I assume I’m just shy of half way through Blue Isle Studios’ Valley and I’ve been drawing comparisons between it and EA/DICE’s Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst.
Both games deploy an exploration system gated by movement restrictions progressively unlocked by players in various ways, made popular by Metroid and perfected in Metroid Prime in 3D, to which both aforementioned games can draw parallels with. Valley’s world is still open, but understandably smaller and less lateral in scope than MEC. Valley’s gating is more similar to Metroid’s in that areas are gated directly by gadgets that vary greatly in movement capability - double-jumping, a grappling hook etc.
MEC gates its world via its narrative, and this is the least compelling reason to do anything in its world. Not only that, but because each new area doesn’t invite new ways to move, they don’t greatly vary in visual design and end up looking quite samey. MEC slowly dithers out abilities via upgrade/level-up points and initially progress is swift, but the more players hesitate to carry-out narrative missions, the longer they’ll be hamstrung in frustrating ways - particularly if they’ve played the first game - rolling in order to avoid fall damage to leap from greater heights, and the 180 degree quick turn are both late gated abilities.
As soon as you unlock a new movement ability in Valley, or are taught a new world-rule, executing it delivers pure, undiluted delight. You often then look for opportunities to exercise your newly gained freedom and the game lets you before adding the challenge element to dynamic. This is fantastic design.
MEC keeps emphasising movement, then pitting you against enemies that you’re unsure whether to combat or not. Certain abilities, tutorial prompts and loading tips seem to indicate you may be able to avoid combat and should in order to maintain speed and fluidity of movement, but the game poorly telegraphs when these situations are… or yet again, in one instance, the ability to… avoid gunfire… more often, is gated behind upgrade points. While the combat itself isn’t exactly bad - sometimes it’s actually quite satisfying, it still stands out as out of place in a game about quickly moving from place to place with the environment as utility. Were this a game purely about combat with the environment as utility, and there were rules to support this, we’d be having a different discussion. Also I bet the story wouldn’t be shit. It might be absurd, but probably welcome as opposed to my often criticised EA boardroom awkward uncle style of narrative writing.
Valley’s combat is arguably too thin and easy - some will want more dynamic engagement and I can appreciate that, but the buy-in to Valley involves understanding what the game is, and what all its elements represent. In this way, I feel the narrative tie-in for combat is perfect, including its relative sparsity, and the justification and post-combat dynamic is great (you can recharge energy from former enemies).
I’m looping around a bit.
MEC’s narrative, by EA/DICE/awkward unkle is about evil corporations and super-hip counter-culture parkour couriers and is tonally wrong on more levels than should be possible. I find the cultural tone of MEC worse than Life Is Strange because at least in the latter, you can put it down to international cultural interpretation. EA should be more self-aware except we all know they aren’t and know they couldn’t be any farther from being self-aware without departing the known universe.
Valley’s narrative resembles some of Metroid Prime’s more closely in that the environment feels bigger than you, its story is older, more grand, and you’re the tiniest window of experience onto it. Sure, its narrative unfolds in a series of voice-overs which are now more than over-used, and scraps of notes found strewn about the game - these are a more deft touch - but the story it has to tell, while not entirely original, is good enough and told well enough not to betray its own sincerity. No spoilers, but there’s a wonderful discussion of nature, exploratory science and military intent in Valley that is very of its time, and timely today (I appreciate the game is merely 12 months old, if that).
MEC - I will grant, as well as the first Mirror’s Edge, has fantastic music. I am totally on board with the smooth-saw-synth and muted rhythm tones of its super-slick city and chill-out cues. This is one of the best things in MEC’s favour that helps sell its sense of style and place - they just needed to do better in distinguishing locations and giving you a reason to traverse them.
Valley’s music is much more organic, and I’m a sucker for a close-mic’ed piano - right from the opening splash/title screen, you’re hit with that piano, and someone like me is prone to already making assumptions about what the game is going to be, and it ends up being exactly that. Valley is organic, peaceful, meditative, joyful, at times sorrowful, potentially more-so as the narrative unfolds, and its lilting, dancing and then subdued organic soundtrack folds into these emotions perfectly, as well as leaving many moments quiet. My film-snob-spidey-sense tingles in one or two moments in which I’d have preferred no music over dramatic music for more impacting effect, but that’s just wanting to put more polish on an already shining experience. I feel the directors of Valley have the potential to learn these cinematic lessons and apply them where appropriate in future work.
MEC cost me $14.15, I think, and I’m struggling to go back to it. That’s a game that was produced with the RRP AUD$79.95 pricepoint in mind. I am here to assume that EA pushed this game out with just as much unpaid overtime as every other AAA game, with larger (though not as large as other EA projects, sure) dev teams, poor communication, production timelines that didn’t line-up and a high degree of late-dev crunch. The end result is this Frankenstein of sheer beauty and horror.
Valley cost me AUD$24.95 on sale, I think, but I think has/had an RRP on Playstation of AUD$39.99 originally? Not sure what the original Steam price was - I’ll look it up later. And yes, you can bet Valley has fewer hours, assets and less content than MEC, yet it feels like so much more value. By the way, Valley is visually gorgeous, in part, I believe, because so many of the great indie games of the contemporary era have a strong, hand-made feel about them.
I feel as though Blue Isle had a vision for what they wanted to create and stuck to it - all the lessons we’ve been talking about in game dev for the last twenty years on blogs, sites, cons, among the community within and outside of dev. Valley so far feels right, a rightness that I struggle to feel in games of larger scope - a rightness I only feel when I watch or play something that I think - yep - even if that was shy of the original vision, these people stuck to their creative dream, their core values and created a unique and wonderful expression, not just designed a successful product.