Venba Review - No Onions Required
Video games, sadly for decades have been incredibly homogenised, with the protagonists, as well as the largest portion of most games being both white and male. Thankfully, with the rapid expansion of the industry, and the boom of the independent scene, there has been a boom in the number of voices represented in the medium of games. Year by year, we see an increasing number of games get announced or released that hail from non-traditional game development locations or people from outside of those game development hotbeds, allowing us to get to experience the art form from different cultural perspectives. Venba, from Canadian team Visai games, tells the story of Venba, a woman from Southern India who immigrates to Canada, and we watch as her journey plays out over several decades, the challenges she faces, and the emotional turmoil she goes through as someone well and truly out of their comfort zone. While the plot has a target audience, can Venba’s tale reach out outside of its primary audience to strike a chord with an even larger player base?
We meet Venba, and her husband Paavalan in one of the more challenging, but also exciting stages of a couples’ journey. Venba is unwell, and she soon learns that this is because she is pregnant. This kicks off one of several time-skips throughout the approximately 1.5-2 hour playing experience where we meet Vanba and Paavalan’s son, Kavin, and see the family dynamic evolve over time. Being of an Indian background in a Western country, we are witness to the challenges that the family faces of embracing elements of the society that they’re now in, whilst continuing to the growth of their own cultural heritage, especially given that Kavin doesn’t have the connection to India that his parents do, and is brought up surrounded by different values and beliefs, that naturally influence his development. How Venba and Paavalan respond to this, whilst they still struggle to find their own place in Canadian society, is one of the most fascinating plotlines of the entire game. It’s not hard to find yourself completely immersed by the plot of Venba, and while I am not of an Indian heritage, as the game progressed, by found myself increasingly drawn towards Venba’s way of parental thinking in trying to keep their Indian heritage alive. The emotions will be tested, whether you’re someone who has walked a similar road to Venba’s family, or even as someone empathising with their plight.
As far as how players interact with the game, Venba is largely a narrative-focussed experience, with little interaction required of the player, although there are two ways that players drive the plot forward. There are a few moments where the player has the power to make some dialogue choices as either Venba or Paavalan, though these are largely lacking in importance, having only minor influence over the narrative through-line. Players can also engage in a range of cooking scenarios, guided by the somewhat dilapidated cookbook of Venba’s mother, that change the pace of the game nicely, and give the players the opportunity to immerse themselves in some cultural understanding of South-Indian cuisine. The cookbook provides you with some steps, but many have been damaged over time, leaving the player to use some knowledge, intuition, and ruminations from Venba to lead you a well-prepared meal. Early on in the piece, this system works especially well and encourages players to think properly about their meal-prep, however, as the game progresses, it takes you by the hand more, stripping the creative thinking component, that disappointingly makes the latter cooking sequences feel like somewhat bloated quick-time events rather than challenges for the player to think through.
Venba has an exceptionally stylized approach that is easy on the eye, but is also constantly engaging. Vibrant use of colour combines with a style inspired by established anime such as Samurai Jack, to engage the eye at all times. The meals themselves have been carefully designed despite the stylised approach to still resemble their source material so as not to confuse the players. It’s not just in the meals where we can taste the Indian flavour, but in the music accompaniment as well. The music of the game has been heavily inspired by Indian musicals, and while it at times takes a back seat to the on-screen action, even in its more subtle moments, the player can feel the rhythm of the beat soothing them as they explore the narrative or cook up a storm.
Venba is not a lengthy experience, and in some areas, it gets so consumed by the story it wants to tell that it loses sight of its primary gameplay mechanic, but those limited number of times that you can create a culinary delight are incredibly enjoyable, and the narrative that is weaved is so resonant, that you’ll quickly overlook the small number of flaws. Venba is a fresh new flavour to hit our palettes, and one that I’d like to taste again in the future.
Venba was reviewed on a PS5 with a code kindly provided by PopAgenda