The Vale: Shadow of the Crown is an action-puzzle game developed by Flying Squirrel and Creative Bytes Studios, and published by Flying Squirrel Inc. Despite a few rough edges, The Vale: Shadow of the Crown offers one of the most unique video game experiences in recent memory, as the player explores a 3D world through sound alone.
The Vale: Shadow of the Crown stars a princess named Alex, in a vaguely medieval-Anglo-Saxon kingdom. Alex was born blind and was kept out of sight of the court, especially as her older brother was already being prepared for leadership. The game starts as she is being escorted by her uncle to a keep on the borderlands. Her caravan is attacked and Alex is left to fend for herself, with a 500-mile overland journey back to the capitol. Fortunately for Alex, her uncle had secretly been teaching her to fight, by responding to the sounds made by her enemy. She is soon joined by the Shepard, a herdsman who cannot aid Alex in battle, but acts as her eyes, describing the world around her.
The player takes on the role of Alex from her perspective, which is almost total darkness. The screenshot seen below is what The Vale: Shadow of the Crown looks like in action. There are glowing dots that represent different sensations, such as blue lines for falling rain, but that’s it. Alex is controlled from a first-person perspective and the player has to navigate the environment based on sound alone. It’s advised that players experience The Vale: Shadow of the Crown while wearing headphones, in order to make the most of its excellent 3D soundscape.
The Vale: Shadow of the Crown acts like any number of video games set in a medieval realm, with the player exploring towns, completing quests, and fighting enemies. The difference is that the game takes place in complete darkness and everything involves following sound cues. If Alex needs to find a blacksmith to buy new gear, for example, then the player needs to follow the sound of a hammer hitting an anvil. The only text in the game appears on a character sheet that can be called up, as well as the menu. This text is narrated, meaning that The Vale: Shadow of the Crown has great accessibility options for blind or sight-impaired players.
The combat in The Vale: Shadow of the Crown involves fighting from three directions. The player has to attack and block from the left, right, and straight ahead. When facing opponents, it’s all about judging what attack they will do next, based on the noises they make. A loud scream means they’re going for a heavy attack, which can be parried and countered, while a quick yell means a multi-hit combo is about to be used, which means the shield needs to be held up until the attack ends. It’s a fantastic system that leads to some tense battles.
There is one major problem with the combat system and it occurs when facing multiple opponents at once. If multiple enemies that are near to each other attack around the same time, then it’s almost impossible to differentiate the sounds and know what order or direction the attacks are coming in. The Shepard also needs to learn to stop speaking during battle, as he’s primed to join Donald & Goofy in Kingdom Hearts as the least useful party member in video game history, as he tends to shout words of encouragement during battle, making it harder to hear what the enemy is doing. The Vale: Shadow of the Crown also has a problem of rewinding a little too far when restarting a battle, so the player has to listen to the same dialogue repeat itself and it can’t be skipped. Luckily, there is a Casual mode that greatly reduces the difficulty, so players who are interested in the story can breeze through most of the fights, while those keen on the challenge can continue through unabated.
The player can attempt to make a beeline for their home, but The Vale: Shadow of the Crown has a number of sidequests on offer, which can earn Alex cash that can be used to upgrade her gear. Without giving away too many story details, these can improve Alex’s combat abilities in a number of ways. There are also a number of clever puzzles tied to the sound mechanics of the game, including an original take on the classic “rats in the basement” Dungeons & Dragons quest. The mainline story of The Vale: Shadow of the Crown is excellent, both in the details of Alex’s journey through the unfamiliar countryside and the mindscape that is created along the way by Shepard and other travelers, all acting as unknowing dungeon masters to the player’s adventure.
The concept behind The Vale: Shadow of the Crown is so simple and genius that it’s a wonder that it has never been done before – though it’s worth noting that this iteration is done incredibly well, gracefully sidestepping many of the potential pitfalls of its conceit. The combat has a few frustrations that could use some ironing out, but they don’t detract from what is a compelling and unique video game experience.
The Vale: Shadow of the Crown is available today, August 19, 2021 on PC (via Steam) and Xbox One. Screen Rant was provided with a digital code for the PC version of the game for the purposes of this review.