A Valley Without Wind 2 (AVWW 2) takes its cues from its predecessor while simultaneously changing gears with a radical overhaul. When I reviewed the original in May of last year, I noted that the learning curve was steep – the video game equivalent of reading encyclopedia entries. While still bearing that depth, and still being an action-platformer, it’s also evolved into a board game that is easy to learn yet hard to succeed at. It has refined its sensibilities in a number of ways, not the least of which being the removal of spell-crafting and dungeon diving. And plus, how cool is it that you can be a Technozoologist who shoots enemies with bone and swarms of insects? Owners of the original Valley being able to receive this sequel for free is icing on the cake, but whether they’ll like the new flavor depends on how much they appreciate change.
Let’s get this out of the way first: A Valley Without Wind 2 defies easy classification. It’s a SNES era platformer, but it’s also a like a board game. It’s procedurally generated and uses loot, but it’s not a dungeon crawler and isn’t an RPG. It’s action-based but not action-centric (though it can be). The complexity of design is hard to describe but each of those elements helps support the other; AVWW 2 simply does not stand up without every other element in play. When you begin, it’s in the familiar territory of leaping from point to point, dodging enemies, and making it to a goal. Afterwords, it reveals how completing levels earns you materials to use in the strategy portion of the game. Though that complexity might leave some players to wonder, those that give it a chance will find a game that’s deep enough, familiar enough, and fresh enough to offer dozens of hours of skill-based gameplay.
The game opens much stronger than its predecessor. When you begin, you’re presented with a character select screen. The options here are random and give you a choice of health, attack, ammo, and the look of your character. From my experience, these don’t impact gameplay outside of your starting ammo capacity. You’re then given the choice of five of the game’s fifty mage classes. These don’t follow typical naming conventions — I started as a Apothokineticist with timed potion grenades and AoE sprays – but each will have a primary, secondary, special, and ammo attack. The game features over 200 spells and the functions of each class tend to vary wildly, so it’s a good idea to linger on each class to make sure it matches your playstyle.
After that, the game explains its gameplay by placing you in front of a giant demon. As it happens, your character is a plant in Demonaica’s evil army, a group that has oppressed the land and kept it in darkness. That is, until you steal a magical crystal that makes you immortal to bring light back to the land. Demonaica, as you might imagine, is pretty miffed that you stole his magical doodad, so, as the game’s strategic adviser informs you when you escape to the overworld, you should probably be prepared to have his minions begin to pursue you in short order. Your goal is to help rebuild the land that Demonaica destroyed. All of this is delivered to you through chat boxes and character portraits, by the way. It works, but portrait art tends to get re-used quite a bit, so I found it difficult to connect with many of the characters.
When you leave Demonaica’s fortress, the game promptly splits in two parts: the platformer and the strategy game. You’re given a brief introduction to each but are encouraged to platform first, so we’ll follow suit. Gone are the deep dungeon dives, the resource gathering, and the crafting from the first A Valley Without Wind game. There’s no settlement to build up and no materials to gather to learn new spells. Instead, the goal is simply to get to the far side of the screen and destroy a windstorm generator, liberating the land and freeing it up for the strategy game. If you do this enough, you unlock level-up zones, new mage classes, and fresh biomes (the setting for each level).
In a way, I’m happy to see the mage system simplified and refined, but in another, I’m a bit disappointed to see the progression pushed back from the start of the game. In AVWW 1, when you looked through your adventurer’s glossary and uncovered what you needed, you were free to set your own goals and pursue them as you may. It was easy to become overwhelmed, but the gameplay felt much freer and quicker than it does here. Yet, the game does make a point to provide you with multiple spell options that you can use to freely shift your playstyle.
Platforming levels are much more brief than they’ve been in the past, though you can still find the occasional pit or multilevel house. The quality of the action also remains consistent. Characters still have the floaty yet precise feel that works so well with a controller and there are plenty of opportunities for action. Numerous types of enemies litter every level, each with their own unique skills. To survive, you can either avoid them and hope they don’t chase you, or use your own array of spells to take them down outright. Only your ammo spells limited to a specific number of uses, but primary, secondary, and special attacks can be used to meet the situation head on. Using a controller, the developer’s preferred scheme (though it does offer mouse support), I found it difficult to cast spells without shooting the ground while my character was crouching.
Levels also feature randomly generated loot found in hidden chests. You can only equip one item at a time, and the effects can range from extremely beneficial to actively detrimental. Otherwise, the blend of platforming and action is pleasant, if a bit difficult at first.
The other side of the game is played on the overworld and represents the strategy potion of the game. The basic premise is that you use resources earned through completing levels to supply your survivors (represented by the people cut-outs in the image above) and rebuild the world Demonaica has destroyed. Each turn you can assign them an action, such as moving to a new tile, cultivating the land, or building a structure, but all require resources lest the survivors be unequipped to survive in this new land. These are gained by completing levels and in turns from each tile built-upon tile. Rebuilding is important and works to prepare for the eventual attack of Demonaica’s forces every third turn.
The overworld is made up of tiles featuring difficulty and NPC danger ratings. These indicators describe how challenging you’re likely to find the enemies within and the risk of the tile being overtaken if you place an NPC that comes under attack. When enemies spawn, they move one tile a turn. Playing through the platforming section of the game lowers each defeated level’s risk, allows them to yield higher resource gains, and provides them a better chance of winning out if they come under attack. Choosing actions, then platforming, pairs two very different types of gaming, but though the pacing initially seems to conflict, they actually pair together quite nicely once you get a flow.
Each NPC is allotted one action per turn, and after three, enemies spawn from Demonaica’s castle. These creatures will engage members of your resistance and defeat them based on relative level (they increase one per turn alongside enemies). They will also retake zones you’ve already completed, so strategically working the board is the key tenet to success. Unfortunately, it’s more common to have lost the game long before you actually “lose” because of mistaken choices. In the beginning, it’s important to take heed of the Strategic Adviser when making decisions.
Just like the original, the game is a treat for color-loving eyes. Levels feel downright painterly and have a strange, mesmerizing quality about them. The first time a sandstorm kicked up, I grinned. This is one of the reasons I love developer Arcen. Not only are their games profoundly deep, but their artistic sensibilities, both in pure visual quirkiness and the masterful blend of music and SFX, bear a uniqueness not found in other studios. Heavy Cat came on board to help revitalize the visuals, an object of some criticism from the more conventional camps, and their efforts show. Animations are still a bit stiff, but the overall tone is true to the sensibilities of the original with the refinement of a caring hand.
My main criticism of the game is similar to the first; after a while, it begins to feel repetitive. The overworld game helps to temper this feeling, but it remains and grows over hours of play. AVWW 2 offers hours and hours of gameplay, but with the many lose-stats inherent in the board game and lack of persistence, I worry that many players will move on and consider everything “seen” when there’s so much more to discover.
Over time, A Valley Without Wind 2 develops the same addictive quality as the original, but it takes longer to get there. There are many solid additions, such as the over world board game, the loot system, and the greatly improved narrative, but the loss of gathering and crafting seems like a net negative to the intrinsic motivation for character improvement. Yet once again, Arcen has shown that they can develop games with more depth than anyone has any right to expect. A Valley Without Wind 2 offers more hours of gameplay than half a dozen “average” platformers combined, and even then you will only be in the shallow end of what’s on offer. Chris Park and his team have done an excellent job of creating a truly unique action-platformer-strategy hybrid that indie game fans everywhere should enjoy. Recommended.
Note: This game also features 1-8+ co-op but I was unable to experience it at the time of publication and so did not include it in this review.