Note: The Android version was used for this review. Played on a Google Nexus 7 (2012) running stock KitKat 4.4.2.
It was only a few years ago that premium mobile games were the norm and not the exception. They’d cost as little as a dollar, with some “expensive” ones being $3 or more. It was a great time, since we saw so many high-quality titles with terrific style, gameplay, and content across all genres. Some of my fondest memories include games like Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP, Tiny Wings, Real Racing 2, Infinity Blade, Groove Coaster, and Doodle Jump.
Compared to what I was used to playing on traditional handhelds and consoles, these games were an absolute steal. A vertical shoot-’em-up like Dodonpachi Resurrection, for example, would cost upwards of $80-90 to import and play on a console, and to have it for a tenth of the price, fully translated into English? Shut up and take my money.
Fast-forward to 2014, and the mobile landscape has changed significantly. Finding games now that aren’t free-to-play takes more effort, and discovering them on the Apple App Store or Google Play can be a challenging game all on its own. That’s why running into Ustwo Games’ Monument Valley last week was such a special treat. I couldn’t even tell you how I found out about it, but I’m so glad I did.
I immediate fell in love with its beautiful isometric graphics. Every level pops off the screen with clean lines, easily readable design, and a heavy M.C. Escher/Crystal Castles influence. Animation is extremely smooth, even on older hardware, and its expert use of vibrant colors make everything a wonder to look at.
Its puzzle-based gameplay possesses similar concepts that I played in Terry Cavanagh’s Naya’s Quest, without all the endless frustrations I experienced with that game. (Sorry Terry, I still love VVVVVV and Super Hexagon!) The tap and swipe controls feel great, character pathfinding works like a charm, and the visual and audio feedback given to the player throughout are very satisfying. There are no particularly difficult puzzles, though, which was slightly disappointing. On the other hand, seeing how your changes affect the world and then progressing through them is very rewarding.
Monument Valley‘s story is intentionally sparse and mysterious, and there were a few times that I was taken back to Thatgamecompany’s 2012 masterpiece Journey on the PS3. It keeps you wondering where things are going until the very end, and provides the player with a smile-inducing close to your adventure.
Unfortunately, that end comes rather quickly, as the game is over in less than two hours. It seems especially quick here since it’s so easy to get sucked in and blast through it in one sitting. That in itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as I have always said I’d rather play a short game that’s excellent over a long game that’s mediocre. However, since there’s nothing else to do after the game is over, once you’re done, you’re done.
I think it would have been cool to incorporate some level of achievement system, like (a) stealth-based ones where you go through certain levels undetected, (b) find hidden collectibles off the beaten path, and (c) goals involving as few moves as possible. The framework is there, so it would be great to see ideas like these implemented in a future update or sequel to breathe more playability into what is already a terrific experience.
At $3.99, Monument Valley might be a little more expensive than your average mobile game, but this is no average game. It successfully melds a wonderful visual style with creative gameplay, and you can tell that the developers put their all into bringing this world to life in such a carefully polished way. Although I wish there was a little more to it, this game still comes highly recommended, and I can’t wait to see what Ustwo Games does next.
Gameplay & Controls: A-