Review: Valley

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Valley begins with players crawling from a wrecked canoe that had been used to navigate a river somewhere remote in the Canadian Rocky Mountains. A brief cutscene prior to the wreck tells players that they are on a journey for an ancient artifact known as the Lifeseed. Upon walking out of the cave where the canoe is stranded, an immense, lush mountain valley is seen stretched out below. Following the only path, the player comes across an abandoned military Jeep with debris and crates littered nearby.

In one of the crates is an exo-suit called the L.E.A.F. suit (Leap Effortlessly through Air Functionality) which allows players to run at great speeds, and jump great heights and distances. Blue floating orbs, called amrita, found all around the valley are the power source behind the L.E.A.F. suit. The suit also provides the ability to sap the life from other living entities, like trees or animals, to regain health/power, or to shoot the power into objects that are dead in order to renew their former vibrancy. Death in the game is handled by virtue of the L.E.A.F. suit being able to revive Pathfinders–those who wear the L.E.A.F. suit. But of course there is a natural cost for reviving a Pathfinder, and that is to the detriment of the health of the overall valley.

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Whenever a player dies and is revived, trees in the nearby vicinity lose their green leaves and become skeletal, barren frames. This balance provides an incentive to stay alive so that collected amrita power doesn’t have to be constantly pumped into reviving trees and shrubs back to life. For the most part, the only thing that truly kills a Pathfinder is water. Fall into water while wearing the L.E.A.F. suit, and you can kiss your current life goodnight. Keeping the health of the valley from dipping into oblivion is the main objective, but in doing so, the greater narrative of how the Lifeseed is being used by the military and the entire reason the L.E.A.F. suits were created unfolds, revealing a grim alternate history running parallel to the Manhattan Project.

A first-person action-adventure game, Valley in many ways is reminiscent of the original BioShock. The L.E.A.F. suits have the ability to play audio logs, which help drive the narrative forward at key moments of exploration. There are rarely ever any actual tapes or reels found in the environment, the logs just play when the player character walks over a trigger point in the world. I prefer that to having to search and make sure I have found every bit of vocal narrative, because there’s always a chance that I might miss a key log, and thus miss essential story beats. The game world is littered with notes that provide additional flavor and bits of humor, such as the experiences of military guards working the top secret facility or scientists complaining about a fellow scientist’s insistence on using puns in every interaction. These note pages add to the deranged nature of the scientist in charge of the entire project, who has an almost maniacal desire to outdo Robert Oppenheimer and the nuclear weapons being created at Los Alamos.

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What makes Valley shine is the sheer sense of momentum that the L.E.A.F. suit provides. Running down hills, speeds quickly increase to staggering velocity well beyond human capabilities, and typically at the bottom of any hill is a slight upslope which acts as a pleasant ramp, lifting the player into a high speed, long distance leap. The exhilaration of exploring the world in a powerful exoskeleton alone makes Valley worth playing.

Progress in the narrative leads to the discovery of new components for the L.E.A.F. suit, expanding the player’s repertoire of traversal capabilities. One upgrade is a double jump ability, which drains some of the stored amrita power in exchange for empowering players to reach even higher locations. Another upgrade is a grapple hook, which will only connect to specific magnetic fixtures placed throughout the valley. Hopes for Spider-Man-like freedom of movement through the air are dashed a bit, though, because unfortunately the points to connect with aren’t always in a direction that allows for unlimited swinging freedom. The grappling hook was one of the only true frustrations I had with the game, as the L.E.A.F. suit wouldn’t always trigger the ability to send out a new grapple to the next swing point until it was too late, when I’d already fallen too far to be able to save myself. Fortunately, the game is designed in such a way that whenever a new ability is introduced, that method of propulsion is only forced upon players for a short time before moving into an area where running once again becomes the preferred movement of choice.

Additional upgrades provide the L.E.A.F. suit with the ability to magnetically walk up certain types of walls, as well as to run across short distances of water (so long as the initial angle of entry onto the water’s surface isn’t too great). While each of these upgrades introduces an exciting way to navigate the world along with a sort of tutorial once each item is equipped, the progression of new methods of navigation after having already learned the rules of the world just feels like second nature, to the point that some of the extensive secondary introductions feel like unnecessary padding. Since water walking is introduced basically at the end of the game (where resolution is quickly reached), it makes sense to extend the initial play time with new functionality just to give each upgrade its own fair share of the spotlight. However, certain sections of the game, like the lake walking segment, just dragged on a bit too long for my tastes.

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Besides the evil scientist running the Pendulum military facility, there are other forces of nature working against the player. Amrita swarms are like balls of angry bees that shoot energy bolts at players until they can shoot enough “good” amrita power back at them to calm them down. Another malicious entity appears in the form of floating antler-headed daemons that fire negative amrita energy at the player. Combat rarely registers as much of a challenge, as both the swarms and the daemons are introduced after enough amrita power cell upgrades have been collected to a point there is no longer a worry about running out of ammo, especially since defeated enemies drop a ton of amrita orbs to quickly replenish what was used up in the process of killing them.

Two types of collectibles are found in the valley–acorns and pendants. Acorns are found after a dead tree is revived, and are appropriately used to open acorn doors. These doors require anywhere from 3 to 30 acorns at one time to unlock, and often bar the way to either additional upgrades for the L.E.A.F. suit or contain the other pendant collectibles. Pendants are used to gain access to a pyramid found in the latter half of the game. Initial entry requires 30 pendants, and once inside a second door requires 40 more pendants. This mass hunt for collectibles is hurt some due to the fact that the game does a poor job of keeping track of where pendants have been found and what areas could use further exploration. A world map gives players the opportunity to return to previous levels, but always at the start of those areas, so a full re-run and somewhat grindy exploration is necessary to find all of the acorn doors and pendants.

Except for a few minor points, Valley thoroughly impressed me. Learning how to handle and best utilize each of the L.E.A.F. suit upgrades takes some time to master, but the story is definitely compelling enough to keep players wanting to see what’s going to happen next. Flying fast through the air after launching from the bottom of a hill is a complete joy, and running at super-speed across a lake is equally exhilarating. While combat isn’t super tough, I’m glad it is part of the game, if only to help break up the environmental puzzle-like nature of exploration.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ L.E.A.F. suit adds incredibly fun sense of momentum to jumping and running
+ Interesting death/nature balance mechanic
+ Compelling story

Cons:
– Some sections drag on too long
– Lacks a good collectible map upon story completion
– Unchallenging combat

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PS4, also available on PC and Xbox One
Publisher: Blue Isle Studios
Developer: Blue Isle Studios
Release Date: 8/24/2016
Genre: First-person Action/Adventure
ESRB Rating: Teen
Players: 1

Source: Review code provided by developer

Buy From: Steam, PlayStation Store, Xbox Games Store

About the Author

Tim has been playing video games for more than 20 years. He manages to find time to game in between raising three kids and working as a network administrator. Follow Tim on Twitter @freemantim.