A few weeks ago, a pirate-themed RPG called Vendetta: Curse of Raven's Cry vanished from the Steam store. At that point, it was surrounded on all sides by (unproven) allegations of fake reviews and shady dealings. Flash forward to now: people still can't figure out precisely why it disappeared. I've been keeping a close eye on Vendetta for about a month now. I had cursory knowledge of it before that, as an earlier version, simply titled Raven's Cry, surfaced on Steam in January of 2015. Despite heralding from Reality Pump Studios, developers of the generally well-regarded (though janky) Two Worlds series, Raven's Cry launched in an unforgivably sorry state. Ultimately, publisher TopWare Interactive yanked it from Steam, acknowledging that it had "seen every game pitfall imaginable". In late 2015, they re-released the salvaged swashbuckler as Vendetta: Curse of Raven's Cry, saying that the new version represented Raven's Cry "as it was meant to be seen and played".
Unfortunately, it was still not super well-regarded by many players, who cited everything from technical problems to shallow combat as larger issues. Many, however, still found it to be a passable — though definitely flawed — experience. Then, about a month ago, it ended up back on the map for all the wrong reasons. Threads that accused Vendetta of gaming Steam with a flood of fake reviews popped up in major gaming subreddits, rekindling a sentiment that briefly took hold shortly after the game first re-released. This spread into the game's Steam forums, where developers allegedly locked and deleted a number of threads on the subject.
There is currently no way to confirm that TopWare wrote or paid for fake reviews. There's no admission from the developer or publisher, no paper trail, no documents and so on. Anybody or any report that categorically states as much is being disingenuous or, at best, overzealous. It is, however, tough to ignore the circumstantial evidence. Tens of reviews dated shortly after Vendetta came out are eerily similar in that they a) are positive (sometimes to the point of directly calling out non-positive reviews), b) come from people with a couple hours or less of Vendetta played, and c) often involve Steam accounts linked to other TopWare-published games.
In a handful of cases, the Steam accounts included Otherland, an MMO also accused of posting fake reviews that comes from a developer founded by ex-TopWare employees. Otherland was yanked from Steam around the same time as Vendetta, albeit under different circumstances. Developer Drago Entertainment copped to some suspicious reviews (which they claimed came from promotional partners and well-meaning friends, family and testers) and yanked them. They are apparently in the process of switching publishers right now, as running a whole MMO as a small indie dev isn't really, you know, feasible. I reached out to Drago's service provider IME, and a rep told me we'll hear news about Otherland's future next week.
The reasons for Vendetta's disappearance are still unclear. Shortly after fake review allegations first surfaced, one Vendetta developer, going by the handle Raidor, claimed that some of the suspicious reviews came from people who played in the game's beta, and they noted that there were also negative reviews with very little playtime attributed to them. Steam users, however, persisted in pointing out that the reviews came from low-level Steam accounts primarily linked to TopWare games and forums.
A couple days after fake review accusations started flying from Reddit's direction, I reached out to TopWare. A rep replied via email with the following message: "We did not fake any reviews or paid someone for posting reviews. Of course I could come up with some conspiracy theories now, but instead of this, I suggest you simply review the game by yourself and find your own opinion. The game had a difficult history of development, but as it is now, it is definitely worth a look."
A few days later, the game was removed from the Steam store. I emailed TopWare to ask why. I still haven't received a response.
Ever since the removal, multiple threads have popped up on Vendetta's Steam forums asking what happened, why the game suddenly disappeared, and whether the developers are still supporting it. Despite the fact that the game's been gone without a trace for nearly a month, fans continue to speculate about what happened in the game's Steam forums. No developer or publisher representative has responded. The developer who used to reply in Vendetta threads fairly frequently, Raidor, continues to troubleshoot in Steam forums for other TopWare games, but not Vendetta.
There's some speculation that Vendetta suddenly and unceremoniously walked the plank because TopWare is in serious financial trouble. However, recent comments from developers on other TopWare games suggest that some sort of work is still going on — clerical stuff like server optimisation in Two Worlds II — so it's not like the whole operation has gone under.
Since early February, I've asked Valve what happened to Vendetta multiple times, but they have stayed tight-lipped. It's frustrating, as this feels like a situation where we don't even necessarily know what the stakes are, let alone why nobody's talking. It could be anything from a shady debacle, to a big misunderstanding driven by "evidence" that's purely circumstantial, to something we know absolutely nothing about. The lack of communication isn't helping anybody, least of all the company being accused of shady dealings. People are just stewing and speculating, assuming the worst.
Meanwhile, Valve, who has at least explained why some games lost Steam privileges in the past, continues to be inconsistent when it comes to transparency. Will they openly address Steam issues, individual or systemic, this time? Won't they? From the outside looking in, it seems to be a roll of the dice every time we ask that question.