What makes a civilisation fall?
Great societies have fallen throughout history as victims of sweeping plagues, devastating wars, lingering famine, and many more disasters. Rome was overrun by peoples they deemed as uncivilised, the Byzantine Empire was nearly utterly wiped out from plague, and the Soviet Union collapsed under the weight of its own military ambitions. The story of Aporia: Beyond the Valley follows such a downfall. Developers Investigate North have set out to tell this story with a simple goal: don’t use any speech or writing. In theory, this is a bold idea. In practice, on the other hand…
Aporia is described as an adventure puzzle game, and the shoe does fit. You progress through the game by completing puzzles as you explore the world around you. As you wander the ruins of this mysterious civilisation, you uncover the secrets behind its downfall. This is done without the use of written or spoken word, instead relying on stop-motion style cutscenes that depict the invention and increased use of a miraculous glowstick that makes a wonder plant grow. This glowstick is also what you’ll use to open doors, illuminate your way through darker areas, and project patterns to complete certain puzzles.
Even the swamps look good.
Gee, our dungeon master went above and beyond this session.
Aporia’s attempt at world building is applaudable. The worlds themselves are gorgeous to look at, making full use of the in-game sun and moon’s lighting. It feels natural, but doesn’t intrude on exploration. The environments are well designed, guiding you appropriately in a non-patronising manner. They’re aesthetically pleasing as well, taking inspiration from South American ruins. It’s not the only South American-inspired aspect of the game either. The previously mentioned stop-motion cutscenes take their jagged look from the paintings of the region, making the cutscenes a joy to watch. They convey the message of each scene in its most basic form, allowing it to be easily read by anybody. The soundtrack is mellow and slow, sounding like Ellen Meijers’ Abe’s Oddysee score sometimes and the more chillax parts of Stephen Rippy’s entire discography at others. Not something you’ll listen to all the time, but it suits the game’s atmosphere to a T.
Advancing through Aporia feels organic. You never feel like you’re missing out on anything or have gone the wrong way. The glowstick runs on energy which must be replenished to complete certain parts of the game, and while this does include backtracking to find more energy, it’s not forceful or mandatory 100% of the time. Being conservative with your supply will do you well. However, finding more can be a chore at times – especially later in the game. Activating the world’s devices is done by using your mouse in sweeping motions. You’ll drag the mouse downwards to pull a lever, to the side so you can pull on a rope, spin it around to turn a crank, you get the idea. I wish more games had little touches like this. It keeps immersion at a constant level.
Let’s all go to the lobby!
The sun finally set on this ancient empire.
While Aporia’s wordless presentation is admirable, it doesn’t quite convey as much information as I’d have liked. The only story you’re given is through the cutscenes, which only paint a smaller picture. More visual clues throughout the levels would have done wonders for the game’s story, and may have felt less intrusive as well. The game’s performance also suffers, performing quite poorly on my middle-tier rig. The optimisation for the PC port is nothing short of disappointing, with very little in the way of fine-tuning graphical options. Glitches abound as well; my first playthrough was obstructed by a key binding bug, which would have been easily avoided had the keys been rebindable. Alas, that’s another key feature of the PC that’s sorely missed here. Texture pop-in is a real issue with the current build as well. These are all features that will hopefully be added with patches, but another few months in the oven would have done this game wonders.
Aporia: Beyond the Valley is admirable for attempting to breach its comfort zone and tell a story unconventionally. While the game looks and sounds great, its almost-there storytelling and persistent bugs will make it frustrating for less patient players.