Wasted potential: Monument Valley
November 23, 2014 | Write a comment

Wasted potential: Monument Valley

Monument Valley is one of the most frustrating games I have ever played.

Not frustrating because it is particularly bad or because it is hard, but because there is potential here for something truly spectacular, but the game never embraces it. It's a puzzle game without puzzles. It plays like an adventure game, but there's no adventure here either. Playing the game feels like watching someone show you slides of their concept art while music plays in the background. It's pretty to look at, but tedious and boring to actually play.

Concept

The goal of the game is to get your character, a princess, to a pedestal at the end of each level. You control her indirectly by tapping your finger were you want her to go. You can also rotate and move parts of the level or sometimes the entire level itself by directly interacting with levers and handles.There are also buttons to interact with and later in the game you meet a friend, a totem you can control. You can walk on him so he behaves as sort of a controllable platform.

Unique twist

But the unique feature about this game and what gives it its potential is that the game is rendered with an isometric projection. This allows for impossible geometry like this:

Image of an impossible staircase.
An endless staircase. This image is not from the game. The game is much prettier, but offers similar gameplay, sadly.

With isometric projection a gap which is impassable from one angle can be walked across from another angle. Some of the levels also toy with gravity and orientation and lets you walk on walls and ceilings. It's very M. C. Escheresque. There are also levels where multiple rooms occupy the same space and how you rotate the level determines which of the rooms you see at any one time. Combine all this together and it's clear that this opens up the possibilities for some very clever gameplay.

Wasted potential

But there is no clever gameplay here, in my opinion there's not really any gameplay to speak of at all. You enter a level, there's only one path you can take, you walk down that path until you hit a button, a new path opens up, you walk down that path until you hit another button, rinse and repeat until the level is done. Sometimes you have to move or rotate a piece of geometry to create a path, but it's all so painstakingly obvious. And those few times when you actually think there might be something clever going on you're just overthinking it. There was a button or a piece of interactable geometry there all along, you just didn't see it.

It's clear the developers of this game know how to come up with a solid concept and a pretty game, but not with creating a satisfying puzzle game. The simple puzzles also hurt the game's length. You will complete the entire game in around half an hour. Even though I don't agree with the ridiculously low prices on the app store this is still poor value for one of the more expensive games on there.

The simple art style is the reason I expected the game to be longer. With a half decent level editor you could pump out dozens of these levels each week. The levels in Monument Valley however are very intricate with fantastic animation on almost every tile and it's clear nobody would be able to make a dozen of these a week, but that's no excuse for the lackluster gameplay. The levels could easily both be pretty to look at and challenging at the same time. While I would obviously want more levels in total I would gladly accept less detailed levels if they were more fun to play. The first three levels (30% of the game) are downright insulting and could easily have been one introductory level. You will complete them in a couple of minutes and not until the fourth level do you get something resembling a puzzle, but it's all still so linear.

I even bought the two level packs, Forgotten shores and Ida's red dream, just to see if they perhaps offered what I was expecting from the main game, but it was just more of the same. It's graphics before gameplay in my opinion.

Glimpse of brilliance

There is however one level unlike the rest, the very last level of the Forgotten shores level pack. A tease at what could have been. When you start the level you can immediately tell this one is different from the rest. There are multiple paths you can take and if you walk down the wrong one it's clear you need to do something in one of the other paths before you can do what you're supposed to do here. This is classic adventure/puzzle game mechanics which the rest of the game has none of.

But it does look good

I will say that Monument Valley is an absolutely gorgeous game. The graphics are simple, but effective, and the game is so vibrant and colorful. The animations when you rotate or move a piece of the level are silky smooth and the transitions between parts of the level look amazing. The game feels very physical, like a Rubik's Cube you actually hold and manipulate in your hand. It's definitely the type of graphics I will attempt to emulate in one of my own games.

An image showing a green level from Monument Valley
The art style is fantastic and every single level looks completely unique.
An image showing a red level from Monument Valley
There's also some really neat technical tricks like the dynamic waves reflecting the colors of the wall here.
Another example of the art style in Monument Valley
Or the reflections of the environment in this level. It all looks much better in motion as well.
The last example of the art style in Monument Valley
This level in particular reminded me of Little Big Adventure 2 for some reason. A game which unlike Monument Valley has some really hard and rewarding puzzles.

You should play it

To close it off I'd like to recommend the game to everyone who reads this. If you read the whole thing you probably weren't expecting that, but mobile games are practically free and this game just looks amazing. You should buy it just to see how good it looks in motion. Another big reason I recommend this game is because it isn't a bullshit "free" game with ads or in-app-purchases unlike nearly every other iOS games these days. It's a game I will be glad to have in my small collection of iOS games I don't despise, but I hope that one day they will release a level pack for it which takes the gameplay to the same level as the graphics.

Øyvind Strømsvik's picture

About Øyvind Strømsvik (TwiiK)

I've been passionate about games all my life and started dabbling in game development about 15 years ago with BlitzBasic,... read more but I quickly lost interest and began doing 3d modeling instead. 3d modeling remained a hobby and I picked up game development again around the release of Unity 2.0. My driving force behind wanting to get back into game development was my lost interest in commercial games as they started appealing to a group of gamers I was no longer in. Indie games were the only games that still looked interesting, but at the same time some of them looked like they would be just as fun to make as to actually play. And many of them were made by just one guy.

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