What We Can Learn From Valdis Story
So I recently got and tried Valdis Story: Abyssal City. The reviews were really good, and it seemed really promising and exactly what I’d been after for a while. It’s an indie mentroidvania style action/rpg/platformer very much in the vein of Symphony of the Night and derivatives, with multiple playable characters, including ladies in practical clothes, it has great music and charming hand-drawn sprites and terrain elements that look lovely and bring to mind influences of Braid and Bastion among other things. But after playing for a while I was left frustrated, angry and with painful thumbs. Now, as a Games Dev it is part of my job to question and find an answer to why Valdis Story made me so irritated, and I’m going to lay out the problems here so hopefully games devs can all learn from them.
Pretty much every problem in Valdis Story stems from inefficient design and the designers thinking like fans of the Metroidvania genre instead of thinking like Games Designers. Let me list some:
-The heavy attack. It doesn’t need to be there. It is pointless. It doesn’t do significantly more damage than a normal attack and it interrupts your combos, but its worst crime is that it is taking up a valuable button that could be something else- which I’ll discuss later. Before you say “Oh well, some skill trees add extra effects to the heavy attack”, listen. There is nothing that heavy attack does that you couldn’t instead apply to the normal combos, or stick onto a jump attack or spell. It’s pointless. Somebody must have decided early in design that there should be a heavy attack because theoretically that sounds like a good idea, and there wasn’t an experienced designer there to critically look at it and realise it was useless.
-The dodging. It’s a nightmare. I gained the ability to dodge, woo! …but they set it and explain it as a “move cancel” I’m like…WTF is this some kind of complex fighting game?Just call it a dash or dodge! Worse, it’s not set to a button; it’s set to pressing down in the middle of a move. You have to kind of mash diagonally downward to dodge, often in a tiny window of opportunity. Hey you know what button could have been free for this? The heavy attack button which we’ve established is useless! Even other than that, double-tapping the direction would have been a nicer choice.
-Escaping a grab. Valdis Story has a lot of enemies and traps which will grab or bind you and must be escaped if that happens. Now, a sensible designer would have either the grab lasts X time, damages you then releases you automatically, or a mechanic where you mash attack or jump to escape. Valdis Story for some reason opted to have the means to escape be mashing back and forth on the d-pad/analogue stick. This is awful. It’s annoying, it’s uncomfortable, it breaks the flow of play. Take your thumb and wiggle it from side to side quickly for a moment for me. It’s awkward and uncomfortable, right? Imagine having to do that repeatedly. I can’t believe that not only they put this mechanic in, but they put in loads of enemies and traps capable of inflicting grabs that make the player have to do it. It’s awful!
-Platform or not? Sometimes in a town, you can stand on a roof. Sometimes you will see an identical roof which you cannot stand on. This is bad. Things that look like things you can stand on should always be things you can stand on. Anything that behaves differently should look different or, if it’s a trap, have at least some subtle clue an observant or experienced player would notice. If something is in the background and cannot be stood on, it should look like a background asset.
-Fast Travel and area planning. Hooooo boy. Okay. A Metroidvania game needs fast travel. You should be able to quickly revisit places you’ve been and backtracking should be an absolute no. Valdis Story is horribly designed in this respect. Areas are large and sprawling, the map is not clear on where you are or where you need to go or what any place is, fast travel is limited to a tram between the town areas, which are way too big and empty and spread out. Different towns have different shops, so you have to wander quite a distance and dick around a lot if you’re getting upgrades. Relatively early on you get a little base area for your friends to hang out, but the tram doesn’t go there!? You have to get a tram to that town, which only goes from other towns, then traverse that town, then walk through a dungeon to get to your library. What. The. Hell. The game desperately needs a teleport/fast travel mechanic and more places you can do it to.
-The magic system: Needlessly. Complicated. There are too many spells, too many of them do pretty much the same thing as other spells, there’s an element system that boils down to “micromanage your spells depending on what enemies are in the area you’re in and select ones that do basically the same thing but a different element”. I recently got a spell that creates a block of ice I can stand on. That’s great and all, but a utility ability I sometimes need outside battle shouldn’t be taking up a spell slot, it just means I have to micromanage equipping and un-equipping it. The same result could have been achieved by giving my character a double jump or making my ground stomps create an ice block, which would have been way more fun and smooth to play too! I imagine there’s a high likelihood I’ll get a double jump later, so they wanted to put in another utility skill that wasn’t quite a double jump but would let me get to some new areas; it wasn’t a great choice. In a good MV game, every ability should feel like an extension or uograde of the abilities you already have. “You can turn into a morphball now by pressing down!”, “You can double jump now by jumping when already in air!”, “you can super high jump by holding down and pressing jump!”, “You can hover/glide/fly by holding/mashing jump in air!”, “You can now air dash by pressing dodge in the air!”, “You can charge a hit by holding attack down until the character glows, then releasing!” These are all examples of smart implementation of mechanics to controls. Sometimes with the sheer number of buttons we have now, devs think they should use all the buttons, but in many cases, the fewer buttons you use and the more contextual the controls, the more intuitive the game is for the player.
I hope people understand that I’m not hating on the game itself here. It just happens to perfectly showcase a lot of classic games design issues. I’m pointing out errors we should all be mindful of. When making a game, you should always be think about whether a mechanic has become redundant because of new mechanics added in since or just the overall balance of the game, whether you’re making the player break up the gameplay by micromanaging too much, whether you’re making it quick and straightforward for them to get to the next interesting challenge by cutting out excessive backtracking through stuff they’ve seen and overcome already, and if you’re really using the control input efficiently. I really hope the people who made it put some work into fixing this stuff in their future games, as their group shows a lot of potential!