Optical illusion-based puzzle games are quickly becoming a genre unto themselves, with indie titles like Antichamber and The Bridge challenging players to leave the basic conventions of reality at the start screen. Ustwo Games' Monument Valley is the latest to encourage its own line of thinking, as players help a mysterious princess navigate the visual tricks of her environment. While Monument Valley is definitely the most polished of this new breed of puzzle games, it is ultimately also the easiest.
Indie games often skate by on rudimentary visuals, but not Monument Valley. Each level sprawls out before the player like a minimalist movie poster, and features its own vibrant color palette and creative flourishes. Monument Valley's surreal towers and castles are adorned in networks of interweaving paths and stairways, which players manipulate with switches and levers that transform the landscape in interesting ways. Towers rotate, staircases unfold, and passageways shift to reveal a path forward. In every level, I paused to admire how gorgeous Monument Valley is, demonstrating an indie game doesn't need a 16-bit art style to be aesthetically appealing.
While Monument Valley's puzzles are visually clever, they don't take much brain power to figure out. Your path through the beautiful landscapes is often obvious, with only a few slides or rotations of environmental objects standing in the way of your goal. That said, Ustwo does a good job of constantly introducing new mechanics, so even though the puzzles are simple, they are rarely repetitive. Elements like path-blocking crows and a totem that can be slid around to reach new areas don't really make the puzzles more challenging, but they change things up just enough to keep players engaged.
The biggest head-scratcher is the obtuse narrative. Monument Valley seems like it's trying to tell a meaningful story, but the symbolism is so vague it's hard to tell what the developer is trying to convey. Players control a princess who appears to be returning geometric shapes to some ancient monuments; beyond that the story is open to interpretation, and doesn't give the player much to go on.
I often commend developers for not padding out their games with filler content, but Monument Valley is one case where I was left wanting more. The game only features ten levels, with the first few serving to introduce the basic gameplay mechanics. Only the final levels hit a satisfying length and complexity, and then the game is over. That shouldn't detract indie fans from partaking in Monument Valley's wondrous journey, however, which has already landed on my short list for mobile game of the year.