Venba by developer Visai Games is a game that, at first glance, looked really interesting to me. A cooking game about an immigrant Indian family? Fascinating, sign me up. What I didn’t expect was for this game to hit me emotionally as hard as it did
But before I get into why it did, let’s get some of the more boring stuff out of the way.
This game was played on the Nintendo Switch. I played it twice, once docked, once handheld. Throughout my entire time with the game, I never experienced any bugs, glitches or performance issues. It ran perfectly, which is amazing.
Okay, now onto the good stuff.
I’m not Tamil, but I am Bengali. So while we might have different languages, foods, and cultural traditions, ultimately, our roots are similar, and that makes the experiences of Venba – the titular character, and her son, Kavin’s experiences feel more real, helps me connect to it more because I know how that stuff happens.
Venba’s beating heart is familial love via the throughline of food. Out of the seven chapters of this game, six involve you cooking an Indian dish, through which the emotional center of that chapter lies. The rest of the game involves visual novel-style dialogue choices, but none of the dialogue choices ever affect the story. Instead, depending on your choice, sometimes you get additional answers, such as one sequence where you can choose between Kavin asking Venba about either why they moved to Canada or how she met his dad. It’s simple, but it immediately opens up replay value, where you’ll want to go back again for a second time just to go down that alternate dialogue tree and find out more about the family.
The cooking sections are phenomenal. Like the dialogue trees, there’s no room for error or alternate choices. Instead, you need to follow everything perfectly. Every recipe is framed as a puzzle, where there’s missing information, and it’s up to you to look at what’s on the table along with context clues to figure out the recipe and cook the dish. The controls are easy and intuitive too. You hold items with A (on the Switch button scheme), drag them with the left stick, and drop them over what you need to. Every single sound, every shake, every sizzle, it’s all perfect, and while the smell obviously wasn’t there, just purely from an auditory perspective, I felt like I was back in the kitchen.
Visually, this game, wow. Regardless of if I played handheld or docked on my 4k TV, the game looked amazing, and that’s due to the beautiful art style. Every facet of it looks traditional, reminiscent of the art in books I’ve read locally, which also added to my connection with the style. The little things, too, like the dialogue being yellow to define speaking in English, vs. white to define speaking in Tamil, to the dialogue boxes sometimes being muddy when someone is speaking in English because it’s harder for Venba to understand. Just stellar.
The music is also awesome. There’s a subtle beat throughout most of the game, and when you’re cooking with Venba, there’s an animation of her turning on the radio before we hear a lo-fi Tamil inspired track. Every single dish (except one, for a good narrative reason) has a different song attached to it, and every time I felt myself bopping my head with the music. It’s brilliant, and in fact I kept listening to the soundtrack now that it’s out officially because it’s just that good.
Narratively, we follow Venba, her husband, Paavlan, and their son, Kavin, through various years of their lives. Between every chapter is a time skip of a few years, indicated by the beginning, where there is a proverb, first written in Tamil and then in English. In fact, when you hit the new game button, the first thing you see is a proverb in Tamil, a powerful way to display that, above all else, this game has its roots in Tamil culture, something that is constantly proven true throughout the game’s runtime.
The story, especially Kavin’s arc, is something I related to a lot as someone who grew up going to a British school and grew up on English media. That disconnect from his own heritage, yet that sense of wanting to return, to form a connection, that communication barrier with his parents on an emotional level, it all hits close to home. In that same vein, seeing Venba and Paavlan helped me understand a lot of my parents’ feelings, too. It made me think inward about these things, especially at a time like now in my personal life where I’m leaving my own home and my parents behind for my education halfway across the world.
That’s the thing about good art, right? I don’t care that it’s like an hour and a half to two hours long because every nanosecond of that runtime is filled with heart, with soul. It’s so honest in how it wants to depict the immigrant experience, where it never shies away from showing the dark parts of it too. Even if some of it is subtle, if you know, then you can immediately tell when they’re discussing the darker parts of the immigrant experience, such as racism, even internalized racism.
It also made me more interested in Tamil culture just based on how they presented it here. That’s the biggest strength of this game; by crafting a story with gameplay elements that are so reminiscent of how personal it is, it immediately makes you interested in learning more.
If I had any criticisms, it’s less on the game itself, but rather me wanting more. Those cooking segments are just so excellent that once I beat the game, I begged for more and was sad that they weren’t there. I do understand why they aren’t there; after all, every segment is perfectly hand-crafted to ensure a high quality experience every time, but that’s also why I want more, because they’re just that great. Even with the ones we have, I wish there was a small speedrun-esque mini-game where we could go through all the recipes in the game, maybe through memorization or have a timer, something of the sort. That would be nice, and it would have me come back to the game every so often so I could go and experience those short gems again. As a counter to that, though, those recipes are so integral to the narrative that I’m unsure if placing them in a vacuum removed from their importance to the story would bring down the impact of the narrative. But that’s just me wanting more from a fantastic game.
Venba is so, so good. Bravo to Visai Games for crafting this little gem. Everyone, please check this out; I cannot stress enough just how good it is. It’s not even that long, but it’s a great time throughout.
[A Review Code was provided for this game.]