Review: Monument Valley

By Jacob Tierney 03 Apr 2014 0
Shut up Euclid, I'm trying to solve a puzzle here. Shut up Euclid, I'm trying to solve a puzzle here.

It’s another beautiful morning in Monument Valley. The environment is scenic, the music thoughtful, and the architecture impossible. Perfect day to go exploring.

Oh, but mind the ghosts. And the crow people.

Monument Valley is a journey through a charming world filled with ever-shifting perspective. It's a quick trip but a fulfilling one, created with an exceptional eye for detail and a plenty of surprises along the way.

Your job in the game is to shepherd the cone-hatted protagonist Princess Ida through a labyrinth of ten bizarre structures. You’re able to fiddle with the levels themselves to help her along the way, twisting, sliding and rotating platforms to make a path.

Monument Valley is an impossible place, built on illusion, a world where the residents of M.C. Escher's imagination would fit right in. Monument Valley simulates a 3-D world using 2-D art, and it uses this to mess with your head at every opportunity. Tricks of perspective are everywhere. As you navigate each level, up becomes down, left becomes right, impossible geometric shapes emerge, and you might just find yourself walking up a wall.

I don't know what's more disconcerting: the ghost or the waterfall. Which of these is harder to believe in? The ghost, or the waterfall?

Foreshortening, forced perspective and other tricks of the art trade are so common in advertising and television they usually go unnoticed by the untrained eye. Monument Valley pulls back the curtain in ways both surprising and entertaining. The valley’s titular monuments are crafted with 2-D trickery, each level a lesson in how to see through the illusions and turn them to your advantage.

The path to victory may be impossible, but it’s not illogical. As you twist and turn each level’s platforms, the illusions at work suddenly become apparent, and the route to the end is made clear. Seemingly random bits of architecture align to reveal a satisfying whole.

Monument Valley's puzzles are rarely challenging. The proper path is often obvious, and sometimes it seems the developers are more interested in showing you their next neat visual trick rather than providing a proper head-scratcher. Monument Valley's 10 levels play out like the world’s most ornate pop-up book, with delightful discoveries every few minutes and there are no real hurdles preventing you from reaching them. Ustwo's intent is clearly for everyone to be able to experience the game in its entirety, for better or worse.

As such, it's a game that lives and dies on its presentation, but that aspect of the game is inspired. The controls are responsive and the world is filled with equal parts charm, mystery and melancholy. Monument Valley aesthetics are designed to soothe, it seem. The game's color palette is subdued and the ambient soundtrack genially chimes and chirps in response to your actions.

Lesson No. 1 in Monument Valley: Crow people are jerks. Lesson No. 1 in Monument Valley: Crow people are jerks.

Monument Valley isn't simply a pastel Rubik's Cube, however. There is a story, told through level titles, visual clues, and cryptic messages along the way. You’ll meet the valley’s other residents, like the ornery crow people who block your path and the ominous ghosts of its former inhabitants. At first you'll have no idea who Ida is or why she is on her quest, but in time all is revealed.

On the vast menu of the App Store, Monument Valley is a delectable dessert: light, sweet, and gone too quickly. The entire odyssey can be completed in about two hours. Those who prefer a meatier gaming experience will likely drift off in favor of more substantial fare.

Yet there's a lot to love about a great dessert, just as there's a lot to love about a game that sets a goal for itself, reaches it with aplomb, then ends before losing its ability to impress.
Monument Valley accomplishes all of this with unmatched style. Other titles may try to increase immersion by piling on new details and features until they are bursting at the seams, but this game takes the opposite approach. The UI and menus are minimal; every extraneous detail has been filed off, leaving only enough elements to pull you in to experience its world and story.

This scouring of extraneous visual noise could have made the game world stark and uninviting, but instead it accomplishes just the opposite. Moments of serene beauty are frequent. A giant crescent moon perfectly frames Ida’s ascent to the end of one level. Stormy polygonal waves crash against a rocky outcropping. Every scene is crafted with obvious care.

Developers Ustwo have stated they want Monument Valley to be seen as a work of art. It’s a lofty goal, and I’m no art critic, but I think they have succeeded. I suspect many players will come to see it as something special.

Avid puzzle-solvers who want a lengthy, brain-wracking adventure would do well to look elsewhere. But Monument Valley is an enchanting journey into a fantastical dreamscape, no matter how short.

Monument Valley was played on an iPad 2 for this review.

New contributor Jacob Tierney (@soolseem) is a staff writer for the Watertown (NY) Daily Times.

Review: Monument Valley

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