Cultivate the Forest
Little Lost Fox’s puzzler, Valleys Between, brings nature and conservation themes to puzzle games in what is without a doubt one of the genres more gripping and visually pleasing titles. Originally released for iOS in 2017, the title just made its Android debut at $1.99, and it’s more than worth it. In Valleys Between, you’re tasked with cultivating a forest for hundreds of years—or as many as you can—while keeping a fox alive in the process. The game is cute with keen attention to atmospheric detail, including music that adapts and responds to your actions. Altogether, the package is a joy to experience every time I boot it up.
Beautifully Simple Delivery
Bright and colorful, Valleys Between catches the eye while simultaneously remaining modest. The game uses simple shapes for its models and octagonal panels to represent ground in the forest. The art style and appropriately gentle background music makes for a serene and somewhat immersive experience.
The controls are simple as well. You swipe upward to turn an empty panel into water, turning every blank panel touching its sides into grass. Doing this will allow a path on which your fox can walk from place to place. Likewise, swiping upward on a grassy panel will grow that panel into a tree. Swiping up on a pair of trees turns them into a larger tree and so on.
Trees dictate how fast your forest grows. New blank panels appear every time you combine at least two trees together, allowing you to build new water, land and trees. These new fresh panels knock out the row in the back, allowing for more opportunity, but also threats. Turns pass whenever you make a movement, so there is plenty of time to plan your movements in advance.
Threats in the Valleys and other Game Mechanics
As new land appears, so do totems, fires, oil spills and factories. Each of these is put on a timer that ranges from three to nine turns. If you are unable to dispel the threat before time expires, you will suffer damage ranging from half a heart or a full heart. Additionally, the tiles surrounding the threat will become damaged, making them unusable. Your fox only has three hearts, none of which are recoverable, so it’s wise to dispel the threats as quickly as possible. Once the fox’s health reaches zero, the game ends, causing you to begin from year one upon a new playthrough. Additionally, if your fox is in the last row of tiles as new one appears, and a statue will appear on the first row. This doesn’t deplete the fox’s health, but you must wait eight turns before the fox respawns in the statue’s place.
All enemy units are disposed of by swiping upward on the fox, making him rest for seven turns. This process renders the fox immobile while removing all threats on the panels bordering its own. Additionally, creating a bordering water tile or cutting off access to water tiles will also remove fire and oil tiles respectively. It’s important to use the environment, not the fox, when able, as a sleeping fox will be unable to respond to other environmental threats until he’s awoken. The game becomes increasingly tricky as the in-game years pass. Often, it’s optimal to make the fox sleep only when necessary, using the environment instead to remove the others and keep the fox in play. Likewise, when your fox is sleeping, be careful to avoid making too much new land. New land brings new threats, many that can deal their damage before the fox awakens.
Animals of All Sizes
While puzzle games are best played in bursts or between daily activities, Valleys Between does a lot to incentivize returning. Quests appear from the moment you start, rewarding you with in-game currency. These are accessed on a level system where each series of three quests brings you to the next level.
When you’ve reached a high enough level, you gain access to medium and large size animal classes. Medium size animals sleep for eight turns and respawn after 10, however their sleeping ability has the additional effect of restoring damaged land. Larger animals are the trickiest. They sleep for only seven turns and respawn after eight, however they only move every 2 turns. This is balanced by large animals’ sleep ability affecting tiles in a much wider range than their smaller counterparts. While I find large animals to be tougher to play, their ability to remove threats from afar makes them perhaps the most potent animal in the right player’s hands. Overall, the upgrade system changes the way players interact with the game—in some ways forcing players to rethink actions and positioning.
Upgrading Individual Animals
There are a series of animals to choose from in each size tier. The differences among animals in the same tier are purely aesthetic. Animals are bought using a currency you receive from completing quests and picking up fairies in your forest.
Players can also upgrade each animal individually, making their respawn and sleep times shorter. This ultimately feels like an unlockable difficulty setting that can only be scaled to make the game easier. It becomes problematic due to its permanence. Once you level an animal, you cannot undo the effect. This means you either permanently make the game easier, or you strategically keep lower-ranked animals in each size tier. In an RPG, a system like this would feel more at home. In a puzzle game, these upgrades cheapen the experience, making the game’s obstacles feel more toothless. The variety is nice, but the inability to undo an upgrade appears to be an oversight on the developer’s part.
A Pleasant Journey
Valleys Between packs a lot into a little package. It has an amazing amount of character for its genre, and the style, upgrades and ambience will keep you coming back for more. While the themes of peace and conservation ring true throughout the experience, it becomes frantic and difficult as years go by in the forest and threats become more prevalent. However, therein lies the game’s central mechanic—and it works. What’s more, the title is thoroughly engaging and the overall package is a visual treat. Coming in at a price point of a cup of coffee, Valleys Between is a must-play.
Valleys Between is as good to look at as it is to play. A lot of care went into the title and the mechanics are well-developed and challenging.