A Valley Without Wind is one of the most unique platformers I’ve ever played. It blends elements of the classic jumping game with those of the modern RPG. The developer, Arcen Games, has custom plucked some of the best mechanics that have arose in the last decade and created an end product that is as much fun to play as it is to look at – and believe me, AVWW’s painterly aesthetic can be downright gorgeous. From Minecraft to Metroid and all the way to Diablo, it’s hard to see the game as anything other than a love letter to retro-style gaming. If that sounds like a bit much, that’s because it is, and as you might imagine, a game of such vast scope isn’t without its faults.
The launch trailer includes a quote that says “[This] is what happens when you try to make a Super Nintendo game today.” Did they live up to that lofty pedigree? Read on to find out.
What is it?
A Valley Without Wind is what happens when metroidvania meets Elder Scrolls. At its heart, the game is an action-platformer. Once you’ve spent some time with the game, however, you could be forgiven for thinking it a roleplaying game – because it’s that as well. As you jump from platform to platform, exploring dungeons and gathering loot, it’s with the purpose of building your character’s abilities and bolstering the settlement which you call home; this is where you start the game and where you will return after completing missions and dungeon runs. Dungeons are procedurely generated and each carries a particular theme, from snowy reaches to volcanic plains. Exploring these areas nets you loot that you can use to learn dozens of spells, boost your stats, and craft important items that will help you progress through the game. The end goal is to defeat an evil overlord who terrorizes the world and fills it with enemies. There is a narrative but it’s not necessary to invest in it in order to enjoy the game; all you need to know is that the big bad is there and he’s waiting for you. The journey, flush with a wide variety of missions both clearly marked and deeply hidden, harkens back to the days of the 16-bit and at times can be just as brutally difficult.
Visually, I found the game to be a bit of mixed bag. Background and foreground art tend to be stunning and could easily have been plucked from a nearby canvas. Snow sparkles, skies are vibrant and colorful, and each destructible foreground element fits naturally with the theme of the zone. None of this seems 16-bit in the slightest, but it’s this type of style choice that provides 2012 sensibilities to the retro-inspired gameplay. Each area I played through had its own flavor which made exploration fun and naturally reinforced.
Character models, on the other hand, are hit or miss. Unlike the environments, each of the six player models are decidedly old school in their aesthetic. Monsters, however, are another matter. Over the course of the game you’ll fight many a skeleton, but you could be forgiven for not realizing they were skeletons at all. In truth, they look more like rigid, blocky, warriors and lack the detail to really discern what they are. And that’s the problem: Too many enemies lack the visual acuity found in nearly every other aspect of the game. You can find out what each is by pressing “P” and mousing over to view a tool tip but that kind of thing really shouldn’t be necessary in a title predicated on fighting specific minions of a great dark overlord.
Thankfully this criticism falls by the wayside once you’ve spent some time with the game. After a period, you will recognize enemies not because they’re all picture-perfect renditions but because they look like themselves and you’ve seen them dozens of times before. Additionally, each enemy has a particular attack pattern that identifies them, such exploding spheres of magical energy or streaks of fire that slide along walls to reach you. The detail on these animations is nice and very much in keeping with the “Super Nintendo meets 2012” theme of the world.
If there is anything I’m a sucker for it’s a good soundtrack and A Valley Without Wind delivers in spades. From the title screen to the deepest depths, the player is treated to a wide array of MIDI music perfectly fitting with the situation you’ve encountered. It’s catchy and has a tendency to get stuck in your head long after you’ve quit. That music changes between rooms, zones, and encounters also lends itself towards creating a thematic experience that adapts to what you’re doing at any given moment.Sound effects, unfortunately, are a little less inspired. Generally, I would describe them as merely passable. While they are functional and appropriate, they lack the memorable quality of Mario’s coin grab or Samus’ ice beam. That said, anyone who has played a quality platformer knows that sound effects are only a small piece of a much larger equation. In the case of A Valley Without Wind, “passable” is acceptable. More importantly, they are not grating or annoying over long term play, an important trait given how long you’re likely to play this game for.
When you begin the game, you’re asked to choose one of six different characters, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. These come in the form of boosts or deficits in HP, mana, or attack power. HP determines how much damage you can take before dying, whereas mana determines how many spells you can cast in a given time frame. Mana is incredibly important, as the game is very much about spamming spells; you will cast to destroy parts of the environment and you will cast to fight your enemies enemies. Over the course of your adventure, you collect upgrade stones which can then be used to boost these attributes; however, once your character dies, you must begin again with a stock, un-upgraded character. This can be disheartening at first but since dungeon delving is largely what the game is about, it’s relatively easy to get back on your feet again.
A large part of the game circulates around building up your settlement. It is a hub, of sorts, and features crafting tables to learn new spells. You’ll do this by destroying trees, mushrooms, gemstones, and many more set pieces to collect their raw materials which are immediately sent back to a storeroom. When you first log in and enter the settlement, you’re greeted with a tutorial window, the first of many that will continue long hours into your play. There is a lot to learn going into the game, so it’s advisable to read all of these until they become repetitious – which they will. Arcen has made sure that you’ll be reminded of each game mechanic until it’s ingrained into you. Once you’re on your feet and running, though, the game is about one thing: building up your character to face the evil overlord terrorizing the land. You’ll do this by traveling to different zones via a world map which randomizes each environment each time it is entered by leaving the settlement.
There are many ways to progress and the game helpfully provides a “Planning” menu whose first button is “Things to Do.” It will list tasks such as leveling up spells, restocking on important items, and completing challenges which unlock rewards for your character. If that isn’t enough (and it’s not with a game this big), it also features a second menu titled “Where to Find Things You Need.” This system is effective but a bit obtuse as one menu will often lead you to another, and another, most often leading to the encyclopedic crafting grimoire. While it becomes natural to access what you’re looking for via a couple quick keystrokes, I found it a bit overwhelming my first few attempts at the game.
At the end of the day, A Valley Without Wind comes down to one thing: Exploring and clearing dungeons. Once you’ve decided which task you’d like to attempt, you travel to the appropriate zone (you checked your crafting grimoire, right?) and search for a hole in the ground. Unlike other platformers which would simply let you fall to your death jumping into an unknown hole, these breaches are actually dungeon entrances and often continue many floors into the deep. That said, it is possible to die from a long fall. Here Arcen provides a unique innovation to the world of platforming by allowing the user to place their own wooden platforms. Falling too far? Drop a platform under your feet and break up that drop distance. This is important in other areas of the game as well. Since dungeons are randomly generated, it’s common to find yourself wanting to reach a far off ledge with no way to get there. Placing your own platforms remedies this problem and reinforces the desire to explore every nook and cranny.
When you’re not exploring for materials or treasure, you’ll be completing missions. These typically involve killing a boss monster or rescuing someone lost deep within a zone and can be quite challenging. The system employed here is interesting but also a bit daunting as completing missions also pushes the world ever closer towards increased difficulty. Each time the player completes five missions marked on their world map, the game ramps up a tier in difficulty. When you begin, mobs are tier 1 of 5, in keeping with the power of your abilities. By plowing ahead and completing missions without first leveling up your spells and stats you can easily find yourself outclassed. Take note, adventurers: Smart players wait until they’re ready to meet the challenge before completing that fifth mission.
The end goal, of course, is to confront the evil overlord and retake the world. This is a daunting task and will likely take even familiar players many, many hours to complete.
After spending many-an-hour with A Valley Without Wind, I feel confident in stating that the $15 buy-in price is a steal and any Super Nintendo alum — or plain platformer fan — would be remiss for not giving it a go. The gameplay is addictive through the constant stream of rewards and progressive goals. More importantly, the addictive quality is borne out of satisfying gameplay and not artificial padding to cater to completionists. The replay value here is huge and the dedicated player could easily sink over 100 hours into the game without ever reaching the conclusion; yet, at the same time, players interested in making swifter progress could certainly streamline their way to the endgame with little difficulty. That malleability of play style is one of the best aspects of the game and I remain impressed that Arcen was able to pull it off as well as they did.
Though AVVW might dodge easy classification, there’s one thing I can say for sure. This is a fun game that will keep you coming back for more, so long as you give it the lead time to teach you its ropes. Arcen has been excellent in providing post-launch updates and shows no signs of slowing. If they can come up with a way to ease the player in to its many layers, they’ll solve their single biggest hurdle in lessening the learning curve. This is a game worth playing and for that reason I have no problem recommending that you pick this game up, even if it’s not on sale.
Overall Score: 4/5