A Valley Without Wind: Beta Impressions, Pt. 1

I would have preferred to give this piece a more whimsical title, but as it turned out my feelings about Arcen Games’ latest effort lend themselves well to a three-part piece. You’ll soon learn why.

A quick bit of obligatory backstory for you: Arcen Games first appeared in 2009 with their hardcore space RTS game AI War, a title which proved a bit of a slow-burning hit thanks to coverage from sites like Rock, Paper, Shotgun and inclusion in holiday Steam sales. They also released Tidalis, a puzzle game which I’ve not played as I don’t really play puzzle games on my Desktop Monolith. A Valley Without Wind is their next effort and is something completely different to what has come before.

A Valley Without Wind #1

The opening settlement, which is protected by a couple of magic alien stones. I admit I'm fuzzy on the plot thus far, explained as it is through tiny, tiny text.

For starters it’s a procedurally-generated game. This is nothing new, today, with games like Minecraft, Love, Terraria and many more flying the PG flag. Still, it’s a relatively youthful technology in that we’ve mostly only seen it in indie titles.

Secondly, A Valley Without Wind is an unlikely blend of RPG and platformer. Except it’s not really either of those. There are RPG elements such as spell-crafting and experience gains and levels, except that these levels are applied to your entire settlement rather than just one character. It’s a little like Hinterland in that way, although it does appear to offer more than Hinterland’s enjoyable but otherwise traditional fare. As for the platforming, you spend most of your time exploring the procedurally generated world from a side-on perspective, running and jumping about whilst deploying wooden platforms (which you must craft or find) in order to reach certain areas. Still, the game’s platforming is closer to mouse and keyboard classics like Abuse than to the 8- and 16-bit console classics that we tend to think of when someone says “platformer”.

In terms of both technology and design, then, A Valley Without Wind aims high. It aims damn high, as AI War did before it. Arcen Games certainly seem determined to make gamers’ games, games that are solidly within an understood and specific ‘core’ tradition but which nonetheless attempt to push and blur boundaries in order to offer players something new. This is hugely laudable and respectable. The question is, how well have they succeeded?

And here’s why I’m going to write a three-part piece about my experiences with AVWW. It’s designed to be a long game. There’s a huge procedurally-generated world out there to explore. There’s a number of game elements I’m yet to encounter. There will be new spells and abilities to discover and craft. There’s some story in there too, somewhere; secrets relating to whatever fractured the game world in order to make it what it is.

A Valley Without Wind #2

Exploring the interior of a building within a countryside area.

On paper this is fascinating. Unfortunately, so far the game has left me quite cold – in fact I’ve had to force myself to play it at times, just to try and get a bit further. I’m sure there’s something more to the game than I’ve experienced yet, and I want to see what this might be, plus I want to be able to give you, our readers, an honest and even-handed appraisal of the game. But in order to do this I must also explain why I’ve found the game difficult to love or even like much thus far.

My problems with the game are three-pronged, and they relate to the three core aspects of the experience the game offers. The first is the most important: the exploration. It is, frankly, a bit bland from what I’ve seen so far. Arcen’s procedural generation tech seems pretty sweet, no argument there, but none of the environments I’ve seen so far have any sense of place. The abandoned buildings – supposedly relics of dead civilizations – just feel like any old generic, unplanned environments, never feeling like something that was ever lived in by people. An environment that convinces in terms of its own sense of narrative, that coheres with the broader story and design of the game, can be a magical thing – as recently explored by Electron Dance (I do read other blogs, honest, it’s just that HarbourMaster explores specific concepts so well).  A Valley Without Wind hasn’t offered me that thus far.

But if the narrative and environment fail to drive me on, at least there is the prospect of loot, right? Yes, loot: integral to so many RPGs, it’s what drives players to continue even after they’ve seen and killed it all. There are always numbers to go up, always the prospect of some cool new item or spell to unlock. That’s the idea, anyway. Unfortunately AVWW gives you a bunch of stuff at the outset, which is more than enough to create lots of different spells. Everything I’ve found so far whilst exploring the world, bar one kind of pick-up I’m unable to use (which relates to a game mechanic I’ve not opened up yet), has been more of the same. All I’m finding, essentially, is stuff I’ve already seen.

But even if the narrative and environment and prospect of collecting cool things doesn’t drive me on, there is still that most gamey of elements: the combat mechanics. Yes, this is a world populated with monsters, and they stand in the way of your exploration and settlement expansion.

A Valley Without Wind #3

On the outside the buildings appear different, but inside they all draw from the same tilesets.

AVWW deals in two basic monster classes: there are the rare bosses, who provide XP toward new levels, and the mooks, who appear everywhere. Mooks drop no items and give no experience; they exist solely as obstacles, as something to spice up your process of exploration. Alas, they can be killed with one hit of any of your starting spells – except for the bottom-level starting-spell which might take two hits to kill a rarer, tougher mook. They’re hardly any threat, either, dealing pathetic damage. The bosses are satisfyingly huge and provide the only challenge I’ve seen in the game thus far, and they seem to have unique attacks too – with impressive effects similar to some of your own spells. Combat itself is point and shoot – well, run/jump and point and shoot – and taking care of mooks is so effortless you’ll barely register them most of the time. Fighting bosses is trickier, but it’s not yet become clear whether there is an advantage to using certain spell types of attack patterns; mostly I’ve been deploying the old “run backwards and shoot” trick if they come at me, or the old “run after them and jump their attacks and shoot” if they move away from me.

So that’s it. It’s all very underwhelming. The exploration feels empty because the world does too, the things I can find are uninteresting because I’ve already seen them and they offer no advantage to me, and the combat is serviceable but unexceptional where it actually offers a challenge.

There’s the promise of more later, of course, and it’s this, coupled with the game’s scope and its ambition, that are encouraging me to keep coming back. For now I will have to grind bosses to get XP to gain levels, which will soon open up stuff that has the promise of being more interesting. I have my doubts, of course – nowadays we’re all wise to MMOs which demand investment in return for the promise of fun, for example – but I’m still intrigued by what may lie ahead.

Still, what I’ve described above are my feelings after just a few hours with the game, and my feelings about it were strong enough that I felt they should be relayed honestly. If you’ve read this far, though, please do check back in the coming days and weeks for part two – which will cover my thoughts about the game once it has opened out more – and part three – which will, essentially, be my concluding thoughts on A Valley Without Wind.

I sincerely hope that my further investment in the game is a rewarding experience.

A Valley Without Wind #4

I haven't even mentioned the strategic meta-game yet, because I don't know anything about it. Yet.

[Between writing the above and its publication, Arcen Games sent out a new press release about A Valley Without Wind to say that they’d added a new, linear tutorial to ease people into the game. It’s possible that this may address some of my concerns above, so for Part 2 I will generate a new world and give it a blast.]