Developer: Visai Studios
I don't often play demos, but recently I did a stream playing a couple demos during Steam's Next Fest, one of which was Venba. Playing the demo really convinced me to play this full game, as I had the chance to get invested in the characters and introduction. Venba is a narrative cooking game about an immigrant Indian mother and her family living in Canada. Venba's cooking challenges can be a little unintuitive at times, but the game succesfully tells a heartfelt story about how food can communicate so much between generations.
Venba tells the story of the titular Venba, a south Indian woman who recently immigrated to Canada with along with her husband. They are struggling to find good jobs and trying to decide whether the best choice for them would be to leave Toronto and go back home. In the midst of this decision, Venba surprises her husband through a message in a meal and lets him know she's pregnant. This bit of exciting but impactful news leads to their decision to raise their child in Canada. Growing up in a completely different culture from his parents, Venba's son Kavin wants desperately to fit in with his peers, like any kid would. He speaks English even at home and he's embarrassed to eat his packed lunch at school. His parents do their best to deal with this dynamic, wishing he was more interested in his culture but also wanting to give him space to make his own choices. However, Venba is able to connect with Kavin through delicious, traditional meals that they cook together as a family.
Venba's art style is a strong reason why it stood out to many indie game players who saw it appear in past Wholesome Direct showcases. It's charming, colorful, and cozy-looking, especially in its portrayal of food. I genuinely felt so hungry playing this game because the food you cook looks gorgeous and mouthwatering. It brings back memories of eating at my South Asian friends' houses back in high school. Venba's soundtrack was also a really nice surprise, as it not only has a lot energetic, dance-worthy tracks, but most of these also include singing in Tamil. The music not only serves to immerse us in the characters' story, but it also realistically depicts what the experience of someone cooking while listening to the radio. For such a short game, its soundtrack is jam-packed with excellent songs.
Venba is a cooking puzzle game, which means often times you have to figure out how to make certain foods by trial and error. Venba's recipe book from her mother is stained and worn, therefore many of the recipes are not legible. With these limited instructions, you can fill in the blanks and try different methods out to see what works. At times, I felt this was pretty successful, and solving the puzzle was satisfying. There were other times that I felt a little lost and the clues being given were leading me to the wrong action. Although the game encourages you to figure it out, you can ask for a hint if needed. Also, playing on controller, I found some actions to be a little tricky - such as moving something fast or precisely. I think the puzzles and cooking mechanics would've been more enjoyable for me if they'd been made with controller in mind rather than just mouse and keyboard, but they mostly worked nonetheless.
Although Venba tells what seems to be a really specific story about this Tamil family, it feels to me like a very universal immigrant narrative. As my family immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico, I related a lot to Kavin's experience. It's really scary as a kid to stand out and feel different, when any attention can be negative attention. I was lucky to grow up in a fairly diverse school, with other kids from different countries, but even then I had times where I felt embarrassed because someone said my lunch was "weird" or "stinky". I also know how easy it is to forget words and lose touch with your first language. It hurt me to see Kavin reject his culture and the delicious food his mom makes for him, but I do understand. The story was definitely heavier than I expected it to be, but it resonated strongly with me and made the ending feeling worthwhile. One really interesting aspect of Kavin's story was his realization that despite the difficulties his family faced being different from those around them, now western media and corporations seek to appropriate and profit off of that same culture he felt he had to hide.
Venba is a short but worthwhile cooking game that tells a lot through its characters, gameplay, and environment. I felt that Kavin's story was definitely relatable to anyone who has grown up between different cultures. Also, his family's ups and downs had me invested in their lives and feeling emotional. I recommend this game if you like cooking or puzzle games, and if you're looking for something unique that exposes you to a different culture and some beautiful-looking food.
Venba is available on PC, Switch, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, and PS5
Played on: PC (Steam Deck)
Last Played: 8/11/2023
Playtime: 2 hrs