When I signed on to do the review for Valley it was more out of interest from what I was seeing in screenshots and trailers more than the Slender pedigree of Blue Isle Studios. My curiosity turned to brief skepticism during the opening answering machine movie that looked like something lifted from a Lara Croft game, but moments later I was swimming for my life after crashing my canoe in the Rocky Mountains. From there, Valley only sucked me in faster and deeper than any other first-person game I’ve played this year.
You’ll be playing the stereotypical Indiana Jones type, off in search of the SEED; a mystical pod of unprecedented power. While the game allows you to pick male or female, you never see yourself and you never speak, so I had to wonder why they even offered the choice, just as much as I wondered why the rest of the world hadn’t already pillaged this “hidden valley” so large you could easily spot it from space. But those questions slipped away the moment I took my first steps into the valley and was greeted by ghostly Ewok-type creatures.
Moments later I learned I was not the first human to enter the valley. Apparently the Army had been here back during WWII conduction all sorts of crazy experiments as part of an alternative arms race to Oppenheimer’s creation of the atom bomb. Now, nothing is left but countless crates, boxes, abandoned research facilities, and a whole lot of angry energy beings. Your first unboxing reveals a L.E.A.F. suit, which looks a bit like Tom Cruise’s exoskeleton rig from Edge of Tomorrow minus the heavy artillery. This suit will become the key element in the rest of your 5-8 hour adventure, so pay attention to the BioShock/Fallout style training video.
The L.E.A.F. suit grants you the ability to run at enhanced speeds, jump (and later double-jump), grapple special nodes, magnetically walk on walls and ceilings, and most important of all, take and give life with the tap of a button. Most of those abilities are trickled into your arsenal over the course of the game as the demands of the environment require, and as you find special crates with L.E.A.F. suit upgrades. The power of life is with you from the beginning as you are quickly encouraged to target dead trees to bring them to lush life or resurrect a dead deer – or just as easily suck the life force from that same deer.
Life energy can be collected from most major living things as well as collecting thousands of life orbs that are scattered about the landscape like Pac-Man dots. You can then shoot that energy into dead stuff and bring it to life. Other collectibles include blue crystals that add up to create additional life nodes, acorns gathered from resurrected trees that are used to open special doors, and medallions used to unlock a pyramid near the end of the game. And of course, expect to find and read a few hundred notes if you want all of the detailed (and amusing) backstory like a couple of guards who tried to build a hockey rink and got thrown in the brig. Most of the critical backstory comes in the form of audio logs from Virginia, a scientist from the original team, and best of all, these logs all play while you do.
Valley continually escalates, more so in challenge than actual difficulty, as you are forced to do more different things to proceed, meaning your progress is environmentally gated by your abilities, or lack thereof. If you think you are stuck there is probably an upgrade crate you just haven’t found yet. While it is pretty impossible to die during the first 2-3 hours of the game unless you step into more than six inches of water, more risky environments and deadly creatures make an appearance in the final chapters. This is where the clever balance of life comes into play.
If you die the forest will sacrifice some of its life to bring you back, as noted by empty leaves on your energy bar, but you can easily restore the forest by bringing trees and critters back to life. If you die repeatedly and are unable to restore the forest health the game will actually end forcing you to reload and replay a considerable amount depending on where you were. The game has a nice auto soft-save for resurrections, but if you quit or the game crashes you’ll be forced to start from a chapter checkpoint. Your collected items and crate progress are recorded but you’ll have to do all the navigation over. This happened to me twice when I got stuck in the terrain and had no choice but to exit to the main menu.
Valley is quite the spectacle. I haven’t been this enchanted with a game’s environmental design since the original Myst trilogy, and as far as technical proficiency, I was reminded of the Talos Principle when it came to textures and lighting. The controls are fluid when using a gamepad, and you reach some crazy speeds the longer you can maintain your parkour-style running and jumping. The fluidity reminded me of Tribes. Enhancing the visuals is perhaps the best soundtrack of any game I’ve played to date – okay, maybe a tie with ABZU.
There are some very specific music cues that really stand out including the first time you are running through this tunnel system on some train tracks at supersonic speeds and the music would reach this crescendo just as you leaped off a broken section of track and everything goes silent until you touch back down on the other side and the music would pick right back up. I’ve never experienced a soundtrack that was keyed into my actual movements. It was incredible!
There is a nice mix of activities in Valley. The first half of the game is primarily exploration while the last half gets more combative as these energy wraiths start to assault you in large numbers. Amrita swarms usually get pacified with one or two shots but these invisible energy spirits can provide quite the challenge. There was only one creature that I would consider a boss that you fight in some giant underground cavern, and he went down fairly easy. Valley is definitely more about Zen-like exploration and discovery than challenging combat. This is clearly the case in one area where you are challenged to zip across the treetops rather than face dozens of those energy wraiths on the forest floor.
It took me just over five hours to finish Valley, but I only had 37 medallions when I reached the pyramid – enough to get past the first door but 33 shy of the 40 required to enter the inner chamber. While there is no New Game+ you can still go back to any chapter checkpoint and re-explore the land for any missing items after the story is over, and your new upgrades will certainly grant you access to previously inaccessible areas.
Valley is one of the best surprises of 2016 and it couldn’t have come at a better time. In another few weeks the flood of Fall games will be upon us and gems like this are often overlooked, so I can’t encourage you enough to fire up your console or PC, head to the digital store, and get your copy right now. You won’t be sorry.