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Velvet Assassin on Game and Player

Velvet Assassin

Michael Ubaldi  //  May 7, 2009

An exceptional period piece.


There is only one thing worse than a captured agent — a captured agent without cyanide." Violette Summer keeps those words from a mentor as her vade mecum while she commits acts of espionage, sabotage and subversion against Nazi Germany. Hamburg developer Replay Studios transposes the halting spy career of a French-born British woman into a stealth-action game, which Southpeak Interactive has published as Velvet Assassin — a solemn thriller, accessible genre title and exceptional period piece.

Violette Szabo joined Britain's Special Operations Executive in late 1942, early 1943. A year later, she completed one mission, was captured by the Gestapo during her second and spent the next seven months in the Ravensbruck concentration camp, where she was executed. A posthumous award of the George Cross secured and exalted Szabo in the public record. Replay has drawn the character of Violette Summer, however, from Violette Szabo's lucid heroism. Berlin's invasion of Poland pushed her into the Auxiliary Territorial Service, and the death of her husband at El Alamein impelled her to join the SOE. Into enemy territory sneaks a beautiful woman: lone, imperiled, defiant.

Violette Summer:
widow and secret agent.
Velvet Assassin offers players the cloak-and-dagger requisites, its mechanics ordinary yet neatly arranged and satisfyingly consistent. Spending most of her time crouching forward, Violette enters and compromises secure Nazi positions and facilities, removing soldiers as they block her way. Most locations are gloomily enclosed or under nightfall. Elsewhere, sunlight checkers the ground with deep shade, which Replay manipulates as the primary element of gameplay: shadow.

The character faintly shines purple when she is effectively cloaked by darkness; Germans don't notice Violette unless they stumble over her. From there, a player may proceed as the mission requires, most often maneuvering to where sentries are easily overcome — from behind. Violette kills silently, and usually must. Although Replay suggests that occasionally "brute force" is the only answer, Violette is outnumbered and armed sparingly — a knife, maybe a silenced Colt or stolen Luger, and a few more weapons for very particular circumstances. She has little use for an MP40, nor does Velvet Assassin's gameplay.

Meeting basic stealth-action standards, every section introduces a new tactical puzzle or a variation of those already established. Soldiers patrol in obvious patterns but in increasing numbers and complexity, so timing offsets spell the difference between fatal divulgement and an opening for a swift kill. Replay furnishes every environmental means for a player to progress: Violette peeks through keyholes at the next section, smashes fuseboxes to expand the darkness or else whistles to sucker soldiers into it; fires a bullet into the wall as a distraction, flips a switch to electrify pools of water, ruptures barrels to overwhelm nearby soldiers and — should a squad of Wehrmacht or SS be alerted — can inject morphine, reducing time to a transient and ethereal crawl, or failing that, defend herself by connecting every bullet in the gun she fires with a forehead. Or she walks by, inconspicuous, in the enemy's uniform.

These tidy formulae might bore more seasoned players, or, with checkpoints that are at junctures unforgiving, frustrate newer ones, if gameplay were other than a medium for Velvet Assassin's vivid, even terrifying portrayal of Europe during the Second World War; a lurid story from the beginning. Violette Summer, infirm, narrates in saturnine flashback. Locales — carefully modeled docks, train yards, bunkers, subterranes — exude heaviness of the air, age and decay. The soundtrack is ambient, placid or distressing where needed.

Soldiers act convincingly insofar as they do humbly and coarsely. Listless or dutiful, they hum, mutter, snort, clear the throat, and, usually once per section, converse with a comrade — some scuttlebutt or a complaint. The dialogue penned is superlative, gritty but piquant, and Replay's contracted voice actors sound authentic, residents or neighbors, as far as the American ear should be concerned, of Hamburg. Some soldiers chat and return to their post. Others have left missives on desks, waiting to be mailed — addressed to lovers, most of them assuring a coming day to be reunited. Violette collects and reads them out loud, a few feet away from authors who are lying face-down. Among looted paintings beneath a Paris cathedral, one soldier tries to impart to another the rarity and depth of the black that Rogier van der Weyden achieved with oil glazes, only to be enveloped by pitch moments later.

Maneuver to where enemies are
most easily overcome: from behind.
Unfortunate. But there's a war on, and soon enough Violette penetrates the Warsaw Ghetto — before the Uprising but after a block has been wrested and taken to the Umschlagplatz. Then interstices of humanity along mechanized columns of the Third Reich contract and disappear.

Violette Summer responds to this naked anathema and the grimness of her charge with a Briton's stoicism, terse but dignified. Replay defers to history in overwriting very little of Violette Szabo. On one hand, Violette Summer pursues a different campaign entirely, yet the developers frame Summer with the sentimental penumbra of Szabo, granting the character the worth of the woman who lived. And although players must relate through inference rather than empathy — minimalism that is tricky to pull off — Replay succeeds, making Violette Summer a likeness, not an eidolon.

So each chapter of Velvet Assassin brings not only another puzzle but one more clue as to the fate which attentive players will be desperate to know. That is a magnificent crux. Heretofore Southpeak Interactive's impression has been, for me, wanting. In presenting the work of Replay Studios, Southpeak has arrived, and someplace far better than before.

Velvet Assassin



Replay Studios


SouthPeak Interactive

NA Release

April 28, 2009


Play Mode

ESRB Rating

In Favor

  • Gripping and intense
  • Sound mechanics
  • Believable historical fiction


  • Unforgiving checkpoints

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