Dead in the Vinland is as well written as it is infuriating. It’s the Darkest Dungeon of survival games. Beautiful, atmospheric, difficult, but not in a good way. Like Darkest Dungeon, the most difficult thing about Dead in the Vinland it’s over-reliance on RNG which makes the game feast or famine. But to its credit, when you get into the flow of things, the game is fun, but you need a lot of luck to get there. And you’re always one bad roll away from a kick in the teeth.
Dead in the Vinland follows a family of four, exiled from their homeland, condemned to sail the unforgiving sea. After some exposition, they wash up on the shores of a mysterious land. They find an abandoned settlement and set out to survive their environment’s many hazards.
After a couple of days, the resident jerk, Bjorn Headcleaver comes to their camp. After opening a can of whoop-ass, he tells them that every week they will need to pay tribute to him. And that is where your journey begins.
You start off with a campground split into five sections. In each section, you have stations where your party members will perform different actions. Starting off, you have very few options. You can explore, gather water, scavenge, and most importantly, craft new stations. Building stations allows you to perform more actions, which gives you a steady flow of materials, food, and water. The game uses a drag and drop method to assign your party’s tasks and keeping things organized is easy. As a bonus, they’ll strike different poses and expressions depending on the station. It’s a nice touch.
Let’s talk about how a day in Dead in Vinland goes. Each day is divided into three pieces, two work periods and one night period. In each work period, your characters can perform one action. If your character is gathering a material, at the end of the period, you’ll get materials. If they are doing something with a progress meter, most significantly crafting, they’ll need to work until the progress bar is at 100%. The speed they fill the bar in is modified by their stats.
Finally, nighttime is when you will see cutscenes, divvy up water and food among your party members, and see the various effects of the day on your characters’ need meters. The basic structure of Dead in Vinlands is rock solid. In terms of management sims, it is one of the easier ones to navigate at face value. But once you get into the details, things become more complicated and a bit less fun.
Stats, Traits, and Rerolling
Now, if the game were simply a matter of balancing time, growing a camp, and satisfying a few essentials, Dead in Vinland would be easy but it’s definitely not. Though you start each game with the same four characters, their stats are completely randomized.
There are 20 skills, eight of which are combat and skill check related, and the others relate to certain skills. You can have characters start with skill levels as low as 10 and I’ve seen as high as 43. Certain skills are more important than others. As a general rule you want your party to have good skills in crafting, cooking, hunting or fishing, forestry, scavenging, and exploration. If you don’t, you should reroll cause you aren’t getting far without those.
On top of that, you have randomized traits. These are Darkest Dungeon style. Some are good, others are bad and sometimes somewhere in the middle. If you randomly get a trait that lowers your exp growth in an important skill, you should reroll. Cause, it’s going to bite you in the ass in an irreparable way.
Believe me, I tried playing with an unfavorable start and it seemed mathematically impossible to both survive and keep up with Bjorn’s tribute. This is where Dead in Vinland’s major problem starts to rear its head. Namely, RNG.
Reliance on RNG
Nearly everything is dictated by some form of RNG in Dead in Vinland. It’s not just your starting stats. You must take care to balance your party’s fatigue, hunger, sickness, injury, and depression meters.
Every action has repercussions. Logging, for example, adds a randomized amount of fatigue and depression. If a character hits 100%, in any category, they die. If any member of your main family dies, game over. Initially, it’s a hellish balancing act. But, if you know what to build and survive long enough, you can build stations to manage your party’s needs. But, that’s not the real issue.
If a meter should happen to hit a certain percent, it’ll add a negative modifier to everything that need effects. So, if your character is really sick, they won’t be able to log at maximum efficiency.
So it’s imperative to build those healing stations early, especially the rest area and the tavern. But even with those, you are still subject to the RNG gods. If you send your characters to the tavern they have a range by which their depression could decrease. You could get 40% reduced depression or 20% and that’s a meaningful difference. One bad roll can throw off an entire work schedule which will put you in a bad situation come tribute day.
On top of all of that, I haven’t even mentioned tabletop style skill checks or random events – get a few bad rolls, you’re as good as dead.
Why That’s a Problem
Dead in Vinland makes a promise to the player that it’s going to be difficult. Read the Steam page. But on its face, it’s not really that hard of a game. There’s no complicated strategy or precise movements. It’s hard because statistically speaking, you’re working with shitty odds of success.
It’s aggravating. Doing everything right, doesn’t mean you win. It’s all chance. The reward for being lucky is that you get to be kicked in the teeth every seven days. That said, I didn’t play Dead in Vinland for 15 hours for no reason. There are things it gets really right and it’s a damn shame it isn’t more fun to play.
What It Gets Right
Dead in Vinland has incredible world building. The story centers around a family of four, a father, mother, aunt, and daughter. The relationships between these characters and their personalities are communicated in every cutscene but also in the game mechanics themselves.
Each character has traits that reflect their personalities and dictate what each one specializes in. From the housewife with zero interest in hunting to the daughter with zero interest in cooking. They have negative stat modifiers for their XP gains in categories they hate.
The writing is really good. I loved getting to know the family and seeing them interact with the people they recruited into their settlement. Watching the auntie try to push her bullheaded Nordic niece together with a passive English Monk was a delight.
The writing felt right. The people felt real and it made me empathetic to their plight. Even if I didn’t enjoy playing the game, I wanted to see what happened to the family. If Dead in Vinland had a casual visual novel mode, that’d be perfect for me. But as it stands, it’s a long, hard slog for small moments of brilliance.
Should You Buy it?
Games like Darkest Dungeon have a crowd of people who really love them for reasons beyond my understanding. They’re games that are “difficult” but the difficulty all rests in factors beyond the player’s ability to control or become better at. If that’s what floats your boat, then Dead in Vinland should be right up your alley. If you don’t like having a game step on your neck, there are other games out there. But if you’re on the fence, the story is absolutely worth experiencing.