Designing titles around infinite replay-ability is a lofty goal. Which A Valley Without Wind attempted to do with an interesting concept. But it falls into a trap of having too much freedom.
(This analysis is a reprint from my blog: Mind's Eye)
The following analysis was written last month shortly after the release, since then the developers have released numerious patches adding more content and changing the game. There is a chance that some parts of this may no longer be accurate to the current state of the game.
Arcen Games have so far swung between the two sides of hardcore and casual design with their immensely intricate 4X RTS AI Wars, and their puzzle game Tidalis. Their latest title: A Valley Without Wind attempts to bridge the ground between the two extremes with something new. However after spending some time with it, I'm having a hard time figuring out who is the right market for this.
A Valley Without Wind is a procedurally generated 2D action-adventure platformer with rogue-like elements... that is one hell of a mouth full . The plot is that the planet of Environ has been devastated for centuries by wind storms and monsters ruling over the people. The world is a mixture of magic and technology with dragons in one place, and tanks in another. The land has become fractured with different time periods coexisting next to each other and very few survivors left. Your mission is to strike out and attempt to reunite the survivors into settlements and try to bring some order to the now chaotic world.
At the start, you choose from one of the survivors in your first settlement to take out into the world. Each person has a different rating for the three main attributes: health, mana pool and base spell attack strength. Once you've decided you can arm yourself with available spells, each belonging to a different school of magic: fire, water, earth etc. Then it's time to go exploring.
Once outside your settlement the world map is open to you. Missions of various types will pop up giving you a focal point of where to go. Players can also explore any of the open tiles which are important for getting supplies. Each time the player enters a new tile, building or cave, the game generates a new map. Inside buildings, players can find stashes that can give them enchants (the game's version of equipment). More importantly, they can find upgrade stones, which when the player has enough can upgrade any of the three attributes. Each person can only be upgraded a total of 10 times, meaning that you'll never have a super powerful character.
Spells can be either upgraded or research once the player finds the necessary materials. Said materials are either found in the form of mission rewards, or in caverns. Caverns are filled with gem veins that can be broken for materials. Upgrading spells are important as they improve the base values of them, allowing your character to do more damage or use less mana to activate them.
The rogue-like elements comes into play with the fact that each survivor only has one life. If you run out of health in the field, that character and their upgrades are gone. However, any items, enchants, and spells are persistent. You can recover your health by returning to the settlement, and killing enemies drops a few points of health. But ultimately you'll have to decide how far you want to go exploring the world before going back to rest, which plays into the progression system.
Progression works in two ways in AVWW, first is the continent status or CS. CS represents the level of rewards you can get, along with the danger of enemies. Starting out the CS will be tier 1 which matches your spell level at the start. Completing missions will earn you points that count towards the CS. Once you've earned enough points the CS will go up and now both enemies and rewards will be considered Tier 2.
As you explore you can find areas where the tier is higher than the base tier, making these sections harder then most. To effectively "beat" the continent you have to defeat the overlord who is always at the highest tier . Once you've beaten the overlord, the continent is saved and the game generates a new continent for you to explore.
The other way progression works is through the achievement system. The game is chocked full of achievements: from killing X # of an enemy type, exploring certain areas, and so on. Every time you complete an achievement, something new is unlocked to be generated. This could be a new boss type, a new mission type, and materials for crafting spells or new survivors to appear and more. To be frank, it's going to take a long time before someone unlocks everything and given Arcen Game's track record of adding more content to their games, who knows if anyone will ever get 100% unlocked.
So far all this must sound really great, however when you start to play it, the different systems don't feel as enriching as they should. To examine the problems with AVWW we need to break the game down into each of its three main systems: Platforming, Combat and Exploration/Achievement.
The platforming lacks that tight gameplay we see in games like Mario or Super Meat Boy. There is a floatiness to everything, no doubt needed due to the game generating each map on the fly. The problem is that because the environments are generated, you don't get that refined level design seen in linear games. Also it means that the game may not generate enough platforms for the player to get around. The only other option is to use wooden platforms and crates from their inventory to create the necessary steps.
This slows down the proceedings and prevents the platforming from both being rewarding and challenging. Compounding this issue, the backgrounds in many areas are brightly colored while the platforms are a dull brown color that makes it hard to keep track of them. Some of the best platformers like Mario or Super Meat Boy reach the point that the player can enter a state of flow as they move through the levels. With AVWW, the fractured environments keep that from happening.
Combat is hit and miss. Because of the variety of enemies and resistances you can go from one area of killing everything easily, to having to spend time slowly wearing down an enemy. The physics makes it hard to dodge projectiles and with enemies having an unlimited supply, can turn sections into a scene from a bullet hell shoot-em-up. Some enemy shots linger while others dissipate on hit, meaning that the player can easily take extended damage.
Killing enemies the further the player gets, will not return as much health as they could have lost from combat. Compounding this are what are considered "melee spells" which requires the player to get right next to the enemy to attack. With the physics in play it's very to gauge how close you should get and if the enemy survives, chances are you are going to get hit as well.
Lastly the progression system lacks that necessary sense of constant progression to keep people motivated. The use of an achievement based progression system is not something usually seen in game design. The only other two that come to my mind are Viva Piñata and The Binding of Isaac. To talk about the problems with AVWW's system, we need to briefly go over the other two examples.
In Viva Piñata, the game starts out with very little content unlocked. Each time the player does something productive it fills up the experience bar, when the bar completely fills, something new is unlocked and the bar empties out. This allows the player to always see how far along they are, and know that something good is right around the corner. Also they know that everything they're doing is in some way working towards unlocking content.
With The Binding of Isaac, a lot of the content is already made available. The player can technically beat the game on their very first play-through, granted it would be hard but doable. Each time the player gets an achievement, something new is added to the randomization. This becomes a big deal when additional bosses and levels begin to appear. The important point is that the progression is the icing on top for the content, instead of being the meat of the experience.
Going back to AVWW, only specific acts will make progression in the world, such as completing achievements or missions. The problem is that the progression is not persistent, and there are many times that it will feel that nothing is unlocking. For example completing a mission may give you resources, but that doesn't mean you'll be able to use them right away to unlock a new spell. The world is very empty at the start both in terms of available materials and missions. And the only way to open it up is to start completing achievements.
Exploring the world, unless its achievement focused, will not yield new content. You lose that sense of exploration, knowing that only specific actions will count, instead of being able to go out into the world and making things happen.
Because enemy types are also unlocked, it means that you could unlock harder enemies before finding the materials to make your spells better. So far in my play through, I've unlocked more annoying enemies then I have spells.
Since AVWW doesn't have a true "end" it leaves it up to the player to decide how far they want to go. But with so little content available at the start, it can be hard to be motivated to continue. Let's say that you have a 1000 piece set of Legos, and being told that you can only use the red square blocks until you create a 5X5 Lego cabin, then the blue square blocks will be available and so on. Eventually you'll have a huge amount of choices and content, but would you be able to stay interested that long?
A Valley Without Wind is a hard game to classify. The separate elements aren't fleshed out or refined enough to stand on their own. But together, the Frankensteinish design almost works. The problem is that depending on the type of gamer you are you're not going to get the gameplay you want.
Imagine being a vegetarian and getting a 5 star salad, but it also comes with a piece of steak on top. Even if you take the steak off, all the juices and sauce have already leaked onto the salad, meaning you’re going to have that meat taste no matter what. Someone who wants a refined platformer or a refined action-adventure title may be disappointed with the game. But if you're looking for something different, I would definitely suggest trying out the demo to see if the game scratches that itch.