PAX West 2019 Hands-on: The Vale

How do you make a game stand out from the pack? What is it that you’re going to do to differentiate yourself from the hundreds of titles released every year? What kind of gimmick are you going to use?

For many, this means adding something unique to draw consumer attention. Adding a physical instrument peripheral to a rhythm game. Adding an emotional story to a side-scroller. Maybe even adding bugs and glitches to a well-loved series (hey, not everything gets attention for positive reasons).

But what about removing something? Taking away an aspect of a game that people have come to expect as a basic part of the medium? For studio Falling Squirrel, the portion they decided to take away is one that’s so core to video games that it’s right there in the term: “video.”

Their project is a video game that does not use graphics; the game is purely auditory.

The Vale puts you in the shoes of a young woman who is apparently the daughter of a king of some medieval country. You, however, are blind, but have still been trained in swordplay and defense despite your handicap. The demo I played didn’t get too deep into the story, instead focusing on various tutorials and demo sequences to show off the details of the game.

Through the various demo sequences, I was introduced to swordplay, defense with shields, and archery, all presented exclusively through audio. The Vale makes heavy use of 3D sound and it’s done incredibly well. It was easy enough to tell when someone was speaking to me from my left, or if an attack was incoming from my right. The flanks are easy enough to create in 3D sound, but differentiating between forward and back is a bit more difficult, something which the game dodged by never having an attack coming in from behind me.

Most of the game is controlled by tapping or holding the thumbsticks of a controller in various directions. Hear a heavy attack coming in from your right? Hold one thumbstick in that direction to block it with your shield, then swipe quickly in the same direction with the other to strike back.

Learning the basics kind of felt like playing a game of Simon Says…until I was thrust into a real battle experience in a later demo situation. Bandits have surrounded me and are attacking swiftly. Having to figure out where each attack is coming from, what kind of attack it is, remembering what I have to do, and executing it is much more difficult than the tutorials led me to believe. The game didn’t go easy either; while no attacks came from two directions at the same time, they often came in such quick succession that was easy to lose track if I didn’t really focus.

Archery and town navigation made even stronger use of 3D sound, as you are actually using that sound to navigate and aim your attacks, rather than just reacting to sounds coming at you. These portions took a hell of a lot more focus on the audio, archery in particular. To successfully hit a target, it has to be directly in front of you, which was difficult to gauge for me.

The Vale is certainly an intriguing experiment. The developers with me for the demo told me that the game will be a full-length experience with everything you’d expect from an RPG, from dialogue to exploration, just presented completely through audio. It’s a lofty goal, and it’s certainly a great stride in creating games for visual impaired players. My only worry is that those outside of said audience will see the game as…well, gimmicky.

Either way, The Vale definitely wins my award for most interesting game shown at PAX West. I truly look forward to going hands-on with the full release and seeing what kind of story they weave, as well as how far they can push this idea of audio gameplay.

Game art courtesy of Falling Squirrel.