[Editor’s Note: As with our previous Two-Headed Review for Hotline Miami, we present to you a meeting of minds on the subject of an interesting and peculiar game. In this case, the minds are myself and Mr Alex Connolly of Tactical Tuesday fame, and the interesting and peculiar game is Arcen Games’ A Valley Without Wind 2. Enjoy.]
Pete: So let’s kick off this discussion with a simple question: what’s your familiarity with the developer’s previous work, and specifically the A Valley Without Wind series? In my case, I wasn’t particularly familiar with Arcen at all prior to playing the first game. I knew of their previous title A.I. War but hadn’t played it, so my diving into the original A Valley Without Wind was my first encounter with the studio as a whole. It very quickly became clear that not only is Arcen a very ambitious studio with a sharp vision of what they would like to at least try and achieve, but that the team also has a great sense of humor and fun about development. I was particularly impressed with how much the original game evolved and changed over the time I spent with it, mostly based on community feedback.
I believe you’re a bit more familiar with their past work — is this their usual way of doing things?
Alex: Going by A.I. War, Arcen are incredibly receptive to fan feedback. That game not only looks different now to when it first launched, but has grown to include all sorts of facets and modules and modes — many of which were products of fan opinion. It’s great. I think both A.I. War and AVWW are far more ambitious and open-ended than Arcen’s puzzle game Tidalis, and therefore offer more room to move regarding overhauls, but they all seem to have that auteur quality about them, AVWW especially. To answer your question about my time with the original AVWW, I can’t say I spent too much time in it. Not because I didn’t like it or of the overall quality, but a combination of timing and an almost paralysing freedom proffered within the game. People make a big deal out of Skyrim, but I daresay the original game might take the cake for exploration.
As a bloke who has spent far more time with AVWW, how would you sell it to intrigued parties? Tidalis notwithstanding, Arcen’s titles can be quite tough to describe in a nutshell or outline the plethora of mechanics cohesively.
Pete: You’ve touched on something that was simultaneously one of the best and worst things about the original A Valley Without Wind: the fact it was so open-ended and difficult to define that a lot of people ended up reading descriptions (or even playing it) and coming away with a sense of complete bewilderment. I loved the game but I’ll be the first to admit that I actually didn’t make that much “progress” despite playing it for a good few hours at a time! Naturally, that won’t stop me trying to explain it.
The first A Valley Without Wind is, at heart, a procedurally-generated roguelike platformer with light strategic elements, a vast and fully-explorable world and a structure that gives you the freedom to pursue the rather straightforward end goal — defeat the Overlord — at whatever pace you please. If you want to powergame and obtain as much strength as quickly as possible, the game allows you to do that — in fact, if you want a nigh-insurmountable challenge, there’s nothing stopping you throwing down with the Overlord immediately after starting the game — but at the same time, it also allows players who prefer a more sedate pace to enter literally every building and poke around in search of interesting things. More often than not, there isn’t anything in these randomly-generated buildings, but there’s the occasional hidden goodies.
A Valley Without Wind 2, for those unfamiliar, is actually somewhat easier to describe and less open-ended to a point. The aim is still to defeat an Overlord (this time known as Demonaica) but the means through which you go about this are much more clearly-defined — the turn-based structure of the new strategy metagame means that you’re pushed into always making progress; you’re always given helpful strategic suggestions (that you’re free to ignore) on every turn; and the procedural generation in the platforming segments has been toned down considerably so that there’s no risk of you wandering off the beaten track and getting completely lost in a totally irrelevant cave.
For me, I really liked the overwhelming level of “explorability” in the first game, but I’m also painfully aware that it impeded progress for many players. Do you think they made the right call to have a tighter structure in the new game?
Alex: While it will always be an uphill battle for those not already in the know when it comes to both Arcen Games’ output and the more valiant in the indie vanguard, I think AVWW2 does go in the right direction. It’s not that anything in the first game was beyond a player, it was just that these are not conventional games. There’s not only a learning curve, but an exploration curve that offers far more than even the most intricate of Metroidvania titles while missing some of that crucial finesse.
AVWW2 is still no mean feat to initially wrap your head around. It is such a curious blend of things. You look at A.I. War. That was a strange RTS, but it had an unsurprising, comfortable motif about it. Pulpy science fiction on a massive interstellar scale. If you knew how to play an RTS, you knew how to play A.I. War. That didn’t automatically mean you knew what to DO. AVWW2 takes it a step further. You think you know how to play this Arcen creation, but it’s more than what it seems. There’s so much more to it. It’s not just that A.I. War scenario where sheer unit variety just made the roster something more intricate to pore over. Here, you’re doing platforming. You’re also playing an RPG. And a loot game. And a realm development game. If ActRaiser was an appetizer for an all-in genre mash-up, the AVWW games are the main meal.
I don’t know. I still don’t feel like I truly understand these games. But they’re glorious in their indefatigable ambition.
Pete: It certainly is an acquired taste for sure, but a rewarding smorgasbord of contrasting (and sometimes conflicting) flavors once you do acquire it. On that note, we should probably address something sooner rather than later: the graphics. I believe I once described the first game as looking like a late-90s PC game shortly after everyone had discovered Super VGA. It wasn’t bad as such — at least not in my opinion — it just looked very distinctive, chunky and old-fashioned. It really bothered some people, though, to the degree that they refused to play the game because of how it looked.
The new game’s art was outsourced to Heavy Cat Studios and while there’s an obvious improvement in fidelity and the fanciness of the special effects, it still has a distinct, recognizable and rather dated aesthetic that some people haven’t responded all that well to. What’s your take on this? Do you think the “look” is important to the game experience as a whole, or are people whining about nothing?
Alex: I do find a certain stodgy rawness in the aesthetic. It features a visual stiffness that does feel like a Klik & Play title, and I personally find it a bit of an ugly duckling. Though no stranger to visually stark and compromised games, I find the AVWW franchise to be a bit of a jumble. The art direction is as flat as they come, the asset design meager, player and enemy design either anaemic or strangely busy… I feel so shallow for never having overcome my slight discomfort at an element of AVWW so easily remedied. I’m not talking extra animation or even much in the way of rendering. I just think the games deserve a slightly more exotic visual ambience. The outstanding world built by AVWW’s writing and ancillary fluff is depleted by the pedestrian and often ugly graphical styling. What about you?
Pete: It personally doesn’t bother me all that much, though that’s as much to do with my own tolerance of graphics that others consider “poor” than anything else. The jumbled graphical style is actually somewhat deliberate, as the game lore dictates that the planet of Environ has had not only its land but also its timeline shattered, causing many disparate environments and time periods to be jammed together. That’s arguably a somewhat flimsy justification, I know, but it does come straight from the collective lips of Arcen, and it does sort of make sense in context.
I’m actually curious as to why they didn’t adopt the fashionable pixel-art approach to the game’s visuals. They say up-front that they’re trying to channel the 16-bit era in terms of gameplay — particularly in the platforming segments — but it seems like a missed opportunity for a gloriously retro aesthetic. I wonder why they didn’t choose to do that? (On a related note, I’m also curious as to why they remixed the soundtrack from the chiptune-esque melodies of the original game to more richly-produced tracks in the second — I like both, but I do think I prefer the retro-style tunes slightly.)
Still, it’s worth noting that anyone who feels really affronted by the graphics can easily replace every single sprite and texture in the game, and modders are doubtless hard at work on that already. Judging by activity on Arcen’s forums, most people who manage to get “into” the game seem to find themselves completely looking past the graphics after a while — and I count myself in that category, too. After a while, they cease to matter. They’re functional; they do their job, nothing more, and the important thing is that they don’t actively get in the way of what the game is trying to achieve. In fact in some ways, their charmingly innocent clarity actually works in the game’s favor.
You mentioned the writing above. While both AVWW games aren’t exactly story-heavy games — they’re mostly about the emergent narrative you create for yourself — I would describe them both as well-written. In AVWW2 in particular, we’re introduced to various game concepts through conversations between characters, as well as occasional snarky asides from a fourth-wall-breaking “Mysterious Voice” that represents the development team. Having not played A.I. War I can’t really comment on it, but from your knowledge of the devs’ past work are they generally known for good writing?
Alex: I think what works for Arcen’s games regarding writing is not so much the amount of it, but the way it is slotted into some really distinctive mechanics and ambiances. A.I. War didn’t proffer Homeworld-level exposition or production values, but it had this incredible premise. That’s what it is with Arcen’s games. It’s the premise.
A.I. War was unique in that it was, at least in my mind, a terrific example of asymmetrical conflict. You were this mote compared to your adversary. A clutch of survivors against an opponent where you simply didn’t even register on the threat scale. You were nothing. This wasn’t a case of being lower on the tech tree, it was comparative human cognizance of a flea. This was mindblowing. In any other situation, any other game, designers and QA would have safely ironed this massive imbalance out as you’d expect, but in the indie realm, this bold strides can be taken. Not to say these high concepts don’t strike out here and there, but in A.I. War, it works marvellously. The player space was one of sneaking around, raiding and acting like some sort of microbial guerrilla against a foe who could lay waste to your entire fleet and stations if niggled enough.
I feel the same way about the writing in AVWW2, especially. I don’t want to sound totally dismissive of the art style and production values, because I find the ambiance quite entrancing, the writing a large part of that equation and indeed, I agree with what you’ve said about the subtleties of the game. It’s this strange place. Clockwork pigeons and sphinxes. Grotesque leeches and bronze automatons.The platforming does grow on you, within the relative restrictions found in a PC platformer circa 1994. I got a touch of Jill of the Jungle or its cheaper once-sibling Vinyl Goddess From Mars. But it’s the other aspect that I’ve found fascinating; the strategic realm development module. What are your thoughts on it?
Pete: The strategic part is where the new game is most significantly different from the original. For those unaware, the first game had a procedurally-generated, tile-based world map, in which you could explore any of the squares you’d gained access to in order to find various goodies. Some squares housed missions or survivors to rescue, while others simply offered the potential for loot-gathering. It was awesome to have such a huge world to explore, but at the same time it meant the game somewhat lacked focus at times.
What the strategic metagame offers is what the first game so desperately needed: some structure and pace. Initially, it’s somewhat overwhelming and a little frightening to know that after a certain number of turns have elapsed, Demonaica is going to come stomping out of his lair and you are going to be in Deep Trouble if you haven’t prepared adequately. As you progress through a few turns and expand your influence across the land, however, you start to feel a little better — particularly as you start to discover some of the more useful buildings and structures around the place. Spotting a building you know will be of considerable benefit to your war effort becomes a short-term goal for you to pursue, but you have to weigh up the advantages of charging straight for it against a more methodical approach that gives your resistance people a little more room to maneuver.
While the strategy game initially appears to be relatively simplistic, it’s only as the game expands that you realise there appears to be — to my relatively untrained eye, anyway — a surprising amount of tactical depth. Should you send your fast-moving scouts to rescue that survivor in that risky environment this turn? Or send a more powerful but slower soldier? Would you be better served by putting that injured Skirmisher to work farming food while Demonaica is down the other end of the map, or by getting him to activate that special building? It’s a constant string of choices, but the turn-based nature of it (plus some helpful advice from the game itself) means that I never found it to be completely overwhelming.
As a strategy game buff, then, what is it you find interesting about it? And is that “good” interesting?
Alex: I’m still trying to work out why I find it as satisfying as I do. I think it’s that Arcen-brand asymmetry again. Always up against the big guy. A metaphor? In any case, while the exploration of levels doesn’t often feel thoroughly connected to the represented tiles, it does have this curious pace related to the strategic mode. Gathering these survivors and putting them to work on various projects. Making sure they’re happy and keeping the morale above the red. Feeding them. Securing them.It’s funny, because the more I think about the strategic mode, the more I think about one of my all-time favourites, the Cryo Dune adventure-strategy hybrid. Trade out the adventure aspect for an RPG platformer of sorts and you’ve got something very similar to AVWW2. A simple, well-conceived strategic experience bolted into — or perhaps the other way round — a different collection of mechanics.
I’ve gone from AVWW/AVWW2 being a game I wanted to like to an experience that lingers in the mind and keeps me coming back for more. I don’t know what it is in holistic terms. I really don’t. I don’t know how to sell it to people outside of certain circles… and maybe it’s simply NOT for meant for those folks, which is reductionist nonsense at the end of the day.
Pete: I think you’ve hit on an important point there — who is it for? The rather simple answer is “people who like it.” It’s not a game that was particularly “focus-grouped” in the traditional manner — though Arcen’s heavy involvement with their community could perhaps be argued to be a form of “design by committee” — and was instead put together because they thought it would be awesome. Every player’s mileage may vary as to whether or not they agree if it is awesome, but for my money I’m a fan.
My personal feelings are that I enjoy the diversity of experiences it offers, and the different players it caters to. The independently-customizable difficulty levels for the platform and strategic sections mean you can concentrate on challenging yourself in the parts you particularly enjoy, but even within the game there’s a lot of different things you can do. Are you going to try and defeat Demonaica as quickly as possible? Are you going to gather a huge resistance? Are you going to level up and gather perk tokens to make a super-strong character?
This sort of “experimentation” on the player’s part is encouraged by the game’s excellent use of achievements. They’re very simple, mostly taking the form of “find an [x] type item” or “enter a [y] type tile,” but they encourage the player to explore and experiment — particularly when it comes to the “defeat [x] number of enemies as [y] mage class” — it gives players a reason to try out the different (randomly-generated) character classes and spell combinations rather than sticking to an old reliable setup. And while we’re on the subject, I love the different character classes. How often do you get to play a mage who controls the elemental forces of… wood?
Alex: Absolutely, and I think that particular example showcases just how off the beaten path, or at least how inverted and reassembled the tropes within AVWW2 really are. Maybe that’s why it’d be such a hard sell. The title is brimming with odd curiosities. The aforementioned mage using wood to take down brass airships and clockwork pigeons in arid post-apocalyptica. Then stopping to build a clinic or fortify an apartment block to a desperate bid to fend off a demon.It’s so bizarre. It sticks in the imagination. I think it’s a very subjective triumph, but you’d be a liar if you felt variety and quirkiness were non-existent or anaemic elements in AVWW2.
Do I love it? No. Do I like it? Quite. Do I find it fascinating? Most certainly. You, Pete?
Pete: I like it very much indeed, just as I liked the first one very much, too. While I appreciate that it’s not a game for everyone — particularly those who have trouble dealing with a distinctly old-school aesthetic — I find it a fascinating game to play, and an extremely compelling, addictive experience that keeps me coming back for more.
For me, it’s a triumph of creativity in game design. I’m normally the sort of person who needs a strong narrative and a “pre-composed” experience to find true enjoyment in something, but this is an exception for me — the combination of the unusual atmosphere, the excellent writing and the strange but addictive fusion of gameplay styles (all of which tickle my brain in its happy places) make it a winner for me.
Any final thoughts to wrap this up?
Alex: If there’s an inkling of intrigue in our readers, I urge you to check out the demo — both for the first one and AVWW2. They’re similar in some respects, but vastly different in others. Both are utterly unique.
You might love it, you might not. You’ll definitely be the richer for it, though. I certainly feel that way. Bring it home, Pete!
Pete: All right, then. I guess it just remains to be said that for more information on A Valley Without Wind 2, you can check out Arcen Games’ website, and the full game is available together with its predecessor as a single purchase via Steam as well as several other digital distribution outlets.
On the whole, I have to concur with my learned friend here — you should most definitely check out the demo versions of both games and see if they tickle your fancy. You might just be surprised.