The people who make games and game hardware are starting to realize that accessibility is important. It’s great to see more accessibility options showing up in video games, and the hardware that’s enabling video game play for people who couldn’t play before is remarkable. The Vale: Shadow of the Crown is the first game I’ve run into that is built from the ground-up to be fully accessible to the blind. Not only is it fully blind accessible, but it’s extremely graphically minimal.
The Vale: Shadow of the Crown is a role-playing game where you control a blind woman from a first person perspective. Since she’s blind you are given few visual clues, and there aren’t really conventional game graphics. You will fight, explore, and interact with NPCs, but not a single one of them is modelled, nor is the world they inhabit ever fully revealed. Unlike games with blind protagonists, there isn’t a button to press to echolocate your surrounding area. Your greatest sense is your hearing (headphones recommended) and the only visual clues you are given are floating motes that reveal the playable area. That’s it.
In The Vale: Shadow of the Crown you play as Alex, second in line of succession to a recently deceased king. Hidden for years, you are relocated to a town on the outskirts of the kingdom on the king’s order during his final days. On your way to your new home, your caravan is beset by a marauding horde. Left for dead, you awaken alone, and have to fend for yourself in the wilds against wolves and bands of soldiers searching for you to finish the job.
I don’t fancy myself a great video game player, but I’ve been playing them for a while, and I enjoy challenging myself. I thought of The Vale: Shadow of the Crown as a way to play blindfolded. And honestly, while it feels that way, it was hard to find the fun. Sure, the performances by the voice cast are incredible—in fact, it was often some of the best I’ve heard in a video game—but fine voice acting does not a good game make. So how exactly do you play a game where you have to rely entirely on sound? Very carefully, it turns out.
While The Vale: Shadow of the Crown is a full-fledged role-playing game, it doesn’t give you the freedom that even most linear role-playing games might. Each encounter allows you to explore small areas, with points of interest identified by the sounds they’re making. There are often times you have to use your blindness to sneak around in the dark, listening for the sound of troops or other dangers. Visiting a town is the same: you have to identify merchants as voices in the crowd. It’s a great concept, but most encounters—whether combat or exploratory—are extremely simple. It feels like you’re wandering around boxes with a few barriers scattered about. And while you can technically make some decisions, you mostly just move from one location to the next, dealing with whatever that encounter calls for, whether it’s item gathering or combat.
Combat in The Vale: Shadow of the Crown is simple, but surprisingly well-thought out. Once combat is initiated, you’re stuck fast—you can’t turn or reposition yourself. It’s good, then, that enemies decide to attack you from only three sides: your left, front, and right. You can block and heavy or light attack your enemies, which you have to do based on the sound they’re making. First, you have to determine their position, and then the rustle of their clothes or armor will betray whether they’re making an attack. You can try to attack them before their blow lands, or block their attack and quickly counterattack. You’re even able to use a bow to pick off foes from a distance.
The Vale: Shadow of the Crown bills itself as a full-fledged role-playing game, and it gets most of the way there. It even includes equipment management and shopping for new items. Each item you carry has its own statistics, which are meticulously read out by the narrator—but thankfully, are one of the only bits of game information that are also depicted visually. It’s all just text, however. Interestingly, there is a map that depicts your journey east, back to the kingdom, which is a great reference.
The Vale: Shadow of the Crown has a compelling story, and is full of interesting and well-acted characters. As much as I enjoyed the performances, though, I wish there was more choice. I also wish there was a way to skip dialogue you’ve already heard—something that happens frequently if you find yourself failing the same area repeatedly.
If you die in combat, or fail at a critical task, time sort of reverses and you find yourself at a point before whatever action you failed at. Alex even has dialogue about it, and each of these incidences are dealt with using premonitions of what could go wrong. I always appreciate when a game as an interesting way to deal with death, and this is a good one. Alex will even usually give a clue or hint after a defeat to help guide your actions towards success.
While playing The Vale can be done by someone with no vision problems, as someone who suffers from partial deafness in my right ear, sometimes playing The Vale was a practice in patience. I don’t blame the game for this, but if you do suffer from any hearing impairment, it might be obvious but I’ll say it anyway: The Vale isn’t the game for you.
The Vale: Shadow of the Crown feels like an interesting experiment to me. It’s definitely not a failed one, however. It manages to be a narrative experience that incorporates choice, drama, and danger all by audio alone. Even with slight hearing issues I had a hard time, however, and even when I wasn’t struggling with that I had a hard time finding the fun. The Vale has some superb voice acting, though, and a compelling story that might be enough to take on a compelling journey from the perspective of a blind woman.
The Vale: Shadow of the Crown is out now on Steam.
A PC key was provided to us for this review.
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