The world has been shattered, and space-time has been thrown into a blender. In A Valley Without Wind, players take on the role of Brain Guy from Mystery Science Theatre 3000 to save the world one continent at a time. It’s a randomly-generated platformer shmup RPG wrapped around an optional fetch-quest grind-fest by Arcen Games, the team behind AI War and Tidalis.
AVWW is a game that is fun for a shallow reason. At first glance, it looked to be a casual loot game, which led me to skip reading the in-game “Big Honkin’ Encyclopedia” manual. This is considered to be a very bad idea, and I would recommend this strategy to only the most stubborn and deductive players with inconceivable amounts of free time. At its heart, AVWW is an SNES-era Metroidvania title, with difficulty levels ranging between ‘hold my hand’ and ‘I have a plethora of spare keyboards ready to break.’
Oddly, no one seems to be armed in the post-time-blender days as everyone uses magic of some sort. The initial fingertip-fireball spell was introduced as the melee attack for the game, able to break trees and background objects. Had I read the manual, I would have learned that any attack that breaks items is a ‘melee’ attack; an hour into the game, I found Miasma Whip, which has a longer attack range and looks like a short-range projectile, but is in fact identical to the fire attack in its environmental interaction. Some spells seem to be either redundant or included solely to add variety. This is a spot where reading the manual would have helped.
Each character gets non-refundable, thankfully-cheap upgrades that are lost upon that character’s death. And, boy howdy will they die. Given the ultimate impermanence of characters, the floating blue ‘glyph’ could easily be considered the player-character itself. I held onto my first character for a solid 4 hours before succumbing to a clumsy plummet down a dark cave. I was devastated until I found that I kept all my progress and items. So, essentially, death replaces the shell of the character, and re-rolls a handful of new heroes. Unfortunately, some are duds, but once I came to the conclusion that I shouldn’t be attached to these survivors who’ve made it through the end of the world, I became almost cavalier about dying. Almost. Permadeath doesn’t quite describe what happens to glyph-bearers; they are permanently dead, but in their place is often a vengeful spirit haunting the area where they died in addition to the monster(s) that killed them.
Movement plays a big part in AVWW, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t hate backtracking through a completed area. Thankfully, I gained the Storm Dash spell during the first mission. My character threw himself forward at what can be described as “objectively too fast” or more simply, plaid, accompanied by a crack of thunder and burning green footsteps. This sounds great and overpowered, but it’s balanced by a loss of defence, causing double damage and increased momentum for fall damage. Combine this with the completely absurd speed achieved, and I suddenly became a pachinko ball, tripping over monsters and taking a fifth of a health bar per contact. Even 20 hours in, I’m still splattering on jumps or stupidly activating it in a storm, succumbing to debilitating wind poisoning.
Enchantments provide upgrades like acid water resistance (Hint: all water is acidic), double jumping, and reduced mana consumption. Recent updates, however, have changed how some of these work in a big way, and have forced me to change my strategies completely. The collectible pre-cataclysmic human remains are a form of currency for basic survival supplies and randomised upgrade items to parallel Phantasy Star Online’s shop system. I like that when I’m out of crates to stack for barricades and platforms, I don’t have to scavenge in random buildings; I can just buy more by bartering the hundred-or-so souls I gathered clustered in the basement of the emergency shelter I just levelled with magic. This little touch gives the home settlement a homier, if sinister, feel. Items don’t really extend beyond platforms, crates, and materials for crafting spells or buildings. Despite this, AVWW is a very loot-heavy game, much like PSO.
Every room has at least one item, but there are loot rooms that contain lots of items. It took me quite some time to figure this out, as again, I hadn’t read the damned manual. Once I got the concept of “don’t head anywhere that isn’t marked [FREE STUFF HERE],” the game sped up considerably, and felt more like a platformer wrapped around a post-apocalyptic survivalist storyline. Excursions were suddenly now spent glossing over areas as quickly as possible, sometimes skipping everything altogether to reach a cave. I’ve found my ideal completion score reading “100% scouted, ~15% visited” for any given area. Filling in the map enough to see a dead-end 2 rooms ahead is a lot faster and more fun than actually visiting the dead end in the hopes that there’s something not on the map. It’s a refreshing approach, and completionism is feasible, but would ultimately make the game frustrating if not unplayably difficult and tedious.
The world map is set up like a grid and makes the world feel like some horrible thing’s personal game board. Navigating buildings is much like navigating the levels in Terminator 2 on Genesis. Entering a doorway leads to either a hall or a room full of doorways which in turn lead to more doors a-la Scooby Doo. Thankfully, walking through a door into an enemy is pretty rare, but it fuels that frantic moment of hammering the button to go back through the door, given the penchant for dying that these glyph-bearers seem to have. Building maps are set up like an inverted family tree which is actually really easy to follow. Had I actually paid attention to the manual, I would have come to this conclusion much sooner instead of stumbling my way through for hours like a blind drunk leaving a bar after last call.
The audio design has an SNES feel starting with the arpeggio for the intro sequence. The score is a blend of chip and electronica. While it fits, I will admit that I turned it off after several hours, as it does tend to become repetitive. If onomatopoeia existed for concepts, the team behind AVWW has provided the prototype. The elements of spells are easy to distinguish, as are types of damage dealt by different enemies. Fire has a distinct fwoosh behind it, and whatever sound “miasma” makes is likely very close to the sound it makes here. Enemies don’t make much, if any sound, which makes sense, because the alternative would be deafening. So, here I am in a dark cave with only the light I can cast at my feet and three giant shadowbats that make no sound. Sections of the game rob you of sight, but the entire game robs you of meaningful sound. I suppose this points to its SNES roots and here, at least, it works to add a level of difficulty in a game with difficulty spikes abound.
Graphics have that “made in 3D, exported as sprites” look to them. This isn’t bad; in fact it’s quite unique since it was done well. Level layout is blocky, almost with a modular feel which leaves bits of level looking like furry blocks. Lighting plays well with the surroundings and the overall look gives the whole game a bit of polish that really ties it all together. The darkness itself doesn’t dim the landscape so much as it’s a tangible entity that serves to choke the light from entire areas in big inky splotches. The graphics options allow disabling every piece of extra stuff until the game looks like platforms floating in a void. Running on an old, integrated Intel965 video chip, I’ve had no problem with everything left on, and the resolution turned to the maximum setting. The only lag I’ve experienced was when a hallway was filling with fire from an explosive spirit I’d foolishly killed before running and shouting strings of expletives as my back caught fire.
Interesting monsters and ores are added to the game depending on the milestones a player achieves. Killing bats will unlock fire bats which are a whole new world of hurt. I really like this mechanic, since instead of having a boring stagnant world, the game reacts to your play style. Okay, you want to blow up old rusty tanks in the suburbs? Here are bipedal weapons platforms in addition to those. Plus, it provides clearly-defined milestones to meet – or avoid – so that the game doesn’t ramp up too quickly and become overwhelming.
That’s not to say the game isn’t overwhelming, it’s just that this is not the reason for it. Boss design usually throws either a giant common enemy or a new form behind an old mechanic. It works here, because of the overlying simplicity of the game: shoot things until they die. Weaknesses can be gleaned by mousing-over the enemy while paused or trial and error. That being said, when a 30-foot clockwork wasp is bearing down on you, seeing “99% resistance” isn’t going to help. Progress made this way allows for that brief moment when you begin to steamroll enemies with that sweet new lightning spell until the enemies level up, which returns you to square-one.
A Valley Without Wind presents a simple, genre-ambiguous experience and provides a deeper platforming RPG sandbox. The graphics, audio, and difficulty hearken back to a simpler time of having less than eight buttons on a controller while maintaining a more contemporary feel. Much of the game is user-driven as an if/then series of action/consequence based almost reactively upon the players’ behaviour.
This game is to Phantasy Star Online what Serious Sam Double D is to the Serious Sam franchise. However, A Valley Without Wind is much more than that, and to sum it up does disservice. The inclusion of an in-game manual belies the complexity of the game which can lead to a very frustrating experience for the uninitiated. Extremely frequent updates add and tweak the game so much that reviewing specifics of any given build may be outdated in a day. I can’t explain why this game is fun, only that it’s fun. If you take nothing else away from this review, know that if a game comes with a manual bound to a hotkey, it’s included for a reason. One of the crowning moments of my play so far was blowing the wheel off a tank in a suburb while trying to dodge the poison fireballs being thrown by the two ghosts of my previous characters. It’s moments like this that shine during lulls of exploration between mission completion.
A Valley Without Wind was purchased by the reviewer. It is available on Steam for $14.99.