Tuesday, May 22, 2012

A Valley Without Wind review

Besides containing one of the best titles in recent memory, Arcen Game's A Valley Without Wind is, perhaps, one of the most ambitious titles I've ever played. Not only does it combine the 2D, intelligent level design of old-school Metroid and Castlevania titles, but it sprinkles in exploratory and crafting devices found in Terraria and Minecraft. While it sounds like a game with elements everyone always wished for, it's aspiring design falls short of greatness.

Video review

If it wasn't already apparent, this isn't the kind of game you can instantly pick up and know what's going on. AVWW contains a learning curve, which isn't abysmally steep, but does assail you with menu screens and tutorial pop-ups explaining all the aspects of the title. There's a lot to this game and you'd do yourself a great service to read them.

The year is 888 and a cataclysm has shattered the reality of the world called Environ. Violent wind storms sweep the continents and different time periods have become mangled, yet tethered to the same fate. Defying the hopeless conditions, the saviors of life known as the Glyphbearers have appeared to rectify the situation. Being one of the chosen, it's up to you to build up lost settlements and rescue the survivors of the cataclysm in order to put an end to the perpetual rule of the tyrannical Overlords who plague the shattered world.

Sounds intriguing right? Unfortunately the narrative of AVWW never goes deeper than the title screen. You'll indeed rescue various survivors from different periods in time and even slay many of the Overlords and their lieutenants. However, even they don't provide you with any important information regarding the story. As a matter of fact, the only time the story 'advances' is when you find and complete a Mystery Room. The information these rooms provide can only be described as terse and, since they're hard enough to find as is, you'll hardly waste your time looking for them; especially when your sole reward is a short pop-up message. Usually I'm a fan of this clandestine style of storytelling, but the game never truly gives you that push, that desire to discover more. There's potential for a great story here, but with the way it's set it, unfortunately, just lies dormant and that should be a crime.

The world map is virtually limitless.

AVWW's core experience revolves around exploration and finding materials while you do it. Unlike the Metroids and Castlevanias of the past, AVWW is procedurally generated which just means that every single stage in every game is distinct and random. Saying that, you can't really call AVWW a Metroidvania title and that's unique in itself. You might be wondering how that works since the game requires the acquisition of various materials to craft spells, structures and other objects. That, is where the various systems come into play, all of which Arcen Games should be commended for.

As you mill about the absolutely enormous world, the map system put in place will become your closest ally. It's tough to read at first, but once you understand what all the color-coding and objects mean, you'll embrace how differently you traverse the environment. Yellow-colored areas mean they contain goodies you might require, red-colored zones mean there's a boss waiting to be slain and gray-colored places mean there's nothing of particular interest present. Maybe it seems awkward that Arcen Games decided to reveal what each individual area contains, but you still have to explore and since the world is procedurally generated, this way makes finding what you need that much easier without the frustration of running back and forth through hallways for hours.

If you're seeking out specific materials to craft a spell, you can pull up your Big Honkin' Encyclopedia at any time. Once you understand how to use it, no spell will be out of reach for very long. However, AVWW throws another wrench in the works by way of a very different unlockable system.

You know, you could go find a nicer place to torment.

Let's say a spell of yours requires a couple stacks of clay to craft. Clay doesn't actually exist in the game until you earn the achievement that unlocks vases that contain clay. You'll need to read into a lot of materials to find out what you need to do to unlock it specifically, but it usually isn't anything harder than killing a certain number of monsters, completing some quests or finding a special stash. This system actually works in tandem with the monsters you'll fight as well. AVWW ostensibly begins with a very limited amount of monsters, but once you kill a specific amount of a creature, a new one unlocks. For instance, if you destroy enough Skelebots, the much harder Skelebot Centurions will appear.

A large part of the game revolves around advancing the tier of the continent you're on. You do this by completing missions positioned around the world map which also net you crafting materials. Each continent can reach tier five, which just means monsters will become stronger and certain unlockables and materials will be obtainable. If you don't want to advance the continent you can explore the different stages to locate secret missions. These special missions are randomly generated as well and still net you rewards without fear of making the game harder, which is a nice touch.

Another cool little feature of sorts is how often AVWW is updated. Arcen Games strongly supports this title and is active within the community more than any game developer I've ever seen. They're constantly adding new monsters, spells, missions and they even have a system in place to take suggestions from their community about what they should add, change, or remove from the game. Every day I fired this game up there was an update complete with notes about what changed and why. It's funny but by the time you read this some of the things I've been talking about could be completely different. You don't see this kind of devotion often.

When you're randomly generated character randomly generates a name as good as Judge Glass, there's no going back.

Up to this point, it seems like AVWW is a diamond in the rough, but I must make it clear that while its ambitions are certainly appreciated, it all doesn't come together as cleanly as it might sound. I mentioned earlier that erecting structures was a part of the game. The main point of gaining these structures is to make the people of your settlement happy, increasing their profession level and who doesn't want a level three Forgician or Lumbermancer to be happy, right? The problem is, these buildings can be an annoyance to acquire and the only one you need to worry about getting is the Aquaurgist's Well. It's the sole building that gives you the ability to create windmills to beat back the storms, opening up more of the continent. The catch is that you need some of the other structures to make the one. Sure, other buildings can give you the ability to use scrolls that give you a five minute buff in a random category, but five minutes in this game is nothing. Basically, besides the one building, the city-building element is pointless.

AVWW touts the meaningful nature of your lifebar and endorses the idea of permanent death. Don't worry, it's not as bad as it sounds. Upon death, your character will be gone forever but everything you've earned will carry over into the next randomly generated character except for upgrades. However, since you can only use upgrade stones to augment your character 10 times anyway, it's no big deal. The most pricey upgrade cost 20 stones and at any point I was carrying at least 1,000 of the things. As a matter of fact, sometimes I'd purposely kill my character in order to get the proper stats I wanted - since there's no re-roll option. Even worse, since I needed an Aquaurgist and I didn't feel like rescuing more dudes, I killed my character until one I randomly picked turned out to be an Aquaurgist himself.

The biggest offense AVWW commits though is when you manage to kill the Overlord of the continent. It's neat how you can make him weaker by eliminating his lieutenants before confronting him, but the encounter is... unexciting. Every lieutenant and every Overlord always perform the same attacks and once defeated, you can advance to a whole new continent to do the exact same thing all over again. This time though, you can't bring any of your spells or items with you and your new settlement is completely bare, again. Essentially you're starting the game over.

Yeah, you better run.

This kind of gameplay mechanic isn't inherently bad, as it promotes replayability but, besides a few unlockables, there's no reason to continue doing the same set of motions. There are a plethora of spells to choose from to make the game more interesting the third or fourth time through, but you're just going to settle for the couple of spells you know, pump them up real quick and vaporize the Overlord once again. Constantly going back to several areas to search for materials to augment the same spells time and time again gets old fast.

Even with its grindy nature, the art style is very tough to get behind. Animations are stiff and a good chunk of the art looks like it's placeholder for something to come. It's not all bad though as AVWW sports some incredible music, like the haunting melody of the world map screen. I should also mention that the game is online enabled allowing eight our more people to jump into the same world. The issue with that is your single player character can only come over to the online component if you create the server yourself. Everyone else who joins would have to play exclusively on your server or be forced to start from scratch on another.

AVWW is a very interesting game with unique ideas that haven't been explored before. As much as I appreciate the ambitions behind the core of the experience, the game simply isn't for everyone. If you want a deep and exciting experience, you'll have to be self motivated to find it here, but buried deep within the code of this game is an idea that makes me shiver with anticipation.

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