Developer: Arcen Games
Was I too generous to A Valley Without Wind? My peers seem to think so, but I saw massive potential in Arcen Games' recklessly ambitious side-scroller. It tapped into our fundamental urge to explore, to continually venture into a brave new world to gradually improve our characters and build a civilization over the course of countless hours. Its rough edges were thoroughly eclipsed by a wealth of hidden depth and genre-defying content, to the extent where I wholeheartedly nominated it as one of the best indie games of 2012.
The sequel is a very different proposition. A Valley Without Wind 2 refines and distils the gameplay of the original instead of expanding on its ambitious ideas, with Arcen describing the change as "the difference between Zelda and Zelda 2." Ruthless streamlining abounds, while new turn-based strategy elements challenge players to lead a ragtag band of resistance fighters through a randomly-generated world in a desperate retreat from evil overlord Demonaica. The sandbox has become a fight for survival.
This could have worked brilliantly were it not for one major problem. Even at its very best, A Valley Without Wind 2 is simply not fun to play.
An exceptionally brief and laughably obtrusive tutorial level introduces players to the basics. We're cast as an undercover resistance member who infiltrated Demonaica's inner circle in an effort to steal a rift crystal that grants the power of nigh-immortality. After gaining his trust by doing some seriously bad things - apparently, because they're never explained or even alluded to again - the hulking force of monolithic evil hands over the artefact and proves himself to be rather fair and equitable employer. After all, immortality is the closest thing to medical insurance and pension that you can get in a post-apocalyptic world on the brink.
The quick escape from Demonaica's fortress introduces us to A Valley Without Wind 2's new platforming mechanics. As in the original A Valley Without Wind (AVWW from now on), we'll explore numerous procedurally-generated levels in a sidescrolling 2D format, drawing on a selection of ranged spells to destroy some ravaging enemies. Background and enemy variety has been punched up significantly since the first game, and the soundtrack is equally fantastic, but the core gameplay has taken a massive hit.
We needed free mouse-aiming to survive in A Valley Without Wind. From tiny scorpions who inexplicably project massive fireballs or clouds of lightning-fast flying automata who'll swarm around you, the relentless foes require a great degree of speed and accuracy to defeat. Yet, for the sequel, Arcen Games decided to strip the platforming down to keyboard-only controls, letting us only fire off our spells in cardinal directions. Choosing to fire diagonally or vertically downwards is frustratingly cumbersome and clunky, forcing you to ineffectually hop about while trying to deal with hordes of monsters who'll abuse you from all angles (and delight in clipping through both you and the scenery). Without retooling the incredibly basic enemy AI or giving them complex attack patterns for us to learn (a la Contra, Castlevania and similar games), the whole platforming side of things ends up feeling embarrassingly primitive rather than accessible or nostalgic.
Mindlessly chaotic at best and infuriatingly cheap at worst, there's little to like here.
Character development has been cut down to the bone, and exploration suffers as a result. Whereas we used to enjoy collecting materials to craft an enormous range of spells to suit our play style, here we're limited to a small selection of preset classes with a meagre four skills apiece. Variation between classes is minimal beyond thematic tweaks, and most spells feel underpowered against the threats you'll face. Worse still, levels have been made much more linear due to the fact that there's nothing to collect beyond an occasional temporary item and a major goal at the end of the stage, trading off the (admittedly messy) joy of exploring sprawling environments for clumsy speedruns. Since there's no benefit for defeating an enemy aside from a fleeting 'concentration' buff... and combat is infuriatingly awkward... why bother hanging about?
The battle against Demoniaca takes place on an isometric map grid, from where you can choose which levels to tackle and order about a growing army of Resistance fighters. Your forces can be tasked with expanding your influence by harvesting resources, creating useful structures and besieging key enemy fortifications. They can move a small distance and perform one action per turn, which only ends when you successfully destroy a windstorm tower in one of the corrupted platforming levels. You're therefore free to to take your time in positioning your operatives, and stumble through optional stages in pursuit of limited perks, power or even boosted jumping ability.
However, your relative safety will be short-lived. Monsters quickly start spawning in the overworld, followed by the furious Demonaica himself. Leaving his fortress on Turn 12, the fearsome overlord stomps around the world, instantly killing resistance members and trashing your buildings. You'll therefore have to balance developing your forces and infrastructure with desperate retreat across the maps, running away while simultaneously marshalling the strength to eventually defeat Demonaica and his generals in single combat. This gives us a real objective compared to the original game's sandbox pretensions, something to get stuck into, and it's easily the highlight of the package.
You'll need the patience of a saint to enjoy it to the full, however. The map interface is hopelessly, needlessly clunky; eschewing mouse commands and tooltips in favour of making your character walk around the grid square with the arrow keys... and directly interacting with each individual square to see what's there and what your forces are up to. Ordering your troops about and surveying the area would have been quick and convenient with a cursor, but it takes an age to manually walk over and clumsily assign new orders, not to mention scouting for potential resources.
Aside from Demonaica, who usually tends to be much more interested in your potential bases than harassing your forces, the only real threat to the resistance comes from 'World Map Monsters.' Enemy troops can outrun most of your human fighters on the overworld grid, with their respective strengths represented by a simple number. When they meet, the higher number automatically wins. It's a uniquely shallow and stand-off take on strategic gameplay, despite a few modifiers for terrain and adjacent units, especially since your powerful hero can't interact with World Map Monsters in any way.
It's difficult to overstate just how patently ridiculous this is. You are an immortal hero. You can see the monsters on the map. And yet there's no option to expend a turn by engaging a priority threat yourself. Some hectic arenas or massive boss battles would have been a great change of pace and an extra layer of strategic depth (do you lose a turn by saving one of your vulnerable troops?), not to mention a great way of letting players feel personally responsible for their brave fighters.
Death in A Valley Without Wind 2 results in your hero respawning without penalty, save for a decrease in your force's morale. Losing too much morale or all of your resistance members results in game over, which will definitely happen to you in due course. Restarting new games with different maps and modifiers lends an addictive roguelike quality to the proceedings, and encourages you to experiment with new tactics. There are definitely plenty of hidden depths to exploit, and some subtle nuances that become apparent once you learn the systems, but crucially AVWW 2 just isn't enjoyable enough to be worth putting in the time.
Despite these shortcomings, AVWW 2's biggest failing doesn't lie with the gameplay. I'm a rabid fan of "less is more" when it comes to storytelling, but here, the epic battle of good versus evil falls spectacularly flat thanks to a near-total lack of context. We don't know enough about the overlord to care about taking him down, nor can we identify and relate to our disposable soldiers enough to care about whether they live or die. The focused gameplay absolutely needed more storytelling depth and characterisation to work properly, to allow us to invest in the struggle, meaning that every victory and defeat ends up feeling hollow rather than impactful. I hope that Arcen Games will quickly add a retooled tutorial level that gives us more insight into why Demonaica is worth killing in the first place.
Ultimately I feel that Arcen Games would have been better served by continuing to update the original AVWW with new content, meatier story elements, and perhaps new game modes that added the new pursuit mechanics, greater accessibility and scope for deeper strategic play. Before bringing out a definitive Gold Edition. As things stand, I'm convinced that neither new players nor fans will glean much enjoyment from this pared-back sequel in its current state.
- Impressive variety of levels and enemies
- Magnificent soundtrack
- Some unexpected surprises to discover and strategic nuances to learn, given time
- Cumbersome, primitive and frustrating core platforming gameplay
- Hopeless map interface makes strategic play infuriating
- Limited character development and scope for platforming exploration
- Lacks basic context; world and characters need fleshing out
The Short Version: By attempting to distil the wildly ambitious original into a more focused experience, A Valley Without Wind 2 ends up losing far more than it gains. Some interesting new concepts are overshadowed by frustrating platforming, clumsy strategy and bare-bones storytelling, resulting in little more than a niche curiosity that desperately needs further refinement.
Knowing Arcen, however, I daresay that updates will be issued thick and fast. Watch this space.