Right off the bat, it’s worth noting that 2009’s Velvet Assassin isn’t a game for absolutely everyone. While it’s a stealth game, it’s an unique kind of stealth game that doesn’t include many options stealth game enthusiasts have been spoiled by over the years, making it far more punishing than most games. While it’s a game set in World War 2, it’s not a game where Nazis exist as paper-thin enemies to be haphazardly torn through (in fact, most of the time you’re better off avoiding them altogether). Despite some questionable design decisions, however, the game is a rough diamond that frequently goes on sale for less than 2 dollars USD.
Unlike many other games taking place during World War 2 that use the setting to tell a large-scale, entirely fictional story about the conflict, Velvet Assassin is loosely based on the life of real-life spy Violette Szabo and pulls no punches when representing the ugliness, paranoia, and miscellaneous hopelessness of a single person during the time period. The game begins with main character Violette Summer lying in a hospital bed recovering from injuries sustained during a mission, with much of the game taking place as flashbacks that are presumably being recalled during Violette’s fever dreams while she recovers. This ties into the unique game mechanic of “morphine”; throughout the game you’ll stumble upon rare syringes full of morphine that can be used, freezing time as Violette (dressed in her hospital gown) is free to move for a short time, with the implication being that she’s being injected with morphine in real life and the effects of said morphine are altering her recollection of how things happened. Outside of morphine, Violette can perform stealth kills by sneaking up behind enemies, but morphine also allows her to perform stealth kills from any direction without alerting nearby enemies, making it a useful last resort for tricky situations where you’re spotted by enemies and need to retreat to a safer location (or in the worst case scenario, neutralize an alerted guard).
As mentioned earlier, stealth in Velvet Assassin is unlike other stealth games like Metal Gear Solid, Dishonored, and others. Not only are you unable to press yourself up against walls in order to peer around corners, but morphine is the closest thing to a power you have, and your talent with the knife is never sufficient to take down a small group of Nazi soldiers. Between that and the paucity of bullets you’re forced to contend with, this lends a certain feeling of helplessness to the game unlike that found in any other, with the difference between life and death very much being determined by your ability to remain undetected.
To that end, Violette can hide in the game’s plentiful shadows (and there’s a meter on the bottom-left of the screen that shows you how hidden in the shadows she is) and drag slain enemies to the darker areas, but the many floodlights set up by enemies ensure that you’re never allowed to be too comfortable in the darkness. There’s also a wonderfully tense section of the game where Violette dresses up as a Nazi in order to infiltrate an area controlled by them. Since they’re familiar with those in the area, however, you have to keep a certain amount of distance between yourself and those in the building at all times lest they recognize you for the intruder you are. Their suspicion of you in this scene is indicated by a tiny white bar on the bottom of the screen, and this could very easily go down in history as one of the tensest sections in all of gaming.
The game’s not faultless, however, and it commits one of gaming’s cardinal sins by relying on checkpoint saves. While this isn’t anything too unusual for the Xbox 360, the PC version also includes these checkpoints, ensuring that making a single costly mistake can send you back quite a way to try again. This can make the game unnecessarily frustrating for some, especially given its already brutal difficulty. Another quibble would be the game’s graphics, which sport almost universally muted colors except for the overwhelming orange of the sky when you’re outside. This helps to add to the overall atmosphere, but it also makes playing the game for extended periods of time fatiguing.
Those flaws aside, the frequency with which this game goes on sale makes Velvet Assassin absolutely recommendable. While it’s not a game that everyone will enjoy, the low cost and unique style of gameplay and storytelling are well worth taking a chance on.