Mobile games are chockfull of potential in spite of and due to their platform’s limitations. When they hunker down and focus on one or two key aspects, they have a chance to find what their peak forms can take. Ridiculous Fishing, for instance, excelled at giving the player tangible, progressive upgrades free from frustration or boredom in its schemes. Monument Valley does the same thing, honing its aesthetics and puzzle design to a delectable, masterfully fine point.
Monument Valley comes from Ustwo, a small studio in London who previously gave us Blip Blup and Whale Trail. It tells the rather obtuse yet portentous tale of a princess named Ida who is seeking forgiveness. Forgiveness for what, exactly, is slowly unveiled through the course of the game as you guide Ida through a series of increasingly complex puzzles.
Most of what you need to do is get from point A to point B, tapping the screen to get Ida where you want her to go. If a path along a single plane exists, then she’ll get there. Or rather, if a smooth path exists along a single, possibly deformed plane exists, she’ll get there. You see, much of what you’ll be traversing is essentially M. C. Escher-style structures. (There’s even a recreation of Escher’s “Waterfall” in the game.)
In the first puzzle, for instance, you have to get from one level to another without any ascending functionality. But, by lining up two walkways, they will look like they’re connecting, and that’s good enough for Ida. And you’ll soon be walking along walls and upside-down and spinning whole structures as platforms and doors come in and out of pseudo-existence.
This, however, is where Monument Valley shines. Just as Ida’s tale revolves around forgiveness, the game itself is very much about getting the idea of making mistakes out of your head. It’s certainly not easy solving all of these puzzles, but they are designed in such a way that even experimenting and seeing what something does all points you towards the solution.
Early on, it forces you for no particular puzzle-related reason to walk along a wall. It does, however, teach you that it’s something to keep in mind later on. And soon, puzzles involve rotating platforms to get you on walls and ceilings to get to a button or exit. It has a very relaxed but confident and competent sensibility of educating the player. It’s surprisingly refreshing in that way.
Of course, the game’s visuals are hard to ignore. It is simply a stunning piece of digital art. There are subtleties to gradually find and add to the list of things to love. Ida, for instance, will look at where you’re touching, and as she goes up or down stairs, briefly glance down to check her footing. And her design has a real “oh how did I not notice that?!” thing going on for when you finally beat it.
But the colors are simply incredible. They’re warm in a way that makes you feel…secure, yet otherworldly. Many of the hues of off-white and faded purple are so foreign and rare in our knowledge of natural aesthetics, but they’re arranged and saturated in such a way to give the sensation of an emanated emotion. You can feel that what Ida is doing has great meaning just through the way the game looks.
The sound design is similarly impeccable. As you interact with rotating platforms and spinning staircases, a jingle of sweeping wind chimes and bells accompany your movements. It gives an aural connection for you to latch onto from you sitting on your couch or on the bus to this oddly dire yet whimsical world. And the music is pretty much spot-on. I will certainly be leaving the game running just to listen to it.
By its very enigmatic nature, though, the game’s story is somewhat hazy. I’m still not entirely sure what happened at the end, but it certainly felt poignant. I mean, I think I have a good idea, but it will absolutely generate discussion between others, which is pretty great when it’s just full of impossible geometry, crow people, and a princess. The world feels lived in and considerably genuine. I wish I knew more about it.
And a very quick aside: there’s a moment late in the game where there’s a, uh, thing. It matches your movement and, as far as I can tell, is the only one-off puzzle mechanic in the game. I logged it in my brain, ready to utilize the experience for later, but then I had nothing to use it on.
Which is to say that Monument Valley is quite the short game. I played it all in one sitting over the course of two-ish hours—granted, I didn’t intend on it, but it’s just so damn easy to block out the real world when you play this game—so for the price of $3.99 in the App Store, you might feel a bit hesitant on giving this one a whirl.
Well don’t. Monument Valley is, despite its petite platform and heroine, a substantial game. I’m still thinking about it and I finished it days ago. It marks another notch in the belt for mobile games in showing that in focusing a studio’s attention on a few facets, it can create a masterful stroke on the industry’s overflowing canvas. Monument Valley is a beautiful, subtle, and unarguably worthwhile game. Don’t let it pass you by.
+ Looks ridiculously beautiful
+ Sounds like where childhood dreams live
+ Puzzle design is simply impeccable
+ Oddly important-feeling tale of redemption (maybe?)
Final Score: 9 out of 10
Game Review: Monument Valley
Release: April 3, 2014
Developer: Ustwo Studio
Available Platforms: iOS, Android