I've just had my first taste of Arcen's ambitious side-scrolling exploration game (with crafting, base-building, and perma-death), A Valley Without Wind. The game is still at a very early, unreleased stage, but I've spent enough time with it to talk a little about what it is and where Arcen are going with it. You can see my attempts at trying to describe it accurately below.
There's an odd sense of melancholy to A Valley Without Wind. That feeling comes not simply from the setting - which is a kind of magical post-apocalypse in which tiny bands of folk are carving out a new life in a ruined and monster-plagued world - but also in the kind of game which this is trying to be. A Valley Without Wind is a game from a lost future of videogames. It's the kind of project that we might have predicted during the 16-bit era, when 2D side-scrolling games with a touch of exploration seemed to hold much promise - a promise made in a time before the industry lurched down the texture-mapped corridors of the action-combat mainstream of modern game development. This is an intricate game that tries to do as much as it can, rather than simply trying to make things "accessible".
As such, the very first taste you'll have of this game is one that seems both wistful and - if you are my age or older - oddly nostalgic. The side-scrolling adventuring brings with it memories of running, jumping parallax kingdoms of old, as well as the sense that those side-scrolling adventures of the past games never really reached the potential they had in them. Perhaps that potential is what Arcen will be able to tap here, as they use procedural techniques to create a vast world which can be explored at your leisure. Exploration, though, has multiple levels. As soon as you exit off the stage of the 2D areas you find yourself faced with a grid-based map, smothered in a fog of war. This can be explored to reveal various types of landscape, and allow you to go in explore any area "in detail" in the 2D mode.
But yes, I am getting ahead of myself a little. Let's paint a broader picture of the game: it sets you up as a character who, along with a bunch of friendly NPCs, is striving to defeat various tribes of baddies and to bring freedom to their settlement. This over-arching threat from evil overlords gives you a wider quest to be getting on with, but aside from that what the game delivers is basically a sandbox. Your character has various magical abilities which can be set up in the initial settlement, and these are supplemented by other items which must be crafted as you progress through the level structure. Exploring the world yields materials, which the characters can then use in crafting to fuel more exploration, and so on.
I've not really got far enough into this (and I am not sure it's properly fleshed out in this build) to really see how the battle against the various groups of enemies is going to play out, but I get the sense that it's got a touch of 4X to it. While you might be running about and exploring most of the time (and battling creatures with your magic along the way), you are also able to pour resources into building up your settlement, erecting houses and infrastructure for the NPCs that live there, and generally trying to make life better for them.
It's the procedurally-created world that is most fascinating in all this, however. You leave your base and head across the grid map, perhaps traversing a large area of wilderness before you find something you want to investigate. When you get there you interact with the region and enter the 2D space. This sees you - to take an example from my own explorations - wandering along the edge of a town. There are numerous abandoned buildings in the town, and you can explore each one. I step inside a building, and then inside various rooms inside the building, everything being generated ahead of me to create a world with real depth. Descending down into it gave me a bit a thrill. It's going to be a huge world. So huge, say Arcen, that you could just keep on exploring almost limitlessly. That said, I was pretty much just making a dash for it through the world I have explored. I've really not got the hang of A Valley's combat just yet, although I am sure that is just a case of having the patience to experiment with the various spells and effects. I killed a few bats, but tougher enemies really were a worry. Eventually I'll be taking on entire fortresses of baddies and defeating evil overlords, but that feels like a long way off for now.
The complexity and general esoteric approach of A Valley Without Wind makes it daunting, but also enormously alluring. I can imagine this game opening up under continued exploration to be one of those all-encompassing experiences that you can't help sinking an unhealthy tract of time into. I can't wait to see how it develops. Although, yes, it is rather ugly, and am still not entirely convinced by the shift from a top-down world to a 2D world, it is beginning to charm me.
I'm going to continue to explore and I'll post more on this soon.