The Vale: Shadow of the Crown by developer Falling Squirrel Inc. and publishers Falling Squirrel Inc. and Creative Bytes Studios—Microsoft Xbox Series X review written by Pierre-Yves with a copy provided by the publisher.
Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
There are certain titles out in the world that can only be described as an experience. Coming from developer and publisher Falling Squirrel Inc., The Vale: Shadow of the Crown is one such title as you’ll be exploring a medieval world with nothing more than the sounds of the world as your guide.
Blind from birth, you’ll be helping to guide our protagonist Alex home after her escort was ambushed by an invading horde as she was on her way to her new home after her brother ascended to his crown. Second-born, blind, and wanting to give her more than he had, Alex’s uncle found a place that could be hers but unfortunately with tragedy striking and having no idea where this place is, Alex turns around to where they traveled from to make a five hundred mile journey home with nothing more than the clothes on her back and the blade from a dead soldier that she stumbled upon in her hand.
The Vale from the very beginning is different from anything that I’ve ever sat down to as there is next to nothing to see past the opening credits of the developer, publisher and of the main menu. From this point, just about everything short of a map and particle effects is audio only with clear, crisp enunciations and sound effects that are only heightened by the fact that there’s nothing else for you to see as you begin to help guide Alex home. Playing with your eyes closed, the television off, or with a blindfold, each of these and a VERY good pair of headphones will almost be necessary as you’ll want to cut out any other noise source such as fans, cars driving by, air conditioning units or cats complaining that food time is still an hour away.
Starting out alone and with nothing more than a blade, Alex soon comes across a wounded shepherd running from the invading horde that caused this whole adventure for her in the first place. After taking out those that would have killed her and then the shepherd outright, Alex promises the shepherd an almost immeasurable reward if he can help to bring her home. Setting out together, you’ll soon have to make choices for the now party of two as one has an injury and the other can only go by what she hears in the world.
Not being able to see anything as you move about the world is an interesting concept that was very well detailed from the side of the developer. Set up in a form of situations that will follow each other from being out of the road to being inside of town or a cave, the space that you can move about is generally contained to the task at hand. This lets you only have to worry about what’s around you as you could also easily be attacked at a moment’s notice. Sounds of running water, the ring of a smith’s hammer on the anvil, a herbalist calling out, the buzzing of bees, each of these is honed in on will help guide you forward.
Having these almost bite sized areas alleviated what would have been my biggest worry and question going into this. How do you find your way forward when you can’t see and you yourself have never had to live a day in those shoes? Where do you even start? So it’s with this in mind that you are almost hand held through the early parts of the adventure as you are guided to how to move around, how to interact and most importantly for this adventure, how to fight and defend yourselves as Alex will unfortunately often have to draw steel.
On that note, combat while simplistic in its approach steadily gets more complicated as you add in more and more “noise”. While Alex has been trained to listen for particular sounds, eventually there will be more than you know how to deal with as the odds are you’ve never been in these shoes. The sound of one set of feet crunching on the ground quickly becomes many alongside the sounds of creaking armor as someone heads in for a swing. Add in the sound of whistling arrows and the variety of attacks to block and I wouldn’t blame someone for falling the first few times. It’s very well done, but it’s not easy and that I believe was the point.
For combat itself, you’ll be navigating both your left and right thumb sticks. The left stick controls your Shield whether it be protecting you from a centered, left or right position while the right thumbstick does the same but for your sword. Being the best way of defense, your Shield will often allow you to parry an enemy’s attack leaving you an opening to strike back. You can of course strike first however as you get more and more enemies involved it was usually better to turtle a bit and return strikes instead of striking first.
It works very well and I often found myself closing my eyes to concentrate on nothing more than the sounds around me. If there is perhaps one thing that would have made everything so much more complicated, and would have been more realistic, it would have been to have sounds coming from behind you and have to worry about protecting yourself from behind. On that note though, I’m happy I only had to worry about the absolute positions of center, left and right.
While combat is a big part of the experience, it really comes down to everything that has been perfectly described from items in the inventory and items in the main settings to the conversations that Alex will have with others. Alex has never seen what the world looks like so the concept of color is lost when the shepherd was trying to describe what a hill looks like at sunset. Just that alone is something we probably also never even considered as we do take our sight for granted most days. So it’s with this, the lengthy descriptions of the items in Alex’s inventory, and referring to portions of the controller as what they are and not “A” “X” “Y” but left sticks and triggers that can easily allow someone without their sight to sit down and enjoy The Vale as it’s an adventure that takes visual disabilities to the forefront of the thought process.
As a side note, having used assistive software such as JAWS and NV Access (NonVisual Desktop Access) to check various accessibility aspects of HTML and forms, I found myself blown away at the level of clarity that the narrator had in describing everything. I had an idea of what to expect based off of previous tools designed to aid those with visual disabilities but what Falling Squirrel Inc. have done was simply incredible and adaptable as you move through menus from one item or system setting to another.
Overall, I can’t recommend Falling Squirrel Inc.’s The Vale: Shadow of the Crown enough. It’s more than just a video game, it’s an experience that blends in a real world issue with a well balanced gameplay system that just works. Well written and narrated story mixed with an easy to pick up yet hard to master combat system all while seeing nothing more than particle effects on a screen, it’s a reminder that there’s still so much more we can do for those with disabilities.Score: 8.75 / 10