The Vale: Shadow of the Crown feels like an entirely new kind of game. It was designed from the ground up to be enjoyed by visually impaired gamers. Outside of menu text (which is read aloud by a narrator) and a few visual flourishes, the entire experience is devoid of graphics. Instead, you rely on surround sound or headphones to visualize the environment or pinpoint audio cues.
There have been attempts to make games that cater specifically to players who are blind in the past, but the ones I’m aware of are all pretty simple experiences—audio novels with light interaction, or light arcade-style games. The Vale is certainly streamlined in some ways, but it is something far more ambitious: a proper RPG with combat, exploration, side quests, and gear.
It tells a dark fantasy tale centering on a warrior princess who is blind, and the gentle shepherd helping her on her quest to get back home. Along the way they fight bandits and monsters, stop in towns to gear up and help out the locals, and explore caves full of ghastly spirits.
At the start of the game it introduces some simple exploration and combat mechanics. Exploration feels almost like navigating a walking sim-style game in first-person. You can walk forward, back, and side-to-side using the left stick, and turn left and right with the right stick. Usually you are trying to reach a specific sound—a river in the distance, a blacksmith in town—or avoid dangers like growling creatures or crumbling cliff sides.
Movement and combat are separated into different sequences, almost like a JRPG, complete with an iconic sword sheath/unsheath sound effect bookending each fight. Fights have a rhythm to them, with attacks coming in from the left, center, or right. Combat mechanics are introduced throughout the game, ensuring that the action remains fresh and exciting throughout.
It’s truly impressive, especially as a first stab at this concept. Developer Falling Squirrel has managed to fit many RPG mechanics into this game. There are the aforementioned side quests, hunting missions, new armor and weapons, and other surprises along the way. Almost every side quest is worth pursuing, with quality storytelling and world-building. Optional content in most games today can feel like busywork, but here it’s all worth pursuing.
Of course it’s awesome that a proper challenging and fun video game can be enjoyed by those with visual impairments, but what surprised me most about The Vale is how its premise sets it apart from other games. Without visuals, I had to rely on the sounds and storytelling to help me paint a picture of the world in my head. This got my imagination going and made it easier to connect and invest in the story. It felt like the audio version of getting under a blanket with some coffee and spending the day reading a great fantasy novel.
I even played large chunks of the game with the TV off. Something magical happened as I sort of shut down my vision and gradually tuned my senses. It may sound like a cliche out of a Daredevil comic, but with a greater focus on my hearing I became better at the game. I was more thoroughly absorbed in this world, and I didn’t feel like I was missing out on anything without visuals.
Occasionally, when I did have the TV on, I’d see the light through my eyelids and open my eyes to see a menu or a map. And that’s maybe the one quibble I have with the game. I felt a bit put off in these small moments where the game catered to me. Menus provide an advantage to those that can see, as they can read over weapon stats and options more quickly on screen. And while I’ve seen enough fantasy novels to know the hand-drawn world map is an iconic flourish, it really has no business in a game like this. There are also some key bits of info you only know about if you can see, like the icon letting you know the game is saving.
That’s really my only criticism of The Vale. Otherwise it is a fantastic adventure, with engaging writing, voice acting, and gameplay. It really fires on all cylinders and almost feels like the start of an entirely new genre in games. I’d frankly love to play more games in this style.
I highly recommend The Vale to anyone that enjoys a good story and a unique experience. You’d think the lack of visuals would take something away from a game, but when done right, it adds something entirely new and refreshing to the experience.