Leaping L.E.A.F suits, Batman!
Developer: Blue Isle Studios
Publisher: Blue Isle Studios
Format: PC (Reviewed), PS4, Xbox One
Released: August 22, 2016
Well this was certainly an interesting beast of a game. Valley is brought to you by Blue Isle Studio, the same team behind Slender: The Arrival. You might remember it as that one Slenderman game which tried to cram a story into a game about looking for pieces of paper in a forest. While the team hasn’t strayed too far away from their apparent trend of setting their games in the great outdoors, they have brought an interesting gameplay combo to the table. The closest description I can give is an odd hybrid of walking simulator and first-person platformer, seesawing between the two throughout the game to varying levels of success.
The game begins via clunky voicemail exposition as a voice tells you that your unnamed character is some kind of explorer/archaeologist in search of a relic known as the Life Seed, a magic seed with untold power. The game then cuts to your character emerging from a rushing river after crashing their canoe against the rocks. Apparently this is due to your character being too much of a tight ass to pay for decent canoeing lessons, despite already shelling out for a canoe and a wetsuit. After a short spelunking adventure, you find yourself in the titular valley – giving you a breathtaking view to take in and screenshot as the title appears on screen.
As you explore the surroundings, Valley starts to flex its walking simulator muscles by sending you down a linear path filled with beautiful and strange sights. As you encounter floating balls of energy and tiny green ghosts, you’ll be ready to write this off as another pretentious attempt at an artsy fartsy walking simulator with nothing to do but take screenshots of the pretty nature around you and push W on your keyboard. But just as that thought sets in, you’ll come across the out-of-place remnants of World War 2 era military equipment.
With this equipment, you’ll find a mechanical crate containing a L.E.A.F suit, a strange mech-like exoskeleton from which the game’s mechanics surround. Once you put it on, you’re treated to a short 50s-esqe video which explains how the suit works – given hilarious narration by a guy who is clearly trying and failing to sound like an old timey announcer. As it turns out, the suit is able to grant its wearer superhuman abilities, such as leaping tall buildings in a single bound, running “as quickly as a cheetah” and, most importantly, the power to either give life and take it away. It even lets you listen to audio logs hands free, what a convenience!
It’s after this point that Valley starts showing off what it can really do now that you have the L.E.A.F suit, letting you run through the first of the incredibly exciting and fast-paced platforming sections that plays very similar to the momentum-focused platforming of the old Sonic the Hedgehog games. You’ll run down hills at top speed, jump off ramps to cross over rivers and crevasses, and even get the chance to run alongside the valley’s wildlife Tarzan style. While these moments are rather limited, they have been intelligently peppered throughout the game as rewards for the playing getting through the slower platforming sections that make up a majority of the game. It won’t take too long before you start feeling gleeful anticipation whenever you see a downhill slope ahead of you.
Even while the faster platforming moments of the game are incredibly fun, I also found myself enjoying the slower platforming sections to some degree as well. Thanks to the smooth and responsive feel of the game’s controls, the precision platforming the game offers feels fair, while still offering just enough challenge that you’ll need to pay attention to where you take off and land with each jump.
A slow drip-feed of upgrades for the L.E.A.F suit also ensures that both the fast-paced and slow-paced platforming moments never feel too repetitive. As the game goes on, you’ll find yourself with a grappling hook, magnet boots for running on specific walls, a very useful double jump, and my personal favourite, the rail running boots which allow you to run along rails at incredible speeds. These turned what would have been a rather boring platforming section running through very samey corridors into a thrilling rollercoaster ride. While these sections were one of my personal highlights from the game, you’ll only ever get to experience them twice through the whole game. Not that that’s a bad thing, mind you. For the most part, one of Valley’s biggest strengths is how well it follows the design philosophy of “less is more” when it comes to the more memorable platforming sections.
While the game will also occasionally slip back into the Blue Isle’s more familiar walking simulator gameplay by making you walk through linear corridors, reading text logs and listen to audio entries that you’ll find scattered about, the alternate history sci-fi story is well-written and interesting enough to keep you engaged. You’ll find notes written by scientists theorising about the valley, diary entries from military personal and even lore about the ancient inhabitants of the valley. While I wouldn’t be able to tell you If the game’s scientific theory holds up in real life, I found scrap of information incredibly intriguing, making me gleefully look forward to finding a new bit of scientific theory, postulating or general lore surrounding the once inhabited military areas
But while Valley’s gameplay is exceedingly satisfying, the mechanics that revolve around it unfortunately don’t appear to have been thought through completely. In fact, at first glance, they sound like they’d actually be pretty interesting. But the moment that they’re put into any sort of practice, they quickly become a detriment to the overall enjoyment of the game.
This is seen primarily in Valley’s approach to what happens every time you die. Basically, the L.E.A.F suit is able to bring its user back to life following a sort of equivalent exchange rule, taking life from the surrounding area in order to respawn you. The game conveys this to you by giving a life bar to the valley, instead of yourself. Every time you die and respawn, the valley’s life bar will deplete a little until it completely runs out, resulting in a game over. What’s really cool about this mechanic is that while the bar goes down, the nature around you will also wither away as the once lush nearby trees wither and die. It’s incredibly harrowing when you die for the first time and see that your mistake has a visual effect on the world around you. But while this is a really awesome mechanic that, at first, makes you feel responsible for the decay of the world around you, it slowly becomes apparent that it is far too easy to work around thanks game’s other main mechanic of energy usage.
As I mentioned earlier, the L.E.A.F suit has the power to take life from living things and also give life back. Your capacity for doing this is shown by your energy meter, which will deplete every time you give life, which is used to fill up the valley’s health bar, and increase every time you take life, which will decrease the valley’s health further. As you gain upgrades, you’ll also find that using them will deplete the energy meter as well. Because of this, the game tries to set up a balancing act in which you’ll need to take away life from the valley in order to make any progress, while also ensuring to give life back to the valley in order to keep yourself alive if you fuck up at some point and die.
But this balancing act quickly becomes one-sided when the game just hands out energy to you anyway. Hell, the game makes it very easy for you to increase the amount of energy you can hold, via the use of collectable storage tanks you’ll find around the game that work in a very similar vein as Zelda’s heart containers. Because of this, I never found myself ever needing to worry about how much energy I had left, since most of the time I had more than I knew what to do with. So every time I died, I always had more than enough energy to zap some life back into the surrounding dead plant life in order to fill the valley’s life bar up again within a matter of moments. I never found myself needing to drain life from the valley in order to do anything, so I never did over the course of my entire playthrough.
One thing that did confuse me about Valley was the odd design decision to introduce combat within the last half of the game by throwing enemies at you which will require a few zaps of your life beam to defeat. I guess it could be argued that these combat sections add a bit of extra variety to the already existing platforming and exploration sections of the game, but they offer no challenge at all. Every enemy you encounter poses such little threat to you and are defeated so easily that every combat moment feels like they’ve been tacked on at the last minute for the sake of making the game feel more game-y when it was doing totally fine before. This becomes painfully obvious near the end of the game when you’re suddenly thrown into a boss fight that comes completely out of nowhere, only to be defeated with so little effort that I’d almost swear the game trying and failing to pad itself out at the last minute.
Overall, despite the rather odd second half of the game and its glaring flaws in terms of how one of its central mechanics is balanced, Valley is still an experience I highly recommend checking out thanks to its solid exploration-based storytelling and incredibly fun platforming. While the game’s overall running time is rather short, clocking in at around three to four hours at most, it allows for Valley to show you a memorable time that won’t outstay its welcome. The only thing that may bar a lot of its potential audience’s entry is its rather high price point, costing about $30AUD on PSN and around $26AUD on Steam.
Final Score: 3.5/5
Recommendation: Wait for a Sale