In recent times we have lauded over games that explore the visual storytelling world; experiences that have been capable of telling stories through the visuals rather than via any voice-over or cutscenes. Games like Journey and Inside have been the flag bearers for this genre. But, as far as I’m aware, there has not yet been a game that has flipped things so much that it has been totally focused on the audio storytelling – a game without the visuals. Well, that was until now as The Vale: Shadow of the Crown has arrived on the scene. A game that is totally accessible to the blind and visually impaired, yet still manages to be wholly enjoyable for those with full visual ability. So listen carefully as the story begins…
One thing that should be of note ahead of anything else is that The Vale requires you to have some decent headphones to hand, ensuring you are able to play the game and make the most of the multi-directional sound that is an integral part of the gameplay throughout.
It’s the story and immersive world that draws you in, putting you in the shoes of a medieval princess; one who is blind from birth. At the start of the game you find yourself in your carriage, en route to the castle, with your beloved uncle in tow. The convoy is attacked and very soon you are left alone in this strange and dangerous world with just your keen hearing as your ally.
It’s not long before The Vale: Shadow of the Crown whisks you off on your own, exploring wolf-infested woods and towns filled with friends and bandits. You meet a shepherd who becomes your friend and ally in your journey to try and get back home. However, you have no money or items to hand so you both accept quests to build up your supplies, amour, and weaponry. Without wishing to spoil what happens, the story is excellent and the writing is, quite frankly, magnificent. It has almost made me feel like I was listening to, yet starring in, a radio play. The characters are well-developed and every encounter along the journey of The Vale is a narrative treat.
The gameplay is ingenious and works incredibly well. There are audio instructions from the menus onwards, as things are read out so you can select which option you are highlighting. When you start the game you will then find yourself using a combination of listening and timing in order to be successful. For example, in the initial stages your character will mention that she is lost and that she needs to head towards the river. It’s up to you to listen carefully through your headphones, moving the directional stick around as you lock in to the point where you can hear water. When the sound is coming from the middle or directly in front of you that’s the direction you need to move forwards on.
When you are in a busy town or village it becomes hectic in regards to noises and voices to target, but that also demonstrates how clever the sound design is. You might hear a clink of an anvil and hammer – head towards it and you’re at a blacksmiths. Some lute music is playing and so should you head towards that, you’ll find yourself at the local inn. Someone is shouting about furs and very soon you’ll be chatting with a trader. It’s fascinating to play and credit must go out to the team behind it for creating such an immersive world.
As well as exploration you have combat to get involved in; fighting and defending against enemies with the use of sword and shield. You also get access to a bow and arrow a bit later on too. It’s here where flashbacks to your younger days come in, leaving you with your uncle as you are taken through a kind of tutorial, teaching the basics of fighting. In combat, it’s all about listening for the enemy attacks, mostly through movement or vocal grunts. When you feel they are about to strike you have a couple of options – you can push up on the right stick and hit them before they hit you. When you get a shield you can defend their strikes when you hear them scream their attack, all by pushing up on the left stick to defend. Push up on the shield, blocking, and then attacking will give you a counter-attack, whilst pulling back on the right stick will action your heavy attack. But that will cost stamina. It’s a great system; one that is terrifying yet able to connect you to the battle itself more than any Souls game ever could. It all gets pretty tricky as well, especially in the later levels.
And yes, I’ve got this far without mentioning any visuals, and that’s because they are extremely minimal. In fact, after the menu screen, your playthrough of The Vale is covered with small, yet colourful shapes. Sometimes they are static, yet when you move, they shift too. However, it’s obviously the audio that is the main hero here and thankfully that is excellent throughout. The multi-directional recording and implementation works wonderfully well, creating a world that is totally believable; so much so that you can almost touch and taste it. The voice-over work itself is just as immense, with everything brilliantly executed from the lead characters to the bit-part players you meet on this journey.
The Vale: Shadow of the Crown is utterly unique but it’s one of those games you just have to take a chance on. If I had one criticism it is that there are maybe too many fighting sections and not enough in terms of exploration. But overall this is a brilliant experience and something that any player will remember for a long time to come.
Take in an entirely new experience on Xbox Series X|S and Xbox One with The Vale: Shadow of the Crown