Monument Valley is a perfect example of a game that comes out of nowhere and completely blindsides you with its brilliance. It’s a smart, beautiful and highly-polished experience that grabbed me from start to finish.
Developed by Ustwo – a digital design studio based in London, New York and Malmö – Monument Valley is a new puzzler for iOS and Android devices. It tells the tale of a princess named Ida who is seeking forgiveness for an unknown act she committed in her past. There is of course a little more to it than that, but an air of mystery hangs over proceedings that means the rest of the story is best uncovered through play.
Structurally the game is divided into a number of fairly short chapters, each with the same simple objective – get Ida from one point to another. This isn’t as easy as it sounds as she exists inside an Escher-esque world built on impossible geometry where a quick shift in perspective can suddenly change the environment.
By manipulating – rotating, sliding, spinning – pre-determined parts of the environment the player is able to create new pathways for Ida based on perspective and optical illusion. The level design on display here is seriously impressive – the way that segments of the world interact with one other to create visual trickery often left me with my jaw open and my brain feeling a little bent out of shape.
With its rotational, Escher-inspired environments, comparisons to Echochrome and Fez immediately spring to mind but there are tonal and mechanical echoes of Ico, Sword and Sworcery EP and The Room here too. That being said, Monument Valley manages to carve out its own distinct voice as Ustwo continue to introduce new mechanics throughout, developing a smooth learning curve that keeps things feeling fresh and balanced without ever becoming frustrating.
A couple chapters into the game Monument Valleys only enemy, the Crow-People are introduced. I use the word enemy in the loosest way possible here, as they never actively hunt Ida down and can’t harm her in anyway. Instead they act as an obstruction, blocking Ida’s path and repeatedly squawking in her face until she backs off. Initially they appear to be a needlessly intrusive addition but they are quickly and smartly implemented into the environmental puzzle design and they tie in neatly to the world and overarching story too.
Ustwo are a design studio at their core and with Monument Valley they demonstrate that they really know their stuff. Each chapter has its own vibrant colour palate and the impossible geometry of the environments are beautifully brought to life with clean, smooth and solid line work.
Ida’s world that exists in a place far away from our own, bright exterior locations are reminiscent of once grand Asian and Arabic palaces, while interiors seem to exist in a dreamlike realm outside of time and space. It’s eye catching stuff and Ustwo know it; giving the player the option to at any time export a photo of the environment – any number of which would look fantastic framed upon a wall.
The vibrant visuals are supported an ethereal and unobtrusive score that breathes life into the surrealist spaces, while a nice use of pan-Asian instrumentation hint at the architectural influences, further realising the world. Player interactions with the environment are giving some weight by the inclusion of solid sound effects ranging from the realistic to abstract arrangements that subtlety give the player progression feedback.
The audiovisual elegance is carried over into the controls too, which is really important for game with touch-based input. Ustwo do a wonderful job of boiling the required inputs down to the bare minimum. Moving Ida through the world is as simple as tapping where you’d like here to move to, and as long as her route is unobstructed she will make her own way there – automatically traversing any ladders or stairs if necessary. The same can be said for the environmental interactions, which usually involve swiftly sliding or rotating your finger on the screen. I played on a iPhone 5s, a device without a particularly large screen, and I had no problem working my through the game.
Monument Valley is a pretty short experience and it’s not a particularly challenging one either. I finished the game in roughly ninety minutes and it was only the final chapter that left me even a little stumped. None of that even matters though as the quality of the game is so astonishing high throughout.
The continued iterations to mechanics coupled with inspired level design and a beautiful aesthetic result in a highly-polished, smart, constantly entertaining game that doesn’t outstay its welcome. For my money it’s one of the best games of the year regardless of platform. If you have an iOS or Android device you really should be downloading it immediately.
Format: iOS // Android (Coming soon)
Release Date: 3rd April 2014