Games like A Valley Without Wind pose a conundrum for me.
It’s a stunning proposal, see: an infinite world, filled with infinite possibilities, challenges and content. It’s the gaming grail, and it’s rather often that an intrepid group of developers set out to raid the tomb that holds it.
Sometimes they come back.
A Valley Without Wind is billed by indie developers Arcen as a procedurally generated take on the metroidvania style with added tingles. Essentially it’s a side-scrolling action strategy role-playing game with elements of building and crafting, set in an infinitely expanding world.
You’d be forgiven for thinking of that heady mix as a lofty goal. You’d be forgiven, because you’d be right. Oh, so horribly right.
But first, the gig: reality has shattered into interlocking “time shards” – nine different kinds of area each trapped in its own time. You’ve got the ice age; you’ve got the clockpunk industrial age; you’ve got the chrome-filled future; you’ve got the picture.
An ill wind’s a-blowin’, an Evil Overlord (no kidding, that’s what his mom calls him at the dinner table) is giving everybody a bad hair day, and robots, dragons and, um, rhinoceroses make venturing outside the confines of protected villages an act worthy of a Darwin award.
Unless you’re you. Your job, as a “glyphbearer”, is to champion the cause of a village. You do this by gathering resources and rescuing citizens-to-be, which you find by exploring, hitting a variety of creatures over the head with a variety of spells, and doing missions.
As you progress you get stronger, and the world gets harder. So far so skippy.
Now let me get something out of the way: I’m no graphics slut. I’ve been playing games since the days of 8-bit, and I still go back to those obese, halcyon pixels every now and then.
That said, by the gods this game is ugly. It’s not just that it appears to have been procedurally cobbled out of chipboard and petroleum jelly – it’s that none of its constituent art resources fit together. Some parts of it look like the first-draft work of an actual artist, but others look like they’ve been cribbed from the clip-art folder of Windows 95.
A major focus in A Valley Without Wind is on combat. Each time shard holds a bestiary, ostensibly suited to it. The ice age holds murderous “skelebots” (sigh) and bouncing bits of tinsel; the desert throngs with bats and glowing balls of light; the ruined towns teem with glowing balls of light and…
So the pattern emerges. Fighting these creatures with your battery of spells is somewhat fun to begin with, but quickly degenerates into firing, jumping and thoughts of suicide. It’s mostly the AI, see.
I’ll use the rhinoceros as an extreme example. While I was minding my own business and looting the odd procedural farm ruin (more on this later), I was regularly obliged to jump over a charging rhino. It wasn’t after me, exactly; it was simply running back and forth between the edges of the screen, just like real rhinos do. In captivity. On Rohypnol.
These rhinos have all the intelligence of a pong paddle. And this is fairly representative of the AI in general: there is no sense of purpose, no glimmer of strategy or boolean reasoning.
Exploring the buildings, meanwhile, depressed me deeply. Especially the larger ones. Consider the average farmhouse. For one, it’s non-euclidian. This wouldn’t be too much of a problem, considering the context. It’s just that it’s devoid of interest and personality, a series of cardboard sets taped together according to the design of Sarah Winchester.
Behind door number one, for example, is “Hallway #11”. Follow that and find “Hotel Room #64”, which has an en-suite “Single Occupancy Toilet #20” (which, incidentally, is large and well-equipped enough for a family of four to engage in the art of simultaneous defecation).
The missions merely slap the above together into rat-extermination quests. Kill three identical minibosses in this dreary tower. Kill one miniboss in this dark tower (this is called “stealth”). Kill all the creatures that don’t belong in this time shard (good luck fathoming that one).
And there is no real motivation to do any of this. Getting stronger means improving your stats and your village, and finding cool kit and the means to craft new spells. But what this translates into, for the most part, is collecting “upgrade stones”, “consciousness shards” and “enchant charges”, which you can read all about in the anticipation-withering in-game encyclopaedia.
The idea behind strengthening your settlement, as I understand it, is to fend off the occasional siege (which is where the strategy comes in), but to be honest I’m all for siding with the attackers by now.
Yes, there’s some fun to be had in hitting mushrooms and rocks and such to gather materials, but in the main I’m about as invested in these things as I am popping Pac Man’s cherry.
Once you’ve gathered and buffed enough, you’re ready to take on the Evil Overlord. Kill him and his cronies and… you’re ready to move to a new, harder continent and do it all over again. Hold me down.
I could go on. I could talk of the bad balance, the horrific number of immersion-breaking menus, the poor writing, the frame-defying “animation”, the constant reuse of enemy artwork. I could do this, but I feel like the fight is over already. It doesn’t help that the game offers co-op play, because I like my friends.
I really tried to enjoy this game. I really wanted to enjoy this game. And the developers seem to have a track record of releasing massive updates for their previous titles, so for all I know they’ll chip this one into a glorious brute of an adventure.
I’ll just hold my breath.