A Valley Without Wind

I missed Arcen Games’ A Valley Without Wind when it was originally released, but seeing stories about A Valley Without Wind 2 come across the indiegames.com RSS feed piqued by interest. Consequentially, I decided to give the original a try.

Reality has shattered, creating a new world out of broken pieces taken from different times- Ice Age plains abut abandoned contemporary cities and robotic junkyards from the far future. This new world is also filled by the Wind, which seems to scour the very souls of everything it touches. The survivors of this catastrophe have gathered together in a few settlements, beset by evil Overlords and their minions but protected by mysterious intelligent stones. These stones have created Glyphs to aid the survivors, which allow humans to resist the wind beyond the guardian stones and grants them a variety of magical abilities with which to explore the harsh world beyond the settlement.

A Valley Without Wind is difficult to categorize- it’s essentially a combination of Metroid and Diablo, with elements of a lightweight city-building sim. You’ll spend most of your time exploring a series of randomly-generated continents, seeking the resources you’ll need to destroy an evil overlord and his lieutenants and building up outposts of survivors as you go. The game is a platformer, like Metroid or the latter-day Castlevanias, although it’s a more exploration-centric game than either of those- you’ll be scavanging for supplies in a huge world, not finding abilities to unlock new areas. As you explore, you’ll come across materials that you can use to craft more powerful attacks and unlock new missions and enemy types; you’ll earn the power to place buildings that strengthen you and weaken your enemies; you’ll learn about the cataclysm that befell the world, the wind, and the mysterious stones that protect your settlement. While it’s certainly easy to get sucked into the largely pointless excercise of exploring the world’s every nook-and-cranny, A Valley Without Wind does provide a decent list of short-term, concrete goals. This makes it very easy to pick up and play for half an hour, and also very easy to pick up and play for “half an hour” only to find that half a day has passed.

The biggest drawback of the game is the sameyness of a lot of the world- while areas are randomly generated, they’ll start to look awfully similar after a while. The game goes on forever; defeating the Overlord of a certain continent merely unlocks another, with stronger enemies. Although the first few new continents will unlock new spells and crafting materials as well, that only continues for so long and only offers up so much variety.

The visuals are another major source of controversy; although they’re passable, they never really rise to “good” and more-than-occasionally dip down into “ugly”. This is a game that was produced with a shoestring graphics budget, and that is very clear from playing it. I found myself wishing that they’d opted for the chunky faux-SNES style so common among indie games rather than the very rough-edged attempts at more advanced graphics that they’ve put together instead.

Finally, the tutorial could be a lot better, and it took me a couple hours to grok what I should be doing and how. The game attempts to introduce everything at once, which is both difficult and overwhelming, and makes the game feel more complicated than it is. I spent the first couple hours with the game lost, but eventually picked up on many of the points that should have been better-explained.

All that being said- I’ve put about 30 hours into A Valley Without Wind over the last few months, and I’ve enjoyed it tremendously. The sequel is also available; I’m looking forward to giving that one a try, too, but I’m holding off until I’ve played through a bit more of the original. A Valley Without Wind is available on Steam for both OSX and Windows; a huge demo is also available, both from Steam and the Arcen Games website.

– HC

Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 3

Over the course of the last couple weeks, I’ve played through the iOS port of the third episode of the Penny Arcade game- officially named “Penny Arcade Adventures: ON the Rain-Slick Precipice OF Darkness 3“, and hereafter referred to as “Rainslick 3” because holy crap that’s a mouthful. It was decent, but unfortunately I’m not nearly as impressed by it as I hoped to be.

The game, mechanically, is fairly solid. It’ s got an oldscool feel and visual flair that works in its’ favor, while the underpinning ‘systems’ borrow from some of the 16-bit era’s better ideas. Combat mixes the oldschool Final Fantasy turn-based system with a visible ‘initative’ bar and the ability to delay enemy turns or create ‘periodic’ effects, which works fairly well; they’ve put a few interesting twists on a solid foundation. Characters are developed with a class-based system, similar to the Job systems seen in some of the old Final Fantasy games- each of your four main characters has a default ‘class, which grants stat bonuses and abilities, and you’ll eventually gain the ability to equip up to two additional ones. It works pretty well, although I found that once I had a setup down, there was very little reason to ever change it up. I thought the challenge level was decent- I wiped several times through the game, but the penalty for doing so is light, so it didn’t feel terribly onerous to change up my strategy and try again. The other side of that coin, however, is that each area contains a certain set of predefined combats which don’t appear again- although there is one area where respawning enemies appear, on the most part, you don’t have the option of grding levels as a recouse if you get stuck. This didn’t bother me personally, but may be a sticking point for other players.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of smaller issues with the game that bugged me. While the plot is fine for what it is, the writing is florid in a way whch just makes my eyes slide right over it sometimes. The writers- I’m not sure if it’s wrtten by the PA folks themselves or someone from Zeboyd- frequently seem more interested in showing off their vocabulary than actually telling a story in an interesting way. There’s quite a bit of reuse of old PA gags; nearly every one-panel gag character they’ve come up with appears at least briefly, whether as a full character or a random enemy. Rex Ready? Dr. Jacob Crunchner? The Broodax? Karapyss the Crabomancer, and his companion Professor Necro-Dead? You’ll bump into all of them as you go through the game. While there are worse things than having shout-outs to the old strips (and I admit that I was glad to see the criminally-underused Dr. Raven Darktalon Blood), I can’t help but feel that relying so heavily on callouts to Penny Arcade the comic prevents Penny Arcade the game from forming its’ own mythology. I also suspect that non-readers will be a little put off by the onslaught of old injokes and callbacks, but at this point the PA folks may have given up on attracting them to the game in any real numbers. The fact that there are neither repeatable nor random combats gives me the same on-rails feeling that many modern games to; playing Rainslick 3 definitely feels more like a scripted series of minibosses than exploring an open world.

There’s no nice way to say this: the game did not run well on my iPhone 3GS. The graphics are unevenly-scaled in a way which makes the faux-16-bit style that they’re rendered in look tremendously ugly, I had numberous issues with the game crashing, and the interface is incredibly clumsy on an iPhone screen. Maybe it’s better on later-generation phones (or iPads), but if you’re interested at all, I’d strongly recommend the PC/Mac version. I don’t know if it’s better, but frankly I’m not sure it could be worse without being borderline-unplayable.

I don’t mean to be too down on the game. The mechanics are solid, like I said, and none of the issues I’ve mentioned above prevented me from finishing or enjoying the game. That being said, I’m not sure how strongly I’d recommend the game to anyone who wasn’t a fan of the comic. You could certainly do worse if you’re looking for an oldschool-style mobile RPG- but you could probably do better, too.

– HC