Dead in Vinland starts strong with a gorgeous hand-drawn cutscene that quickly establishes the stakes. You essentially play as an entire Norse family forced to escape by sea from marauders burning your home for unknown reasons. Yet the gods are evidently as angry with you as your countrymen, and a storm grounds you on a mysterious island with few supplies.
From there, each day is divided into two action rounds and a rest round each night. During the two daytime turns, you assign your family members to activities, such as harvesting, scavenging, or exploring. You can also upgrade your workstations or craft new ones to open up more complex tasks, such as hunting or farming. These workstations and the camp they inhabit are presented sort of like dioramas, with the camp itself spread across several horizontally arranged screens. Everything from the characters to the buildings has an attractive hand-drawn look that helps sell the story as somewhere between graphic novel and storybook. Within the first few rounds, you’ll come across a band of generic evil Vikings led by a staggeringly poorly written maniac, which introduces another dominant mechanic. Each week or so, this gang will demand tribute, in the form of one of your precious resources. This provides a good sense of short-term goals, as well as a few for the longer term: recruit allies and defeat the madman.
It’s a standard setup for the survival sim genre, but the settlement building’s quirks started to open a rift between the game’s systems and its narrative that would eventually grow into a chasm. For instance, one of the structures you can build is a rest area. Napping there during the day will help your characters recover fatigue. Oddly, though, it recovers more fatigue than simply napping in the seemingly much more comfortable shelter you already have. You also need to build a cooking stove to roast meat, despite the fact that you already have a campfire from the start of the game. If you can look past the absurdity of some of its premises, the settlement layer of the game is engaging. There’s a wide variety of resources to collect and activities to undertake, making it possible to tailor your camp to accomplish your objectives in a lot of different ways. Your characters’ needs are as varied as the ways to satisfy them, making it necessary to plan several steps ahead and anticipate shortfalls before they become catastrophic.
Dead in Vinland takes care to acquaint you with its mechanics much more than most survival sims, which I appreciated since unknowing missteps could ruin your playthrough down the line. If a single one of your characters’ meters (fatigue, hunger, sickness, disease, injury, and depression) reaches 100%, it’s game over. The tutorial shows you how to manage these meters and shows you the basics of building up your base, assigning tasks to your party, and exploring the island. However, constant interruptions for long conversations between your party members bog it down and make the information it gives you harder to retain.
As for the dialogue itself, it’s the source of most of my frustrations with the game. Each of the four family members is a broad, uninteresting caricature. Eirik is the stoic father who blames himself for the family’s misfortune. Blodeuwedd is the equally stoic mother whose entire character revolves around her status as a mother and wife. Moira, Blodeuwedd’s sister, is a mischievous witch who is weirdly obsessed with her sister’s sex life. Kari is the rebellious daughter of Eirik and Blodeuwedd who would look more natural in Hot Topic clothing than a Viking’s garb. Watching these characters interact is insufferable, and when they do speak, it’s always with twice as many lines as they need. Their conversations are also packed with ellipses to indicate pauses and internal asides, each of which adds another full-screen card that you have to click through one by one. It’s honestly exhausting, but you likely won’t be tempted to read through any of them because the dialogue is terrible, packed with modern slang and repetitive jokes.
Even worse, these conversations are often just setups to make life harder for your family. While some conversations result in the bond between characters strengthening, the result is more often detrimental. Either characters have a wedge drawn between them, or they gain points in one of their status meters. That would be fine if you could draw a straight line from your actions to their consequences, but it’s usually unclear why your actions had any effect at all. Rather than trying to roleplay any of the characters, I had to calibrate my dialogue responses toward what seemed like the most innocuous thing I could possibly say. Even then, the character’s actual statement would sometimes take on a different shade of meaning than I had intended and hurt them anyway. A lot of times you’re not even given a choice in the matter. Characters will just carry on their own conversations, with no input whatsoever, and end up harming themselves or each other. In a game where you frequently occupy a razor-thin margin between life and death, these scenes could end your game with absolutely nothing you can do about it.
In some instances, you come across others on the island. Despite the game ostensibly taking place in Vinland (the Norse term for North America circa 1000 BCE), the island seems to be populated by more lost intercontinental travelers than aboriginal people. When you stumble upon another wanderer, you’re given a choice of which character to send as an envoy. In the first few encounters, I chose based on who I thought would make the most narrative sense: Send the mystic to deal with supernatural matters, and the patriarch to talk to a traveling priest. When their dialogue seemed a little canned, I reloaded to try the conversations with other characters, and saw the exact same words, just coming out of different mouths. I can’t say for sure that there are no unique encounters to find this way, but I was too disillusioned to put much thought into them ever again.
Of course, not all of your encounters will be friendly. If you choose to send a character exploring, you’ll sometimes run across other islanders fighting to survive, namely by killing you and stealing all your stuff. As in so many games, dealing with your problems using violence is more fun than using words. When Dead in Vinland’s turn-based combat kicks off, each side’s fighters line up in a melee row and a ranged row. These rows affect which attacks you can use, as well as which targets these attacks can hit, much like in Darkest Dungeon. Each character’s stats determine their turn order and give them a number of action points they can use to execute attacks. Oddly, your characters seem to be placed into these rows at the start of combat randomly, so you often use your first turn getting them where you want them. Changing rows only takes one action point, and some moves throw in a row shift for free, so you don’t have to completely waste your turn on positioning.
Combat was probably the most fun part for me, though it’s treated like a hazard to avoid while exploring and it eventually gets as tedious as the rest of the game. Classes have clear-cut roles in battle, and no one feels entirely useless, though some are naturally more powerful than others. Status effects are also emphasized in combat, enabling a lot more strategy than just picking the attack that does the most damage. Abilities are also pretty varied within individual characters, so I never felt like I was left with nothing to do in a turn. Although if you end your turn with unspent action points, you get one extra on the next round, which makes doing nothing sometimes the right choice. Winning a fight rewards you pretty handsomely, but it also leaves you open to taking lasting injuries. It strikes a good balance between risk and reward, and connects the combat to the survival sim in a way that games with multiple layers don’t always do.
If you’re a fan of survival sims and aren’t bothered by cringe-inducing dialogue, Dead in Vinland is worth a try. The settlement management was actually quite good, but it was so peppered with inconsistencies and agency-stealing sequences that I couldn’t get as invested in it as I wanted to. I found myself hoping for bandit attacks just to break up the monotony. What frustrates me most is that its biggest weaknesses could be ripped out entirely without affecting the underlying game at all. It went further than most survival sims to tell a story and flesh out its characters, which I respect, but nearly every step it took in those directions was faltering. I can’t care about characters just because I’m in control of their fate, nor can I take a story seriously when it constantly breaks its own tone. It’s not that Dead in Vinland is lacking in any major way, it’s just a good game buried under a mountain of little annoyances.