Sunday, April 22, 2012

A Valley Without Wind Review

A Valley Without Wind, developed and published by Arcen Games.
The Good: Procedurally generated levels and worlds, adjustable difficulty, semi-random enchants for tactical character upgrades, varied spells with increased damage on different enemies, NPC jobs can improve your settlement, surmountable death penalty, persistent multiplayer, nice music
The Not So Good: Unique mechanics can be initially confusing, lacks an interactive story
What say you? This strategic role-playing platformer has procedurally generated content for high replay value and varied activities with room for future expansion: 7/8

The end of the world has been successfully foretold many times: 634 B.C., 389 B.C., 70, 247, 365, 400, 500, 793, 800, 806, 848, 995, 1000, 1033, 1184, 1186, 1260, 1284, 1290, 1335, 1351, 1370, 1378, 1504, 1524, 1525, 1528, 1533, 1534, 1555, 1585, 1588, 1600, 1624, 1648, 1654, 1656, 1657, 1658, 1660, 1666, 1673, 1688, 1689, 1694, 1697, 1700, 1708, 1716, 1719, 1734, 1736, 1757, 1780, 1789, 1794, 1795, 1805, 1806, 1814, 1836, 1843, 1844, 1847, 1856, 1862, 1863, 1874, 1878, 1881, 1890, 1899, 1901, 1908, 1910, 1911, 1914, 1915, 1916, 1918, 1920, 1925, 1935, 1936, 1941, 1943, 1947, 1954, 1962, 1967, 1969, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1980, 1981, 1982, 1984, 1985, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2003, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2011, and, of course, 2012. OK, maybe not successfully, but if you say it often enough, eventually you’ll be right. While the actual end of the world is 5-7 billion years away when the Sun transitions to a red giant and severe gravitational tides pull the Earth into oblivion, one still wonders what will happen when the world ceases to exist. A Valley Without Wind addresses the question with a cataclysm that rearranges the world both spatially and temporally. This role-playing platformer has you and other hearty survivors rebuilding society while fending off violent threats. The world is now filled with scattered survivors trekking through the harsh conditions in search of A Valley Without Wind (see what I did there?).

A Valley Without Wind uses a 2-D, side-scrolling approach to the game that works well. This allows for bitmaps with a higher level of detail to be used, producing a more convincing environment than what you’d expect to see in 3-D by an indie team. The characters and enemies look nice, with a near-future techno aesthetic permeating throughout the game. Animations can be a bit stiff and repetitive at times (does everyone always tuck and roll while jumping?), but overall they are done well. The procedurally generated terrain looks surprisingly good, thanks to some hand-crafted elements (the occasional room layouts, for example) and varied settings (desert, ice, forest) that produce nice results with lots of objects populating the landscape. The time of day and weather (rain and wind, because what would a valley be without wind?) effects look nice as well. Each spell in the game looks different and adheres to the visuals you would expect for its class (fire, air, water). The interface is pretty good, providing rectangular region and dungeon maps, a spell quick bar that doesn’t obscure the entire screen, and extensive tool-tips describing most of the game’s important attributes. The sound design comes with basic, repetitive sound effects but spectacular musical themes that change according to the climate and situation. Overall, the presentation of A Valley Without Wind is very solid.

Before you adventure out into the dangerous reaches of your lands, you must create a new world. This generates tiles, consisting of grass, desert, urban, snow, lava, and ocean environments, randomly scattered about (because of that tricky cataclysm) your continent. Before you begin, you can choose the difficulty level for both combat (which alters the health of you and your enemies) and platforming (adjusting the number of ladders that spawn) that is most appropriate for your ability level. The goal? To defeat the overlord and his three lieutenants, clearing the way for a more peaceful settlement. One side effect of the procedurally generated nature of the game is the dissolution of a master storyline: it’s simply you versus the elements and overlords, every game you play. Of course, the advantage is that you never know what you’ll see and what enemies to expect in each new location you explore. You can control (and freely switch between) a number of different characters that have semi-randomly generated names, stats (including health, attack, mana, and temperature tolerance), and races (human and robots offer varied movement abilities). A Valley Without Wind can be a large, scary game to newcomers, and the developers have tried their best to provide copious messages whenever something new is encountered. This softens the learning curve somewhat, but it still takes a couple of games to get a good handle on the unique mechanics. Still, there is a comprehensive encyclopedia of most things in the game, including what is required for the various spells and buildings you can craft, and where you can find those materials. Significantly, A Valley Without Wind includes persistent online multiplayer, which is a fantastic feature for a game like this. Simply peruse the browser and pick the server of your choice. Then, you can join others online in a cooperative environment, working together to free the citizens of the world. If multiple players are present in the same area, the enemy health scales accordingly, so the game never becomes too easy simply because you outnumber the bad guys. Or, you can venture to different parts of the world and help out the greater cause individually. While the game lacks a cohesive story, A Valley Without Wind more than makes up for it with procedurally generated worlds and online cooperative multiplayer.

Each tile on the world map consists of several (usually six to ten) side-scrolling areas that can contain enemies, buildings, and access to underground caverns. The above-ground buildings have rooms that are stocked with enemies, bosses, and items; it’s a waste of time to search every single room in every single building, so the best locations (stash rooms) are highlighted in yellow on the building layout map so you can quickly head towards them. Some rooms and areas also have warp gates that allow for instant access to another part of the same world tile, so you don’t have to walk too much through areas you have previously traversed. In addition to hostile enemies, you will also encounter friendly people (and machines) that will take residence in your community. Residents can have one of six professions, all of which have weird names like “Technozoologicalist” and “Forgician” that spell check simply hates with its angry wavy red lines. As you build structures for them (using resources collected out in the wild and rewarded during missions), they will increase in level, allowing them to cast more powerful abilities on the surroundings. These are called “guardian power scrolls,” and they can create new missions, build helpful structures on the world map, destroy roaming enemies, or provide large-scale buffs. Thus, one game objective is to improve your settlement, providing your friends with more powerful tools to help you fend off the hostile world.

Another requirement to increase your power, and eventually take on the overlord, is to complete missions. These appear on the world map and are initiated by visiting the tile they are located in. There is a good variety in mission types (more are planned for future expansions, I’m sure) that will satisfy most play styles. The more basic are boss battles in a giant tower, rescuing other characters (who are then recruited to your settlement), and large battles with allies against advancing foes. For the jumping experts out there is a rising lava challenge. For those who prefer combat are challenging one-shot, one-kill missions and one where you must only kill monsters from a specific time period. There is even a Missile Command-inspired entry. Of course, more are planned after release, and the level of diversity that’s already included indicates that even more exotic, interesting variations can and will appear. Successfully completing a mission usually gives rare resources required to upgrade your spells, or guardian power scrolls that can be used by other characters in your settlement, provided you construct the buildings they need to use it. In addition to the missions, you can also find puzzle rooms in some of the larger buildings (like pyramids). These are not mandatory to advance in the game (unlike the missions, which are required to level up), but will reward you with pieces of the background story. In the mystery puzzles, you must make all of the orbs in a room the same color by flipping them with spells. It’s a basic mechanic, to be sure, but the mission variety speaks well for what the future holds as the game continually expands. Thanks to the missions, A Valley Without Wind is not just about killing endless enemies room after room.

In order to take on the more advanced enemies that appear when you level up, you’ll probably want to upgrade your character. Upgrade stones, collected in buildings (mostly in the yellow “stash” rooms), can improve your health (the most dramatic upgrade), mana, or base attack rating. Since each character is limited to only ten total upgrades each, an appropriate strategy is to upgrade several characters in different ways, making them appropriate for different mission types (a heavy damage guy, a platform girl, et cetera). It’s like having a team of different classes at your disposal, but it is not a mechanic that is forced upon you. Even better would be having a mix of characters in an online match: a tank with high health, a sniper with high mana and ranged spells, and a medium range attacker. As you defeat enemies or explore locations, new enemies and spells are unlocked. These intermediate goals are outlined in the encyclopedia, so you can have something to shoot for in the short-term. In A Valley Without Wind, you will die. Thankfully, the penalty for death is small: you lose your character and his/her/its upgrades, but keep all of the spells and items, instantly transferred to any person in your village. Of course, the location where you died is now haunted by your ghost, which must be defeated if you choose to go back. That’s an interesting way of handling something that is usually cause for a re-load.

Spells come in varied forms. Most are attacks (melee, ranged, and area of effect) and all are divided into six classes: fire, earth, water, air, light, and entropy. This is important because enemies are usually vulnerable to one specific class (shown in icon form near the enemy’s health bar, with more description when the game is paused) and/or immune against another class. This means it’s usually good form to upgrade several classes of spells as you increase in rank. Otherwise, you’ll be stuck with a powerful meteor shower that does no damage to a fire bat. In addition to attacking things, spells can offer teleportation, shields, and summoned creatures. Each spell has a specific mana cost, cooldown, and power; more powerful spells have a higher mana cost and longer cooldown, for balance purposes. Spells can (and should) be upgraded using materials rewarded during successful missions; the game gives descriptions of how and where specific items can be obtained, so you can complete missions and visit locations for the spells you use the most. Much like traditional armor loot, A Valley Without Wind uses enchants that can be applied to the head, torso, arms, and legs. These give a wide range of benefits, the specific percentage values of which are semi-random: enhanced attack in a specific spell class, reduced spell cooldown, less damage, faster movement speed, reduced falling damage, higher jumping height, light emission (helpful for caves), no damage from acidic water, and getting specific enchant types. Since you can only use five at a time, but can carry many more, your abilities can be adjusted on the fly to adapt to the current battle and situation. The flexibility in both the enchant and spell systems in A Valley Without Wind make them intriguing parts of the game.

As described earlier, the various enemies in A Valley Without Wind are vulnerable, or immune, to certain types of spells. This adds tactics to the game and makes combat much more interesting than simply spamming your best spell over and over again. The enemies are quite varied, including things from different time periods and settings: rhinos, fairies, robots, clockwork probes, sea worms, dinosaurs, dragons, and more. Enemies have fairly simple behaviors: they either move towards you or move in a pattern (or move towards you while moving in a pattern), so once you figure out their manners, elimination isn’t far behind. Enemies can corner you, however (since you can’t move through them), so even low-level threats can kill you if you are not careful. Generally, though, enemies can be ignored unless they stand in your way or you need to farm them for the health they drop when killed.

A Valley Without Wind is a very solid platform game with role-playing and strategy mixed in for a unique feel. The game features a fairly standard assortment of spells, with ranged and melee options, that can be upgraded by completing missions and gathering resources. You can also unlock randomized enchants to buff your attack damage, walking speed, defense, or spell cooldown (among many other things). The various enemies in the game are vulnerable (or immune) to specific spell types, which makes combat more tactically interesting than your typical action role-playing game. The world of Environ (or whatever you chose to name it at the world creation screen) is full of other characters that can be rescued, upgraded (increasing health, mana, or attack), swapped places with, or given buildings so they can cast worldwide spells. There are many (infinite, really) procedurally generated places to explore: buildings, caverns, and lands filled with resources and enemies. People who like stories in their role-playing will be disappointed by A Valley Without Wind, which takes a more free-form approach, supported by its procedurally generated content. There is also a wide variety of missions to undertake, from platform-heavy tasks to boss battles to arcade-like defense, gradually increasing your experience until you are strong enough to defeat the continent’s overlord and his minions. Then, it’s time to save the next world. While the procedurally generated content does give A Valley Without Wind significantly more replay value than traditional platform of action role-playing games, you are still going to approach each new continent in the same way. The 2-D graphics are detailed in places, and the music is excellent. Finally, persistent multiplayer is a really neat feature, allowing users to explore and team-up online. As someone who usually avoids both platform games and action RPGs, the fact that I’ve spend a significant amount of time playing the beta of A Valley Without Wind should speak volumes of its unique blend, and the importance of procedurally generated content for unpredictability. It is a monstrous game with features you usually don’t see combined, but as you ease into the mechanics, A Valley Without Wind delivers a great mixture of platforming, role playing, and strategy.