As promised, here are a few further thoughts on A Valley Without Wind, given that I’ve inadvertently spent most of today playing it.
First up, having read a few reviews around the Web which focused heavily on the visual side of things, I direct you to this post. Get over it. Not everyone has the budget to make something that looks like Final Fantasy XIII, and it’s not as if AVWW’s visuals are bad per se, they just look like something out of a PC game from the 1990s, shortly after we discovered Super VGA. If “8-bit” can be an acceptable aesthetic (and I shan’t get into a rant on the misuse of that term here) then why not “mid-90s PC game” if the graphics don’t actually hurt the experience?
Secondly, the music. You will, as the cliche goes, love it or hate it. Here’s a simple test. Do you like chiptunes and electronica? You will like the music. If you do not like chiptunes and electronica, you will probably want to switch it off and listen to something else. (I love chiptunes and electronica.)
Those two glaringly obvious points which most reviews seem to focus on aside, let’s discuss the gameplay a little more.
Following an initial tutorial which introduces key gameplay concepts to the player with various gravestones sarcastically describing how various predecessors could have avoided their fate, the player reaches a settlement. This is a sorry affair to begin with, with only a single, bedraggled-looking survivor staggering around it, but a selection of basic buildings already constructed and ready to go. Three of the giant crystalline “Ilari” life-forms are here, and later in the game they’ll provide a means to purchase items, build things and cast far-reaching spells. To begin with, their most important function is to restore your hit points.
Leave the settlement and you’ll be taken onto a grid-based randomly generated world map. Each tile has a particular terrain type which controls the type of enemies that will spawn there, the items you’ll discover and, if you’re lucky, the survivors you might come across. Each region comes from a specific time period — the game’s story centres around the concept of the world being “shattered” both geographically and temporally — and this comes into play with some of the missions later.
When exploring a region, you’ll come across buildings. You can enter every single one of them. Most of them are sprawling mini-Metroidvania adventures in their own right, but for the most part you’ll be seeking out the “stash” rooms that contain plenty of treasure. These are conveniently marked on the graph-like abstract dungeon map in the corner of the screen, which shows the connections between rooms but not their exact layout. A key part of gameplay is “scouting” buildings, which means delving in just far enough to reveal the rest of the map — rooms that are within two “connections” of the one you’re in appear without you having to go to them — and then weighing up whether it’s worth exploring further.
The buildings are rather abstractly designed (not to mention having TARDIS-like properties), and call to mind retro classics such as Jet Set Willy, where a “real world environment” was simply a room with obstacles in it and various graphics representing toilets and televisions scattered around the place. They’re far from “believable” environments, but it doesn’t matter — you’re playing a side-on platform game, so there’s a limit to how realistically these structures can be designed anyhow. I’d rather have something that is interesting to explore than something where every building is the same.
Missions play a key role in progression. You’ll come across missions either on the world map or tucked away inside buildings. These whisk the player off to a unique, special area and challenge them with a specific task. Sometimes you might be climbing a linear tower and bashing bosses on the way up. Another time you might be defending storage silos from incoming meteors like a Missile Command platformer. Another time you might be tasked with removing the “anachronisms” from an area, which involves figuring out which monsters don’t “belong” in the region you’re in and eliminating them. Destroying all the correct monsters concludes the mission. Destroying an incorrect monster spawns two more, either, both or neither of which may also be an anachronism. Yet another time you might be challenged with getting through a “one shot, one kill” dungeon where either you or the enemy grazing their knee results in instant death.
As you progress through the game, death becomes an increasingly frequent occurrence. When a character dies, they’re gone for good, leaving behind a tough-to-defeat vengeful ghost at the location where they shuffled off the mortal coil. Fortunately, you don’t lose all the stuff you’ve spent hours accumulating — you simply lose any upgrades you might have applied to that character’s health, attack power and mana pool and have to pick a new playable character. As you rescue survivors from different time periods, you gain access to a range of characters with varying abilities — those from an “ice age” era, for example, are resistant to the cold, while those who are not will require special equipment to explore cold environments effectively.
The eventual goal is to storm into the local Overlord’s lair and kick him squarely in the balls. Said Overlord has a bunch of lieutenants, too, who can either be knocked off individually before taking on the Overlord or battled at the same time as the big boss man. You can theoretically walk straight into the Overlord’s lair from the beginning of the game, but you’ll be ill-equipped to deal with the challenges therein. Instead, it’s advisable to complete a bunch of missions to raise the continent’s “civilisation level” (thus affecting both the strength of the enemies and the potential rewards on offer) while also collecting the raw materials required to buff up your character’s spells. And rescue survivors. And build buildings. And construct wind shelters to push back the wind storms that buffet the region, making exploration difficult. And track down “mystery rooms” to find clues describing exactly what the hell happened to the world to get it in this state. And… you get the idea. There is a shitload of things to do, and completing the first continent then invites you to do it all again in a more diverse array of environments.
The sheer amount of things that there are to do can make the game seem like a daunting prospect. The game often draws comparisons to other open-world freeform adventures such as Minecraft and Terraria and that feeling of being alone in a vast, terrifying world is very much present and correct here. Focus on completing a few simple tasks, though — the game is good enough to suggest some to you — and things will gradually start to fall into place.
A Valley Without Wind is an ambitious title that tries very hard and while it’s true there are elements of the experience that could do with a little refinement, it’s a very memorable, compelling and addictive game that produces some excellent emergent narrative. Best of all, though, is the fact that the developers are still working on it, meaning the game experience will grow, change and evolve as time goes on. If it’s this intriguing now, I can’t wait to see what the game looks like in a few months or years.