The beginning of Valley, the new game by the Blue Isle Studios, references one of my favorite movies. An unnamed guy leaves a message on your machine that effectively sets up the story. Your character is off in the Rocky Mountains searching for a mythological artifact called the Lifeseed, and the caller is wishing you a safe journey.
“If by some miracle you find this thing and become the most famous archaeologist of all time,” the messenger says, “beers are on me. I’ll even trade in your tin foil hat for a whip and fedora.”
I’m an unabashed fan of Indiana Jones, and love any chance to step into the famed archaeologist fan’s shoes (or a facsimile thereof). That message also seems to foreshadow a certain level of fast-paced action, excitement and discovery. Ultimately, Valley falls short of those expectations. But the game is still gorgeous, has a great soundtrack and mixes up the so-called “walking simulator” gameplay in a few interesting ways.
Gamers familiar with the recent trend of First Person Exploration (FPX?) games like Gone Home, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture and Firewatch will feel right at home with Valley. The game is spent traversing a titular valley in search of the Lifeseed, all while hearing snippets of backstory along the way.
The gameplay twist comes when you find the LEAF Suit. The suit was developed in the 1940s by the United States government, with the goal that it could be used by soldiers in the war. The suit allows its wearers to run faster, jump higher and “manipulate life and death itself.” With the suit, you are able to give life to dead trees and animals, or suck the life from them if you’re short on energy yourself.
This immediately makes the game feel more fluid than the three examples above. In a later section, you are running downhill at fast speeds and jumping over vast chasms. It is one of the most exhilarating first-person gaming experiences I’ve had in sheer fun factor. Some of the gameplay sections are kid of like riding a rollercoaster that you have control of.
Enemies are few in Valley, and the ones that are present feel like they were placed only to create some sort of obstacle for the player to get through. These enemies are either floating purple orbs that shoot balls of energy at you, in an effort to take your energy. To defeat them, you shoot at them with your own balls of energy until they are satisfied. Other enemies look kind of like floating electrical demons (not to be confused with the cute daemons that populate portions of the valley). Neither set of enemies is particularly difficult to defeat, but they are mostly a nuisance that gets in the way of exploring. There’s also a semi-infuriating boss battle toward the end of the game.
Valley includes a lot of first-person platforming. This is where I’ve had the most trouble. Due to the nature of your suit, you can’t swim. Falling into the water is instant death, sort of. Because the jumping can be floaty, and it is difficult to tell how far you can jump, I fell to many “deaths” along my journey. None of my deaths felt like my own mistakes; they’ve all felt cheap. You eventually unlock the ability to run on water for brief periods, but the mechanic was so poorly explained that I died plenty of times in the water.
Every time you die, you return to life thanks to the LEAF suit. The trees and wildlife around you, however, also die a little bit as you use their energy to reincarnate. You can return their energy to them to build up the health of the valley. There is a trophy for beating the game without letting the valley die.
Story vs. Storytelling
The story in Valley is interesting and kept me involved throughout. Your character’s barebones motivation was just to find this Lifeseed, which he (or she) has tracked down to this valley. The valley includes a lot of supernatural energy, which the government first attempted to harness in the 1940s in a secret military project.
The story name drops Oppenheimer with regularity, as the leader of the Lifeseed project — Andrew Fisher — was in a not-so-friendly rivalry with the “father of the atomic bomb,” with both racing to develop a bomb that could wipe out the country’s enemies. The Lifeseed is said to harness the kind of power that could do it, and Fisher is pushing his colleagues to discover the power.
Throughout your exploration, you will learn more about Fisher, and more about some of the personnel stationed in the valley, who grow increasingly wary of the impact their work is having on nature. The story is legitimately interesting, and I was engaged in the lives of the scientist and the soldier at the heart of the story. Nature, and man’s impact on all living things, is another important theme of the story. One revelation toward the end of the game made my stomach flop.
Parts of the story that reference long ago Mayan and other civilizations fall flat and are difficult to follow.
There is, however, a difference between having a good story and telling a good story. The way the story is told is altogether kind of dull. A supposed feature of the LEAF suit is that an audio track will play as you pass a certain point. Every so often, the track will play with the next bit of story. Additionally, while exploring, you come across notes that help to round out the story.
When compared to others in this loose genre, the story falls short of the simple interactivity of Firewatch, and doesn’t include the stellar voice acting in Rapture. Ultimately, the storytelling devices used in Valley help to make the game one of the lonelier FPX experiences that I’ve played. Even Gone Home, which is filled only with written notes and taped messages as well, feels more lived in than Valley.
Exploration and Graphics
As referenced above, Valley is a gorgeous game. The initial reveal of the outdoors as you emerge from a cave is breathtaking, thanks in no small part to the music. The first hour and a half is spent almost exclusively outdoors, and the scenery is every bit as beautiful as that of Firewatch. The floating energy orbs, daemons and animals also help to bring a little bit of life to the surroundings. The building interiors start to get a little boring by the end, as I longed to explore the outdoors the deeper into the game I went.
Clipping is an occasional issue in the game, as I dropped down through the middle of a wall a few times. Objects and scenery will pop in as you explore some areas. This isn’t terrible, but does break the immersion a bit.
Valley is also a bit misleading in its design. Although you’re in the great outdoors for much of the game, the path is surprisingly linear. Every little side path leads to a discovery, whether it’s a note or upgradeable materials. The game keeps you in line by running you up against rock walls, cliffs or water. There’s really no reason to explore once you’ve figured this out.
This is different in design to my three FPX examples. In Rapture, you can explore the village (or choose not to) in any order you please. You get rewarded for thorough exploration with more story bits and top-notch voice acting. In Valley, you get rewarded for exploring with a dead end and an acorn.
There is one area toward the back half of the game, where you’re supposed to find the entrance to a tram tunnel. I turned a different direction and explored what seems to be a wholly side area. Aside from one particular story revelation, and a trophy, the entire camp section is a red herring. I spent a good extra 25 minutes exploring this area than I needed to, hitting my head against a wall.
I really enjoyed my time with Valley. The gameplay mechanics are a refreshing take on the first person exploration genre, the story is genuinely interesting, and the setting is gorgeous. It has a few hiccups that keep the game from being great — awkward platforming, sometimes dull storytelling and a false feeling of exploration — but I’d fully recommend the experience to anybody who enjoys this kind of game.
Valley was reviewed using a PS4 code provided by the publisher. You can read additional information about PSVG’s review policy on our disclaimer page here.