The Vale: Shadow of the Crown, an audio-based adventure game by indie studio Falling Squirrel, is available on Xbox and PC today for $19.99. The game was developed in collaboration with the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, and made for and tested by blind and low-vision players.
Players navigate a medieval setting as Alex, the blind second heir to a kingdom, who is on her way to the borderlands when her caravan is attacked by enemy soldiers. Left on her own, Alex has to travel the land, find weapons, learn spells, and fight enemies without sight.
Besides menus, which are presented in text and through audio description, the only visuals in The Vale are colored specks that float across a black screen. The behavior of the specks changes based on what’s happening in different scenes; they’ll turn blue and fall during rain or imitate floating embers when Alex comes across a burning village.
Without visual information, the player has to listen to the sounds of the environment when moving around. The gameplay relies on 3D audio, so headphones are required. You move in the direction of clanging metal to find the smithy, or toward little squeaks and nibbles to find rats to squash in the inn’s basement. During combat, you raise your shield or swing your sword to the right, left, or forward depending on where you hear the enemy.
I played about an hour of The Vale on PC. I’m not blind, but I found several of the gameplay elements refreshing. I get overwhelmed easily by games that introduce lots of controls up front, so it was nice to have a voice in my ear explaining which buttons to press and when. It was also handy to be able to close my eyes when the rain animation started making me motion sick, something I can’t do in most games.
The voice acting and sound design are lively, serving both as narrative tools and navigational cues. When choosing between side quests, you make your decisions based on vignettes of conversations, rather than reading through walls of text. Certain elements like inventory management and weapon upgrades are simplified in a way that doesn’t sacrifice the game’s RPG feel.
There are a few things that could make The Vale more accessible, like remappable controls and captions. While it’s made for people with visual impairments, and makes strides in that area, there are players with both low vision and other disabilities who would benefit from those options.
The Vale is hopefully a sign of more blind accessible games to come. Immersive, engaging games that forgo conventional game mechanics mean more variety for all kinds of players.