The Vale: Shadow of The Crown is the first in-studio, full fledged game effort from Falling Squirrel. It plays like a videogame, it sounds like a videogame, but it isn’t.
How do you take a “videogame experience” and communicate it to someone who cannot see at all? Paste insists on the convention of “video games” as one word—videogames—something I’ve always bristled at. But perhaps as billion dollar publishers and developers, console makers, and companies like NVIDIA push fancier and more expensive graphics every minute, it’s no longer appropriate to separate the two. Videogames, a discrete class where the game is itself inseparable from the urgency of the visual transmission.
The Vale has only the most cursory connection to “video” and then almost purely as a kindness to sighted players. The kneejerk response to “a videogame without graphics” is obviously a text adventure, but that would be wrong. While it certainly borrows ideas from text adventures, and video-driven videogames themselves, The Vale has far more in common with radio plays. This is an interactive audio drama.
An audiogame. It’s not the first, it’s not the only. But it’s one that delivers an experience in line with big RPG/Adventure titles like Skyrim or The Witcher. And while it might not be the AAA of games for the blind and visually impaired, it might just kick AAA asses into understanding there is both a market for games that cater to these players, and also that there are ways to bake accessibility into existing games that are designed around sighted players.
The premise is simple, almost rote. Like videogames in the genre, The Vale rises up from roots buried deep in early tabletop role playing games. You play Alex (second born, a woman, and blind—which in medieval inheritance terms is a losing ticket), a princess sent to the borderlands to rule over a small keep. You arrive just as the nomadic barbarians who haven’t been a problem previously decide to sweep in and sack the entire kingdom. So much for a quiet, out-of-the-way life. Without aid, and low on resources, Alex sets out on her journey back to the kingdom’s seat of power she had just been turned away from.
It’s a charming duet campaign. And for much of it, I was reminded of the time in the early ‘90s when my stepfather picked up one of those Dungeons & Dragons starter sets at the local game store, and spent a rainy weekend running me through a packed-in duet campaign. There’s a great deal of charm, and a game that is in some ways an extremely advanced proof of concept—an ideal way to show off just how successful the mechanics of play can be, without bodying players by way of narrative complication.
This is a medieval ass fantasy campaign. Trek across a medieval European landscape going from town to town meeting people (and what a variety of accents you’ll meet!) and helping them out, fending them off, and sometimes encountering the supernatural. A classic hero’s quest for a blind girl, nothing more, nothing less. And it works because it understands how audio drama works in a way that AAA studios still chasing “cinematic games” don’t.
Where videogames most frequently pull their influence from the theater’s stage, The Vale draws upon the radio drama’s recording booth. It’s a meaningful distinction, because both build the imaginary space for participants in similar but distinct ways. As with theatrical dramatic performance, the goal of radio drama isn’t a pure 1:1 simulation of the real world; instead it’s communicating narrative and theme through sound. Place, movement, and action that must usually be seen is rendered as foley or converted into expository dialogue. Crucial thematic motifs and narratively important visual signifiers are similarly metamorphosed into sounds that may be more prominent than their “real world” counterpart would suggest. Which isn’t to say other games don’t do this (they do) but the attention here, as well as the criticality of getting it exact, is the focus.
In order to be successful, The Vale needs to nail its sound design and its sound reproduction—and it does.
Navigating the world of The Vale in combat is often a straightforward affair. Once you know what you’re fighting and the sounds it makes, there’s little in the way to obfuscate them. A barbarian with an axe is going to dominate the soundstage of a nighttime forest.
Navigating a bustling medieval village (or city) is fundamentally different and much more challenging. In the natural spaces of The Vale sounds are free to present clearly, but in cities and towns they slam into buildings and fracture, butting up against one another. The town crier’s voice is drowned out by the voracious babble of rowdy tavern patrons spilling out onto the street like the town drunkard’s ale. The blacksmith’s hammer will pierce clearly through the dense and warm earth tones of people and animals, but fences with the klaxon of church bell.
The quaint village is every bit as loud as a raucous battlefield when you’re trying to find your way back home. Moving about the towns you’ll encounter is not as straightforward a premise as you’d expect, or as it is in other visual-driven games. And it’s a poignant reminder of just how chaotic, loud, and frustrating civilization can be.
Except for the combat. The combat doesn’t just work. The Vale’s combat absolutely shreds.
What is probably a complex scaffolding of positional audio technology and AI scripting becomes a simple affair of gestures, with the right stick controlling your shield and the left your weapon. Hold in a direction to block in that direction, flick in a direction to attack. You can swing multiple times and block and attack in nearly simultaneous actions (a skill you’ll need to master to survive). Obviously with both thumbsticks spoken for, positionality halts. Combat is a ballet that happens around the player. Every fight becomes a circular arena of clashing steel and limbs and teeth. Strangely it never gets boring. The sense of movement comes through in the soundscape and use of audio rather than spatial appearance. The clink of armor, the scattering of dirt, howls and growls, and whooshing are the only guides to enemy position. Hear a sound and launch a combo of blade strikes in that direction until you hear wet sounds, and then silence. Alex starts out with just a broken sword and some clothes, but doing quests and travel will open up both new and more diverse blacksmith wares and the means to buy them. This is, after all, an RPG and weapons have stats and these affect the drama and outcome of your melees. I spent most of my playthrough as a speedy fighter, but I did have fun going toe to toe with a possessed bear while wielding a heavy axe. The builds aren’t as dramatic or involved as other combat heavy RPGs, but it’s capable of communicating the limited variety it does have. Besides, developing a pure-audio combat system that can stand its ground with AAA videogame combat is a tall order, and many of the fights in The Vale are nearly as satisfying as your first solo kill on Ornstein & Smough. And for players who haven’t previously had access to the kind of fantasy action combat that Dark Souls or Dragon’s Dogma offer, The Vale delivers a similar top-tier experience in a purely sonic package. That’s a colossal achievement, and for sighted players it’s novel enough to be genuinely refreshing. It’s also a proof of concept to the larger commercial games industry—these are games worth making, and the ideas and experimentations in The Vale need to be explored and expanded upon in the same way that The Vale has explored and expanded on the ideas that came before it.
And perhaps that’s enough for one game to achieve. There’s part of me that wishes The Vale leaned into more than just the combat and some light positional audio navigation puzzles. What it does, it does well, and it leaves open a path forward where complex narrative structures are explored (The Vale has some branching, but like early D&D adventure modules, it’s fairly on the rails), or the simple puzzle forms are complicated and expanded. There’s plenty of overhead to play with new forms of audio puzzles entirely. And while I wished some of that was in this game itself, perhaps leaving space for the next game is crucial—experimentation should never be final or definitive. But for now, Falling Squirrel has crafted a brilliant next step with The Vale.
The Vale: Shadow of the Crown was developed by Falling Squirrel and Creative Bytes Studios and published by Falling Squirrel. It is available for PC.
Dia Lacina is a queer indigenous writer and photographer. She tweets too much at @dialacina.