Review: Valdis Story – Abyssal City (** stars) (Part 1)

Valdis Story is best described as a wonderful Godiva chocolate treat with what I’d call a “non-traditional” creamy filling of the same color, if you get what I mean. It looks absolutely wonderful, and several people clearly poured a ton of passion into the excellent mood-setting music and animation, but biting into this treat gives you the sense that something went wrong in production when the mechanics bother to come into play. In other words: this is the kind of game an art student with a passion for Metroidvanias would make, and that isn’t necessarily a good thing!

Yes, Valdis Story looks amazing. I would call it “Atlantean” in its strange use of an underwater city, but man does it look pretty. The music, which often goes for understated piano lines, adds to this sense of a lost city hidden underneath the waves. It’s truly a marvel to look at, not to mention the 2D animation for everything looks fantastic and distinctive. I think they were trying for a middle ground between Western and Eastern animation styles, and while the portraits seem slightly funky, the actual in-game sprites perform wonderfully for the entire experience. I can’t imagine a single person giving Valdis Story a negative rating based on the delicious visual presentation.

Unfortunately, these elements also act as a deception, a less-than-accurate harbinger for the true content within. You see, Valdis Story appears as if it will provide you with all the Metroidvania goodness you could possibly want. It contains a world map, exploration and progression, basic 2D-action combat, and all the bizarre RPG tweaking you could want. Plenty of hidden treasures exist on the map, and all of them will augment your character in some way, shape, or vein. Progress, blocked by a ledge that sits just out of range, will eventually become a location you can reach. And yet, somehow, none of these elements feel as if they were designed with any of the others in mind. They threw in every but the kitchen sink, and then threw that in when they found there just wasn’t enough. The business of the whole thing becomes pretty striking when you realize how jarring it all becomes in practice.

The game immediately presents you with a very JRPG-esque convoluted story that gets more convoluted as things progress, and I honestly could not understand a lick of what anyone meant when referring to gods, angels, demons, false gods, wars above, and all that other stuff. Context, in a word, is completely missing from the whole experience. Symphony of the Night, though also in a similar fantasy genre, makes the objectives clear and simple: kill the things, progress, find more things to progress. Being Dracula’s human-borne son and putting a stop to him remains a pretty compelling objective, and the Richter Belmont sidestory adds a lot to the experience. Simple enough!

Even Strider’s new reboot just pretty much tells you your objective – kill this or that, get this ability or key – and then you go there. Valdis Story provides helpful tips like “Go West of Hrukk”, but where is Hrukk? Why must all the places have silly names? Why must it be so confusing to find out where I’m going? Since the story makes no sense to the normal person, you’ll struggle to know your objectives and where to go. But, then again, you do really need to go there or the game will not move forward. You do not lose your way through intentional, understated means like most games of this ilk; Valdis Story’s bizarre lore utterly fails at providing effective conveyance for the vast majority of its audience, producing myriad frustrations in its wake.

valdisstory1

I secretly hate reviewing games that produce high expectations…

That is because, weirdly enough, Valdis Story really isn’t a Metroidvania in form; the whole entire experience, as far as I played, is totally linear, and you must progress in a specific order due to the “story”. Because of this, specific directions mean everything; you can wander into other areas, sometimes, but be prepared for frustration as enemies kill you repeatedly. Wandering into high-level areas with no chance of survival happens a lot!  Since the game re-uses the same enemy models repeatedly with palette swaps galore, you will feel there’s no rhyme or reason behind one similar enemy killing you rather than another. Valdis Story supposedly encourages exploration, but only in terms of genre expectations, not in reality. Enemies level up with you, so there’s really no sense that you’re becoming more powerful either in already-traversed sections – by balancing the game, it makes it far less interesting. Just because Skyrim did something, that doesn’t mean it will work in a Metroidvania game.

That comes to the fore further by a lack of interesting items to collect and similar looking environments. I tried to obtain some of the hidden items early on in the game, and my only reward came in the form of crafting materials – whoopee! The problem with this comes twofold: first, that obtaining stuff in Metroidvania complements the difficulty of the task on hand, and two, crafting stuff presents a delayed gratification. Most games in this style always give you something cool for going out of your way; Valdis Story forces you to solve a time based puzzle with locks, keys, and precision platforming to get it, and then you obtain a Steel Bar. Oh boy, this will have no tangible effect on me for hours!

That goes further into the “RPG” and “skill tree” segments of the game. Any time you level up, you obtain one stat point to place in Strength, Agility, Intelligence, or Luck, and one Skill point to place in one of three trees of character development. In general (note: I just played with Wyatt, the “beginner” character), your character builds falls into the traditional archetypes of attackers, defender, and magician, along with the associated play styles you have come to expect. Unfortunately, picking up stat boosts and tinkering remains pretty boring here; Valdis Story often emphasizes its action elements over its RPG elements, so minor stat boosts amount to a whole lot of intangibles when you get right down to it. They don’t provide enough of an impact to excite a player’s leveling process, and that’s a shame.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.