Valley (Xbox One Review)
Everyone has the fantasy when they are young that, if they run fast enough, nothing can stop them. That kick of adrenaline running down a hill and gaining momentum or playing in the woods and wondering if maybe one day you could jump higher than you ever could and really explore the forest. Blue Isle Studios’ follow up to Slender: The Arrival, Valley, capture these feelings perfectly as you awake to find yourself in a strange part of the world and dawn some wartime L.E.A.F. suits.
Valley opens with an answerphone message, an easily digested introduction that literally covers the entirety of your character’s motivations. The message tells you that, although it seems crazy, you have been fascinated with the Life Seed for as long as the other voice has known you and that they wish you luck in your big adventure. Moments later we awake blurry eyed in a hidden section of the Rocky Mountains and beyond being a vessel for a story that takes places decades ago, that’s the last we ever truly hear about our motivations or even if the male or female protagonist thought about contacting somebody and tell anybody they were in an accident, let alone dawned a mechanical exo skeleton they found lying on the floor. From there you find yourself reliving prior events through audiologs and notes scattered throughout the valley as the creators of these suits try to find what on earth the valley is and how to harness its power. If anything, Valley is an allegory for Man VS. Nature or Climate Change. Every interaction has its consequences, whether we know it or not. It’s an enjoyable story, but one that isn’t fully realised in the brief 6 hours it would take to complete the story. The real fun is to be had in Valley’s gameplay.
There is something mesmerising about going really fast that is indescribable. And Valley captures that feeling perfectly. Whether you are running down a big hill, or climbing atop a mountain, the gradual increase of momentum feels exhilarating as you take off from a small naturally formed lip and glide across giant gorges. Moments of beauty can be found when you harness the power of the exo suit and return life to once dead trees, watching them tower above you and flourish as they fill with the ominous power of your suit. And that’s what Valley is all about, exploring this magnificent landscape and uncovering all these little nooks and crannies filled with treasure as you follow the power struggle between scientists and the valley in pursuit of the life seed. Along the way you will fight off swarms of aggravated flies, dark creatures, and nature itself as you avoid drowning and falling to your death. Landing form great heights will gives a massive thud, or even break through some floors, while the wind whistles as you glide through the air. Beyond some rather dull gunplay sections with the suits energy capability there is a lot of fun to be had with the mechanics – especially when you get to run through a mass of tunnels with a new power later on.
Exploration is definitely key in Valley. There are amazing landscapes to run across, but they work best when you are given the freedom to run around and just explore this once hidden land. The scenery rarely gets dull as you search to find animals and trees to revive and keep the energy flowing through the valley. In time you will stumble across facilities in which nature has reclaimed as its own and it just feels unique, especially when you finally happen upon a few areas that are built up to in the first half of Valley. Unfortunately the world is let down by technical difficulties. When running at max speed it often feels like Valley struggles to handle textures and keep a consistent frame rate – detracting from a truly interesting set of features and ultimate lessening the experience. Draw distances can seem short and the freedom to explore these massive areas often leads to an overwhelming sense of being lost should you travel too far off the beaten path. A few times I pushed the boundaries and went as far as I could only to be met with repeating shorelines culminating in a rather disappointing chest with a few acorns and a medallion in it.
And it truly is a shame, as once you have complete the main story there are some metroidvania type segments that encourage you to return and find the last of the medallions and open all of the doors in the game to find nice wee secrets. I did go back, and even though I tried the new routes and explored a little further. These extra areas didn’t really feel like they were part of the experience throughout the linear story and could definitely have been worked around a lot better, even using the initial valley as a hub of sorts. But instead it was a simple choice in the menu or from a pause screen. It is definitely a missed opportunity and not one I was enamoured to return to once I had seen Valley to finality.
Valley is never going to be on anyone’s “Game of the Year” list but it does have loads of potential. With a little more time in the oven and perhaps a bigger budget this could have been something special. Instead we are faced with a linear game that feels the need to offer value without committing to delivery. The areas you explore are great fun, and when the frame rate is consistent it is genuinely fun to leap from mountains, but the delivery of the story is rather lacklustre as the majority plays out over recorded interactions between the real main characters (ie. Not you Mr/Mrs with a silly all-knowing answerphone message) with little delivery. There are still some areas that could definitely be fleshed out and I would definitely try a sequel exploring the more mystical nature that Valley unfortunately feels it is missing. But until then I guess I am stuck foraging acorns from dead trees to open obscure doors that just so happen to have technologically advanced upgrades to my suit in them, despite being shut for hundreds of years.