Reviewed On: PC
Release Date: July 19th, 2017
Developer: Investigate North
Publisher: Green Man Gaming
Review code provided free of charge by the publisher
Initially, Aporia: Beyond the Valley seems to fit into the walking-simulator genre, a first-person game based primarily around the exploration of a fallen civilisation, but it doesn’t take long before you’re solving puzzles and even dealing with an enemy that floats around like the much angrier version of Casper. This is fast becoming a popular genre, and it’s fair to say that Aporia doesn’t buck any trends in terms of its design, playing it relatively safe with puzzles that you’ve mostly seen before. However, the journey through the valley may very well be worth your time thanks to a strong story and visuals.
Within the opening minute of the game you’re given a strange device filled with a glowing liquid that makes it look suspiciously like a glow-in-the-dark rave stick. Named The Vial by the developers you sadly won’t be attending any parties with it, as the substance contained within it plays a major part in the story, the amber liquid acting as a form of energy throughout the world. By slotting this device into special pedestals you can direct the flow of energy, opening doors and doing a variety of other things. The game builds many of its puzzles around this concept, introducing more and more factors as time goes on. Other things you encounter include directing the flow of water or a sizable puzzle based on mirrors and light sources. There’s also a cool section involving balancing a series of platforms where you have to run around grabbing rocks to dump into hanging baskets. These challenges might never leave you with steam coming out of your overheating brain due to their sheer complexity and brilliance, but the puzzles are still fun to solve and break up the basic exploration. I just wish they were more memorable. Only a couple of them stick out in my mind.
Occasionally you’ll encounter an enemy. It comes in the fairly typical black, sinister, floating creature variety that delights in popping up behind you or just at the edge of your sight before eerily coming toward you, keeping at a conveniently slow pace so that you have a chance to run away. It can be fended off using special blue fires that come more into play later in the game, and a burst of creepy music will usually alert you to its presence so that you can simply evade it if no other option is open to you. Mostly in the opening half to three-quarters of the journey it just gets in the way, acting more like an annoyance that keeps you from exploring than anything else. Maybe that’s just me, though. I’ve never personally been fond of this style of foe. It does, however, feature much more heavily in a swamp area about three-quarters of the way through game. While the entity never feels like it presents a genuine threat, especially earlier in the game, this swamp section is wonderfully atmospheric, creating a fun, tense section in an otherwise quite relaxed experience.
As you get through the various puzzles scattered around you’ll burn through the juice in your rave stick and have to pick up more contained in vials. It’s a cool idea that should have made puzzles more interesting as just randomly guessing the solutions could have left you having to scour the environment for more. However, I never felt like I was running low on the magic juice, and thus the whole idea felt a bit pointless.
Of course underpinning everything is the game’s storyline which primarily gets told via glowing murals projected into the world that shows almost stop-animation style sequences. There’s no dialogue, leaving the storytelling to the images being displayed. You’re introduced to various characters in different garb and will follow their story from start to fall. Even with speech with which to deliver reams of exposition it does a good job of letting you piece together what happened to the valley you’re now exploring, while still leaving room for you to ponder the details. Once you arrive at the end everything finally clicks into place, making for a satisfying close to the story even if the two potential endings might leave some feeling a little annoyed. Telling a story like this takes an impressive level of skill, especially given the smaller nuances within the tale. To talk about even the premise would be a spoiler since the entire driving force of the game is uncovering the mystery of the valley, so all I’ll say is that personally, I found myself really engaged. Even if the gameplay itself never amazed me, the story was always strong enough to keep pulling me along to the piece of it.
While your initial exploration of the valley is linear it doesn’t take too long for the game to open up, giving you much more freedom to tackle the puzzles scattered around before settling back into a linear path for the final chunk of playtime. As a game about discovery and exploration, Aporia would be remiss not to include a lot of cool stuff to see along the way, and I’m glad to report that in this the developers have excelled. The valley is full of amazing locations, and exploring them does indeed make you feel like you’re journeying through a fallen civilization that was once at the very peak of brilliance.
It can at times be an exceptionally beautiful game with a strong visual style of its own. Just take a look at the screenshots I managed to grab along the way and you’ll see that the developers worked hard to create some striking moments that use color and light wonderfully. When you break it down to a more technical level and start looking at the details you’ll note that water looks rather odd, though, especially when it’s cascading down steps or from other high places, and some textures are lacking. There’s also some jerkiness caused by a lack of animations when doing things like transitioning from climbing a ladder to being on solid ground. Still, while these little issues exist they only detract from the experience if you start examining things closely. If you allow yourself enjoy the journey rather than getting caught up in examining the walls too closely it’s a lovely-looking game.
The audio has some problems as well, but generally manages to help create an absorbing atmosphere through plenty of ambient sounds and touches of really nice ethereal music. Occasionally, though, audio doesn’t transition properly between outside and tunnels or the noise of a nearby river stops rather than fades out.
There are a number of other small glitches and problems to be found too, mainly of the floating object variety or collision detection going wonky just after interacting with some objects. Textures and objects have a habit of popping into existence before your very eyes, while the damage indicator also shows up as a transparent red square over the screen at the moment. And speaking of the textures they often won’t load up when you first start the game, leaving you with the horrifying experience of watching layers of textures slowly appear. I also discovered quite a number of areas in which you can get stuck if you enjoy exploring off the paths. All of these things can be fixed easily, though, and indeed may have already been sorted out for launch.
Slightly bigger problems include the game refusing to remember my chosen resolution and graphical settings, and a black screen upon loading a save that I could only get rid of by hitting escape and then opting to resume game. On testing I discovered this bug was only affecting anything past 1080p resolution. I also experienced a few crashes, and even managed to get stuck at one point due to a lever not working.
Oh, and getting back down ladders is a pain in the ass. So is getting up them, too, in fact, as there’s a bug that sends you upwards above the platform you’re climbing too before dropping back to the ground. Painfully. Luckily you seem able to avoid it by not looking too far upward while climbing.
Aporia doesn’t manage to match the best the genre has to offer, nor can it hope to go up against some of the best puzzlers around, but there are some genuinely lovely moments to be found. I caught myself entranced by the ethereal music as the story played out in moving-mural form before me, or quietly enjoying the basic but solid puzzles. There are things that could have been done better, such as the floating foe. If you’re going to include an enemy like that then go all out and ensure that its presence feels like a genuine threat. The puzzles aren’t particularly memorable, either, except for one or two, but even those don’t provide satisfying eureka moments where everything finally clicks into place. But if you let yourself get carried along by the story and exploration there’s something captivating about Aporia. It’s just a shame about the rough edges.
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