Beta as a concept is the indie developer’s best friend. It accomplishes a variety of things all at once. You can sell a game that’s not actually finished by calling it a beta release, for example. You can defend your game from criticism, by the sole virtue of being an indie dev you’re already fairly well-shielded against criticism, so the only people who would criticize an indie project in beta are the same people who’d do it while eating an adorable kitten alive, and who wants to agree with those guys? Further, as an indie dev, you’re not beholden to any shareholders, so you’re under no time-frame pressure whatsoever to actually bring your game or application out of beta. This ensures that bugfixes can remain low on the list of priorities for as long as you’d like (since any criticism of bugs can be deflected with “it’s beta”) and then you can make a nice, big PR splash by having the game hit version 1.0 right when sales need a boost. It’s great.
Beta has proven to be quite the boon for Arcen Games, developers of A Valley Without Wind and its pseudo-sequel A Valley Without Wind 2. Arcen’s site for Valley 2 even proudly announces that the game is still in beta, while trailers for the game open with a giant, conspicuous “This game contains beta footage!” warning. I’m going to break one of the taboos of the indie community, though, by looking at Valley 2 as it is: a game that’s currently for sale for $15, which is the same price you’d pay for Castle Crashers, Hotline Miami or (most of) Torchlight 2.
You Can’t Shoot History in the Neck
Okay, so everyone with any investment in the games industry at all knows that players have the memory of a goldfish. With that in mind, I’m going to assume nobody remembers what a hilarious train wreck A Valley Without Wind was. It was a bunch of moderately good ideas mashed into a giant blob and held together with mind-blowingly awful Poser graphics and animation. The criticism shield failed this game, it was panned by gamers and critics alike and it sold terribly.
“Valley 1 employed a bizarre scaling system that basically punished you for leveling too fast, but Valley 2 encourages you to level as quickly as possible to keep up with your foes.”
Arcen was devastated…but they were only down, not out. Enter the magic of beta! Thanks to beta, it was possible to try again. Arcen would take most of the assets from Valley 1, have another go at making a real game with them and call it Valley 2! What’s more, they’d release the game as “beta” so they could refine the game and smooth out the noticeable flaws while still selling it if need be.
Initial news on Valley 2 was probably more fun than playing Valley 1 could have ever been. They talked up the many virtues of Valley 2. It would feature a completely revamped strategy component! Balance would be improved! Graphics would be tightened, particularly on level 3! Best of all, it would have the Slender Man in it!
Right. So you can understand my shock when it turned out the game isn’t all that bad.
I Didn’t Hate Myself For Playing It: The New 8/10
So what we’ve got here is basically the modern interpretation of the SNES classic ActRaiser. You alternate between fighting a resistance campaign against the evil overlord Demonaica on the strategic map and progressing through platformer levels. This is the same idea that the original Valley had, though in that game the strategic aspect of things was minimal and easily ignored. Here, it’s a much more integral part of the experience and you ignore it at your peril.
You play a randomly-generated character of your choice, who is a mole placed in Demonaica’s forces by the Resistance. You’ve been good at being bad, so Demonaica has awarded you the power of immortality; you can be killed, but you cannot die. This is just the ace that the Resistance needs to wage war against the overlord and his lieutenants, so your first act is to escape Demonaica’s fortress and organize your freedom fighters. A guerilla movement needs supplies, shelter, training and medicine, and it’s your job to co-ordinate all of that. As the game progresses, you’ll also need to keep your troops safe from the overlord’s minions, which will begin to stalk them around the map and disrupt your affairs.
This is complicated by the presence of Demonaica’s wind generators. The Resistance is easily stymied by having their umbrellas and kites fly away, apparently, so you can’t enter an area that’s blocked off behind a generator. To expand your usable territory, you need to infiltrate areas with generators and smash them up via platforming. You’ll be attacked by evil forces in the process, but thankfully, your character possesses magical powers based on a “Mage Class” that you select at creation. Mage classes are all based on certain themes; there’s your Ice class, your Fire class, your Alchemist and so on. You’re also free to change them whenever you’d like at your home base.
“…this game practically oozes goofy from every pore.”
There are other reasons to go adventuring; for instance, you can level your character by clearing Demaonaica’s lieutenants out of towers scattered throughout the land. Valley 1 employed a bizarre scaling system that basically punished you for leveling too fast, but Valley 2 encourages you to level as quickly as possible to keep up with your foes. You can also seek out new attribute-boosting perks and gear in platforming sections. Finally, every so often you’re informed that the Resistance has made progress in assaulting Demonaica’s lair. When this happens, you’re encouraged to go in and grab up a cache of new, more powerful Mage Classes.
No Dessert Until You Eat Your Vegetables
I’ll be honest: the strategy segments of this game didn’t really do it for me. I ended up resenting them a bit, honestly. The platforming is pretty solid, so why was it necessary to make me strategize between monster-blasting? Fortunately, you’re able to set the difficulty levels for the strategy and platforming segments separately; I found the game much more enjoyable when I was able to reduce strategy to an afterthought.
I can see this being the most divisive aspect of the game, and I get the feeling that it’s what Arcen wanted to accomplish in the first place. This is a game that both strategy and action fans can enjoy. For the player who’s into both, it’s like a buffet made of candy. My first few games were spent in a desperate balancing act where I’d try to carve out swaths of territory that my rebels could use, while also seeking personal power to ensure I wouldn’t get stomped by Demonaica’s lieutenants. I can see that type of action being a real hit with the right sort of gamer.
It needs to be said, though, that this game practically oozes goofy from every pore. The writing is awful in a “so-bad-it’s-good” sort of way; at points, the developers actually apologize for aspects of Valley 1, such as the level scaling, as if it’ll somehow make them less terrible in hindsight. It’s a little endearing, really. As for the graphics…well, you can see the screenshots, and I assure you they’re not any better in motion.
Even the game mechanics are a little unhinged. You can only wear one piece of equipment at a time which will eventually break with use. Along with ridiculous names (“+6 Humiliating Swimming Shorts of Good Swimming,” which offer a miniscule +8% boost to swimming speed, for example), equipment can offer a variety of hilariously broken effects. I’m fairly certain I picked up a codpiece that lit my character on fire and offered a massive damage boost until the item itself burned off, for instance. Let’s not forget that whenever you grab an item, you’re usually barraged with a pile of meaningless Steam achievements for having done so.
Again, it’s endearing, rather than annoying; finding loot chests proved to be one of the high points of the game because it was fun to see what wacky gear would drop next. Unlike Valley 1, there’s a real sense that Arcen believes in what they’re producing here and thinks it’s worth playing. Is “endearing” worth $15? I’d say so, assuming you already own Castle Crashers, Hotline Miami and (most of) Torchlight 2. The improvement since the original game is significant. For once, I’m inclined to say that the free second chance that’s afforded to an indie studio calling a game “beta” is merited here. Valley 1 made me question that Arcen knew what they were doing; Valley 2 has brought me back into the fold. Give it a shot.
Oh, and the best part? Slender’s not in the game anymore. They call him “Elder” now.