There are few sub-genres more ill regarded than walking simulators these days. The term itself has practically become a derogatory insult these days, referring to titles which lack true interaction, forcing players to slowly trudge across a world looking at another person's story. While Valley keeps many aspects of this genre, from the scattered story to the beautiful ruins, it proves how the right developer can take a flawed idea and turn it into something truly exciting. In this case, by allowing the player to practically break the sound barrier.
Let's not mince words here, this is the antithesis of Everybody's Gone to the Rapture; proving itself to be fun, beautiful and mysterious while allowing players to have a real stake in the world. You play as a unnamed figure trapped in a secluded valley far from any prying eyes. Upon finding a mysterious suit of aging L.E.A.F. power armour, you attain the ability to give and take life from animals, leap tall buildings and outrun a speeding train. Using these powers to explore the valley, you begin to uncover some of the haunting secrets of the place, and the dark history surrounding the armour itself.
Starting off with its most obvious strength, the world Blue Isle Studios' has built here is stunningly beautiful. No matter which part of the valley you explore from the bleakly run-down ruins to the open grassy plains, it never fails to be engrossing or truly atmospheric. A big part of this is down to the variety of these environments and attention to detail, with old damage or growths telling their own story in certain scenes. However, what makes it truly special is how the developer has truly taken the speed at which you move into account with each one. There are still enough big and bold details laid out to help a player pick up on the atmospheric qualities even as they're running around at the speed of sound.
Speaking of the running and jumping itself, Valley opts to go for the opposite of Mirror's Edge's tight and enclosed locations, but surprisingly it ends up benefiting as a result. There without the constraint of corridors or a set track, there is a much more tangible sense of freedom and power as you hurl yourself over rivers or perform tight turns about the vast open world. While this does mean it lacks the careful planning or staging of that game, the environment is easily vibrant enough to make up for this issue. This is further reinforced thanks to a handful of well-placed sections which leaves you moving at human speed, just to remind you of your equipment's superhuman abilities. There's a primal joy to the sheer speed akin to playing an old platformer or racing title, and Valley turns this into its greatest strength.
Of course, cybernetically-enhanced athleticism isn't the suit's only advantage. One of the more mysterious powers allows it to take and give life as needed, stripping it from some beings and offering it into others. This is its main offensive method, used to deal with a few foes and overcome a few obstacles along the way, and even revive the player upon death. However, unlike quite a few other games, death itself has consequences here. The more you're revived, the more life you drain from your surroundings, the more the beautiful world will wither and fade away. It's a nice edge to help encourage perfection in jumps and races, and ties heavily into a delightfully Bioshock-esque story of audio logs and new technology.
The closest Valley comes to true failure is simply when Blue Isle Studios didn't push far enough with certain ideas. For example, the valley itself never seems to lose nearly as much life as you would expect for each death, something hardly helped by so little fauna. It sadly robs something of that drive to perfect each run, and limits any sense of peril. Equally, while combat is certainly engaging at first, some of the big battles become repetitive after a few hours, lacking the diversity and some of the emphasis upon precision which would have benefited this game's appeal.
Despite two minor flaws however, Valley is a true hidden gem among this month's high profile releases. Fast, fun, beautiful and extraordinarily atmospheric, this is easily one of 2016's most underrated releases. If you have missed this thanks to the lack of fanfare or you’re looking to satisfy the void left by No Man’s Sky, definitely give this one a look.
VALLEY / DEVELOPER & PUBLISHER: BLUE ISLE STUDIOS / PLATFORM: PC / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW