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Video games are about freedom. They allow players to do and be something they can’t in real life and this always has been the most exhilarating part of the game experience. Many developers tap into this thrill and craft stories around mechanics that have us become, well, gods in a sense, running, flying, fighting, surviving in ways only our imaginations limit us by. Blue Isle Studio‘s Valley is all about speed and making great leaps with momentum, giving us a playground where this ability lets us soar in godlike fashion. Mostly. All too often though that elusive flow that is so rare in games where motion and momentum, freedom and design mesh like poetry, is abruptly stopped. Still, Valley is a remarkable little gem and has a lot to offer for its low price and all-too brief stay.
Things start quickly as a little exposition, via telephone voice mail, lets us know that you (after choosing a male or female character) have ventured out in your role as an archaeologist to find something called a LifeSeed, a relic of mythological power. We cut to a canoe crash where you, in first person, trek onto a strange shore that is like something out of a dream, filled with brilliant colors and ethereal looking fairies. After a little on rails exploring, you come upon a clearly man-made crate where inside you discover an exoskeleton called the L.E.A.F. Suit. Naturally, you put it on.
L.E.A.F. stands for Leap Effortlessly through Air Functionality and allows you to to do just that plus much more, including, of all things, control life and death. By that I mean, with an energy beam from your gloved hand, you can either reanimate the dead, such as animals and trees or vice versa, sap them dry and take their lifeforce. But those were not the original suit powers. You learn through audio tapes and scattered journal entries that the suit was invented to be used for labor, such as excavation. It only later became what it is now. But what is it and why is it in this abandoned valley that was apparently once thriving with some kind of people? Time to find out.
Initially, the lush, peaceful valley seems just so, and you can spring about leaping here and there collecting energy orbs with running deer and scurrying rabbits underfoot. Also there’s those little glowing sprites and some shimmering golden acorns that give you energy. Of course, that all doesn’t last and soon you encounter the hostiles of which there are only two: insects and larger creatures with magical powers. Combat is magic based, in fact, or seems to be, as you are able to fire bolts of blue energy that defeat enemies and indeed this is a lot of fun in the early stages as timing and speed make for some satisfying runs at these creatures. As there is no variation or other types though, things become repetitive and the fun loses a bit of its edge.
The game wants to propel you forward and as the valley you are in seems carved in such a way that leave you only a few choices for moving that way, it’s frustrating when the roads are blocked by things that constantly slow you down. Certainly, there are many brilliant moments when the rush of timing and accuracy are rewarding, but the suit itself is the game’s biggest fault. A clunky metal thing (yes, meant to be) it hits the ground with a bone crunching thud sound that while maybe not slowing you down too much, has an odd effect that feels like such. A later upgrade forces you to find metallic surfaces to maintain the suit’s Magnetic Core, a flaw that also forces you to slow down. These are frequent enough that you become hesitant to build up speed though by nature, you can’t help but push forward.
And maybe here is where you make a mistake and perish. If you do die in Valley, you don’t just respawn. Your death has consequences as the valley itself depends on your energy to stay alive and the more times you die the the valley will begin to die along with you. You’ll see trees wither and animal carcasses dot your path. Die too often and the energy fades entirely and the game is over. But that is really not much of a concern as in your L.E.A.P. Suit, as mentioned, you have the power of life over death and a few blasts from your palm will revive the dead and restore balance. As there are energy orbs littered all over the valley, there is little concern about the game ending.
Perhaps this is all sounding a little too critical because in truth, there is really a lot to like about this relatively simple but creative game that is nearly always compelling, no matter the setbacks. In fact, when it ends, that is the most disappointing as the story and gameplay are all intriguing enough to make you want to keep going. I really enjoyed the experience, especially the early levels, feeling like it was something fresh. In a way, it feels like a proof of concept for something bigger. Perhaps we will return to the Valley with much more to explore.
Developer: Blue Isle Studios
Genre: Action, Adventure, Indie
Release Date: 24 Aug, 2016