The Vale: Shadow of the Crown Review
by Karl Belanger
The Vale: Shadow of the Crown is a new game just released for Windows PC and Xbox consoles. You play as Alex, a blind princess, who has just been shipped off to a rural castle 500 miles away. However, things don’t go as planned, as her carriage is attacked by raiders just short of their destination. After waking up alone in the wreckage of the carriage, with her escort dead or driven off, she must make her way through five hundred miles of wilderness and through an invading army to get back home. Along the way, she’ll battle wild animals and soldiers, meet several companions, and maybe even learn a bit of magic. The game is played using audio queues for navigation, interaction and combat, and there are minimal visuals. The Vale is heavily story focused and has some light RPG elements.
Getting the Game
The Vale is available for both Windows and Xbox consoles. On PC, you can buy the game through Steam or Itch.io. On Xbox, you can download it through the Xbox store. Wherever you get the game from, the price is $19.99 USD.
The Vale is available for Windows computers, via the Steam or Itch.io stores, and for Xbox consoles. The game costs $19.99. Either way, once you buy the game, it will download and you launch it. Once you launch the game, you will receive a prompt to press spacebar (for keyboard users) or start (for controller users), and will then be presented with the main menu. From here, you can start a new game, continue game in progress, play game tutorials, change options, view the credits, or quit. The game options are fairly minimal, including game difficulty, volume, and whether instructions are given for controller or keyboard. The tutorials option will not show up initially, but once you’ve completed a tutorial in the game you can revisit it here.
The Vale Gameplay
When starting a new game, you will be asked to choose a difficulty from casual, normal, or hard. As mentioned previously, you can change this at any time in the settings. Next, the opening scenes will play, and you’re off.
You will frequently be walking around wilderness, battlefields, villages, and more. If using a keyboard, you use the W, A, S, and D keys to walk in a direction, and the left and right arrows to turn. If you’re using a controller, you use the left and right sticks respectively. You will generally interact with things as you walk up to them, and can use the Spacebar or right trigger to accept quests, buy items, etc., or the Alt key or left trigger to decline.
There will be many opportunities for combat as you travel. You fight with a sword and shield. Use the W, A, S, and D keys to position your shield to block an enemy attack, then use the arrows to attack in that direction. As with moving, you can also use the left and right sticks on a controller. You will often be facing multiple enemies, along with incoming arrows, and other projectiles, so it’s important to stay sharp and pay attention to what is going on.
On the casual difficulty level, enemy patterns are, for the most part, predictable and enemies have rather low health. Whereas on hard, enemies attack faster, hit harder, and have more health. There are also a number of areas where you can either shoot arrows at enemies, charge in, or navigate around them stealthily. This adds a nice bit of variety to the gameplay, but you don’t get much variation in story or dialog depending on how you complete the objective.
The game is played almost exclusively using audio, but there are a few visual elements. There are visual indicators to help orient the player when walking around, as well as effects for rain or snow on the screen. This game doesn’t include subtitles, and while the audio-based nature of the game makes it not very accessible to someone who is hard of hearing, having subtitles could still be useful to people who don’t know English very well, or who are streaming the game.
The story is told through a series of audio cutscenes, mostly consisting of conversations between Alex, the main character, and her companion, the shepherd, or others. The story is fairly linear, with only a few points of divergence, but even so is very enjoyable and engaging.
Princess Alexandra’s father has just died and her brother, Theo, has assumed the crown. Alex is sent off to a castle on the border of the kingdom to live. Unfortunately, as they near the castle, a group of the Odedan horde, a large nomadic army, attacks the carriage. The carriage crashes, and Alex is ignored among the wreckage. After coming to, Alex finds a dead enemy soldier and takes his sword for defense. After fending off some wolves at the river, Alex begins walking back down the road, trying to find some semblance of civilization. She meets up with a man who just goes by “shepherd,” who agrees to help her get back east to Glades, the capital city of the kingdom. Their journey will take them through several villages, while fighting off horde, bandits, wolves, and worse along the way.
The game’s tutorials are given through flashbacks that Alex has at various points along her journey. For example, when the carriage crashes at the beginning of the game, she has a flashback to a time she fell down the stairs while chasing her brothers around. After a conversation with Theo, you walk around and learn the basics of attacking. Later flashbacks have Alex’s Uncle Ivor training her in the use of a sword, shield, and other techniques that the player can then use in combat. These flashbacks provide a neat way for the game to logically introduce controls and mechanics without disrupting the current flow of the story.
Throughout the game you will arrive at four different villages. These provide a place to upgrade equipment, collect information, and complete side quests for money or other benefits. Usually there will be some objective that must be completed in each village before you can move on, but there will always be several potential activities above and beyond the necessary ones. These can include clearing rats from an inn’s basement, defending a fur merchant, hunting, and a number of others. While it’s not necessary to do every quest, completing more of them will give you more of Alex’s backstory or more info about the world, and will let you buy more equipment with the money you gain.
Let me start off by saying I had a lot of fun with The Vale. Since I’ve been playing audio-based games for many years, the movement and combat were easy to pick up. Even though prior experience made most of the combat fairly straightforward, even on higher difficulties, there were still several deaths during my playthrough of the game. The engaging story and fun cast of characters kept things interesting as I guided Alex on her journey home. The branching choices added some variety and incentive to play back through the game. Unfortunately, I can’t get into many details without spoiling major plot points of the game, but the story definitely has its plot twists and emotional moments. The magic system, though straightforward, adds another dimension to the game. I won’t get into much detail on it since it comes up later in the game, but you have a choice between a spell which causes your weapon to do more damage with each strike and a burst spell that damages and stuns all enemies around you. Picking which spell to use and when adds just a bit more complexity and planning to combat. Overall, I quite enjoyed the experience and will certainly play through it again.
The Not So Good
Though there are several branching choices and optional quests, you always go right back to the main flow of the story. A branch might give you a different encounter, add some flavor text, or give you another piece of lore that you would otherwise miss, but that’s it. It would have been nice to see some choices that affected the larger narrative, leading to multiple endings.
Another gripe I have, which I expressed during testing, is that there is no way to skip scenes. Some of the cutscenes are several minutes long, and it can get a little tedious on your second or third playthrough to listen to the same conversation again and again. This sometimes can also be an issue after death, as the game restarts the encounter, including the scene leading up to it. Once you finish the game, the only replay options are to replay the story on the same difficulty and make different choices, or replay on a harder difficulty. While this does provide some replay value, some additional features like being able to skip to specific sections, play the music in the game, or even make a custom combat scenario would have added that nice extra touch for those who’ve completed The Vale.
The last issue I have is one that mostly applies to long-time gamers like myself. Even on hard, the combat can become a little formulaic. The basic block with your shield then swing to attack formula rarely varies, and even with multiple enemies it’s a little too easy for someone used to playing Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat by audio alone to get into a groove and just mop up the enemies. That said, I know The Vale is targeted at a wider audience, so I certainly understand why the combat was kept rather more restrained than I might prefer.
My Colleagues’ Impressions
I asked two of my colleagues to play a little bit of the game. Matt used to play video games, but has not played much since he lost his sight, and Kennedy is a sighted gamer. Both of them found the game easy to pick up. The controls were intuitive and they both enjoyed the little they did play.
The Vale is a fun and engaging story, with solid controls and gameplay. The voice and sound work is well done, and it all comes together quite nicely. While the game could do more to have a truly branching story, and a little more variety in the combat, those negatives do little to diminish an otherwise solid and enjoyable eight hours or so. I highly recommend giving this one a try.