Why do people play video games?
While some form of “fun” or “entertainment” may emerge as the top-of-mind answer, therein lies a whole spectrum of motivations. Some play to enhance their sense of self-worth by proving their superiority in tight competition. Some play in order to immerse themselves in a grand story, losing themselves in an exercise of escapism. Others might just need something on their Apple device to pass the time on their commute to work and back. Many may play merely to satisfy a compulsive itch; a compelling need for gamification, those tiny little incentive for pushing forward into a digital world.
Somewhere, there were human beings who were waiting for exactly the sort of game that A Valley Without Wind is, when it was released in mid-2012. It is not for everyone, though. Even trying to describe its genre can be a laborous exercise: A Metroidvania-esque platformer with overworld exploration/strategy and crafting? A side-scrolling rogelike platformer with a strange, mysterious plot and resource management emphasis? A retro-style ode to what we thought would be the pinnacle of possibility in the 16-bit era?
A Valley Without Wind takes place in a setting that has been shattered by a cataclysmic event, leaving most of the world in the fog of an uninhabitable storm. Even the explorable spots on the grid-based overworld are haphazard and chaotic. Thematically, this is explained as a sort of rift whereby parts of the world's timeline have been torn apart and randomly reassembled, resulting in a hodgepodge of stark contracts, explained or excused by the plot.
In the center of the continent is the outpost where a few survivors huddle together amid modest structures and the large, enigmatic Ilara crystals, who double as NPC shopkeepers and other functionalities. The player is the Glyphbearer; that is, the one character in the universe who is able to cast spells, and thus poses as the settlement's only hope for waging war against the evils outside, and gathering material to further their goals.
The overarching aim seems simple enough: Take down the Overlord. There are two problems evident immediately, however: The Overlord is plainly listed on the map as being of a much higher level than the player-character, and the Overlord's fortress is impenetrable, within the Storm that cannot be survived in, requiring special intervention (eventually by way of mystical Windmills placed on the map to dissuade the evil tidings of the titular Wind, the player will learn).
The majority of gameplay takes place exploring levels divided horizontally across several parts that scroll in all directions. The character uses spells, assigned to the left and right mouse buttons, to dispatch with enemies or even break background elements to gather materials. Killing enemies grants healing points for HP, while killing enough of a particular enemy type will unlock another.The player will learn that many mechanics operate in this gradual-revelation way: Conquering one type of stumbled-across mission will open the possibility of other types. Finding a particular rare gem or other ingredient suddenly releases an entire new spellcrafting category.
Ah, yes, the spellcrafting. Spells are divided into elements, such as earth, fire, air, water, and miasma. They can also vary in level, whether some level up at the same time whenever one of the Overlord's Lieutenants is conquered, or by purchasing higher spells with the right ingredients, though there is a always a cap until the next Lieutenant is beaten. Most of the spells operate as projectile attacks; slow or fast, powerful or light, sliding along walls or traveling on an arc, etc.
To assist in further fighting optimization, the player also has body-part-specific slots (Head, Right Arm, Feet, Torso, etc.) for Enchanments – these are enhancements, found or purchased, that can augment the character's abilities in all sorts of ways. The player may gain the ability to emit light, or become immune to acid water, or be able to double-jump. Mostly, the enhancements are percentage-based: Let's make Earth attacks 41% stronger, or projectiles travel 15% faster, or regenerate our mana 8% quicker, or increase overall spell strength by 20%, or reduce cooldown time or increse jump height or movement speed or, etc. It is in these minutiae, these endless possibilities for player-character customization, that some characters will really get a thrill.
Combat, then, is a mastery of utilizing spells against enemy weaknesses, learning the nuances of favorites, and the ideal combinations. Some spells are more utility than weapon, though, as with stackable crates to reach higher ground, various ways to emit light, and so forth. Satisfaction comes in being able to dispatch of foes in one shot, learning how to efficiently deal with the cavern bosses and mini-bosses.
Oh, yeah, the caves and buildings. See, within each of the squares of the overworld grid, there is that aforementioned multi-part level. But within each part of that level, there can be buildings or cave entrances, each of which has their own collection of rooms. Some of the rooms can contain a boss, for extra Consciousness Shards, the currency used to purhase spells and resources at the settlement, earned by beating enemies; others might be a treasure room, which may have a rare item or two of three. Exploration of these nested stages is optional, but can reward the player with accelerated resource development, aided by use of a distinctive graph-style map that can take some getting used to.
Those few fellow survivors back at the settlement play a part, too. They have skill points, increased by giving them books (found in the level buildings) related to their profession, or placing specialized structures on the world map as bought at the settlement with Consciousness Shard. They also have a mood rating, which can be raised by giving them gifts, whether found or bought. This is essential, eventually, because they can be sent on missions to retrieve rare items needed to unlock more spells, or even attack the Overlord fortress to reduce the level of its characters and, ultimately, the final boss.
This is the delicate dance of A Valley Without Wind, and how an intended five minutes of play turns into three hours into the late evening: Through the gradual drip of gathering items, gaining spells, completing missions, slaying lieutenants, and sending out fellow survivors, the player hones in on the end at hand.
But what end, really? To what purpose? This, the backbone of the narrative, the real guts and foundation of the player's motivation, is where replay value may fall apart for many gamers, as expressed in a number of ways. For instance, death is permanent. Yet the cost is minimal: The player need only select a newly generated hero and embark from the same spot, with the same items, level, and other traits. The levels are procedurally generated, but could be navigated for hundreds of hours if a hardcore completionist felt the need. Once the Overworld is defeated (spoiler alert!), there is a sense of having saved the continent – only to quickly embark on a ship to the next one to start the whole process all over again.
Maybe it is the journey that matters, not the destination. Surely in the generation of gamers that enjoys achievements, micro-transactions (well...), and looting, some will love the tiny little bits of incentive offered along the way of the Valley, like so many bread crumbs. Presentationally, some reviewers have noted a “disjointed” effect, given the strange contrast between some areas compared to others.
This is true: At points, A Valley Without Wind really looks and plays like a fine 1990's PC title. The sprites animate smoothly, but still usually look like stickers on a background scene. Even the music, though it perhaps impressively ranges from minor-key-invoking piano melancholy to electric guitar battle themes, can strike one's ears as just sounding like a series of midi anthems, one arranged right after another.
For all of its grandeur, that is the legacy of AVWW: The same players that would have enjoyed huddling in front of their monitor in the middle of the night to embark into the grand, Randomly Generated Unknown for thousands upon thousands of possibilities, if minorly differing, will dig this game. Others, not so much. The repetitive, grinding, an-hour-to-complete-a-stage pacing can be a turn off, ultimately thrown upside-down by the ending revelation of a hinted infutility.
Then again, there are those 96 journal entries scattered across the missions, that even dedicated players may need to complete a few continents to find, in order to fully discover the background story behind the deadly Wind, the riddle of the Ilara, and the burden of the Glpyhbearer. Just sayin'.
A Valley Without Wind, made by Arcen Games, is available on Steam.
Eric Bailey blogs at NintendoLegend.com, where he is reviewing every American-released NES video game. He also serves as Editor-In-Chief of retro gaming features site 1MoreCastle.com, and can be followed on Twitter @Nintendo_Legend.