Developer: Arcen Games
A Valley Without Wind is unprecedented. Unbelievable. Inexplicable, even. When I previewed its beta build last year, I literally couldn't pin Arcen Games' latest indie effort down to a particular genre, instead settling for the label of PGFRPSRPSS (procedurally generated free-roaming side-scrolling platforming strategic role-playing survival simulation, if you're interested). Genres seemingly meant nothing to Arcen Games, and with free rein to experiment, the creators of AI War have crafted something rather wonderful.
However, at a basic level, A Valley Without Wind is an action-platformer in a Metroidvania (or more recently, Terraria) vein. After the world of Environ emerges from a devastating ice age, players choose a character and stagger into a staggeringly enormous procedurally-generated continent, with the aim of becoming powerful enough to take down a menacing evil overlord. A randomised overworld bristles with map squares to explore in a side-scrolling manner, full of enemies to kill and resources to transmute into new spells, upgrades and abilities. The mouse and keyboard setup handles like most recent platformers, with spells typically providing a selection of elemental ranged attacks to use on a varied palette of sprite-based foes, and crafted wooden platforms allowing you to reach lofty perches. It's a simple, well-implemented and familiar framework, yet it's just the foundation for a seriously impressive thief of time.
First off, we have to discuss raw content. A Valley Without Wind is truly enormous, to the point where the vast initial continent turns out to be a small part of a gargantuan, life-destroying undertaking. The world of Environ is liberally stuffed with remnants of ancient civilisations, buildings and dungeons to explore and loot, uncovering interesting facts about life before the ice age and artefacts to power up your character. Exploration is key, and going out of your way to enjoy it pays dividends. This content is dished out freely, and you're able to undertake missions, set out on self-imposed resource gathering trips or just strike out for the overlord and his lieutenants without preparation. Perhaps you'll encounter a miniboss guarding a hidden stash. Maybe you'll happen across a rich ore vein or rare resources to take back to base. You've got hundreds of hours of gameplay at your fingertips, and critically, you'll play because you want to, not because you're being pulled along by a restrictive and linear narrative. There's always something new and exciting to do, and there's nothing standing in your way.
As powerful as your character becomes, he or she will eventually perish. Maybe you'll bite off more than you can chew in a dismal oubliette, coming up against enemies you're simply not ready for. Maybe you'll get stuck in an acid lake and watch as the flesh flays off your beloved avatar. Since content isn't gated, it's very easy to get in over your head, and brilliantly, it doesn't matter one bit. See, A Valley Without Wind isn't about your characters: it's about your civilisation and its eventual progress from a barely-surviving citadel to a new golden age. Undertaking missions gradually increases your civilization level, and the more advanced your cities become, the greater the power and varieties of spells and upgrades you can craft within your home bases. Since these powerful abilities require resources to create, much of your time will be spent scouring the blasted shells of ancient temples or homesteads for the materials you need, which eventually lets you bring enough firepower to the table to end the overlord's rein once and for all. Finding survivors also radically improves your civilisation, and locating as many as possible becomes yet another addictive and compelling draw.
And upon death, you'll choose a new character, who has all of your previous avatar's inventory intact. Only permanent upgrades are reset, meaning that you're never punished for leaving your comfort zone and trying new things. Death is just a learning curve, not an aggravating setback.
You can even explore the world of Environ with an unknown number of friends - interestingly, Arcen genuinely has no idea how many players a single server can support. I found that 3-4 fellow players led to an exciting and thoughtful new take on the action, but since difficulty scales depending on the number of human adventurers, you'll potentially run into massive problems with a low to mid-level character if dozens of companions flock to your cause.
Arcen Games realised that this insane level of depth was incredibly intimidating to newcomers after players and us journalists pointed it out during the beta phase, so they set out to ensure that A Valley Without Wind doesn't scare off its clientèle. A (slightly overlong) tutorial level and in-game encyclopaedia walks you through everything from the basics to the finer points of crafting and spells, meaning that you'll set out forewarned and forearmed. Naturally you'll learn the subtleties through experimentation and many deaths, but it's great to get a firm grounding before the hand holding stops.
Random generation does have its drawbacks, though. While I feel that the visuals are more than capable, and nicely varied to boot, many of the levels frequently feel like a hodge-podge of recycled assets; lacking the nuance and intuitive layout of a properly designed game. This is definitely an observation rather than a real criticism, but I can't help but wish that many of the missions were actually designed rather than procedurally created. Fast-travel can also be a bit of a bugbear, since it's dealt with by an incredibly cramped and somewhat counter-intuitive interface.
Other flaws also become apparent, especially if you use a gamepad. The platforming gameplay lends itself brilliantly to an Xbox 360 controller, but your inventory and ever-increasing selection of spells are difficult to switch between on the fly unless you jab at the keyboard. Moreover, the fast travel interface requires you to use the mouse.
But these are just small flies in a delicious, soothing ointment - and ones that are bound to be patched up in subsequent updates. Arcen Games are committed to addressing player feedback, and we have no doubt that they'll continue to do so over the coming weeks and months.
- Engaging gameplay, character building and civilisation elements
- Massive amount of content encourages constant, varied exploration
- Pleasingly colourful graphics and strong soundtrack
- Random generation leads to recycled assets and some poorly-designed levels
- Gamepad woes, fiddly fast travel
- Resource gathering can become repetitive
The Short Version: A Valley Without Wind is enormous, life-affirming and brilliant. Enormous randomised worlds go hand in hand with tight gameplay and infinite scope for exploration and experimentation over dozens of hours. If you're looking for a new time sink that can be enjoyed for minutes or days at a time, prepare yourself for a new addiction.