For a fast-paced FPS, Valley – from indie devs Blue Isle Studios – is one of the most soothing adventures you’re ever likely to play. It’s a far cry from the studio’s last game, Slender: The Arrival, as Valley has you scouring a strange location deep in the heart of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains; a world filled with adorable forest sprites, a WWII military presence, and a focus on the symbiotic nature of mankind and the Earth.
Let’s deal with a major negative before we look at what’s great about the game: Valley kicks its story off with some of the worst exposition we’ve ever seen in a game. A beep. A voice on an answering machine. Every line this guy says is designed to set up the story in the most nakedly lazy way possible. ‘Hey, I heard you’re going to the Rockies to find the mysterious “Lifeseed” that probably doesn’t really exist. Good luck Indiana Jones-wannabe.’
This is an exemplar of how not to weave narrative into your video game. In fact, it might’ve been better off not even setting this up, and leaving it to gamers to discover the reason they’re in this natural habitat.
That’s a serious shame, because once the game actually starts, the story it tells is actually intriguing, largely told through audio recordings of the land’s previous explorer, and notes left across the landscape (happily, these notes appear on-screen only when you move your crosshair over them, thus retaining an element of immersion). During the initial stage of the game, we got a sense that the developers weren’t entirely confident in the story they were telling. Everything, and we mean everything, seemed to have justification, when really, we were more than happy to just go along for the ride; we didn’t need to know why there were pick-ups dotted across the map, for instance – it’s a video game (FYI, it’s so that WWII soldiers had access to… actually, it really doesn’t matter).
That nervousness wears off swiftly though, or perhaps we glossed over it, because by the second stage, we were hooked on the secrets of the uncanny Valley. No spoilers here, it’s one you’ll want to discover for yourself. While Valley follows a mostly linear path – and it would’ve been nice to get off the beaten track and explore that deadly beautiful world – sweep the map and explore, and you could well be rewarded with picks-up such as medallions and acorns, which open secret areas, and even further world-building notes.
When you begin, you’re just an average Joe (or Jane, the game gives you a choice), who moves slower than the protagonist in N.E.R.O. For the first couple of minutes, this is ludicrously frustrating – until you gain access to the L.E.A.F. suit. Juxtaposing that boring real-world movement, this suit is high power fantasy couture. This is where the game actually kicks in, with a mechanical suit, developed by the US Army, that allows the wearer to dash and leap like a Gaia-worshipping Master Chief on a sugar high.
The game then turns into a quasi-first-person platformer with controls that are smooth and satisfying, and somehow reminded us of Portal in their delivery. And although holding LT to run felt unnatural at first, words can’t adequately describe just how liberating it feels to run down a slope before hitting A to breeze through the air.
The L.E.A.F. suit can be upgraded by opening crates – by the second level, we’d gained access to the Icarus Boost (or double jump, if you prefer) and the Viper Coil, which allows you to swing across otherwise unassailable chasms or reach higher planes. Using these upgrades uses a bar of energy, which powers most of the abilities your suit offers. The game’s pretty generous with energy orbs and, in later stages of the game, energy kits, both of which can restore energy, however this almost threatens to imbalance Valley, to a certain extent, since one of the most appealing factors is whether to grant life to dead trees and animals – and lose energy – or take it away to boost your own supply.
But when you are making those sorts of calls – and we tried, desperately, to save every life we could – it’s one of the most interesting mechanics we’ve played in a game. You can keep your Call of Duty exo-suit, here we actually cared about the world, and felt like we were making a difference. That link between you and the world extends beyond L.E.A.F. suit capabilities, though: it’s intrinsically connected to your health meter. The more you die, the more the world dies around you.
That sort of gimmick lives or dies by the universe the gamer inhabits. And while the graphics aren’t the best (This isn’t exactly a living, breathing GTA sort of world), they’re far better than a lot of other top-level, triple-A titles out there. Better yet, the world itself feels vast, with landscapes stretching off far into the distance. We might’ve seen the same fields-and-forests set-up before, but even we smiled as we raced across the grass and bounded over fallen trees. Throw in some very precise, well-chosen ambient music, and you’ll quickly find yourself immersed in a classic tale of man versus nature. And let’s be clear, in Valley, a lot of nature hates you. Really, really hates you.
At this point, the game becomes a little more frantic and a little less thoughtful. That’s no bad thing, however jarring it might seem to bring incredibly basic shooter mechanics into a game that works predominantly as a considered platformer. The build up to the initial enemy encounter comes at just the right point, though, once you’re comfortable controlling your L.E.A.F. suit’s capabilities. By the end, you’ll probably feel like a master – it’s a game, like Zelda, that has you grow as a character, rather than punish you like platformers in the Super Meat Boy mould.
It’s a testament to Blue Isle Studios’ slick and seamless gameplay that it’s really rather glorious as you jump from admiring luscious scenery in one moment, before forcing you to make a tricky jump, then following it up with rapidly blasting your calming life-giver at enemies in a split-second space of time. And that’s the true spirit of adventure.
Valley is available from the Xbox Store now, priced £15.99.
A smart, smooth, satisfying shooter – This is one Valley you need to explore.
Pros: An intriguing storyline. Tight controls. Nicely varied gameplay, with pretty decent graphics to boot. An adventure that’s at once both relaxing and gripping.
Cons: Weak storytelling initially (although not for long). Not particularly challenging platforming sections. Oh, and the only way to discover that your character can’t swim is by either reading this sentence, or jumping into the water just to see what happens…