By Jim Rossignol on May 1st, 2012 at 10:30 pm.
A Valley Without Wind fascinates me. Not all the reasons for this fascination are good. But from that (long) moment where I read through our huge two-part interview about Arcen’s intentions for their procedurally-generated open-world exploration-based action adventure, I knew it was something I was going to follow closely. I spent some time dabbling with early versions of the game, and in the past few days I’ve finally been getting stuck into the release version of this strange, 2D post-apocalypse.
Finally, here’s Wot I Think.
For those who read that original hands-on preview, I should probably clarify that A Valley Without Wind has moved on a great deal from that first glance, although the structure and feel of the game is still intact. Visually it’s a little more diverse, although I am not sure whether that’s a good thing. My initial encounter with the game felt quite melancholy. It was a rainy, broken world that I was exploring, and while it remains a mysterious ruined future – a fallen hi-tech world, now inhabited by ghosts, killer robots, and magic-users – the palette is more of a collage, and at times this mash of visuals collapses into garishness. But let’s come back to the visuals later, and first take some time to pin down exactly what this game is.
I’ve already reeled off the “procedurally-generated open-world exploration-based action adventure” bit, and that’s about as short a description as you are going to want to apply to this complicated and conflicted oddity. The core of the game is in side-scrolling action. It’s a platform game, essentially, with a skeleton that could have been pulled from the long-dead carcass of 16-bit era games such as Shadow Of The Beast. It’s unlike those games, however, and comes with in a few paces of being a decent platform battler. Pacey and with a sophisticated set of spells and abilities that kit out your characters as they live and die in the game world. You leap and aim and fight and, often, die. Figuring out how to fight often means retreating entirely, and getting the spells you actually need.
A Valley is also less coherent that the old side-scrolling games it seems to hearken to, because it is procedurally-defined. There are mathematics, rather than level designers, at play here. And the result is peculiarly nebulous. Dungeons wobble onwards expansively, but without flair.
Once you escape your first dungeon, and briefly visit the settlement which you will build up and populate over time, you find yourself on the continent map. This is a varied landscape of interconnected squares, ravaged by storms. These storms shift as you play, making areas accessible (or not) as they move. This continent map, as simple as it is, gives you the grand overview of what you are trying achieve: to build up the settlement, to complete various missions (often involving “mini-bosses”, or super-tough enemies) with the end goal of putting together enough resources to take on the evil overlord and free the continent from the grip of unpleasantness.
You can, of course, choose to explore any square on the map, not just the ones with MISSION or other signposts on. The world generates out in front of you a bewildering, fractal fashion. Run through a region of abandoned rural farmland and you will encounter dozens of buildings. You can enter each one. And in each one you will find monsters lurking, with bits and pieces of collectible resources to be gathered. And stairwells will descend into basements, which roll off in the weird underground spaces, and back again. Doors are layered upon doors and it doesn’t take you long to realise that this is a vast, chaotic space, quite unlikely the majority of platform based games. (Although Terraria will of course come to mind.)
Your mission in all of this is collect things that will come in handy. There are three categories: supplies, items for crafting spells, and building materials. Depending on what you are trying to do, you will want focus your efforts on collecting the different types of resource. To take on tougher baddies you are going to want to craft more powerful spells (and get good at using them – there’s quite a bit of skill to fighting effectively. This is no RPG.) The game tells you roughly where you can go to look for specific bits and pieces, and you’ll find them if you search. And so you head off into the world. To perform this mission or that, to explore this continent tile or another. Returning, occasionally to your settlement home, and the characterless NPCs who reside there.
All this has a strange rhythm to it. While the game is about running, jumping, and shooting baddies (keyboard and mouse cursor work just fine for that) you are looking at a different set of goals to those you would normally expect from games that featured that kind of activity. Sure, you are still generally looking to get through a dungeon, with some bosses at the end, but ultimately you are harvesting. The game is built around that, and as a consequence it becomes quite grindy, both in terms of you having to explore every procedurally-generated nook of the vast levels, but also in having to kill so, so many enemies.
As with some MMOs, this was a process that was initially off-putting and then sort of entrancing. Once I’d turned off the awful faux-MIDI music, and put on something lyricless and workmanlike, in this case some old Steve Reich stuff, I began to find the groove of the game, and to become lost in it.
Sadly, though, I think this sense of loss was due to a phenomenon I call “reviewer’s trance” rather than from genuine engagement with the game. Reviewer’s trance is a sort of mesmerisation through mild boredom, which comes about while being employed in an extended gameplaying activity which isn’t actually particularly compelling, but is nevertheless continuous and hypnotic. The challenge and pace of A Valley is such as you can become lost in the combat of endless slow streams of enemies, and the hoovering of resources, without noticing – immediately at least – that you aren’t really doing anything interesting, or finding yourself with anecdotally interesting experiences to report back later. Other than the odd occasion where an enemy was surprisingly large, or something, I can’t think of anything I can really tell you about what happened in this game. Except for the one thing that broke the vague mesmerisation: the moments of “perma-death”.
It sounds more dramatic than it is. When you die you only lose your character’s superficial supplies, but you also lose his personal stats. Who that character was is gone, and you replace him from a set of options, with pretty much the same load out of skills and things. It’s bizarre break, sending you back to the settlement to continue in the same world with a different hero chap. It is sort of representative of the design of the game as a whole, even: oddly charming, but in a way that is unsettling because it doesn’t seem to be there for any good reason. It doesn’t really make sense, but it happens anyway. You swallow it, without ever really accepting it. (Really? I just got through characters? And that’s it… they’re dead. Oh. Okay. Hmm.)
Of course all this stuff might be irrelevant if you bounced off the way the game looked in the first place. Having played the game for so long I’ve acclimatised to the peculiar vision (although not to the way that awful banal retro elevator music sounded) and I find it sort of appropriate to the slightly goofy magical apocalypse theme that the game is playing with. I am aware, however, that it’s the equivalent of becoming acclimatised to a fever dream. The visuals design of A Valley are uniquely ugly, to the point of almost being a classic of game-design strangeness.
A Valley Without Wind is unlikely to match anyone’s expectations. Those folks who are expecting an ugly game design to go with the unpleasant graphical execution will find something that is well made, just a bit incoherent. I’ve also heard people suggest that it has RPG elements, but that’s not really true. It’s an open-ended platformer with crafting. Nor is it really exploration game in any interesting spatial sense (and I wonder if that would have been different if the game had remained top-down, instead of becoming a platformer) because of the general repetitiousness and the fact that you won’t find anything much of interest aside from the occasional weird building squatting in the strange retro-but-not landscapes.
I haven’t tried playing it multiplayer yet, so I can’t comment on how that might enhance the experience. It’ll probably enhance it quite a bit because people, damn them, do seem to end up being interesting, whatever the situation.
Nevertheless, with plenty of time to ponder the vast, melancholy single-player, I find myself disappointed. My fascination with this game had two strands, and they’ve become irrevocably twisted in the final long analysis of playing the release version. The first strand was a positive interest in the mass of ideas behind it – ambitious, exciting themes and notions about what games could be – and the wonder as to whether this bundle of inspirations would cohere into a game design vision. Alas, they do not. The second strand was a sort of incredulous amazement that this was really how the game looked. Would a game which was presented quite as peculiarly as this is actually work? Were they aiming for something that looked unlike anyone else out there? Every time I saw it I wondered if Arcen could pull it off, against the odds. Alas, they cannot.
A Valley Without Wind was a brave expedition into a dream. Sadly, I think it’s one of those dreams that you wake up from thinking “huh, dreams are weird!” Before shrugging off the strange logic, forgetting the feelings of displacement, and getting back to the things that really matter.