|Platforms||PC (reviewed), PS4, XBO|
|Developer||Blue Isle Studios|
|Publisher||Blue Isle Studios|
|Release Date||August 24, 2016|
Momentum is a powerful concept in video games. In Valley, a first-person adventure game from Blue Isle Studios, it’s essential. Valley begins much like the dozens of other first-person narrative driven games we’ve seen released on the back of Gone Home’s success – it gives you some pretty scenery to gawk at as you slowly walk through it, giving you some brief backstory snippets about a “lifeseed” that the protagonist is searching for.
And then you round a corner and find a L.E.A.F. Suit in an abandoned military container at the site of a crashed Army jeep and the game takes a sudden, sharp twist. The L.E.A.F. Suit is a mechanical harness that allows its user to run faster, jump higher, fall further and, thanks to upgrades scattered throughout the titular valley, do a bunch of other cool things too.
Thanks to the L.E.A.F. Suit, Valley’s gameplay is all about momentum. The game quickly gets you used to the enhanced jumping and running abilities the suit provides. Then it puts you at the top of a large slope and asks you to sprint down it. The L.E.A.F. Suit continuously allows you to build momentum when you run downwards and, when combined with upslopes, can launch you high into the air.
It’s a breathtaking experience. The speeds and heights you can reach are impressive and the L.E.A.F. Suit powered gameplay makes the simple act of exploring the valley exhilarating. I lost quite a bit of time simply putting the suit through its paces – throwing myself around the various locations just because I wanted to see how fast I could go, how high I could reach. There was no end to my enjoyment in simply sprinting down a hillside and launching myself high above the valley.
Blue Isle Studios have done a fantastic job of creating this core gameplay mechanic. Even the smaller details, such as the weight of the impact upon landing, add a great deal to the experience and help to immerse you in the world. You’re given a pretty good deal of mid-air control too, allowing you to have a good idea of where you’re likely to land. All of this is combined with some excellent visuals and an amazing dynamic soundtrack.
Oh man, the soundtrack. The orchestral music of Valley is pretty good in its own right. But the way it’s utilised throughout the experience is something else entirely. The way it builds as you run down a long hillside, hitting its peak as you go soaring over the landscape, adds a great deal to the sense of awe and wonder as you watch the trees and hills and abandoned military installations go by below.
Even with a suit so empowering it makes you feel like a superhero on his or her day off, you can still die in it. In fact, death is a core part of the entire game. There are dark creatures who can fight you, the suit is too heavy for water, or maybe you could just fall too far. There are a few ways you can meet an untimely end in the valley. Luckily you can respawn quite quickly after death, but at a cost.
Death and respawning are a part of Valley’s story. It’s explained as Quantum Immortality – the idea that your death took place in an alternate universe and you’re transported to a different one where your death never happened. The price for your respawn is the valley itself. You don’t have a health bar, but the valley does. Whenever you die and respawn, life energy is taken from the surroundings. Trees, vegetation, animals and more will die around you when you come back to life.
You can manage the health of the valley thanks to the L.E.A.F. Suit’s ability to manipulate life and death. By firing bolts of energy at what’s dead you can bring it back to life. Similarly, if you’re low on energy (which the suit needs to function), you can take it – killing vegetation and animal alike to power your suit and keep you going. There are also blue orbs scattered around the landscape that you can collect to keep your suit going.
It’s a truly fascinating concept, and one that works extremely well in the confines of Valley’s fiction, but doesn’t quite work in gameplay. The problem is that there are so many blue orbs dotted around the valley that you never need to actually kill anything to keep yourself going. Because that decision is never thrust upon you, it takes what could have been a fascinating gameplay mechanic and turns it into a bit of a gimmick. It’s still fun to revive the valley, blasting trees with life-giving energy as you fly above them, but never anything more than that.
The only time you’ll ever be in danger of using too much energy is during combat. There are enemies in the valley, referred to as dark creatures, whom you need to pacify with life energy to defeat. It’s basically your standard first-person combat. Most encounters with enemies are fairly benign, with only one or two encounters proving any real challenge. While the combat never actively detracts from the game experience, it does feel tacked on, forcing you away from the best parts of the game to engage in some basic and unthreatening combat every now and again.
When you’re simply exploring the environment or making your way through the various levels of the game, Valley is at its excellent best. As you progress through the game you’ll be able to find various upgrades that greatly expand your L.E.A.F. Suits capabilities. Standouts include the Viper Coil, a grappling hook that can attach itself to the various cranes scattered around the environments. There’s also an upgrade that gives players access to absurd speed boosts when running along electrified tracks.
Each of these upgrades is useful as you continue through the game, but each also has one or two specific areas designed around it. A training area in the tree-tops that sees you grappling around like Spider-Man, for example. Or underground areas specifically designed with the aforementioned electrified tracks. These sections are generally the best parts of the game, allowing you to really push yourself and the L.E.A.F. Suit abilities itself. They’re unfortunately brief, but this allows them to stand out.
All of this is wrapped around the fairly evocative story of a military that found the valley during World War II, deciding to attempt to harness its energy to create weapons, the L.E.A.F. Suit being designed as a means to help soldiers (called Pathfinders) to explore the Valley. It’s an effective and affecting tale that touches on a wide range of themes ranging from the cost of scientific progress and environmental issues. It’s told through scattered notes and audio logs filled with great characters and some fairly powerful storytelling.
Valley is a fantastic experience, thanks to the L.E.A.F. Suit and the various gameplay mechanics that it unlocks. Few games in recent memory have been so exhilarating as exploring the valley’s countryside – running at full speed down a hillside, soaring above the landscape, swinging through the trees – it truly is a joy to play. The narrative is strong and meaningful, though the choice between life and death is completely neutered by the fact that it’s next to impossible to die or run out of energy, and the combat feels oddly out of place and mundane. Valley, however, is all about the act of playing the game itself and exploring the world it has built. With an evocative soundtrack, gorgeous visuals and exceptional gameplay, it’s one of the most awe-inspiring games I’ve experienced in a while.
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