Developer: Blue Isle Studios
Publisher: Blue Isle Studios
Format: PC, PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One
Released: August 22, 2016
At first glance, it could be easy to dismiss Valley as yet another so-called walking simulator, following in the methodical footsteps of such titles as Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. Indeed, its opening minutes feature little more than pretty scenery to gawk at while wandering a linear path.
Valley‘s introductory moments are pleasant enough, but any comparability to Dear Esther‘s like dissipates immediately once one reaches a box with a very special toy inside. This toy is the L.E.A.F suit, a mechanical harness enveloping one’s arms and legs to bestow upon them a range of unique abilities that blend the mechanical and the mystical.
In an instant, the game transforms from a common explorative experience into something I can only describe as the game Sonic the Hedgehog always wanted to be. The L.E.A.F suit uses momentum to build up incredible speeds that, when used in conjunction with upsloping surfaces, lead to magnificent feats of leaping.
Combined with a sweeping, uplifting orchestral soundtrack, Valley is an exhilarating experience. As soon as the suit is donned, the player is encouraged to sprint down hillsides and jump across huge chasms. After mere seconds traversing an incline, a tremendous sense of speed is obtained and the massive vaults they typically end in are breathtaking.
Valley offers a reliable amount of mid-air control, allowing players to move and turn in order to stick the landing – a landing that comes with a heavy thunk as metal legs smack into the ground.
Blue Isle did an incredible job of using audiovisual cues to create a sense of belonging in the world. The weight of the L.E.A.F suit is felt just as much as its speed, creating a tangible feeling of empowerment without needing to stick a gun in anybody’s hand – a refreshing take on power fantasy.
This is not to say, however, that death isn’t a part of Valley. In fact, it’s the game’s most overt theme.
As well as granting the user enhanced physical capabilities, the L.E.A.F suit comes with the Godhand – a glove that is capable of both distributing and receiving life energy. By simply aiming and firing, players are able to grant life or take it away from surrounding animals and plants.
Giving life depletes the suit’s energy, while taking it acts as refueling. In addition, bringing dead trees back from the beyond will often result in them dropping golden acorns, a currency used to open special doors that lead to valuable suit upgrades.
While much of Valley is about exploring and taking in the surroundings, there are certainly ways to die. The suit is too heavy for water, and there are creatures lurking in the wilderness with intent to drain the suit before moving onto its wearer. A number of platform sections appear as well, just for an added slice of danger.
Should the player ever die, they’ll respawn nearby at the cost of living things in the surrounding area. Rather than requiring lives or a health bar, the player’s survivability is instead gauged by the valley’s own vitality. The more one dies, the closer to death the valley itself becomes.
Fortunately, the L.E.A.F suit can also be powered by orbs that grow all around the valley, meaning life can be restored without taking it from elsewhere. Players are encouraged to constantly zap bare trees and the occasional deer corpse with life, maintaining the valley’s health in case of their own death.
It’s a clever idea, and the game even goes into the technical details of what it calls “quantum immortality” – rather than simply resurrecting its wearer, the suit slips them into alternate realities where they didn’t die, drawing on surrounding life to make up the balance. Using multiverse theory to explain a basic game mechanic is impressive to say the least, and the need to maintain one’s survivability by ensuring the world itself remains alive is a great narrative hook.
Although the overall concept is great, it’s undermined by the ubiquity of blue orbs. One would have to actively try and kill the valley itself, so easy is it to blast at trees after taking an unwanted tumble and getting your juice back without having to draw from a life source. Not once did I ever actually need to kill something directly, and respawning always granted enough energy to distribute it right back to the nearby trees.
I certainly love what Valley was aiming for, but the idea of a world health meter is more of a gimmick thanks to how negligible death actually is.
Nonetheless, encountering dead trees and zapping them back to life remains satisfying throughout the journey, especially when you’re several hundred feet in the air, spinning around and blasting a brittle husk before hitting the ground. I wasted far more time than was necessary wandering around the more expansive areas, hunting down anything dead and stockpiling the acorns that would regularly drop as reward.
There’s also a bit of a twist near the end that at least makes the use of orbs more meaningful than they might at first glance appear. It eases the sense of undone potential, even if it does so in a dark way.
Secrets litter the world, with hidden upgrades that expand the suit’s energy capacity, medallions that can be collected to gain entry to a mysterious pyramid full of loot, and loads of notes explaining more of the story.
Through lore and audio recordings, Valley tells a provocative tale about a military outfit that discovered the titular lowland during World War II and started harnessing its supernatural energies to build weapons. It’s revealed the L.E.A.F suit was designed for Pathfinders – soldiers who explored the environment, collected medallions, and encountered strange creatures called Daemons who still seem to adorably inhabit the place when the player arrives.
The narrative considers the cost of scientific progress, environmental issues, and more personal concepts such as hubris and jealousy, all wrapped together with some high minded physics chatter that I can only assume was well presented because I know jack-all about physics.
Combat makes up a small portion of the adventure, with malevolent dark creatures appearing that require pacification with bursts of life energy. Their attacks drain the suit of power, but pacifying them also requires power, meaning you’re draining your resources whatever you do.
Lengthier combat sequences are where Valley comes close to realizing its idea of balance as players need to maintain energy levels, avoid having them stolen, and expend them all at once. It’s not particularly complicated, especially with those orbs everywhere, but battles with dark creatures (that’s literally what they’re called) make for interesting breaks between running and jumping.
During the game’s four-to-five hour adventure, the suit is intermittently fitted with new features such as a grappling hook – sorry, Viper Coil – that can fling players across gaping chasms, and magnetized boots that stick to certain metal surfaces.
By far the best upgrade is the one that grants ludicrous speed boosts while refilling energy whenever the player is running across railway tracks. Sadly, only two segments in the game feature such tracks, but they are by far the absolute best portions of the game.
Few games have ever captured such a palpable and thrilling feeling of acceleration as is witnessed in these sequences.
Blue Isle’s captivating adventure is only notably let down by technical problems. Every now and then, the audio will make brief popping sounds, cutting into the otherwise beautiful music, and there were times – if only a handful – where I’d found myself trapped within environmental details, either having glitched through the floor or fallen into some area I wasn’t supposed to.
In all but one case, I was able to jump and maneuver myself back into the game, but on one occasion I was so thoroughly stuck I had to restart the area. There is no regular checkpointing, either – you restart from the beginning of a chapter, albeit with any items and secrets remaining discovered, which can lead to quite a trek back.
It’s worth noting that I only ever got trapped when exploring way off the beaten path, looking for secrets in places where I guess I wasn’t supposed to. However, the game isn’t particularly good at signposting where you’re not intended to venture. The player’s capabilities are such that it’s possible to scale cliffsides and enter structures that weren’t designed for any interaction, so it pays to take care when hunting for treasure.
Despite a few missteps, Valley is an overall rush of an experience. Taking cues from BioShock with some Fern Gully on the side, there are few games that can claim to put players into the metal legs of an interdimensional necromantic freerunner, and be bloody infatuating while it does so.
It boasts an amazing soundtrack, splendid backdrops, and inspiringly propulsive interactions, all of which convince me Valley deserves to be counted as a true sleeper hit of the year.
Also, those Daemons really are the cutest.