A Valley Without Wind

A game by Arcen Games for PC and Mac, originally released in 2012.
A Valley Without Wind is a journey. While it does have a beginning and an end, everything that occurs in between is entirely up to the player. The game is about as open as a game can possibly be, harkening back to the PC RPG’s of old, where the lack of restriction allowed players the freedom to make their own way. Like those games, the player is free to discover the world on his own, make grave mistakes, and die without fanfare. For players daring enough, they may freely march across the world map at any point, rap their knuckles against the door of the overlord’s lair, and demand that he come out and fight. But, that’s getting a bit ahead of ourselves.

At the start, you are able to choose between a number of characters, each with slightly varying stats that may be upgraded during the course of the adventure. The only time you get much direction is at the beginning of the game, where you must make your way through a basic sidescrolling environment before you emerge into the overworld. Here, you learn about using magic, gathering materials, and placing planks to let you reach higher areas. You even get some advice on how to avoid being killed by falling into acid, running into a battle where you are wildly outnumbered, or attempting to fight a huge enemy head-on.

Once you escape the initial area, find a settlement, and travel out into the overworld, you still get the occasional help window that will let you know what’s going on, and you can always look up what you should be doing next, but you’re really on your own at that point. Pick a place on the world map and go there. Explore. Kill enemies. Harvest materials. Figure out what it’s all about.

Console-based gamers may get a bit squeamish at the idea of not being led by the nose from one objective to the next, but PC gaming veterans should be right at home here. Of course, there is one area where these formats cross a bit, and that is in the mechanics. While the game has all of the trappings of an old-school PC RPG, it is in fact a platformer. Except for the overworld map, all areas are presented as sidescrolling environments where the player must run, jump, and climb his way through the various caves, houses, ancient ruins, grasslands, arctic tundra, deserts and all other manner of wilderness.

A variety of attacks are available to the player, and each is upgradeable to higher power levels. The primary method of dispatching foes is with projectile attacks, most of which are aligned with a particular element. Certain enemies are resistant to certain kinds of magic, so it’s best to have at least 2 types on hand at any given point.

Projectiles don’t all operate in the same way either. For instance, electrical attacks hug the floors and walls – great for taking out enemies indoors – while the fire attack moves in a straight line, and the ice attack lobs snowballs into the air in an arc. There are even spells that allow you to change forms or to warp out of a dungeon. Each spell requires a certain amount of mana to use, which recharges on its own at a speed determined by your character’s magic proficiency. Weaker spells can be tossed out in rapid fire, while more powerful ones will have a cooldown period while you wait for your mana bar to fill. This is another good reason to have more than one type of attack on hand, in case you find yourself suddenly overwhelmed by numerous enemies.

Players are free to play the game with a keyboard or a gamepad, but they can’t go entirely keyboard-free. Playing with a gamepad essentially allows you to assign hotkeys to for the more commonly used functions, like killing enemies or laying planks or crates for environmental navigation. Accessing the numerous menus and the full gamut of available abilities will require the occasional journey back to the keyboard.

In addition to the numerous spells available, the player also gains access to a slew of passive buffs. Buffs may be assigned to different parts of the body, allowing you to have many of them active simultaneously. Examples include basic damage increases, faster magic recharging, higher jumping, faster movement, reduction of fall damage, decreased fall speed, immunity to acid, and the ability to light up the surrounding area for better visibility. Simple diligence when exploring the environment will quickly add to your stockpile of available buffs, which can be swapped out at will. This is particularly handy since it allows you to use a certain set of skills for basic environmental navigation, and then switch over to some more heavy-duty buffs when facing off against a boss.

More powerful spells may be crafted, provided you have the required materials. Materials are found by exploring the environments, taking on quests, and pushing forward into dangerous territory. The higher the risk of failure, the greater the potential rewards. Players who brave a deep cavern filled with strong enemies will encounter more rare materials, and players can even find doorways into higher “tiers” (more on that in a moment) that allow them to fight enemies above their current level, again with added rewards.

While the game does reward exploration, players accustomed to poking their noses into every little nook and cranny will want to table that desire for this game. It’s possible to spend hours plumbing the depths of caves and wandering through every freestanding structure in the hunt for more treasures and upgrade stones. And we don’t mean “hours” as in “oh, it will take you a long time”. No, we mean that it will take you hours and hours… dozens of hours… maybe much more if you wish to fully explore the game world. There is a robust map system in place that allows you to scout the area and locate valuable materials, and setting your goals toward more valuable items will certainly save you some time when it comes to exploration.

It’s best to poke around for a while, upgrade your character a bit, and then push yourself to move into some of the more dangerous areas to start collecting materials you’ll need to craft more powerful spells. Those who simply wander through the expansive world are likely to find the game to be a very boring experience, because the difficulty doesn’t start to increase until you complete quests. Until then, you’ll be dealing with the same entry-level enemies again and again.

Quests are marked on the world map and can be as simple as raiding a dungeon to take down a boss or rescue a survivor, to defending a supply stock from falling meteorites, to leading a massive attack on an enemy base while defending your own. As you complete quests, you build points toward upgrading the “tier” of the game world, which essentially means that the world has leveled up. Since your questing determines the tier, you are free to build your character up as much as you like before moving forward. Completing missions also rewards you with rare items that can be used to craft better spells or further develop your settlement.

This openness toward progression means that careful players can ensure that they have all of the skills necessary to take on more difficult enemies prior to raising the tier, while those looking for more action can dive straight in and start doing quests from the beginning. But even before reaching a new tier, enemies will begin to become more powerful. Kill a certain number of any given enemy type, and a new type of enemy will be added to the game. This is generally a more powerful version of the same enemy, often with increased magical resistance.

Player death is handled in an interesting way. If your character dies, he or she is gone forever. However, this is no roguelike. When the player dies, he does not lose his spells or the items he has acquired, and his overall general progress remains. In fact, the only thing he really loses is his character, which means that the player will need to pick another and start again. Any spent upgrade stones die with that character, but more may be gathered to upgrade the new character. It’s also worth noting that each character has a limit to the number of upgrade stones that can be spent toward his or her development, so progression is more tied to materials, spellcrafting, and your overall civilization progress anyway.

Yes, it does hurt to lose a character that you’ve invested in, but it’s not a tremendous loss in progress overall. Also, the place where your character died will be haunted by the spirit of the dead character, presenting you with a difficult enemy to face when you travel back with a new one. This can be particularly troublesome if you die while fighting a strong enemy, because when you return, you’ll be facing that enemy as well as the rage-filled ghost of your former self.

Overall progress is achieved by taking on missions and by clearing the world map. At the start of the game, a world map is generated. The map and its individual areas are procedurally-generated, so no two worlds are identical. However, they do each share themes, so you can expect to find deserts, icy areas, forests, etc. in each map.

When you begin, most of the world map will be covered in storms, indicating more difficult areas. However, as you explore the squares of the world map and take on missions, the storms will cease in the surrounding squares. This allows you to slowly push forward and build your way toward the final confrontation. And even after that, it’s not truly over. Defeating the overlord on the first continent moves you on to the next procedurally-generated continent, with greater challenges to face and new items to be discovered. You could conceivably continue the game forever, opening up new continents with each defeated overlord. New continents are treated something along the lines of a New Game + mode in other RPG’s, so not everything carries over from one continent to the next. Also, the developer is known for supporting their titles with updates and additional content over time, so you may have entirely new encounters as you push forward. (ed note: this article was based on the 1.006 release.)

The game’s narrative supports the overall openness of the game, which is to say that it’s not at all intrusive. The premise is that some disaster has befallen the world and caused multiple time periods to be smashed together. So medieval people and structures now occupy the same world as the modern era, robots from the far-flung future, and everything else in between. In this new wind-torn world of destruction and monsters, glyphbearers set out to rescue the survivors and rebuild the world and to help humanity find a place of their own in a valley without wind. There are a handful of story bits to be uncovered on your journey, but they are largely optional.

Another part of the gameplay comes in developing your settlement, and you have the option to construct different kinds of buildings. Rescue the appropriate people from different time periods, set them up in buildings that supports their skills, and you’ll gain bonuses, such as the construction of new buildings on the world map and better buffs.

The game also features a multiplayer mode, allowing players to work cooperatively toward the goals of building settlements and defeating the monsters of the land. You have the option of working directly with other players (although enemy difficulty scales based on the number of players), or to set out on your own to work toward completing the overall goals. Health and loot drops are handled fairly (each player gets the pickup without removing it for other players) to prevent players from having to figure out a fair distribution system or worry about other players grabbing all the good stuff.

A Valley Without Wind was developed by Arcen Games, a company founded and owned by Chris Park, who acts as the lead programmer and lead designer for the studio. The company was founded in 2009 and is technically based in North Carolina, although most of the studio members are spread across North America.

Given the nature of their games (open and ever-expanding), the studio relies heavily on player feedback and actively participates in conversations with their own gaming community. This has helped to steer beta versions into final products and to informed the content of DLC and expansion packs. They also focus specifically on developing 2D games.

AI War: Fleet Command
Arcen Games got its start with AI War: Fleet Command, a title that they have continued to support with expansion packs since its original 2009 release. In AI War, you take command of the last surviving bits of humanity as they orbit around their desolated home world, destroyed in a battle against an artificial intelligence that controls the known universe. You must use strategy to slowly and quietly destroy a vastly superior enemy whose forces far outnumber your own. By stealing and researching enemy technology, gathering raw materials, building up your fleet, and slowly expanding outward, you may be able to save humanity… or be crushed entirely.

AI War is primarily an RTS, although it has some ingredients of empire management and tower defense games as well, as you grow and defend your base of operations. Here again, things are procedurally generated, allowing for a tremendous variety to the world map, campaigns, and customizations to your own forces. As with many games of this sort, resource management is key, although the player is free to automate a number of things to allow him to place his focus on more long-term strategies rather than micromanagement, if he so desires. The player also controls the speed in which battles unfold allowing him to make the game more action-based, or slowing things down to play everything from a more strategic standpoint.

Battles range from small skirmishes to huge fleet vs. fleet battles as you make your way outward into the rest of the universe to overthrow the AI. As you grow outward and expand your rebellion into other planetary systems, the AI begins to see you as more of a threat and will start sending more scouts and more heavily fortified ships. If they see you as a full-blown threat, they’ll send thousands of ships up against you, potentially bringing about your fantastic end as you frantically attempt to fortify yourself against an all-out attack. You can also team up with some friends to take down the AI in cooperative online play.

Arcen Games also developed a puzzle game called Tidalis, which released in 2010. The game features colored blocks marked with arrows, and the player must use the mouse to drag a path along the arrows to set up chain reactions across blocks of the same color, thus clearing them from the screen.

In what has proven to be Arcen’s trademark, the game has a great deal of customization, allowing experienced puzzle fans to opt for strict time-based modes or more complex challenges, or allow neophytes to pick a mode that allows for a more laid back casual experience. There are over 20 different game styles to choose from, to allow for a variety of play styles. Players can also play cooperatively or competitively in local or online multiplayer.