A Valley Without Wind Series Retro Review

A Valley Without Wind and its sequel are platformers at heart that attempts to add in a variety of elements from other genres.  It is a memorable combination of gameplay activities; in recent memory, this is the only game I’ve played that attempts to integrate town management and a changing tile-based world map into a platforming game.  Older players may glimpse flashes of the inspired Actraiser, but those glimpses are fleeting — unlike the Super Nintendo classic, the various ingredients that added to greatness do not mesh as well here.

In each of the two A Valley Without Wind games, players attempt to defeat an overlord, but must first acquire new skills and weaken the overlord by conquering other spaces on the world map.  Once the player feels sufficiently powerful, then the overlord’s level can be undertaken at any time.  Each tile on the world map is a stand-alone area, and since no player will experience each tile’s contents (due to random mission placements in the first game, and the demands of non-platforming elements in the second) during a single playthrough, the replay value of both games is relatively high.

This basic gameplay loop is complicated by the game’s use of NPC characters.  In the first game, players can send NPC’s on various missions to retrieve components for crafting new spells.  Currency earned by the player can be spent to improve the NPC settlement, which increases the chances of a successful NPC mission.  In the second game, the NPC’s inhabit the world map not unlike Settlers in a game of Civilization.  NPC’s can be sent to any tile adjacent to a tile for which the player has completed the platforming stage, and depending on the type of tile, they can take various actions such as building a farm or clinic.  The sequel measures the progression of time; each platforming level completed ticks off a timer that releases the boss when it hits zero, who can instantly kill all of the NPCs in the tiles near him.  Since the game ends if all of the NPC’s die, these elements transition from optional in the original to integral in the second game.

Unfortunately, the platforming is not particularly compelling in either of the two games.  Both games suffer from repeated environments and enemies, and the first game actually has concessions to poor design built into the gameplay — because platforms are not placed where they should be for continuous, flowing progress, players (again, in the first game only) have the ability to place platforms into the background at will.  This would be a neat concept if players could place two or even three platforms per area, but when players are given a pool of hundreds of these platforms, it represents an idea that appropriate platforms for the level don’t exist rather than the idea that players start the game with the equivalent of Samus’ Space Jump (by placing platforms immediately below the player at the apex of each jump).  The game even includes a scroll for getting yourself out of an area in which you are otherwise stuck, another signifier of extremely poor design, though I did not find myself in any such situation during my time with the game.

The arsenal of spells that form the basic combat of the game looks at first glance to be filled with a variety of spells.  Ultimately, however, they boil down to just 2-3 types of attacks; “”Launch Rock” and “Ball Lightning” are just elemental variations of the same spell.  In each game players realistically have at most four different types of attacks — upgrading spells (in the first game; the second game streamlines this) merely improves the damage, but doesn’t affect the gameplay in any meaningful way.  The default control scheme for the first game, mouse-aiming, is so powerful that the second game includes a warning that turning it on essentially breaks the game and ruins any challenge that it might have otherwise had.  I found mouse-aiming in the first (I played the second with its default control scheme on an Xbox 360 controller, as recommended) to be one of the few redeeming parts of the game, as it allows for a degree of precision that makes players feel uniquely powerful — it’s too bad the game design did not really accommodate its most engaging method of control.

The graphics aren’t terrible, but are nothing to write home about — there are few animations for enemies, and many of the environments repeat themselves across multiple worlds.  As a result, there are no memorable environments for specific missions, which significantly contributes to the constant feeling of repetitiveness players feel while slogging away at their next mission.  A wider variety of areas would have helped a lot — in both games, players will play through multiple missions that look on the surface to be exactly the same, since the backgrounds, tilesets, and enemy types repeat themselves so often.

A Valley Without Wind is a difficult game series to recommend.  It is filled with lots of ideas that don’t quite take off, but when so many incredible titles are competing for our purchasing dollars, at $15 for each game you are better off playing a platformer that executes its ideas well instead of a game with significant design problems.  Mark of the Ninja or Rogue Legacy both offer significantly more value at this price point, for example.  Students of game design might find inspiration here, but it would be out of looking at failed systems, not because the gameplay is particularly compelling over any lengthy period of time.

*Lastly, though I admit this may be unique to my own installation, the first game refused to run from the Steam loader after one session, even after a complete reinstall.  I got it to work again by running the executable directly, but it still does not function inside of Steam on my computer.  This was not factored into the game’s score, but felt worth mentioning just in case it affects other users as well.

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