I have an obsession with exploration. No matter a game's genre, size or structure, I feel compelled to inspect every inch, nook and cranny with meticulous curiosity—to the point where demos that're otherwise engineered to last an hour take me close to three times that to complete. This was the case with the opening section of Aporia: Beyond the Valley: a one-time university project-turned-fully fledged puzzle adventure game that marks the Copenhagen-based Investigate North's debut project.
Hollywood figure Ole Sondberg—the producer of both Swedish and English versions of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and the Nordic Noir television series Wallander—is on board to help steer the direction of the game's narrative, and, having spent a short while exploring its themes of ruined civilisations, ancient technology and supernatural entities, I'm keen to find out where it goes next. Most interestingly, Aporia relays this grandiose tale without the use of dialogue or text.
And that's its hook. Games like Myst, Portal, Quantum Conundrum, The Talos Principle and Ether One have spent years refining the universally applicable systems associated with the puzzle adventure genre, and Aporia is no different. By way of player-activated tapestries triggered by a runic cylinder obtained at the game's outset, the player steadily uncovers a forgotten culture and leverages the mysterious new found tool to overcome ancient contraptions and forge pathways forward.
As if paying deference to the rules of the genre, these conundrums at first cater to the player's understanding with benevolence—actively encouraging exploration as you move from the game's dark and cavernous opening area onto a sun-kissed elevated platform and then downward to a forested riverside trail. Each vista is as stunning as the last and with each passing puzzle you gain momentum and, crucially, confidence.
This is short-lived, though, as set pieces steadily require more thought in turn. Often, locked doors require players locate a series of free-standing columns that, once interacted with, open new paths to otherwise inaccessible areas. In the process, your glowing baton doubles up as a key and a torch to aid exploration, but you'll want to make sure you've enough juice to power each gateway should you want to avoid combing through the landscape for hidden refills.
Then again, scouring each zone while soaking in the view is part of what makes Aporia special: each roadblocking puzzle is set against a soothing, lovely-looking backdrop which serves as an inadvertent reward for your withstanding perseverance. One such trail led me to a towering treehouse-style encampment wherein I quickly began second guessing the correct pathway, which catwalk marked the way forward, and what ladder I was required to climb or descend to press on. While clambering around the treetops, I had a few head-scratching moments and the occasional: how the hell do I get from here to over there?
During these instances, I was reminded of Portal, and there were even elements of Mirror's Edge to my playstyle as I adopted a parkour approach when all else failed. Like any puzzle game worth its salt, however, each of Aporia's 'Eureka' moments so far outweigh any prior frustration, something that's underpinned by rewarding players with more backstory following each puzzle's successful completion.
One particularly enjoyable puzzle towards the demo's end fused exploration with acuity as I was made to uncover a contraption's missing gizmo in an adjacent underwater tunnel. I had to then decipher some hieroglyphic-style markings before unlocking a tri-bolstered doorway, the sum of which hinted at the direction and difficulty of Aporia's set pieces beyond the section I played. To this end, this newly unlocked door led me to an altar-like area wherein an otherworldly force began shaving off my health bar—which was the first time this had occurred to this point, besides my occasionally mistimed treehouse mountaineering—as I remained rooted to the spot.
Unfortunately shortly after this encounter is where the demo ends, which is a shame because it also feels like the exact juncture the game opens up—both mechanically and thematically. Nevertheless, I'm confident Aporia: Beyond the Valley is on the right track and, should it keep this momentum going, could well cement itself among the top puzzle adventure games of the longstanding genre.
The ways in which it blends exploration around its stunning scenery with intuitive yet challenging puzzles is thus far expertly done; and having barely scratched the surface of its wordless, dialogue-free, Nordic Noir-inspired, Hollywood producer-aided story I'm keen to find out more.
Aporia: Beyond the Valley is due to launch July 19—look out for our interview with Investigate North and Hollywood producer Ole Sondberg tomorrow.