Review – Venba

Overview

Developer Visai Games
Publisher Visai Games
Genre Visual Novel, Cooking Simulation
Platforms PC, Nintendo Switch (reviewed), Xbox Series S|X, Xbox One, Playstation 5
Release Date July 31, 2023

Whatever your opinions on this year’s Game Awards are, it’s undeniable that they’re a great way for smaller games to gain a broader exposure. If you’re just paying attention to the big categories that always go to AAA games, you’re missing out on a lot of smaller experiences that also get highlighted. One of those smaller categories that I wasn’t even aware of until this year is the Games for Impact category, which, according to the TGA website, is reserved “for a thought-provoking game with a pro-social meaning or message.” This year’s winner was Awaceb’s Tchia (which GUG has already covered here,) but there were a total of 6 contenders for the award this year, all with their own pro-social message to express. The one that caught my eye was Visai Games’ Venba.

Content Guide:

Religious/Spiritual Content: The game quotes the Tirukkural, a Tamil text comprised of short couplets, at the beginning of each chapter. While a secular text, the Tirukkural reads similarly to the proverbs of Scripture, and generally presents good advice to live by, paralleling some truths found in Scripture. Kavin misuses God’s name once.

Violent Content:

*SPOILERS*

Paavalan is attacked midway through the game, and is shown to have a bleeding wound on his head and cracked glasses. It’s left ambiguous whether or not he was simply mugged or if there was racist intent behind the attack.

*SPOILER END*

Positive Elements: The game highlights reconciliation and seeing the perspective of others. A key feature is acknowledging the sacrifices parents make for their children, and the freedom children have to not allow those sacrifices to determine how they will live their lives. At the same time, it highlights the importances of children recognizing their parents’ perspectives and attempting to understand them. As a game featuring a Southern Indian family, it leans heavily into their culture, highlighting their language, decoration, and, of course, cuisine. The game highlights how important the Tamil language is to Venba’s family, and how important it is to them that their family continues to use it.

Review:

We’ve seen a bevy of games coming from non-Western developers hitting the mainstream recently, and it’s really cool to see. One of my favorite games of all time, Coffee Talk, came from the Indonesian studio Toge Productions. So Venba’s main draw of presenting Tamil culture and cuisine in a visual novel/cooking simulator format immediately drew my attention. What I wasn’t expecting was for it touch on a WHOLE lot more.

The game starts in 1988. Venba and her husband Paavalan are immigrants to Toronto from Tamil Nadu. The game immediately makes it clear that the young couple is struggling to make ends meet, with Paavalan mentioning that if his supervisor doesn’t allow him to go full-time, they may have to move back to India. He’s about to head out the door when Venba asks him if he packed lunch. He didn’t, and he didn’t want to bother her because she’s feeling under the weather. But Venba, caretaker to the core, can’t let him leave, so she gets up to steam some idlis for him before he leaves.

The game then switches to Venba in the kitchen. The ingredients hop to their places on the table with some really fun animations, and it’s up to you to decipher the way to properly steam the idlis from Venba’s mother’s worn out old cookbook. Certain words and phrases are smudged out, but you can still piece together the recipe from the illustrations and using some good old fashioned common sense.

This recipe gameplay is, if I may say so, genius. The way the game uses traditional South Indian recipes and reformats them as a puzzle game is completely new and unexpected. In addition, some of the puzzles are pretty challenging, forcing you to experiment with the different kitchen implements to ensure you’re using all the tools available to you. Eventually, you’ll end up trying to cook recipes that are completely smudged out, and you’ll need to rely on some hazy memories Venba has of her mother cooking to piece together the recipe. Crucially, the game never crosses over into being frustrating. While I would have appreciated the ability to simply undo a wrong action rather than having to start the entire recipe over again, none of the recipes are terribly long, so I never lost more than 5 or 10 minutes of work.

One of the game’s weaknesses comes from the Switch controls. It works fine enough, with a cursor you move with the control sticks to pick up various ingredients and cookware and move them to their proper places. However, when you have to do the same action multiple times, such as with the idli steamer, the cursor speed gets to be a little frustrating. Some of the things you need to pick up, like the pressure cooker lid, are very small, making lining up the cursor with the sticks unnecessarily frustrating. It’s not horrible, and I got used to it soon enough, but it definitely pulled me out of the game once or twice. I even tried playing it in the Switch’s handheld mode hoping there were touch controls, which would have fit perfectly, but no dice. It’s worth noting that this would not be an issue at all on the PC version.

While cooking is the main gameplay element, Venba is far from a mere Cooking Mama clone. It’s more of a visual novel, actually, following Venba and her family as they live their lives in Toronto. As a visual novel, a lot of Venba’s appeal comes from its plot, so I won’t spoil too much here. The visual novel sections do have a bit of gameplay themselves in the form of dialogue choices, which reveal different parts of the backstory depending on your choices. But the choices don’t affect the game much beyond that. I did two playthroughs, choosing different dialogue options, and while I got a bit of additional information, it was never more than one or two sentences’ worth of difference.

While the choice mechanic doesn’t have much weight to it, the overall story definitely does. The game touches on a lot of themes that I wasn’t expecting from such a short title. We see the struggle of second-generation children of immigrants feeling in-between cultures in Kavin’s story. We see racial discrimination and violence in Paavalan’s struggle to find employment. We see the importance of culture to one’s identity, and how microaggressions (such as refusing to properly learn someone’s given name) can build up over time to wear on one’s sense of identity. That’s…a lot for a cooking game to touch on.

The thing I appreciated most about the way Venba approaches its story is how natural everything feels. I don’t want to praise the game for not being heavy-handed, since heavy-handedness can itself be an effective storytelling tool, but Venba opts for a gentler approach, letting us see these issues in the context of the story rather than outright telling us what to think. And it’s clear the writers do have an opinion they want the player to take, but they give empathy to all characters in the story, even the ones who don’t get everything right. At its core, Venba is a remarkably human game, touching on the importance of identity, which as a believer in the imago Dei existing in every human being, I can get behind.

The storytelling even carries into the most minute of details. You get the impression that Venba and Paavalan are struggling financially from the dialogue, sure, but the details in the house back that up as well. Venba is sleeping with a free airline blanket rather than a more expensive one from a store. The pots used later in the game have scratches and scuffs on them, showing that Venba has been using the same set of cookware from 1988 well into the 2000s. Paavalan is still wearing his cracked glasses years after they’re broken. You even get to see his name tag once, and his name is misspelled, adding to the idea that they just don’t fit in in the majority culture. Little touches like this, combined with the beautiful children’s book artstyle, show the love that’s in this title. The game even uses different font colors to indicate when the characters are speaking in Tamil or English, along with partially obscured text boxes to show when Venba has a hard time understanding her son’s English.

Venba is one of the most unique experiences I’ve had, and while I had fun, I also found myself more invested in the story and characters than I was expecting. That’s why I found the game’s extraordinarily short length to be so frustrating. I played through the entire game twice, and I didn’t spend more than 4 hours total doing so. The aforementioned dialogue choices can offer a bit of replayability, but not much, and you don’t miss much by choosing one option over another. The cooking portions were a lot of fun, but there are only 6 of those sections in total, meaning that once you’ve solved the puzzles, you’ll be able to breeze through the game on repeat playthroughs in even less time. I understand that the developers reached a point where they had told the story they wanted to tell, but it really felt more like a demo than a full release. And this isn’t to say the game is bad; I wanted more. I just felt like the game didn’t give itself enough time to really develop its gameplay.

Conclusion

If the worst thing I can say about Venba is that it wasn’t long enough, then I’d say that’s high praise. And for $14.99 on Steam, it’s not a budget-buster either. That price might sound a little steep for a game that takes less than 2 hours to beat, and if it was any other game, I would agree. But you will not find another experience like this game anywhere else. As someone from a majority culture who has had little to no opportunity to interface with other cultures, it’s nice that games are opening up opportunities for developers from other cultures to share their experiences.

If you have any interest in learning about other cultures, or the experiences of non-white people in a majority white culture, this is a great starting point. It’s not going to give you the full experience of a Tamilian immigrant, obviously, but it is a good way to open yourself up to other cultures even in your downtime. Plus, you’ll get to learn about some absolutely mouthwatering Southern Indian recipes that I want to try now. Seriously, the game inspired me to try making biryani for myself in real life, and it was one of the most fun recipes I’ve ever cooked. Venba is a game I feel that anyone and everyone can benefit from playing.

The Bottom Line

 

Venba presents a totally unique experience for players, with a touching story about the struggles of immigrants and the importance of culture, held back only by its short length.

 

9.0

Wesley Lantz

Wesley's first memory of video games is playing through Super Mario World with his mom when he was 3 years old. Since then, he's been a classic Nintendo kid, but has branched out to the far lands of PlayStation in recent years. He enjoys the worlds that video games create and share with their audiences, and the way video games bring together collaborators from so many different disciplines like music, visual art, literature, and even philosophy. He is an advocate for excellency in all things, but isn't immune to a few guilty pleasure games, which may or may not include Disney's Party for the GameCube.

Leave a Comment