Beta Impressions: A Valley Without Wind
What would the end of the world feel like? I imagine it would feel a lot like A Valley Without Wind: massive, empty, cold, and incomprehensible. Let’s tackle the last one first: this is a game that very much feels like a beta. It’s numbered in the .5′s at the moment, and that number is extremely reflective of the game as a whole. It’s not finished, and that’s a good thing, because this game has enough promise to fill the entire internet.
The basic premise of A Valley Without Wind is simple yet engrossing: you and a bunch of non-playable friends are survivors of some sort of apocalyptic ice age. To this setting, it adds magic and monsters, randomly generated areas and a complex crafting system. And, eventually, a slow-expanding 4X strategy game on top of it, according to the game’s website.
A Valley Without Wind‘s most important feature is its aesthetic. It looks and feels like a fantastic game. The settings are evocative: abandoned houses, scientific buildings covered in snow, communities built in underground caverns side by side with massive mushrooms, and huge dinosaur skeletons. Visually it’s what we would have gotten had we stayed in sixteen bit gaming for decades instead of for a few short years. Everything comes together to create this lovely atmosphere of desolation, but also of hope: you feel like a survivor, atop a destroyed wasteland, and you feel an immense sense of agency, a sense of duty. So when you go out to explore the top-down world map, it feels like the grandest adventure you’ve ever played. Enough can’t be said about this: it’s a beautiful game, and like something like El Shaddai it feels like more than the sum of its parts.
When you enter into a specific area, the game plays like Terraria, a side scrolling exploration game, but with less platforming, more spell casting, and, sadly, a general lack of vibrancy. The exploration isn’t particularly enjoyable because the hook isn’t baited well. You need to find manuals to teach your character how to build different items and learn different spells, but in four hours I didn’t find a single one, and the game doesn’t reassure me I can do it by exploring the wilderness. Each area on the world map is chock full of random, apocalypse-stricken structures, but every single one of them, in my efforts, was devoid of anything but monsters who give you no noticeable experience and potions you wouldn’t need if not for those monsters. If you walk far enough into each area, you’ll find a cave, which will usually have a boss encounter or two and a couple rooms with gemstones, which let you make more magic. These are fun, and they’re worthwhile: the bosses give lots of experience, and the gemstones would let you make more spells if you had the recipes for them (which, of course, you don’t).
There’s also other modes of advancement. Apparently, once you’ve collected enough something, you can build a fortress, expand your tribe, and conquer the new world. This sounds fantastic, but I see no sign of it, even in the controls, and I have no idea if it’s even implemented yet. Maybe it’s just so long-form that you have to play for longer than I have (six hours, thereabouts) to experience it.
So what we have here, boys and girls, is a capital B beta. This isn’t Minecraft, which launched with a core idea that was good enough to merit its price tag. A Valley Without Wind has a lot of its mechanics in place, but these mechanics still need months of balancing, playtesting, and expansion before they become anything worthwhile. So it’s understandable what Arcen Games are doing: let the early adopters buy it, support them in their development efforts, and playtest the crap out of it. It’ll probably lead to a better game than just if they’d playtested themselves, since, from all indications, the game is massive. In six hours I feel like I barely scratched the surface of anything.
And let me be plain: while I don’t think A Valley Without Wind is worth playing now, I think it’s definitely got some of the best and brightest ideas in computer gaming. The problem at the moment is that everything is empty and bare; the game is feature incomplete, in other words. In six months or so, when the game actually releases, there will be significantly more content, better documentation, and it will likely be the kind of all-encompassing game I will play for fifty hours. Even in its current state, it’s worth a look, if only to experience that wonderful aesthetic, that post-apocalyptic desolation.
If you’re interested, the game can be acquired here. $10 gets you a full license, or you can demo it for hours and hours with all the content of the full game.