Every so often, a year will inexplicably become themed around a certain weapon or piece of equipment. 2012 was the year of the bow and arrow, and it appears that 2016 will become synonymous with the grappling hook. Nathan Drake took one into his final adventure in Uncharted 4: A Thief's End, and upcoming games such as Titanfall 2, Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, and Dishonored 2 are looking to add the hook to their arsenals. Valley, the second game from Canadian developer Blue Isle Studios, is another one to add to the list. The title appears to have snuck up on everyone with little buzz or coverage prior to release, but is this a sign that we have a bit of a dud on our hands?
Valley puts you in the shoes of an unnamed archaeologist on the hunt for what is known as a 'Lifeseed' in the Rocky Mountains. But as you begin to explore your surroundings, it soon becomes clear that you're not the first to pursue the mysterious seed. Through audio logs you slowly uncover a plot by a man named Andrew Fisher, who planned to use the Lifeseed's power to win World War II. The story explores how Fisher would use the seed's energy to end the war, secrets behind the Pendulum project, and whether the Lifeseed even exists in the present day. It's a very interesting twist on what could have been a rather clichéd story, and we were hooked straight from the off. Not every story beat will pay off, but there's more than enough here to keep you captivated by Valley's story from the open to the close.
As well as being intriguing, Valley's plot has a direct impact on its gameplay mechanics. Early on in the game you'll find the L.E.A.F suit, a remnant of the Pendulum project. This suit gives you the power to traverse the environment with relative ease as you can now leap to great heights, run at extraordinary speeds, and interact with the wildlife around you. You'll also come across upgrades spread throughout the game which include a double jump, the previously mentioned grappling hook, and the ability to run on water. These help keep the gameplay fresh and engaging for the most part, but using such abilities comes at a cost.
The L.E.A.F suit is powered by an energy called 'Amirita', and if supplies become completely depleted then you and the immediate foliage and wildlife around you dies. You are revived seconds later but this can only occur so many times if you don't then resurrect the trees and animals you took to the grave with you. This creates a nice balancing act within gameplay and offers some consequence to death.
The L.E.A.F suit's abilities really come into their own when you're given an open environment and told to go to town there. There is a section early on in the game which tasks you with activating monoliths in a large open field. We eventually got around to tackling the objectives at hand, but before that we spent time gaining momentum and launching ourselves into the air to really test the limits of our suit. Flying through the air at great speeds feels wonderful, and is by far one of the most satisfying things you can do in Valley. However, this section was actually bettered by a late game area underground that saw us using one of the suit's original powers in a slightly different way. We won't spoil it for you because we genuinely believe that this is one of the coolest moments from a game released in 2016 so far. It's something you need to experience for yourself.
Unfortunately, we can't give Valley's combat the same level of praise. The game only has two enemy types, and you fight them both in exactly the same way. Your foes will shoot projectiles at you which can be easily dodged, and you in turn blast them with the same energy that your suit consumes. Encounters feel like a big throwaway, and while they're clearly not a big focus throughout the three hour adventure, we honestly question why they're there at all. Valley would be a better game without them.
It would also be far more impressive if there weren't so many problems with its presentation. Valley isn't going to win any awards for its graphics thanks a number of muddy and washed out textures, which are then coupled with plenty of pop-in. The game runs at an almost stable 30 frames-per-second for the most part, but it takes a real hit during late game areas when you can reach some incredible speeds; the framerate simply cannot keep up with what's happening on screen and takes frequent nose dives which can ruin what would be a real spectacle.
Valley's heart is most definitely in the right place, and for the most part it succeeds in the execution of its gameplay mechanics. Unfortunately, the game's technical faults can't be ignored. The sloppy framerate in particular damages the experience far too much, and has held back what would otherwise be a great game.