Vidar is a particularly bleak RPG/Puzzler that puts players in the role of a mysterious stranger who arrives at a village a month into an ongoing tragedy. As if the harsh winter weren’t bad enough, a terrifying beast has been awakened in the caves beneath the town, and one of the villagers is taken each night. It’s up to the player to get to know the townspeople, attempt to solve their problems, and hopefully find the origin of the town’s curse in the catacombs deep below.
The game sports a 16-bit JRPG aesthetic, and the detailed sprites do a great job of capturing the texture and feel of a town in the depths of winter. The characters are bundled up against the cold, footprints gradually disappear in the driving snow and wind — there are even clumps of snow on the stoop outside each building. It’s a touch of realism anyone who’s trudged through a deep snowbank will instantly recognize.
The gameplay is broken up into two main areas. First is the town, where the player converses with townspeople to get backstory and receive quests. Then there’s the catacombs, where they’re challenged to complete those quests by finding objects and meeting characters while solving a variety of block and switch-based puzzles.
The game’s central conceit is that one of the characters (apparently selected at random) will be killed by the Beast each night. Needed their help for a quest? Wanted to see how their relationships developed? Too bad, they’re gone. A huge amount of work has gone into populating the town with fleshed-out characters, which makes it all the more tragic that any of them can die at any point.
I played through the first two hours of Vidar three times, just to test the limits of how random things actually were, and I was surprised at how much variance was possible within its structure.
Each time I started, the inciting incident was identical, and the developer would do well to offer the player a chance to skip the training day after their first run through. I won’t spoil the details, but it’s a pretty rough sequence to have to play over and over again. However, once that first day is over, there seems to be an incredibly wide number of paths for the game’s story to take.
During my initial attempt, the character who was in charge of researching the Beast’s history died before I had a chance to meet her. Later in the catacombs I found an item that would have been useful in her quests… had she lived long enough to see it. As I restarted, I encountered more and more moments like this, which is exactly what the developers seem to be going for. It’s not that Vidar has more quests than a standard RPG-lite, it’s that the fact that any of them can become inaccessible at a moment’s notice. This impending peril gives them all a weight that they might otherwise not have had.
While Vidar is certainly intriguing and well worth a look, it’s still pretty buggy at the moment. There are caves I can’t go into without crashing the game, some of the puzzles are a little vaguely explained (which led to more than a little confusion) and the town is full of tombstones with zany jokes on them — I would expect this in just about any other game, but here they play havoc with the carefully dire tone. The biggest problem, though, is how the catacombs are currently sectioned off.
The player has unlimited time to explore the town each day, once they head into the catacombs they have just ten real-time minutes to explore and solve as many puzzles as they can before the day ends and someone dies. This seems like a fair trade-off at first, except for one thing — they’re also limited to exploring one new area per day.
With the areas taking just 2-5 minutes to complete depending on the player’s facility with the type of puzzle in each one, it can feel a little unfair to have to throw away a whole half-day for no clear reason. On subsequent days the player can teleport further into the catacombs rather than having to retrace all of their steps, but that takes just thirty seconds per screen. The ‘one area per day’ restriction feels like an artificial way of stretching out the game, rather than something that’s logical, or somehow part of the story.
Despite those flaws, I’m very interested in playing more Vidar, perhaps even getting all the way to the bottom of the catacombs and solving the mystery at the heart of the game. The puzzles are solid, the story is well-written, and the ever-winnowing cast is a unique complicating factor, turning this into one of the freshest RPGs I’ve seen in a long time.
If you’d like to see how the first hour of the game looks, you can check out my video below — be warned though, it does contain spoilers of a frankly depressing nature.