When I first began writing articles for AccessWorld, I was a game reviewer. Over the years, I have written about many other things—audio description, Braille, Diabetes management—but I have always returned to gaming. When I first began using a computer in the 90s, I listened to friends play immersive games and wished I could do the same with my computer. Over the years, many games have been developed for vision impaired players, and many of them have been quite good. Other games, while not designed with the needs of blind people in mind, have been accessible by accident, if you will. Still other games have started out without accessibility, but blind people were able to have productive discussions with the game developers which resulted in an accessible game play experience further into the life of the game.
Recently, a new audio game has been released that takes the game play experience for blind and sighted players alike to a very high level of excellence.
The Vale: Shadow of the Crown by Falling Squirrel requires no sight for game play because the main character in the story is blind. Born into a royal family, the blind princess whose story unfolds during many hours of game play is sent to a border region of the land where she lives after the death of her father the king, and her brother’s subsequent ascension to the throne as king of the land. On her way to her new home, the party with whom she travels is overtaken by a group of rebel warriors. She finds herself alone with the exception of a shepherd who befriends her.
Never fear, however. Alex, the princess, has some rather unique abilities that place her in a better position to survive than one might first think. Just because her father the king thinks a blind girl can’t succeed in the world let alone rule a kingdom doesn’t make it so, and Alex the princess proves this over and over again as the story of the Vale unfolds.
Who is Alex, really? What powers does she actually possess? Finally, why is it that dark forces from another realm are desperate to stop Alex from surviving, let alone returning to her home in the capitol?
Over the course of at least five hours of game play, all these questions will begin to be answered in some intriguing and even startling ways.
Obtaining the Game
The Vale is available on several platforms including Steam, Xbox, and PC. Steam is not recommended for screen reader users. I played the game on a Windows 10 PC. You can purchase the game here for $19.99 at the time of this writing.
The game is totally self-voicing, and a screen reader is not needed. I set NVDA’s speech mode to off and had no difficulty playing the game, but you will have best success if you completely unload JAWS if that is the screen reader you are using.
Playing The Vale
It is possible to use a game controller when playing The Vale, and you will receive haptic feedback, but I used a keyboard with no difficulty. There is a beginner’s user guide available for this game, but you could easily delve into game play without reading it first. Intuitive tutorials take you through various elements of game play as the story begins. The human voice of a narrator will give you commands to use such as W to walk forward, S to move backward, and the Letters A and D to side-step. There are a couple of tutorials available from the main menu that take you through important elements of game play including the use of weapons. One nice touch is that these tutorials actually take you through scenes from Alex's memories which sets the context for the commands you are learning.
Much game play is very linear and you need do nothing more than sit back and listen as the story unfolds. At times, your character will need to fight, and your skill in wielding your character’s weapons will determine the outcome of the story. If your character dies, and she most likely will do so frequently as you gain skill in playing The Vale, the most recent scene you are playing restarts seamlessly. Finally, there are times when your character will need to explore her surroundings and make decisions that will enhance and vary the game play experience. I have seldom experienced game play that makes such good use of sound cues during exploration, and I can safely say that I have played no game that does this better than The Vale. Important sounds are easily isolated but yet blend nicely with other ambient sounds. Sound cues can include music, clanging hammers, people talking, and other-worldly sounds that are uniquely important to this game.
There are three difficulty levels of game play, and I chose normal. I found game play to be easy enough to not discourage me from finishing the story, but yet challenging enough to cause me to need to take a break at times to rest my brain!
The musical score for this game is varied and beautiful, and I have found no voice acting in any game that is better than The Vale. I can only assume that professional acting talent was used throughout the entirety of the game.
There are many places in the game where Alex, the main character, flashes back to earlier events in her life or is given insight into things that are yet to occur. These cut scenes are handled as smoothly as anything I have ever heard, and they make game play a real treat.
In preparing to play the game, I read a mention of binaural game play experience. This is the technique of giving the player the illusion that things are not only taking place on either side of them but also in front of or behind them. Done properly, this can be a startling effect, and I was pleased to note that The Vale handles this superbly. I don’t own the most expensive headphones available, but they are decent, and I was literally able to turn my character 180 degrees and place a sound source behind her successfully. There are a couple under-water fight scenes that made my jaw drop during game play as well.
The Vale contains RPG elements including the building of character stats from magic to better weapons and armor. As weapons and abilities are added throughout the game, the tutorial tells the player how to best utilize these elements. There are various interactions with other people that your character can have, including quests that can both improve character stats and enhance game play. The up and down arrow keys let you move through these interactions, and it would be nice if the player could be notified of how many interactions there are in a given scene. For example, one of four quests available. This is not a major point of concern, but rather an enhancement that I believe would make game play even better than it already is.
The Bottom Line
The Vale: Shadow of the Crown is an audio-only game designed without a video component for economic reasons. However, the game developer soon realized that the blind community would benefit from this game, and he reached out to the Canadian National Institute for the Blind for input. The result is a game that has a rich plot, a beautiful musical score, and some of the best sounds I have ever heard.
All elements of game play are well thought out and, for me at least, easy to carry out. There was enough of a challenge to keep me interested in the game but not such an element of difficulty to make me want to throw up my hands in frustration and walk away. I didn’t mind paying the almost 20 bucks for this game, and should Falling Squirrel produce a sequel to The Vale or another audio game in the future, you can be sure I will lay down the money for the new title.
I found an interesting article on how The Vale came to be, and I include it here in case you are interested as well.
The Vale might remind you of an earlier game I reviewed for AccessWorld. You can read my review of A Blind Legend here. Another audio game that comes to mind when playing The Vale, is A Hero’s Call which was reviewed for AccessWorld by Aaron Preece. You can read Aaron’s review of A Hero’s Call here.
Compared to other role playing games such as A Hero's Call, The Vale is a simpler and shorter game. That being said, it provides some of the best sound design and voice acting you will find in audio gaming and can be enjoyable to play for both beginners and experienced audio gamers alike.
This article is made possible in part by generous funding from the James H. and Alice Teubert Charitable Trust, Huntington, West Virginia.