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Wot I Think: Valley

Mirror's Hedge

Rare's the game that has me really, truly laughing in sheer delight one minute, then cursing in irritation the next. First-person action-adventure Valley [official site] is full of wonderful ideas and has truly excellent movement, but it also jumps the shark so many times over the course of its few short hours that the poor old sea-beast's fin is worn down to a bloody stump.

It's tricky to usefully describe Valley without giving too much away, because it changes so much and so often that any one summation would be inaccurate. I'll try to be as broad as possible. Valley is:

1) a game about using a super-suit to run at high speeds and leap impossible distances as you traverse a beautiful outdoor setting
2) a semi-spiritual treatise on life, death and taking care of the environment
3) a sci-fi yarn about weird science in World War II
4) a first person monster-shooter
5) a very vaguely Mirror's Edge or Portalish first-person puzzle game.
6) BioShock, or so it likes to think.

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All noble goals, but bear in mind they're packed into the space of four to five hours. This means that Valley features no small amount of abrupt change, and some of its best systems barely get the chance to breathe before it's desperately foisting its next wild idea upon us.

I'm going to back to point a), because this is Valley at its strongest, and also the Valley I expected to play based on the first hour or so. Valley pitches you as a wannabe Indiana Jones, in search of a mythical 'lifeseed' that's supposedly hidden in this far-off valley I forget the mooted location of.

It begins as almost a walking simulator in said valley, albeit one hamstrung by gratingly obvious voiceovers in the 'where am I? What is this place?' paradigm, and a saccharine soundtrack which evokes Hobbits staring dreamily at Elf maidens. But the trees are pretty and I can always turn the sound down, right?

Then we find the LEAF suit. That is an acronym for something, but it's so painfully forced that, out of respect for your mental wellbeing, I shall not reveal it here. The LEAF suit is Valley's crown jewel, however: it gives you mecha-legs. For a time, the Valley becomes a high-speed track and field course, sprinting up hills and over chasms like a human rollercoaster.

Huge distances crossed in a moment, even huger distances leaped across like Superman. And all set within beautifully unspoiled countryside. It's ever so vaguely like Mirror's Edge in the grand outdoors, and with magic robo-legs that negate most risks of injury or death.

It's totally, totally joyous. I swear to God, I actually yelled 'yahoo!' at one point. I could even block out the watery voiceover. The music remained sugar-sweet but picked up a rhythm and augmented that feeling of wind in my hair. I felt free.

Not for long. Valley had puzzles and objectives for me. Nothing too onerous at first - make my way to three far-off towers, that sort of thing. Lots of building up a head of steam then pulling off a power-jump. Fine by me, though in an ideal world there'd be more freedom. Soon enough I had upgrades to my run speed and a double-jump, and in turn navigation became more precise rather than wild and free. Still OK.

Hell, it was still OK when I inadvertently took an unintended shortcut and missed a whole section of the map, including a progress-critical upgrade. I had to call in the devs to tell me where I'd gone wrong (and hopefully they'll patch out that shortcut to spare others a similar fate), but these things happen. I was still running and jumping in a pretty place, but the walls were closing in on me. Freedom was gone, and the corridors were coming.

A vital rule of criticism is to assess the game in front of you, not the game that you wish was in front of you. So I cannot say that Valley 'should' have been a super-powered free-running sim set in the great outdoors. Clearly this was not the game the devs sought to make, which is entirely their prerogative. Trouble is that they set out its stall as such, then take several abrupt left turns.

A large middle-section of the game is set indoors, in the dark, in tunnels, with very little freedom of movement. I guess they wanted to mix things up, which I feel would have been more successful if we'd had more time and liberty in the outdoor sections first. I found myself mourning, claustrophobic, desperate to escape these confines and this darkness.

(It really is too dark by the way, on a purely practical level - I had monitor brightness and in-game gamma whacked way up, purely to see what I was doing. I even had this problem in some outdoor sections, when it decides it wants to be night-time; it was for this reason that I took the unintended shortcut I mentioned earlier, having missed something vital in the murk).

When I was granted another speed boost during this section, I felt as though I was being openly mocked - because this boost only works when the player is quite literally on rails. Valley lobs these huge underground trainline super-sprint sections at us, a breathless rush of speed which is glorious in terms of sensation, but there's nowhere to go except straight on - and on and on and on.

It manages to make the exhilarating dull through overuse. I suppose it is 'easier' to construct long series of tunnels than it is wide-open expanses, especially when said expanses are as lovely as Valley's are, and expectations from non-AAA fare should not be allowed to run riot, but it's a shame. I was so enjoying myself outside.

Even this shift is not enough for Valley, and it soon moves onto monster-shooting, magnetic surfaces and race-against-time apocalypse fare. It tries to be all things to all players, and though I respect the ambition and should say that very little of the execution could reasonably be called flawed (darkness aside), I struggle to understand just why it felt it had to do so much.

As with the excess of cloying dialogue (which spins off into the lurid fantastical, aided and abetted by BioShock-esque environmental storytelling and faux-vintage film reels), leaving a healthy chunk of this stuff on the cutting room floor would only have helped the breezy run'n'jump game at Valley's core to breathe.

Oddly, one of the headline features for Valley was a system whereby you can take health and energy/ammo from the plants and animals all around you, at the cost of their lives, or choose to restore life to dead lifeforms if you have the energy to spare. It's pleasantly compelling to turn dead trees green again as one sprints around, but that aside the concept is weirdly underbaked.

As well as the long stretches stuck in industrial tunnels, magic energy orbs are scattered around liberally and can be obtained from defeated enemies, so the Valley's health rarely fell below maximum for me. Any messaging about environmental respect is lost underneath the frothing secret-weapons-of-World-War-II plot too.

Valley tries to do so many things. Bless it for that, really. It's just so damned frustrating that, in its first hour, it was really onto something fresh and exhilarating and beautiful. Then, far too soon, it shrugs it off in favour of not-awful but less inspired and more familiar first-person action-adventuring.

I cautiously recommend checking Valley out regardless, because, dreary exposition, excessive darkness and a cruel and unusual checkpointing system aside, it does what it does with polish and expertise. Particularly its initial The Flash Does The Rocky Mountains vibe. It's just that it's chunks of four or five different games stitched together, with none of 'em given the time and space they need to attain true greatness.

Valley is available now for Windows.

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