defeated. Vena can use Hand, the one and only thing allowing her to survive this entire ordeal, to absorb these orbs. When enough orbs are collected, a gauge on the top left of the screen is filled, granting her one experience point. Experience points can be used to power up various aspects of her, and Hand's, combat potential. While different attributes can be powered up, such as how fast your HP refills automatically or how long your base attack stuns enemies for, the most important one is increasing your attack power. As later bosses start to rack on the health and enemies gain more prevalence, maximizing your attack to make quick work of enemies cuts down on the cumulative monotony of fights.
While the monotony of battle can be assuaged somewhat, the monotony of backtracking halfway through the game isn't something you can help.
The overall progression of the game is similar to action exploration games like later Metroid and Castlevania titles, but those games actually placed emphasis on using new abilities to traverse the environment. The mansion in Ghost Hunter Vena is split into three levels, but how you access these levels is determined by the plot and the new key item it allowed you to find, rather than any new abilities. There is one ability early on that allows you to clumsily jump multiple times in mid-air, but it ultimately doesn't factor into the game that heavily and there are no other upgrades in that vein to collect.
While the game is generally not that obnoxious about the times it forces you to backtrack, there will be points where you have to go from, say, the center of the central level to the bottom left corner of the upper level, which involves an extremely roundabout detour with no shortcuts. If you don't have the general layout of the mansion memorized, these points can potentially come off as a huge pain. Because while certain areas within each level are visually different, the rooms themselves have a tendency to resemble one another. It's a similar issue present in the earliest Metroid games, where too many rooms were visually indistinguishable from each other. Compounding this issue even further is the map, which is sometimes a little vague on details and rather obtrusive to pull up, obscuring the entire screen without pausing the game.
For all the compliments I gave the story for the surprising depth of its character interactions, the backtracking is where the story starts to get a little carried away. Too often will the plot see Vena lose Hand and have to run off to find him again in no less than three minutes, or find her friends that went missing and then search for a new safe place where they can hide. Oddly enough, there is occasionally the opposite issue, where the plot will vaguely clue you in about your next destination and expect you to either remember some innocuous detail or stumble across the next key item in some obtuse location. Rarely do I ever walk around the entire map for an hour, exhausting every possible option in every room out of the vain hope one of them will reveal the path forward.
Even when diving a little deeper into the presentation overall, Ghost Hunter Vena remains a little dicey. As stated, the environments have this tendency to bleed into one another, but when looking at the visuals in a broader sense, the individual backdrops set the tone adequately. The dark, drab environments help sell the idea of a broken-down, haunted mansion, but they don't ever go above and beyond that. The sound is hardly worth mentioning, with generic, barely audible white noise in the background and stock sound effects accompanying the action for the entire game.
Then there are the actual sprites used for the characters and enemies. In regards to the main cast, I maintain what I said about Vosmug's art style in my Xenotake review: it isn't the best, but it serves its purpose well. After four years, though, I would have expected a more substantial improvement in this area, but the art style remains more or less the same. One can't get away with the same face on this level when almost the entire main cast is comprised of women the player is supposed to ogle whenever present.
Enemy designs fare much better, though. While the actual execution of the various designs could have been better, I do think some of these designs are crafty in their own right. Sure, there's a giant toad ghost and a ghost that looks like Jared Leto's disembodied head, but the one ghost that's basically two lower torsos fused together, cocks and all, is so absurd that it stands out as one of the more eccentric designs.
Enemies such as this lend themselves well to the sexually-charged nature of the game, as it will remind you several times that the peculiar nature of this incident resulted in a slew of incredibly horny ghosts. If a ghost happens to hit Vena successfully, they'll grab her. If you don't mash out of their grab or fail to hit the on-screen prompt in time, Vena's clothing will be stripped away and she will be raped, respectively. She can only be raped for a certain number of times with no health, after which she will lose one EXP point and restarting from a nearby checkpoint. Given the nature of these H-scenes, though, odds are you might be doing that a lot.
While the art style is hit-or-miss and the animation is generally nonexistent in cutscenes, Vosmug's H-scenes are still remarkably fluid and oddly captivating despite that. Most H-scenes are tied to enemies, resulting in a tug of war to fill a meter, allowing you to break away from them. Alternatively, you could mash just enough to keep the H-scene going, turning the meter purple and increasing its tempo. Letting the meter drain at this point will force the enemy (most of them, at least) to orgasm, which is admittedly a decent amount of work on the player's part just to make the enemy cum.
If those H-scenes aren't enough, there's several scattered through the story. Since these are tied to the plot, the scenarios can range from downright bizarre to suitably tense. Many of the ghosts stick to tentacles as their main means of violating women, but the fetishes on display go much further than that. Mutual masturbation, cum overflow, bondage elements, foot licking, and even one instance of what looks like borderline vore. It's a healthy little variety pack overall, but most of it is definitely catered to tentacle fans.
Ultimately, Ghost Hunter Vena is a game that has some neat ideas, but the execution just can't quite carry them anywhere. The simplistic gameplay quickly becomes formulaic and monotonous, the presentation is average at best, and there is currently no traditional gallery for the H-scenes. While Vosmug has stated there are plans to implement such a gallery in a future update, it's baffling to think about how such a feature was passed up in the initial release. Without the option to relive one of the game's best qualities, the only other reason to check this one out is the story. Indeed, the story is intriguing and filled with relatively fleshed out characters, but I strongly doubt it will be enough to carry most of the adventure. When it comes to balance, this title is one that's tipped too far to one end.
If you're interested in picking up Ghost Hunter Vena, the game can be purchased for a recommended price of $7 from Vosmug's blog, where a trial version can also be downloaded. A release on DLsite is planned but is not yet available as of this writing.