After a full day of slaying monsters, plundering caverns, helping villagers, and performing the various deeds of a hero, you retire to a local settlement to see what your hard work has wrought. Perusing your inventory, you find an assortment of materials and items gathered from across the countryside. It's a modest windfall considering the hours of effort logged, and the few enhancements have such a nominal impact that you barely notice their effects. Sadly, the manner by which you acquired these slight rewards is a blur of repetitive sequences. Malevolent orbs and stalking robots crashed by the dozens at your feet, with no major battles punctuating these encounters. And so goes A Valley Without Wind, a mechanically sound game that fails to deliver the proper motivation to keep you grinding through this tiresome adventure.
The world is in ruins. Monsters from across time and space have been thrust together, and all wish to perform acts of harm on the peaceful citizens of Environ. Enter the glyphbearers. These mysterious warriors are sworn to protect their decaying realm. Perma-death ensures that each hero has but one life to give for his land, so when your last point of health fades into the ether, your spirit flies from the dying glyphbearer on the ground to a stronger person waiting in the wings. It's a concept that should keep battles intense, because one false move could mean the end of the character you spent so much time developing. But because you keep most of your possessions after you pass away, and the threats are usually so slight as to be rendered inconsequential, this seemingly punishing death system amounts to little more than a slap on the wrist when you succumb to a great beast.
Though a perfunctory story outlines the basic plot of A Valley Without Wind, the details unfold through your journey. Wild rhinoceroses and screaming eagles tear through abandoned homes, giving you a glimpse of the city as it used to be before chaos moved in. Disorder rules the various buildings you enter. Cracked walls and destroyed rooms are constant reminders of the decay creeping over the land, but it's the oppressive desolation that hits the hardest. Kitchens, bathrooms, and other recognizable rooms fill buildings, though they remain empty. No longer can cooks be found stewing broth or their patrons dining, and loneliness specific to wide-open rooms devoid of life hammers home how horrible things have gone in Environ.
A Valley Without Wind is a side-scrolling platformer with higher aspirations than running and jumping. There's material to gather, errands to run, and bosses to hunt down, and the procedurally generated world lets you go about these various tasks in whatever manner you wish. Open-ended objectives give you the freedom to focus on whatever aspect most catches your eye, so if you're intent on crafting more powerful spells or stalking bosses, there's nothing stopping you from diving right in. Such flexibility sounds overwhelming, and the early moments do require you to read pages of instructions to get a handle on what lies ahead. But once you get the basics down, it's so straightforward that you wonder how you could ever have been confused. Freedom is no substitute for depth, and it's woefully apparent once the training wheels come off just how shallow this valley is.
Combat commits the transgression of having bountiful options rather than genuine depth. Spells that span every elemental discipline you can imagine fill your inventory, making you think that you have to use each of these powers to attack the various enemies who confront you. So you test the ice and entropy spells, see how your earth-based attack feels, practice switching from light to fire magic on the fly, and make sure all of these spells are in easy reach in the heat of combat. Then an enemy rushes toward you and all of that preperation become inconsequential. Using just two or three spells (of the dozens you unlock), you tear through almost every enemy with ease. Just hover your mouse on a foe, cast your might by clicking, and watch it perish before your eyes. Sometimes, a warning that your enemies are immune to that element appears, and then you just switch to your backup spell and vanquish them in a flash. With little opposition, you certainly feel like the hero Environ needs, though your scrap-paper enemies topple so easily that any satisfaction is stripped away.
Quests are just as predictable. Continents are home to terrible bosses who hold the citizenry as if in a police state, and your main duty is to kill them all. So you travel through luminescent caverns and dusty hovels searching for foes who could offer serious opposition, only to find bigger versions of the same pushovers you've already murdered by the dozens. Sure, bosses may take 20 hits to kill rather than four, but their slow-moving attacks are so easy to dodge that you rarely feel as if your life is in danger. Difficulty does surface when you venture to higher-level areas, though it doesn't raise high enough to make you use the many tools you acquire. You jump around to avoid attacks, place platforms to strike from above, and tap away with your magical spells, all while keeping your life bar in an almost full state.
Although quests rarely demand more of you than killing creeping enemies, the objectives offer some variety. One quest involves killing anachronistic creatures while keeping those who belong in the time period alive. Trying to figure out which ghoulie is thematically correct and which isn't takes a bit of guesswork, but it's a silly diversion from your normal task of killing everything that moves. In another mission, meteors rain down from the sky, and you have to protect crates at ground level. Running from one pile of precious crates to another, staving off attacks from above while avoiding getting hit, adds some intensity to the stale encounters that make up the majority of your adventure. Although neither of these missions is great, they provide a hint of diversity to keep you pushing along, striving to find an entertaining activity amid the dreary repetition.
It doesn't become apparent how shallow this game is until many hours into your journey. This is in part because of the tutorial in the beginning that makes you think that every bit of minutia is important, but it's also because the core action is enjoyable. Yes, enemies rarely offer a challenge, but there's inherent enjoyment in exploring caves for hidden loot and shooting eagles out of the sky. It's easy to sink hours into this adventure in a single cavern. Unexplored areas seem to exist through every door you enter, so you dutifully roam from one section to another, collecting treasure while slaying any beast who bares its teeth. There's a dreamy rhythm where hours pass by in a heartbeat, so though there's little tangible progress, you collect enough odds and ends to give you a purpose.
And there are so many collectibles that those compelled by shiny objects can't keep themselves from scouring every unchecked cranny. Glowing orbs imbue your character with extra power. Leveling up your health, power, and magic gives you tangible rewards and makes killing enemies that much easier. These stats are the only thing you lose when you perish, and though it's a setback, it's not that big of a hurdle to overcome. Upgrade orbs are plentiful, so you can regain your might rather quickly. Other collectibles are permanent. Accessories give you new abilities, such as a double jump or a light-emitting torso, and though these additions aren't drastic, they're big enough to keep you focused. It's only after a dozen or so hours of going on the same quests with the same limited upgrades that you realize that A Valley Without Wind isn't giving adequate compensation for all your hard work.
The lack of interesting rewards is compounded by rambling level design. A Valley Without Wind is procedurally generated, so the world is different whenever you start a new adventure. In theory, this adds limitless replay value because no two journeys are alike. In reality, the sprawling levels lack the diversity and intricacies that could have made them fun to explore. Places look so similar that it's easy to get lost, and the poorly designed map adds to this burden. Finding your way out of a cave is no easy task, even using the warp points, so you wander from one similar-looking environment to the next, until you contemplate sacrificing your character's life just so you can leave this stage before your sanity flees.
For those lonely travelers who want a heroic pal by their side, cooperative multiplayer gives you the option to team up with other glyphbearers. Unfortunately, it's tricky to find where other players are in the massive world, so joining forces with a friend isn't as seamless as you might expect. But multiplayer is just one more option in a game that's already overflowing with choice. The problem lies not in how many things you can do, but in how compelling they are, and this game comes up well short in that regard. A Valley Without Wind is a time sink in all the wrong ways, a grind without reward.