Valley is a first-person adventure / exploration game by Toronto-based Blue Isle Studios. The game casts the player as an unnamed archaeologist, as they hunt for a mysterious organic artefact that legend has it possesses potentially world-altering properties.
Valley begins with a brief opening cut-scene as the archaeologist makes final preparations for a expedition into The Rocky Mountains – rumoured to be the location of the Life Seed, an ancient relic that has the ability to create or destroy life, produced once every millennium by the so-called Titan Tree. The screen fades to black, before handing control to the player; the archaeologist washes up in the mouth of a cave, striped of all their supplies, having obviously been involved in an accident whilst kayaking towards their starting location.
Upon exiting the cave, the archaeologist finds themselves in the titular valley, and signs that the US Army were searching for the Life Seed during WWII, a project known as Pendulum. The archaeologist soon stumbles across an exo-suit that the army were used to traverse the valley’s seventeen square kilometre environment – known as L.E.A.F suits (Leap Effortlessly through Air Functionality). The L.E.A.F suit stretches the limits of human abilities, allowing the user to sprint at super speeds and leap over great distances.
A tutorial level follows, as the game shows you how to use the suit. There’s a sense of exhilaration as you zip through pastures and bound across otherwise uncross-able chasms. Running and leaping towards your destination is where Valley is at its best, taking an enormous leap off of a cliff to a ledge hundreds of metres away is guaranteed to make your heart jump into your mouth as you look down and wander whether you’re going to make the landing. I instantly thought of Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker leaping across New York City buildings having discovered his new powers in Spiderman.
Upgrades to the suit are found as the game progresses, giving the suit further abilities – such as being able to walk vertically up metallic surfaces or dashing across water for short periods. The suit has a limited power supply which needs to be topped up using energy found throughout the valley. Energy can be found either in synthesised form created by Pendulum, or in its natural, orb form dotted around the environment. The suit also has the abilities to draw energy from living organisms, which instantly kills whatever fauna or flora the energy is taken from.
Supply crates left by the Pendulum team yield further goodies – acorns, which can be used to unlock certain doors; medallions that unlock temple-like structures (should you find enough) and canisters that increase the suits power capacity. You can also find notes written by various people involved in Project Pendulum scattered around the environments.
Around the same time the archaeologist finds the suit, they also find audio logs from the project’s civilian paleo botanist Virginia King. King’s narrative helps to establish the origins of the ancient Mesoamerican race who first worshipped the Titan Tree as a deity and built various structures to honour it; the valley’s current inhabitants – wood sprites she calls Daemons, along with the Army’s desires for the life seed.
The Army’s point of view is told by one of Pendulum’s scientists, who want to utilise the Life Seed as the ultimate weapon, given its obvious capabilities in warfare. The logs help to knit the story together, although the music drowns out the vocal performances. Subtitles are set to “on” as default, and I’d definitely recommend that you leave them as they are, as having fiddled with the audio settings I strained to hear what was being said without them.
Further into the game you encounter the game’s enemies, which come in two different forms – angry mosquito swarms and hovering, ghost-like sentinels. Neither are that hard to defeat, as they attack in exactly the same way, firing negative, life draining energy towards the archaeologist. All you need do is strafe to avoid the slow moving, incoming orbs whilst firing off two or three energy pulses towards your target. Once you learn this, the enemies turn into nothing more than an inconvenience – during some of the high speed dashes they can be bypassed entirely, as they don’t tend to stray too far from their patrol patterns.
Should you die – be it through an enemy encounter or a badly timed leap into oblivion – energy is drawn from life in the valley to respawn a L.E.A.F suit operator. This regeneration element, known as Quantum Immortality, leads to the need to give back to the valley in order to stay alive. Should you die too many times without giving back to other living things, not only will your health reduce, but eventually the valley won’t have enough energy left to respawn you at all. This concept is fairly unique, and I found myself constantly giving back – conscious that I had nature to thank for my survival.
The valley itself and its vistas looks beautiful – although deceptively, what appear to be wide open spaces at first glance are actually quite linear; with only one route from A to B. Water in game looks odd though, less like liquid and more like treacle when flowing from waterfalls. Aside from this minor flaw, the landscape and lighting effects are breath-taking. The first few areas of the game are cast in a lazy, late afternoon glare from the sun; the later stages in twilight, with an ethereal feel to the surroundings.
Whilst I did enjoy my time playing Valley, it’s obvious that platforming is where the game excels. There’s an intense come down from the joy of bounding and soaring to reach your destination, only to have to plod around an enclosed area such as an ancient pyramid or abandoned factory. The combat is bland and somewhat repetitive, with the enemy sticking resolutely to the same attack pattern. I loved the idea that your regeneration is dependent on taking life from, and giving back to, other living beings – maintaining a balance between your health and nature’s. I like what Blue Isle Studios have tried to do here – I just wish they’d thought of some way to bring you down gently rather than screaming along in top gear to a snail’s pace in the blink of an eye.