Valley caught my eye entirely by accident while I was browsing Steam as I sometimes do, trolling for new releases. It comes from Blue Isle Studios, the developer behind Slender: The Arrival which I haven’t played, but as I recall was fairly well-received as an iteration over the popular Slender: Eight Pages. Valley exchanges the dark and gloomy environments for the most part for the beautiful landscapes of the Sussurrus Valley as you try to uncover the location of an ancient item called the Lifeseed as well as solve a handful of mysteries.
Valley: Windows PC [Reviewed], Xbox One, PlayStation 4
Developer: Blue Isle Studios
Publisher: Blue Isle Studios
Release Date: 24 August 2016
Price: 19,99€ [Disclosure: Game Copy Provided by Developer/Publisher]
Peaks and Valleys
Judging by the CRT monitor on your desk as the game begins and the answering machine (its very existence, rather) upon which a friend leaves a message for you that serves as exposition and judging further by the Indiana Jones reference he drops, it’s probably the mid-’80s as the game opens. You’re an explorer/adventurer searching for the Lifeseed. A legendary item said to have the power to destroy worlds, which…I mean…you could have called it something else, ancient civilizations. If I were to think of words that are most opposed to the concept of destruction, “life” and “seed” would be pretty high on that list.
Due to the protagonist’s brilliant idea of learning how to canoe the treacherous rivers of the Canadian Rockies from what looks like a magazine you quickly find yourself shipwrecked (canoe wrecked?) in a cave. As you emerge into the bright daylight you’re facing a beautiful vista, the music picks up into a soothing melodic chant and the title fades in. Welcome to Valley. You’re given a few minutes to explore the sights and sounds at your leisure and get familiar with the controls (of which only the run button has been unlocked so far). It is not long before you come across a crashed military truck and a mysterious crate containing a mechanized exoskeleton called a Leap Effortlessly through Air Functionality Suit, or L.E.A.F. Naturally you immediately put it on and are treated to an endearingly old-timey propaganda/instruction video dating from the Second World War which details the suit’s capabilities.
After the movie has finished playing, the tape playback feature on your suit kicks in, introducing you to anthropologist Virginia King, who was stationed in the valley along with the military to study the ruins and relics of the Meso American tribes that inhabited it long ago. She will be your guide from across time, popping up with information as you reach new areas, telling you about the valley and occasionally granting some exposition as you try to decipher the valley’s mysteries. For now, however, it’s time to take the suit for a spin.
The L.E.A.F.’s double jointed legs propel you faster as you sprint and builds enormous momentum if you run downhill. The faster you run, the higher and further you are able to jump, clearing ravines, rivers and even chasms. The suit and most of the technology in the valley run on a source of energy unique to it called Amrita. A side-effect of Amrita, however, is that upon dying the user can draw upon the life-force of the valley to experience quantum immortality. In layman’s terms, should the wearer die, they are immediately transported to a timeline where their death did not occur. The cost is that as you are revived, the valley around you dies. Trees and plants wither and animals collapse to the ground. However, your suit also stores Amrita and has the ability to either harness it from living things or even restore life. Because of this, it’s usually wise to find trees to restore after dying and then find alternative sources for your suit’s energy to avoid having the valley be drained completely and unable to revive you.
Thankfully, there are many energy sources. Wherever there is bustling life you’ll also find little sprite-like creatures that curiously investigate you and also floating orbs of energy that seem to respawn after a while. Later in the game, as you reach the military outposts you can also find power cells and reactors and of course, there’s always the emergency option of draining something of life. There are also hostile creatures called Amrita Swarms that continually shoot projectiles at you that will drain your suit’s energy until you fire enough of it into them to “pacify” them, at which point they become an infinite Amrita source.
Over the course of the game exploration along and off the beaten path will reward you with bits and pieces of notes that tell stories about the soldiers and researchers that lived in the valley during the course of the secret projects. Additionally, you’ll find various collectibles, such as acorns (which are occasionally used to access doors that hide further treasures) and medallions which will grant you access to a great pyramid towards the later part of the game. Last, but definitely not least, you will find various upgrades for your suit, such as extra energy capacity, faster running, higher jumping and even a hook shot that you can use to spider-swing around the valley wherever certain dedicated nodes allow it.
With all these tools as your disposal, you are going to make your way further, deeper and higher into the valley, uncovering its mysteries, the fates of the men and women that were stationed there, including Virginia King and searching for the Lifeseed. Playing conservatively (not rushing through but not exploring every single nook and cranny), the game took about 4 hours to complete, but I’d expect you to spend more if you like collectibles and unlocking secret areas.
What was accomplished in Valley with the Unity engine is pretty impressive. While the models and textures used are not as rich in detail as you would find in a AAA title with a much higher budget, clever use of lighting, motion blur while running and ambient effects mask this for the majority of the game. There are a few areas where the environment doesn’t allow for light-tricks, such as a sequence that takes place during a dim dawn and you can see some of the textures’ grain, but when the game allows itself to literally shine, it looks absolutely fantastic. One problem I had, however, was running the game at maximum detail specifically with maxed out SSAA (Super Sample Anti-Aliasing). Because of how SSAA works (renders the scene at a much higher resolution and then downscales to your resolution of choice), setting it to high tanked my frame rate to sub-30 numbers. Playing it on low SSAA caused no problems on my GTX 970 and I was able to easily maintain a constant 60. I think the game also offered FXAA and I suppose you could use that as an alternative. If you’re a monster.
I’ll just gloss over the sound for a bit. Environments sound nice, the sound design is satisfying. You get the occasional voiced monologue from the recordings you find which help ward off the oppressive loneliness, but weirdly no voiced lines from your protagonist. You just get occasional text pop-ups of your thoughts even though the game explicitly offers the ability to choose between male or female voice for your character, but this is mainly used for things like exertion noises. The music, though… Gods, the music! Stretches of tranquil exploration are usually accompanied by celtic-sounding songs of varying intensity, heavy on the pan-flute side, while combat and the indoor portions have a more industrial sound. The soundtrack is largely dynamic and adapts to your current activity, complementing its feel perfectly.
In fact, the entire game is built to play off the constant alternation of calming or exhilarating exploration sequences and tense combat or precision platforming. In general, completing a challenging sequence rewards you with a nice run downhill, a brief stroll on the lake shore and later on even veritable roller-coaster rides, once you reach the industrialized portions of the valley. The combat is not very complex, but it does take a bit of precision and skill to dodge and shoot projectiles and later down the line even some clever resource management, but Amrita energy being so absurdly plentiful throughout the game even the toughest sequences barely skirt the realm of challenging. This is, in fact, one of the game’s greatest failings: it does not seem to fully make use of its most interesting concepts. I never felt like I couldn’t afford dying, since restoring the valley to its “full health” took mere minutes each time and I almost always had a full reserve of energy throughout the game. I feel like the game could have benefited a lot from adjustable difficulty.
My last grievances are minor ones: The look sensitivity is incredibly high. Even set to minimum I had to turn my controller right stick very slowly or set my mouse CPI to 500 for it to be comfortable to handle. Additionally, I’d have liked to be able to hide the UI when I wasn’t actively using it. It’s such a gorgeous looking game that it was a pity to hide the entire top part of the screen behind UI elements.
Valley aggressively pushes above and beyond the industry-established scope of narrative-driven exploration games. It fills the gaps between the story bits with dynamic gameplay and fun traversal, offering you a wide array of tools to get across the environments. The valley itself is beautifully designed, offering the occasional breathtaking view and the soundtrack is fantastic. Because of its constant change of pace, I found myself enjoying the storytelling of Valley far more than the likes of something like Everyone’s Gone To The Rapture and found the traversal to be far more compelling than what the Mirror’s Edge series had to offer. Valley has story for those seeking story, collectibles for those into completion, traversal and combat for the adventurers and nice sights and sounds for explorers. In fact, the heaviest criticism I can weigh against it is that it could have been just a bit more challenging, but at the end of the day, Valley is a textbook case of a “walking simulator” done incredibly right.