There are a lot of medieval high-fantasy games available on the market today. You’ll not be in want of role-playing power fantasies set in these worlds, the games of this genre seem to compete as to who could make the most realistic castles and dragons.
The Vale: Shadow of the Crown moves in the opposite direction. Developers Falling Squirrel has created an adventure starring a blind heroine destined for an incredible fate. Using detailed audio and game design informed by consultations with the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB), the game builds a ruthless and action-packed realm for you to immerse yourself into.
Story – A Tale We’ve Heard Before
You play as Alex, a princess of the royal family of the Glades, trained to be a capable warrior despite being blind from birth. As your brother Theo ascends to the crown due to the death of your father, you are headed to a peaceful life as a warden of a keep on the other side of the kingdom. The trip has gone awry due to an attack on your caravan, and you soon discover something’s amiss with the royal family’s plans.
The story in particular, especially its exposition, feels like your typical medieval high-fantasy fare. There’s nothing that is really different about the setting as compared to many games with a similar set-up. Throughout your journey, you will also be able to make decisions – which quests to take, which people to trust, and all kinds of smaller choices in between. Despite this, the game successfully builds a world and an atmosphere that effectively comes alive with excellent sound design.
I thoroughly enjoyed the writing in the game. Since you are mostly just listening to monologues and dialogues, the writing is appropriately succinct and descriptive, without being too overbearing. As Alex, you spend the most time with Shepherd and occasionally banter with him. I also enjoyed the flashbacks that made players learn about the close relationships within the royal family. Unfortunately, throughout the story, you will find that the protagonists themselves are one-dimensional in their goals and not much is revealed about themselves as people.
Alex keeps moving forward – she wants to help everyone on her journey, to defeat the ancient evil lurking in her kingdom – it’s clear that she is a good person, but there is little that characterizes her beyond that. It would have been nice to learn more about her thoughts, likes, and dislikes, especially since we hear her think and talk so much throughout the story.
Gameplay – Satisfying Clashes and Bashes
The Vale: Shadow of the Crown is not the first audio-reliant game in the market, but it feels as complex and engaging as many popular indie titles. You use a variety of weapons – swords, shields, axes, bows, and magic – to defend yourself and your party from the evils lurking on your journey.
The combat is straightforward but fun. You never really go all out on the offensive, given the advantage your enemies have over you, but this reactive style of fighting is refreshing and makes a lot of sense. Focusing on the sounds and trying to figure out how to respond becomes more complex because of the moves that you can do. While some people will find this passive and get bored of the straightforward encounters, others will also find the amount of concentration required and the feeling of pulling off clean blocks and counters satisfying.
Sound is so important to video games, but The Vale maximizes the use of audio in great gameplay moments. Listening closely to the direction of running water and pig noises provided a unique puzzle. I found myself wanting to sharpen my sense of hearing even more and closed my eyes during combat. The mistakes that I make during combat are clear to me, and I learned from making those errors, informing me of what I should do. Pulling off a proper block and counterattack with a well-leveled sword is really satisfying.
It did feel a little silly that bandits and wolves are attacking me one at a time – what honorable enemies! They begin to pile on you as the game progresses, and you will soon have an impressive arsenal in your hands. The combat feels really good, especially in the beginning where the amount of knowledge they space out feels like you are learning something naturally. But as the game goes on, there is less and less distinguishing each battle and they can start to feel like a drag.
Another thing I appreciated was the amount of care that was taken to help the player understand how the game works. While it’s simplistic, it also presents a genuine challenge. The game does allow you to adjust difficulty settings. It is a really engaging experience for both blind and able-sighted players, never offering a moment’s worth of frustration.
Audio and Graphics – For Your Ears Only
Take a break from games that want to turn your graphics card into a helicopter. Despite being a game that doesn’t rely on the latest graphics technologies, it actually feels like you are being transported to a different land, owing to the great sound design and voice acting performances. It’s a different kind of immersion to the typical magical medieval adventure.
One of the most striking things about The Vale is the quality of the voice acting, as well as the narration. It’s like a podcast drama with interactive sections. There is a lot of variety in the accents, allowing you to differentiate everyone you meet in the game and infer some characteristics and stories about them.
Perhaps rather than graphics, the game’s user interface should be discussed. It was great to be guided by a voiceover through the many sections of the game. These voiceovers never ran on too long and did their job perfectly without being grating. The instructions never became intrusive in the game, and successfully informs the player what they need to do in a straightforward manner. Perhaps there’s something other games can learn from the success of The Vale‘s accessibility and interface.
The Vale: Shadow of the Crown was reviewed on PC with a key provided by UberStrategist.