A while back, I wrote about A Valley Without Wind, the latest title from Arcen Games available as a preorder, in one of my alpha-funding roundups.  In that earlier entry, I was unsure about the game, which at the time felt pretty rudimentary (although, while re-reading that entry, I also appeared to be against the idea of complexity, so perhaps I should explain:  Complexity is just fine, but the fact remains that complex problems are something I spend time dealing with for work and study, and for a game that I play during my free time, the last thing I want to do is spend it working on solving complex problems, as it is the opposite of the fun relaxation that I often seek in games.  And in reference to Arcen Games’ first entry, AI War, the complexity of its systems seem to make the average RTS game as complex as Pong in comparison).  Ranting aside, though, AVWW was definitely intriguing enough to pick up, although when I last examined the alpha version things were in a sufficient state of flux that the gameplay (and even basic stats) changed dramatically from one update to the next, making playing the game in that state rather confusing.

However, the game is now in a “late beta” stage, and while significant development is continuing (a new beta was released between my play session yesterday and my writing this article), the gameplay is much more stable and feature-complete.  Having heard this, and after updating the game to its latest version, I decided to start a new playthrough to see how things were shaping up.

So far, I’ve played through the new tutorial mission, as well as a nearby random area and one of the “boss tower” missions.  Overall, things are definitely looking more polished, especially as far as gameplay is concerned.

The thing that immediately stands out, at least from my usual perspective on game difficulty, is the considerable granularity that the game provides for difficulty settings.  When you first start a new game, you are provided with about a half-dozen different difficulty levels for both combat and platforming (the latter providing more assistance and negating fall damage on easier settings).  The game also provides both an easy start with the tutorial, a normal start, and an accelerated start for those who want to jump straight into the more difficult content.  As usual, I selected the easiest settings, which to my surprise felt almost too easy after my previous experience with the game, but provide a great starting point and mean that even very casual gamers can at least get started with the game and see how it works.  Additionally, the difficulty level can be re-set between missions if you want more or less of a challenge.

The tutorial mission is also very well-done for this type of game, and it carefully walks you through all of the major things you need to know without being too intrusive – there are a few pop-ups here and there with important information, but most of the tutorial is provided on cleverly snarky advice given on the tombstones of characters that have apparently run through, and failed, the mission before you.  It displays a surprisingly ready humor that the previous iterations had seemed to lack, and makes the game’s tone seem a bit less dark than it had previously (the game also has some interesting referential humor now and again as well, like the titles for the platforming difficulty levels based on how much desire you have to be the guy).  The tutorial also ensures that you enter the game proper with a decent amount of starting materials and a reasonably wide range of beginning spells, which were few and far between in earlier iterations.  As a result, your character starts out the game being reasonably capable of dealing with most situations.  Plus, the tutorial throws in a few interesting (but optional) boss fights, and is varied enough to keep things interesting, feeling like a real mission and exploration area from the game rather than a simplified tutorial zone, while ensuring that you have the equipment and knowledge to complete it easily.

Once I got out into the world proper and picked a zone for exploration, the game began to slow down a bit, and I noticed a couple of issues.  The terrain generation is a bit different from when I played it before, and is now considerably more extreme, meaning that most areas can only be successfully traversed by building platforms and stacking crates, and I found myself running dangerously low on supplies by the end of the first exploration area (although the home base area has some crates where you can replenish them to a basic level between missions).  The exploration was definitely more controlled, though, as there were only occasional enemies rather than the swarms present in the earlier version.

As far as actual exploration goes, the zones themselves don’t offer as much in the way of variety or immediate rewards as something like Terraria, and trudging through eight screens of mildly frustrating platforming and very similar environments, with only the occasional enemy encounter to break up the monotony, make it a bit difficult to stay interested.  However, at the end of the section was the first boss tower, which made things much more exciting.

The boss tower is truth in advertising – it’s a big tower, alternating platforming rooms filles with ladders, loot and enemies, interspersed with large, fairly complex arenas in which to fight one of the hulking, menacing boss characters (in this case, a supersized version of a skelebot, one of the basic enemies), of which there were three in total – beating the mission rewards you with a cache of resources, which allow you to build new and better spells (which are your primary mode of attack).

On that note, the basic mechanics of fighting haven’t changed all that much – mouse over an enemy, click or hit a hotkey to discharge a spell – but some of the surrounding systems have been much improved.  Instead of having to spend a ton of time poking around for health and mana potions, as each spell would quickly drain your mana gauge, mana now regenerates after a short delay, and defeated enemies leave behind a health “aura” that can help to replenish the damage you take.  Of course, having some other resources on hand just in case is handy as well (although, as the game states, it’s not a matter of if your character will die, but when – as the premise of the game is to take on the roles of multiple survivors all striving to build a better world and expand their community).

The game also improves the exploration somewhat.  Complex buildings and cave systems have clearer mapping that automatically highlights areas of interest so that you can get what you need and avoid exploring a ton of samey rooms in the hopes of finding anything at all (and the rooms now have some actual props, making the buildings feel at least somewhat less empty).  Additionally, most large areas have “warp gates” at multiple points that allow you to easily backtrack back to the region map without having to retrace your steps through the entire zone.

All in all, most things are improved, from the addition of more spells, powers, and “enchants” to improve your characters, to a clear system that highlights goals and needed equipment so that you always have something to do, and don’t feel completely lost in the game’s mechanics.  That’s not to say that the game lacks in complexity – after all, one of the menus features a “big honkin’ encyclopedia” of just about everything in the game, and as I’ve only played a few levels, I haven’t even touched the civilization-building aspects of the game, which offer a whole new level of gameplay on top of the basic platforming and combat.

About the only thing that hasn’t changed are the graphics and animations, which are still a bit on the “love it or hate it” side.  Personally, I think the look is okay, although most of the characters and enemies look like they could use at least a half-dozen more frames in what appear to be sprite-based animations, and as a result, some of the actions look a bit on the jerky side.  However, it doesn’t really affect the gameplay, so it’s more a matter of personal taste, and I think the environments do tend to do a good job of evoking the kind of ambiance the game is striving for – a bleak, mostly destroyed world that can still look vivid and interesting when it has a need to.

Overall, if you’re at all interested in exploring procedurally-generated worlds or want a decent metroidvania-style platformer, the game is definitely worth a look, and you don’t need to be an expert at jumping or throwing fireballs to jump into the game, as it’s accessible at just about all skill levels.  Given that these are first impressions, I can’t speak to how deep the gameplay eventually gets, but it’s certainly promising so far – and given the rapid pace of updates, will probably be even more polished soon.

Oh, and one other note: the game is still on sale for 1/3 off until its official release on April 23, and the game also has a fairly extensive demo that allows you to get a decent sense of whether the game clicks for you before you buy it.  And while it’s not perhaps a perfect game, my time with it so far has definitely been a worthwhile experience.

Edit:  Okay, okay, just one more note.  Like most indie games nowadays, it’s DRM-free, and available for both Mac and PC, which I’m certainly in favor of as I own both (although I have no idea if this would run on my fairly old laptop’s pathetic integrated graphics, but given the nature of the game it just well might).  However, as a result of being unfettered by encryption and DRM, if you’re willing to poke around in the file structure and do some audio converting/already have an Ogg Vorbis music player, the game (and even the demo) comes with a full copy of its soundtrack, which is actually quite good, especially if you like chiptune-inspired music as I do.