Following a successful Kickstarter, developer Agate fulfils its promise. Valthirian contains short hack-and-slash missions within small sandbox environments, nestled between lite-sim management core gameplay. Slow, slow, slow gameplay. Simplicity is the name of the game… well not literally, as the name itself is anything but.
Once introduced as the new principal in the Afternoon City Academy of Valthirian (name subject to change), with heiress of the Queendom missing, there are several factions vying for power, slowly heading to war and you can align yourself with one of them. That’s the crux of it. So yeah, any glimmer of a plot is firmly removed within minutes of beginning the game, which is fine, for this type of easy-going bite-sized carry-on where you left off games. So the depth must be elsewhere, right? Well, not exactly.
One For All
In terms of the combat you’re looking at an isometric-style action-RPG (though the camera isn’t fixed) but boiled down to absolute basics, unfortunately to a fault. Movement feels steady and stiff – there’s never any urgency or excitement to it. There’s no dodge mechanic but there are stilted animations and annoying invisible walls. You can switch between three tactical modes, one favouring attack power at the cost of defence, one the opposite and one for speed. Specials moves never particularly light up the screen and any stat changes didn’t feel consequential enough, owing to the inactive role I felt I played in battle. When not assuming control of the other party members the AI does its job, though truthfully there isn’t much for them to do other than attack, repeat, attack, repeat. You can switch party-members on the fly but there hardly feels a need to outside picking melee or ranged.
So I came to terms with there being little to do in combat but expected the exploration to pick up some of the slack. Within the small environments, there’s really very little to find. Each mission a is bite-sized and unsatisfying button-mashing affair. There’s little to interact with beyond a few switches, enemy design is never inspired – a mix of generic animals and slimes for the most part. Though the art direction adopts a semi-chibi pleasant, colourful tone with a touch of cel-shading, and, at times, an almost Fantasy Life feel, nothing ever clicked with me. It feels like they character designers couldn’t chose between Chibi and proportional, ending up looking plain odd.
The main school grounds progressively offer more land to develop, though the upgraded variants of buildings felt superficial, often in function as well as aesthetically. You can build then, well, not a lot else. Once you have enough students you can send them on errands – effectively completing certain quests without being player-controlled. I noticed the students who you’ve supposedly sent on these errands are curiously still present in the school. I mean, I’m only nit-picking because there wasn’t much else to do.
As new kids were randomly dumped at the school gates (presumably by their neglectful parents who have given up on them having a proper education) and I perused through the dead-fish eyed, Bo-Selecta-looking Student’s statistics, I couldn’t help but think ‘does any of this actually make a difference to the gameplay?’. The grind never picked up and the rewards felt forever underwhelming. Characters level-up and learn new skills from the world’s smallest skill/perk tree but there are sub-class options to choose from beyond the original Warrior, Mage and Ranger classes.
There are occasional prompts to manage aspects of your student’s lives but they never progress beyond a ‘choose a) or b)’ mechanic with absolutely no meaningful consequence (usually gain a small bonus or don’t). And they repeat persistently. Seriously, how many times can a kid lose their wallet?
Students can graduate initially at level 10, offering big bonuses. The graduation ceremony looks like a portacabin made from cardboard was unfolded, rearranged at short notice, draped in ribbons, then given a meagre sprinkling of confetti that the wind blew over from someone else’s more interesting party.
It’s all Academic
There were periods where I found myself staring at the screen. Or staring in the abyss, couldn’t work out which. Early in the game, I accidentally sent both of my parties on errand missions at the same time, meaning I couldn’t jump into the player-controlled missions. By the time I realised, they’d already made a bit of progress so, instead of pulling one back, I turned to the Academy management hub to see about building some much-needed facilities. The short version: there was nothing. Money was consumed quickly but the fruits of my repetitive bashing of the attack button only amounted to superfluous upgrades. Progression grinds to halt when you realise there’s no time skip ability. The slow, plodding pace was near sleep-inducing.
It would be unfair to step away from the fact that this is a game developed by a small team with a tight budget. Its shortcomings come with a compromise in its low price but I can’t help but feel like it would have been better to have chosen one genre over the other and channelled that effort accordingly.
The controls are extremely easy to pick up though I’d recommend having a gamepad plugged in alongside your mouse for switching between management and exploration modes, with a mouse being more suited to the former and gamepad the latter.
Performance is fine, nothing unexpected, though this is naturally subject to tests on different builds. That said, there’s nothing to tax your GPU here so would expect it to run fine on any rig/toaster. It’s worth pointing out there are no graphical options to speak of, with visual options restricted to resolution and V-Sync. However, the game does feel polished and overall presentation is big, bright and bold with neat and tidy functionality. While browsing the list of Principal’s Tasks (read: quests), it takes but a couple of clicks to swiftly navigate to the mission select map screen, select your party and dive straight into the action. The devs seemingly stuck to their roadmap and responsibly managed what they had, rather than releasing something more ambitious but bug-ridden mess that sometimes plagues successful crowd-funded games, much to their credit. Its absolute lack of ambition scruffs the polish to point of needing replacement – and the town-sim, action RPG genre blend has plenty of them.
This One Time, at Bland Camp
Music tracks are a touch too short given how often they’re recycled but the score is warm and matches the environment. I have a soft spot for the first mission locale’s upbeat piece – a fun track with a smooth bassline that would fit neatly into Golf Story’s peaceful courses. While the serene music worked for the most part, creating a fuzzy home feel to the main management screen, once the repetition of the pop-up events set in (which didn’t take long) it failed to ever feel alive.
Unfortunately for me, after a while, Valthiorian committed the worst sin a game can commit. It bored me. There’s a shell of a decent game hiding in here – one that would perhaps benefit from local co-op, however with the limited options for customisation and growth in the sim portion, coupled with the bland combat and exploration, I really can’t recommend the game to anyone other than those looking for an extremely straight-forward, relaxing phone-game-like experience on the cheap.
Graphics & Presentation: 2
Overall Score: 2/5
This game wasn’t for me but there are positive comments coming from various corners of the internet to show there is an audience for this kind of light and playful take on genre-blend. I would be keen to see how the developer’s next effort plays out should they aim a little higher next time.
Formats: PC (Reviewed), PS4, Switch
PC Rig used for Review: i5-8400, GTX1070ti, 16GB RAM, Win10)
Price: £11.99 (Steam)
Release Date: 02/10/18 (Steam)
Review copy provided by publisher