REVIEW: Vandals

Wednesday, May 22nd, 2019

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Title Vandals
Developer Cosmografik, Novelab
Publisher ARTE Experience
Release Date April 25th, 2019
Genre Indie, Strategy, Puzzle, Art
Platform PC, Mobile, Nintendo Switch
Age Rating E for Everyone
Official Website

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As a fan of art and videogames, it makes sense I’d be interested in Vandals. After all, it serves as something of an intersection between the two. You play a lone street artist making your way across the globe, tagging things in your wake. While there’s essentially nothing for plot, other than the description on the eShop storefront, that’s not really what most people would be buying this for. The question then, is how well do the spray and stealth tactics work in Vandals, and is it worth getting on this console?

Vandals | Nickname Signature

When the game starts, you pick three letters for your signature. Though I didn’t realize this until much later, you can use that signature to tag your works of art, picking from a variety of font styles. Outside of that, you’re pretty wide open in how you spray paint things. Though Vandals was originally on mobile and PC, they smartly included a couple of different ways to control things on Switch. Having said that, it feels like the controls were more optimized for TV play, though thankfully they can be made to work portably as well. There’s just one proviso: you absolutely need a stylus for that option. While that makes sense, since it’s intuitive to use a stylus to draw various designs, it’s a a little frustrating since the Switch doesn’t come with or even offer a trademark stylus. Fortunately, I had already purchased an off-brand stylus for another game, so I found playing Vandals portably pretty seamless.

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I definitely was a fan of the art component of the game. You have a bunch of colors to pick from, and can spray with small, medium or large jets of paint. The game does a good job of emulating the process, and colors will leak down to the sound of air escaping the can. Though precision can be tricky, I found it relatively easy to make some quirky art. I started simple with phrases and geometric shapes, and eventually moved onto more cartoony topics like Godzilla, Harley Quinn and even Fawful. Abstract art is certainly easier, but you’re not scored on your skill, so you won’t feel constrained to be perfect.

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The art is only one component of the game. More significant are the stealth puzzle aspects. See, the police don’t really like you making a mess of their neighborhoods. So they’ll constantly be patrolling as you prowl along, and if you get caught by them, it’s game over. And they aren’t stupid either. The sound of your spraying will alert cops close enough, and if they make eye contact with you, they’ll hunt and corner you. Fortunately, you’ll have a variety of tools to avoid them.

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Each stage is a grid, and as you move along it, the police will move as well. Both of you can only move one space at a time, and it’s technically turn-based, even though it doesn’t feel that way. To keep the cops away from you, you can toss glass bottles in the opposite direction, whistle to draw them to a certain place, and more. It’s pretty simple early on, but they will constantly introduce more ways to avoid them, which is good, since things get more and more challenging. You’ll get tools like sewer grates you can pop out of, mechanical gates you can manipulate and more. Later stages will throw obstacles at you like additional patrols, security cameras and annoying canines to keep things interesting. But no matter how many tools you have, it all comes down to strategy and patience to navigate each stage. Some will be relatively simple, and others will make you grind your teeth.

Vandals | Spray Decay

It started out much prettier

One of the features I most appreciated in the game is how, once you’ve spray painted an area, even if you get caught, your design remains. The only issue is that the more times you fail to beat a level after spraying, the more decayed the design becomes. I wasn’t sure if that was intentional or just a fault of the programming. I suppose it serves as incentive to beat a level quickly, but you never know how tough it will be to puzzle your way through a stage. A complaint I have is that, while you can see the range a cop can view, it’s often unclear how they will react once you’re detected. I wish each type of police had a set range that was clarified, but instead they seem somewhat random. Which isn’t to say they vary in a given level, but more that you can’t tell just from glancing at a stage.

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Which brings me to another complaint: the bonus achievements. While it’s relatively easy to beat most levels, it can be much harder to get the hidden bonuses. Each stage has a number of turns you can try and beat it in, hidden stars you can collect and a reward for being undetected. It’s no exaggeration that I failed to get all three on most stages. Another related issue is you don’t know the par time for each stage until after you beat it, and when you replay a level, you won’t see how you did from the outset. Perhaps worst of all is that getting all those bonuses doesn’t actually reward you with anything. Given the amount of history the game is seemingly based on, little snippets of lore and history would have been welcome.

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Even though Vandals plays pretty well portably, it could have been smoother. There are irritations like invisible walls that keep you from spraying in certain spaces that frustrated me. Worse is how you have to seemingly fling the joystick in a given direction and then wait a few seconds before your character moves. It doesn’t feel tight and refined, and while it may have worked better on PC and mobile, the Switch version could have used better controls. There were even times when I would press a button to whistle or cut a wire fence, and it simply didn’t respond the first time. None of these are game-breaking, but they did hurt my immersion in the game.

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Vandals was a bit of a mixed experience for me. I enjoyed parts of it, and found others held it back. I also really wish the game had more lore or something to ground things in. I don’t need a story to enjoy a game, but the fabric of the world it inhabits is still important. And while the art is simple and focused, they do tend to reuse environments and assets a bit too much. Though thankfully the main musical theme is pretty catchy. Then again, at $3.99, this is the most affordable version of the game, and I got at least 8-10 hours out of it. If you like quirky indie games on Switch, I’d say to give this one a shot. But if you want something incredibly meaningful and lasting, this might not be for you.

Review Score
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Review Copy Provided by Publisher

About Josh Speer

Josh is a passionate gamer, finding time to clock in around 30-40 hours of gaming a week. He discovered Operation Rainfall while avidly following the localization of the Big 3 Wii RPGs. He enjoys SHMUPS, Platformers, RPGs, Roguelikes and the occasional Fighter. He’s also an unashamedly giant Mega Man fan, having played the series since he was eight. As Head Editor and Review Manager, he spends far too much time editing reviews and random articles. In his limited spare time he devours indies whole and anticipates the release of quirky, unpredictable and innovative games.