A Valley Without Wind Review
By Bret Ziesmer |
As someone who cut his gaming teeth on 2D platformers like Manic Miner and Adventure Island in the 1980s, I was looking forward to losing myself in A Valley Without Wind. On paper, at least, there's a lot to love here. Nostalgia-laden platformer mechanics rub shoulders with "procedurally generated worlds" in Arcen Games' new creation, and a dizzying array of craftable spells trade nervous glances with playable characters that permanently die. It's a fantastic concept that screams of the flashes of indie genius we've come to enjoy in recent years, but in execution it plays like a rough draft that's unable to wiggle out from under the weight of its own ambition.
There's not much of a story in A Valley Without Wind aside from a block of text that boasts a variation of the usual post-apocalyptic babble, partly because each game begins with a randomly generated world in the spirit of Minecraft and Terraria. That might be nice for players wishing to experience new and unfamiliar landscapes with each playthrough, but it also means that the almost nonexistent narrative limits itself to vague references to evil overlords out of necessity. As a "glyphbearer," it's your job to scrounge around the shattered husk of the world for resources and the occasional survivor to build up settlements, and once you've finally done all that and beaten the bad guy, you do it all again on another continent. Let's admit it: when the world around you is called "Environ," story's probably not going to be a major selling point.
Instead, much of the game's charm rests on its retro visuals and audio. A Valley Without Wind looks so "Metroidvania" that you could probably swap the randomly generated avatars you choose from after each death with Simon Belmont's original model and no one would be the wiser, and most levels feature music that sounds like it came from discarded drafts for the score to Mega Man 2. In fact, the eclectic art style comes off as an homage to those golden years of platforming, with building entrances that perform like those in Zelda II: The Adventure of Link to blocky interiors that look like they were borrowed from the castle levels in Super Mario Bros.
At times, though, it's frankly jarring. Part of Valley's block of story states that a cataclysm shuffled eras of time so they exist at once in the same world, but when you jump from futuristic villages with decent textures into simplistic dungeons that look like they were transposed from 1985's Gauntlet, you could be forgiven for thinking they meant eras of video game history as well. At the very least, it makes for ugly settings; at the worst, some of the enemies almost disappear into the shoddier backgrounds.
That might have been a problem if so many of these baddies didn't look the same. There are plenty of bats and the occasional rhino lurking about Environ, but most of the time you'll be fighting goons like slender robots or floating blobs of liquid. I'm not saying floating spheres can't be scary (cue: "That's no moon!"), but when one hovers toward you with a name like "Oldsto the Warlock," it's worth wondering if some dude with a skull-capped staff and a demon sidekick wouldn't have done a better job. They're not even all that challenging once you learn a few tricks. Since one of your key abilities lets you place wooden platforms anywhere at will, you can just make one above you and fire down on the robots below. As for blobs like Oldsto? Just keep moving, avoid their ranged spells, and blast them with ranged skills of your own while you bounce around.
The good news is that you have plenty of things to blast them with. One of the big selling points of Valley is that it allows for a ridiculous number of spells. You can throw rocks if that's your thing, or you can fling fireballs and shoot lightning bolts. That's exciting in theory, but in practice you'll likely only use about three good ones most of the time and switch out when you find enemies with immunities to certain spells. At times, enemies that weren't immune before become immune for the rest of the game. Kill enough bats, for example, and all future bats become flame-immune "fire bats," which means that calling down a meteor shower on them has all the effect of using a feather to stop a freight train. If you find that you don't have the spell you need, you're expected to retreat and explore levels for rare materials that can be used to make new spells.
That exploration lies at the heart of A Valley Without Wind, and it's where you'll find the most fun--that is, if mining nodes for hours on end without much knowledge of where the right ones are sounds exciting. Unfortunately, these subterranean expeditions also showcase the shortcomings of marrying platformer gameplay with randomly generated levels. Platformers work best when there's a grand design behind them, and Valley's rambling open spaces and hodgepodge of caverns never reach the glory of carefully planned stages in games like Outland or Super Meat Boy. The very continents are random, and they unfurl on blocky maps with the titular windstorms deciding where you can travel.
There's a constant tease in play here since you can access the lair of a continent's evil overlord at any time, only to find that advancement is impossible because you don't have the proper abilities. The same holds true for most of the regular levels as well. Indeed, much of what counts as progression in Valley consists of coming back to areas you've already visited with new spells and seeing if you're ready for them, which you may not even know until you reach a crushing difficulty spike midway through a level.
You'll usually die in these cases, and the game's multiple achievements for getting yourself killed prove that this is exactly what's supposed to happen. That sounds ominous, but it's not all that bad aside from running the risk of battling the angry ghosts of the fellows you let die, which adds a extra touch of difficulty to the scenario that killed you in the first place. Your new character has all the same spells as the last one did (but not the upgrades); you'll just have a different name and different stats. More than a mere inconvenience, the design discourages you from the trial-and-error suicide runs in other platformers and forces you to look elsewhere for advancement, as in simple quests or missions against mini bosses that grant civilization points so you can nab better spells and tackle harder areas with greater ease.
The whole process gets rather tedious when you're alone, but the online multiplayer mode livens things up a bit. Here you can chat and tackle obstacles with other players (with the caveat that enemies scale according to how many players are around), although you might have a problem finding them since the infinitesimal level map used for quick travel merely gives a general idea of their location. When you finally find them, however, it plays sort of like a primitive MMORPG, right down to concerns of "ninja looting" since drops always go to the first person that picked them up.