Friday, June 22, 2012

Review: A Valley Without Wind (PC)

While the category has been around for quite a long time, “Randomly/ Procedurally Generated” games have seen a bit of resurgence. The most current and easily recognized game of this category is Minecraft, a building/adventuring game with a procedurally-generated world. One could argue that Minecraft has been the basis of this resurgence; it was an extremely popular game that used procedural generation in what had been a market dominated by games with pre-made content. While the video game market still is dominated by games with constructed scenes and events, the independent game development scene has really grasped the idea of procedural content and run off with it. One of the products of this movement is A Valley Without Wind, an action-platformer with a procedurally-generated world.

Do not be fooled by the product page; this game is primarily an action-platformer. While the descriptions of the game on its storefronts are those praising the tactical combat and saying that the game defies genres, it really does not. The majority of what you will be doing is platforming and using spells to attack entities, whether they are objects that give valuable resources or enemies. And the promise of tactical combat is almost forgotten. While the enemies can be inflicted with status effects and each enemy has elemental weaknesses/resistances, these do not factor into the gameplay in strong enough ways override the simple and effective strategy of spamming the spell that happens to do the most damage.

However, to make up for these shortcomings, the game does advertise one element of itself that stays constant throughout the entirety of the experience. This element is planning. The game consistently wants the player to complete a daunting amount of objectives all at the same time, and to effectively complete those objectives one must coordinate when, where, and how those objects should be completed and in what order. Resource management and planning is definitely something that is absent from the genre of action-platformers. However, planning is an element that’s easy to ruin when attempting to implement it into an action game; a developer can easily end up making the player ignore the planning because of material oversaturation or a developer can easily end up making a player ready to accuse the developer of stretching playtime because of hard-to-acquire materials. I personally believe that A Valley Without Wind fails to achieve the right balance that it wanted to present, but I’ll discuss how the game fails this crucial part later on.

The first two elements of the game that a player will notice are the music and the graphics. The graphics are very diametric. On one hand there are the very detailed sprites that the game uses for everything, and on the other hand the animations are almost cartoon-ish in how simple and brief they are. These two aspects create a weird vortex that neither seems to appease realists or entertain those that love complete non-realism. The camera is affected by this vortex; because there is so much detail in every sprite the player sees and because the sprite animations are not naturally smooth, the quick camera movements can easily cause an effect that could lead to some individuals obtaining motion sickness. The graphical style can easily be called terrible and I would not be one to argue, but it is also unique in a bizarre way.

The music is thankfully much more straightforward. The soundtrack consists of mainly electronic melodies backed by what sound like acoustic instruments. While I do not find these songs to have any bad qualities on their own, the structure of the game forces a handful of songs to be played over and over. This has the unfortunate side effect of causing the electronic melodies to become excruciatingly harder to listen to each time they start. Needless to say, this is a game where it is best to load up your personal music collection or stock up on several podcasts. As for sound effects, they are unremarkable at their best and at their worst.

Moving onto the main meat of the game, follow me as I attempt to explain the general idea of what the game is about. The year is 999 and Environ, the Earth of this universe, has just had all of its known time periods collapse in on themselves; snowfields filled with barbarians lay only steps away from deserts filled with Egyptians, modern cities have the neighbors of future robot wastelands, and fields of grass from pre-industrial times somehow end up completely fine sitting right next to the lava pools of the apocalypse. Amid the mass confusion, an overlord rises up and starts oppressing the survivors of the time collapse. The players duty is to dethrone (read; kill) this overlord and take back the current continent that they reside on. Once that objective has been met, the player can travel to a new continent at which time they can start the process over again.

However, to dethrone the overlord, one must be very powerful and have strong spells that perform a hefty amount of damage. This is where the planning comes in; the player must gather upgrade orbs and materials in order to advance their spells. While materials can be found in very specific areas by either destroying background entities or finding them in “Stash” rooms, upgrade orbs must be obtained through doing missions. These missions range from protecting crates from meteor storms to ascending towers filled with bosses.

Speaking of the continent map, while it is possible to visit any tile at any desired time, a windstorm will be covering a majority of the continent tiles. This windstorm increases the levels of the enemies by about two or three above the continent's normal enemy level. The only way to get rid of these windstorms is to create a windmill, which will push back the storm by a total of four tile spaces. A one-use power that will create a windmill is one of the occasional awards that the player will get alongside upgrade orbs for completing missions. However, in order to have the ability to create a windmill the player must have the appropriate survivors with the appropriate level of skill in a specific profession and AAAAAAA!!!

As you can tell by the the last two paragraphs, the game outright REQUIRES the player to plan all of their actions. The fact that there is no way to easily figure out which materials are needed is a slight pain. While the most annoying parts, specifically finding the right survivors and constructing buildings to further their skills, are already set in place for the first continent, later continents expect the player to get used to scouring for survivors and do whatever they can to boost the survivors’ skills. While this does increase the playtime by several hours, it is a very artificial method and it is the second biggest reason as to why the game fails on its implementation of planning into an action-heavy genre.

The biggest reason as to the game’s failure of implementing planning is due to the procedural generation aspect. Except for the beginning continent tile of the first continent, every single room and area is generated by the game. This allows for a truly massive world, where one can easily spend over a handful of hours exploring a single continent tile. However, because of the nature of procedural generation, many areas and rooms end up looking too similar. For buildings, the procedural generation ends up looking more like random generation because a majority of the room structures are heavily re-used. These similar-looking areas and rooms do not encourage the player to venture into them, especially when they are dull and have nonexistent or unnoticeable differences.

This problem quickly teaches the player to scour for stash rooms and thankfully the game does aid in finding those rooms with several maps. The first map, which is located on the bottom-right of the screen, is the area map, which either shows the layout of a building or of a continent tile depending on where the player currently resides. The second map, located on the upper-left of the screen, is the current room map, which shows the layout of the location the player is in. While the area map only shows what kind of room/section are in buildings/continent tiles (stash areas, boss areas, normal areas, etc.), the current room map shows the general layout of the map along with a few select elements such as doors and items. These two additions are very appreciated and fit in quite nicely, especially when other games of similar style (Terraria and Minecraft) have either nonexistent or ineffectual map systems.

An element that I am not quite decided on is the permanent death mechanic of the game. Yes, this game has permanent death, but there is a comforting catch; if the players current character dies, the new character will inherit all of the previous characters items and spells. There are specific character stats, so there is a reason to keep particularly powerful characters around rather than just throwing them into the pile of other dead characters. But the aspect that I have a bit of a problem with is that it is very easy to keep a specific character alive. The game outright says that the player will die within a matter of several hours, for goodness’ sakes the game has achievements which award the player for letting a certain amount of characters die, but it is not a stretch to go on for entire continents without a single character dying. Maybe this is just my skill blurring my perception of the normal player, but I do not see many players having to change to new characters often.

Another thing that I want to note before I wrap up this review is that the procedural generation engine actually locks content until certain requirements are met. While materials can be included in this group, what I am trying to point towards is that new missions types, continent tile types, and enemies are locked until after the player defeats the first overlord on the first continent. This really irks me because, frankly, the first continent is very boring and really could have used the variety that is introduced in later continents, not to mention the fact that it takes a long while (10+ hours) to prepare oneself for a battle with the overlord. While I am angry about this, the locked content does give an incentive to play the game again if you enjoyed the time you had on the first continent.

In conclusion, I don’t feel A Valley Without Wind does the platforming or action aspects of its design especially badly. The platforming does not feel off and battles with enemies do not drag on or feel boring. The problem I have with this game is that the major ideas (an enormous, procedurally-generated world and planning) fall flat or just do not work in entertaining ways.  The permadeath mechanic also feels a bit confused, which does not alleviate the problem of the two major ideas failing.

Before I end this review, I should mention that the 1.1 update for A Valley Without Wind has been released and that update has not been factored into this review. The update does change a lot of things and this is not uncommon for developer Arcen Games; their past title, AI War: Fleet Command, was already at version 5.0 within two years with some of those updates radically changing the games already-established mechanics. So at the end of the day, this could be a radically different game than the one that was present within the launch window of the game.





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