Monument Valley | Principal Platforms: iOS (version tested), Android, Windows Phone | Developer: Ustwo | Publisher: Ustwo | Genre: Puzzle | Year: 2014
There are not many video games where actual gameplay is downplayed in favour of another experience-defining feature, but such titles do exist and they actually seem like a more common sight now than they’ve ever been.
You can declare with confidence that audio is the most important ingredient in a game such as Rez or Electroplankton, and you can argue that the gameplay in a title like BioShock: Infinite or The Stanley Parable plays second fiddle to that of its engrossing narrative. Even Surgeon Simulator can be said to dish out good times with its sheer humour before any tightly-honed control scheme or general good sense!
The old danger of ‘graphics over gameplay’ always rings true when it matters most (I’m looking at you, Dino Crisis 3), but in this modern age of cheap apps and mobile games in general, the opportunity to experience more of these “down-gameplayed” works has never looked riper.
Monument Valley is surprising then, as it’s the first video game that I think I’ve ever played where luscious graphics and beautiful art design are the paramount focus of an overall gaming experience that isn’t shit.
Players guide the quietly repentant Princess Ida on her journey through a magical realm of fascinating geometry and whimsical characters, all the while using simple touch controls to manipulate interactive levels blessed of a truly startling creativity.
The controls are as simple as touching the screen to move Ida from one tile to the next in search of an exit beacon, but you’ll need to be on the lookout for the various touch-activated switches, cogs and levers that will help you re-orientate the surrounding environment and make new paths accessible.
As Ida trots up and down the walls of a building that’s one part origami fold and one part M.C. Escher painting, it’s impossible not to feel awed by the gorgeously minimalist art style and majestic level design. Indeed, this is very much a mobile game where the presentation and player interaction feel like a perfect fit for the format in question.
Each level is built in a satisfyingly vertical manner and so the game never feels uncomfortable when held in the palm of your hand. Your vision quickly gets sucked into the high resolution world that Ustwo has created and the effect is spellbinding pretty much throughout.
Spinning any wheel-shaped mechanism with your finger can be fiddly at times, but it’s easy to jump in and start playing immediately. You will guide Ida through many colourful locales that are made even more interesting by the way they warp and transform in response to your actions.
Much like Polytron’s indie hit Fez, each chapter of Monument Valley plays with your perspective in some rather unique ways. Amid an array of whirling gears, rotating castles and levitating platforms, it’s a rare instance indeed where the end of a stage looks the same as when it began.
One notable example is chapter 8 or “The Box”; a very memorable level where you must help the princess find her way out of a giant music box. You’ll do this by opening up its various compartments and winding the musical gears you discover within in order to rotate walkways and gain access to the floor panels that lead to the hidden exit.
Another chapter sees Ida make a new friend in the form a sentient totem pole; another mute yet bizarrely expressive character – if you can even call it that – who becomes integral to a fun level that once again toys with the basic formula in some interesting ways.
Once again like Fez, Monument Valley is accompanied by a wonderful soundtrack full of soothing tunes that are guaranteed to relax you into the game’s rhythm. The sound effects are well-integrated too as they play in accordance with the touch controls and are a delight to hear again and again.
There are hints of a story sprinkled throughout and it usually comes in the form of quick speech snippets that are offered by the NPC who is following Ida on her quest. The narrative is kept purposefully thin so as not to detract too long from the next visual showpiece, but it’s nice to see some deeper meaning to the events that unfold over the ten chapters.
This is certainly not a long game; you could probably see it off in less than two hours, but neither then does it outstay its welcome. The production as a whole feels like it’s the perfect length really, with all the enjoyable concepts and veiled story threads feeling adequately explored by the time the credits roll.
It’s always fascinating to play a game that employs no violence whatsoever when creating its sense of player agency and then still do it well, but Monument Valley is indeed a perfect example of such rarity.
Trying to think of anything negative to say is always difficult when you’re confronted by a game that means so well, but there are a few points where I’m given reason to question its appeal.
First and foremost, Monument Valley is of the puzzle genre, but that doesn’t mean it’s all that difficult. With the exception of the final level, there are not many sections where you really need to think all that deeply. A lot of the game is spent simply walking Ida onto the next switch, watching the vivid level transformation that takes place and then twisting the next platform to reach the next switch and so on.
In this sense, the fun factor primarily comes from the experience of a scenic journey before the satisfying complexity of any problem solving, but it’s a foible that could disappoint anyone expecting more of an actual game here.
There are those who would argue the tired “video games as art” point over and over again and how that makes Monument Valley worthwhile as is, however none of that displaces the fact that all you really do is tap where you want Ida to go next whilst occasionally twisting the odd lever to help her get there.
The main story comes with ten ingenious levels to play through and there’s now even a bonus stage included that was originally created as part of a charity drive, which is very nice.
As I mentioned previously though, the overall replay value seems to be quite thin and it’s more likely that you’ll load up previous chapters to show them off to a friend before wanting to replay them yourself.
A DLC level pack called Forgotten Shores is also available as a purchasable add-on, but at the time of writing I’ve only played the base game, so I can’t say much about its inclusion. Should that download contain an additional set of more challenging levels and an expanded story though, I think it could well be the perfect prescription to those minor ills of the core offering.
For such a small-scale game to inspire such wonder though, Monument Valley really is a triumph whose mere handful of gameplay hours are easily the best I’ve spent on my iPhone to date.
A fleeting yet unforgettable journey while it lasts, this little puzzler has a lot of heart.