Friday, December 14, 2012

Valley 2 Enters Private Alpha -- First Alpha Screens And Video!

Up until now, I've been guarded about showing media relating to A Valley Without Wind 2, and with good reason, I think.  These things take time to do right, and we're now hitting the point where we're really proud to start sharing this with a wider audience.

First off, here's the new video -- it's more or less a Let's Play where I walk you around through a bit of the early game.  Apologies for the sound of the game kind of drowning out my explanations in a few parts there.

And screenshots (you can click them to enlarge them):

Heavy Cat Studios, who has been contracted to do the art for this game, has really been doing a superb job, eh?  Bear in mind that some of this isn't final yet, and there's still more to come.  All in all the art for this game involved over 3,500 individual pieces of art (including animation frames in that number), and that's an enormous order that they've been turning around in a really stellar amount of time.

Did Someone Say Private Alpha?
I did, indeed.  The first batch of players has the game now, and we'll be doing more batches over the next few days.  We only get to collect each person's first impression once, and having a strong start to the game (with it being easy to pick up) is important to us.  So we're doing alpha in multiple groups in order to make sure we make the best use of the first impressions available to us at this early stage.

What About Public Beta?
We're expecting to hit public beta early next week, probably Monday or Tuesday.  We still have a lot of art to add and monsters and characters to add before we hit 1.0 in January, but the game is imminently playable at the moment and quite a bit of fun.

As soon as we're certain we've got the initial experience down the way we want based on player feedback, and have a few more coats of polish here and there, we'll be all set for beta.

So What, In A Nutshell, Is Different From A Valley Without Wind 1?
Well, the art is obviously very much better -- that's an easy one.  But pretty much the entirety of the gameplay has been revamped, too.  The original game had drifted a lot toward the MMO genre in its design, and we've reigned that back in and are planted solidly back in Metroidvania territory where we had always intended to be.

Even within the genre of Metroidvania, we're doing some really interesting and unique things, though.  Combat is more visceral and tactile this time around.  Spells have mass and can block each other, and the way enemies are designed and placed has been re-thought from the ground up.  Combat has been slowed down to some extent, but also made far more intense.

The "mage classes" give defined loadouts that are still way more flexible than your average Metroidvania title.  And the feats and perks give interesting customization.  While our interpretation of equipment gives a mild taste of random loot drops, though that's not a major focus here; if you're expecting a Diablo or a Torchlight experience, you're going to be sorely disappointed with that aspect.  But it's really cool and unique for the Metroidvania genre.

With AVWW1 we first tried having a strategy game and a citybuilding game as part of it.  Then we cut the strategy and just focused on the citybuilding.  Then we revised the citybuilding bits several times.  It never really accomplished what we wanted, although each iteration was interesting in its own right.

Here there is a very defined strategy game that is extremely tightly coupled into the main Metroidvania gameplay -- you literally can't progress in either mode of play without playing them both, and you'll find yourself flipping back and forth between modes every few minutes, keeping either one from getting monotonous.  I'm extremely excited about how this is turning out on the strategic side.

The other thing is that with the first game there wasn't much of a story to speak of -- lots of backstory, sure, but not much going on with your specific characters.  Since there was permadeath, you had just a run of bunches of Generic Character #5s that you'd never get that attached to.  Here you play as one character the whole time, and there's a lot more dialogue and interactions with both your rebel allies and your evil foes.  The overlord isn't some abstract presence that is "oppressing people" in ways unseen -- he's actively out there in the world oppressing you at every turn.  No NPCs are going to have to tell you that guy has it coming. ;)

And lastly, the design has really been tightened.  Gone is the crafting, the permadeath, the missions that you go on (NPC dispatch missions are still here), the worlds of infinite size, and a host of other extraneous things that were getting in the way of the core experience.  That sounds like we've stripped a lot out, and that's true -- but what we've built instead is something more focused, and something that is actually quite a bit larger than the first game in its own way.  Rather than going for breadth of features, we went for depth, and that shows all throughout the design, I hope.

In a nutshell, I'd have to say that Valley 2 is the game we originally set out to make when we made AVWW1.  But we had to make AVWW1 first in order to gather enough research and do enough experimentation in order to make Valley 2 possible.

If you want to discuss it, the forum thread for this article is typically the best place.

Oh, and I almost forgot: we have a google spreadsheet with the status of where we are on our roadmap to 1.0.

Until next time!

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The latest on the Valley 2 schedule

Without preamble: I had been hoping to have the Valley 2 beta out to folks by around next week, but for a variety of reasons that's no longer feasible.

The short of it is that we could definitely get you a playable beta then, but it wouldn't reflect the level of polish that would do well by us.  We're getting there, but one more week just isn't going to be enough.  We're now aiming for more like 3 weeks from now until beta, and 5-6 weeks from now until the 1.0 (knock on some serious wood for the latter).  In other words, we aren't planning a long-term and protracted beta with this one.  Folks have given us vast amounts of feedback for the last year+ on AVWW1, and Valley 2 is the mature successor that's resulting.

Another way to look at it is this: it's very hard to take out much from this game and still have it completely work.  That's a good sign.  The first game was so loosely tied together, such a big collection of semi-related things, that you could easily add and remove stuff without affecting the core experience all that much.  With the sequel, there's not really anything I can think of that's in the game and not directed towards the core experience.

Anyhow, don't take this as too much of a downer message.  I've actually been on a super high since late yesterday when I finally got the new lighting model (complete with colored and shaped light sources) working.  Man but this game is night and day different from the first one -- and we just mainly want to ensure that you see it on the best possible terms when you first do see it in action.

Until next time!

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

AI War 6.0 Trailer (Also Featuring Ancient Shadows)

Version 6.0 of the cult classic strategy game AI War: Fleet Command arrives this Friday the 19th, along with its fourth expansion: Ancient Shadows.  One of the best-reviewed PC games of 2009, AI War has continued to grow each year with new expansions, new free content, and continual refinements to the deep strategic gameplay it already boasted.

Selected Reviews

AI War breaks most of the genre's rules. Which is precisely why it's incredible... This out-of-the-blue one-man passion project is one of this year's finest strategy games.
- Alec Meer, PC Gamer UK, November 2009

It's a balancing act, with your own strength on one side, and the AI's opinion of you on the other. Piss it off before you're ready to face it, and you're going to get squashed. That moment, when you're finally in a position to turn the tables, is about as glorious as gaming gets.
- Phill Cameron, Eurogamer, February 2011

I think I've stumbled across this year's Really New Thing. There's a lot of 2009 to go, but I'll be surprised if anyone else twists the RTS formula this dramatically and this effectively. And I'm hoping it'll be the Next Big Thing, because it's big, different, entirely unprecedented and an exciting way to play an RTS.
- Rush, Boom, Turtle: And Now for Something Completely Different, by Tom Chick (Crispy Gamer)

Want more reviews?

More About Ancient Shadows

Not Even The Machine Sees All...

Introducing Champions: These modular behemoths can be upgraded, gain EXP, and lend powerful aid to your main forces.  But champions possess a unique power that sets them even further apart from other units: they can explore entirely new parts of the galaxy where the AI cannot reach.  Splinter factions of humans, zenith, neinzul, and spire all dwell in those backwater nebulae.  Some are hiding.  Some are plotting.  Some have gone totally insane.  It is there, in the shadows, that your champion can find relics from the ancient race which constructed it.  What power awaits?  At what cost?

Key Features:
* A whole new kind of human player.  It's possible to control champions alongside your main fleet, or to have a friend or family member control just one single massive ship.
* Several new sub-races dwelling in the backwater parts of the galaxy for your champions to interact with.
* Modular fortresses.
* 9 new bonus ship classes.
* 3 core AI guard posts and one new minor faction.
* 2 new AI types.
* 2 new map types.
* 98 minutes of awesome new music by Pablo Vega.

For the release notes from version 5.0 to 6.0 (warning: 65k+ words!):

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

New AI War Screenshots (base game + all expansions)

It's been a couple of years since we've updated our screenshots for AI War: Fleet Command, and version 6.0 really improves the visuals of the space backgrounds.  So here's our new selection of screenshots.

As a reminder, version 6.0 of AI War is going to be coming out officially on this Friday the 19th, along with the latest expansion -- AI War: Ancient Shadows.  This will also be the debut of the latest expansion on Steam and Gamestop (which has thus far been available only through our site and GamersGate while in beta).

One more reminder: if you've had the beta of the expansion, don't forget to download the full installer on Friday.  That's the only thing that will include the new music for the expansion, which you won't want to miss out on!

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Meet Some Of The Monsters Of Valley 2 (Concept Art)

I thought that folks might enjoy seeing some more of the concept art sketches for various of the 120 new enemies that are coming for A Valley Without Wind 2.  These concept sketches are done at Heavy Cat for purposes of informing the final sprites that will be created of each monster; these aren't the actual sprites themselves, in other words.

The Overlord And His Henchmen

 Demonaica -- The Evil Overlord






A Few Monsters

 Swamp Thing

 Wall Crab

 Clockwork Blockade
Floating Bone Mass
 Hungry Ghost

 Insect Fiend
 Steam Cannon
 Steam Flyer
 Urban Tackle Droid

 Submersible Suppressor

 Slug Fiend


 Deepwoods Gargan

Ceiling Vampire

 Flying Eyeball

 Clockwork Avian

Auroch Warrior

Friday, October 5, 2012

AI War: Ancient Shadows Includes Almost 100 Minutes Of Music!

Reminder: AI War: Ancient Shadows is going to come out of beta and arrive on Steam on October 19th!  You can currently preorder and get in on the beta at the above link if you wish.  All of the features are now in place for it, and we're just going through final polishing.

Well, except for the music -- we never release the music for an expansion until it comes out of beta.  Makes it all that much more exciting, we think. Speaking of music...

Previously, we simply said that AI War: Ancient Shadows would include "a lot" of music.  Internally we were actually shooting for 90 minutes of music, which is almost double what any of our other expansions for AI War have ever had.  We didn't say that publicly since we weren't sure that we could pull it off in such a crazy short time period -- that was certainly asking a lot of our composer!

But Pablo, true to form, not only met the goal but came in with 98 minutes and 5 seconds of music in all.  Here's the full track list:

AI War: Ancient Shadows
Music by Pablo Vega

Chapter I: The Human Awakening

1. Arise Sleeping Warriors
2. An Unfamiliar World
3. A War Worth Fighting
4. Ambitious Design
5. AI Revolution
6. Ancient Shadows

Chapter II: The Zenith Revival

7. Immortal
8. Imminent Annihilation
9. Inquisition Of The Stars
10. Incarnate Race
11. Imitated And Integrated
12. Ironclad

Chapter III: Revenge Of The Spire

13. Waking To Darkness
14. Worshipped Wasteland
15. Watching The Night Sky
16. Whispers Of Hope
17. Wrath Of The Spire
18. Welcome To The End

Bonus Track: 19. Ancient Shadows - Title

And here are some previews on soundcloud, the first two of which are being shown for the first time today!

Friday, September 28, 2012

A Valley Without Wind 2 - a full sequel free for existing customers - is coming.

I've been hinting about this over here, and actually answered a lot of questions about it.  However, we were planning on doing a big announcement through an interview with a major news site to announce the game, and so we didn't want to say too much.

We're now reversing that stance, however.  We actually don't particularly want major news coverage about this in advance of it being playable, we decided.  Why?  We don't want it to be over-hyped, and we don't want to run up against potential skepticism for people who didn't like the first game.  We're still in the process of getting the art assets together to where we could really do a true announcement, and so we haven't even contacted any of the press just yet about it.

Warning: extremely long post incoming.  But you already know that if you read this blog much. ;)

Is this really a sequel?
Make no mistake, Valley 2 is a true sequel -- it's a lot more different from the first game than many sequels are compared to their original.  There are a lot of changes I've been wanting to make for a while to the game, but these changes were too deep to do without angering players who bought one game and then had us change it on them to that degree.  This way players can keep playing the original in its current state (though we won't be doing much more of anything to update the original game from here on out), and they can also enjoy the awesome sequel for free as well.
 A Time Of Magic object in a finished-but-for-final-shading-and-texturing state.

And I get this for free if I already have the first game?
Yeah.  Basically everyone will be getting both games whenever they buy either one.  Kind of like what Zeboyd Games does with Breath of Death 7 and C Saves the World.  You get both for the price of one.

Why do it this way?  Well, we think that's fairest to existing customers, for one.  And for two, we don't think anyone will be much inclined to buy the first game after they see the second.  But the first game is cool in its own right, and so that's something we wanted to preserve.   It breaks a lot of new ground that no other games have ever experimented in before, and we didn't want to just throw that out.  The game isn't perfect, and it doesn't last forever, but it's fun for a goodly number of hours and it's something that people should be able to experience for years to come if they're into that sort of thing.  Meanwhile we get to move the "Valley franchise" forward in the manner of our choosing with the sequel.
 Cool "Pencil test" of a burly man walking animation.

So what's different, already!?
It's almost easier to define what is not different.  But here are some of the highlights in no particular order.

- Completely new enemies.  At the moment, 120 have been designed and are scheduled for art and programming, but not all will be available right at first beta.  They have a lot more variety of designs both artistically and in terms of gameplay, and they are in general a lot smaller and thus something you can get more up close and personal with.  In general the feel is closer to a Metroid game or similar in terms of the scale of enemies (whereas previously in AVWW1 the enemies were 4x to 8x larger than in Metroid in many cases).

- Completely new procedural generation methods.  We'll be using a "slices" methodology to create undergrounds, interiors, and exteriors.   This basically uses pieces of chunks that are created by hand in a level editor and then assembled and populated randomly.  Although enemy placement will be done by the 11 broad classes of enemy, and thus will be hand-done.  That way you'll get much more interesting and unique scenarios with enemies compared to what you did in the first game.

-Huuuuge new citybuilding game that ties everything together.  This is much more descended from Actraiser now.  Keith and I spent four days on skype designing out the new game, and this was one of the biggest topics.  The new citybuilding game uses dozens of buildings on the map that you capture, and some of which you can convert into other building types.  You can give your survivors orders, and they gain skills in five skill categories based on what missions you send them on.

- The dispatch model for NPCs is completely different and much improved now; no more moods, profession books, or gifts.  No more professions at all, in fact.  These were grindy and annoying, and we have a much better model that involves multi-NPC dispatches and skill points in five categories that improve based on successful missions.  Plus the risk of death on missions will be a lot lower than in the first game, meaning you're not feeling so heartless sending these poor folks out.  There's more strategy and less cannon fodder.

Incomplete view of one generated world map in an external diagnostic tool.

-Entirely turn-based in the macro-game.  The citybuilding stuff is all turn-based, and even the day/night cycle is now turn-based.  It flips back and forth between day and night as you change turns.  There are thematic reasons for this, and it lets us have a unified timescale rather than a separate day/night cycle and time period cycle.

-It is actually possible to win the game.  Each game is more randomized in how it unfolds, and basically plays out across what would be a super-continent in the old game.  Much larger than a single continent, but not infinitely large.  In fact, the entire world is generated right when you start it (as with a galaxy in AI War) and that becomes the basis of how you plan out your advances and strategy of how you're going to become more powerful.  When you actually defeat the overlord, you win the game.  If you play it again, the game will play out quite differently.

-Since these are now more finite campaign-style engagements more like we have with AI War, this also means that you won't be able to change the difficulty once you start the game.  This makes each campaign a finite experience that you play, win or lose, and then play again if you like.  You can even set the size of the world that you want from a dropdown, and that will also affect how many levels you get from each level-up tower that you conquer on the map.

-Isometric world map!  Enough said. :)

-You are not a glyphbearer.  You're actually a former henchman-in-training of the overlord; so kind of a bad person turned good.  You've got an Oblivion Crystal which serves a different function from the glyph but occupies the same space.

-No more permadeath.  The oblivion crystals prevent you from dying, and instead bring you back from the dead anytime you die.  Your survivors can (and will) still die permanently, however.  The overlord and his other henchmen also have oblivion crystals, however, so they are literally invincibile also.  They can be killed same as you, but they'll come back to life and return to fight another day if you defeat them.  You'll face the henchmen several times and defeat them several times on your quest to beat the overlord, but if you see the overlord before the end of the game (which will happen from time to time) you had better run instead of trying to fight him.
  A Bronze Age object in a finished-but-for-final-shading-and-texturing state.

-Ilari are nowhere to be found.  All those guardian stones, and indeed the glyphbearers in general?  It's not just that you aren't a glyphbearer -- they don't exist in this part of Environ.  Similarly, the wind never reached the level where it drives people crazy here.  Wind is still a big problem all over the world map, and prevents your movement -- you'll have to "purify" tiles in order to be able to advance further on the world map because of the wind.  But in general, this means that there are pockets of people all over the place, rather than people coming together for big settlements huddling around the Ilari.  Environ is a big world, so this is just a part of it that is neglected by the Ilari and thus has woes of its own.

-No more settlements, and survivors don't need to be rescued.  It's been a year since the events of the first game, and people are pretty used to what has happened by now.  Your problem isn't to rescue the survivors, it's to recruit them.  For that you'll use other survivors who will be dispatched to convince them to join your uprising against your former master.

-The overlord and his henchmen actively terrorize the countryside.  You'll see their tokens moving around and literally destroying buildings of yours every few turns on the macrogame side.  Your survivors don't stand a chance against them in combat, so the only thing you can do is to try and create "reverse traveling salesman" problems for the overlord and his minions, while also rebuilding as you go.

-You're not just fighting Generic Overlord #5 and his lieutenants.  The sole overlord you'll be facing in this game (for now) is named Demonaica and has a specific look, backstory, and all that good stuff.  His henchmen (which differ from lieutenants in many important ways) are named Slender, Lilith, Vorgga, Fanzara, and Wordrak.
A Wild Garden Age throne in a finished-but-for-final-shading-and-texturing state.

-Speaking of which, since there is no longer permadeath you won't be playing a long line of characters you barely care about.  When you start a new game, you'll create your character and then that will be your character for the rest of that campaign.  The basic character creation process is much like in the first game, except that you get to choose from any time period right from the start rather than having to unlock them.  Then as you go through the game, there are a ton of new character customization options that you'll run into (see below for more info).

-There is an all-new roster of 24 unique characters.  There are four each -- two male and two female -- from six time periods.  You cannot play as Draconites (who are not in this game, though tons more dinosaurs are in general), nor can you play as Neutral Skelebots (also not in this game, though several new enemy skelebot types are), nor can you play as ice age characters (which were over-represented in the first game, so I wanted to do something different).

 Some new character portraits at a finished-but-for-final-shading-and-texturing state.

-No more inventory, or loose items, or crafting (please don't freak out, you'll see why in a minute).  This means no more stash rooms, and no more item pickups, and no more opal guardian store or consciousness shards.  No more spellgems, no more spell scrolls, no more grinding to find stuff in various random parts of the world.  No more materials, or placing wooden platforms or crates, or using settlement stockpiles (no settlements, recall?).  I'm sure some of your are thinking "WTF" about this particular line item, so let me explain the subsystem we have in place of all that -- it's much more streamlined and lets you get to the meat of this game much better.

-First off, there is now a class system that lets you choose what kind of mage you're going to be.  There are five overall tiers of mage classes, and you'll unlock each of them as you play through the game.  The first tier you start out with, and you can choose from among 5 randomized mage classes to play as.  Overall there are 10 mage classes per tier, and so each playthrough is a bit different as you have different options each time.  Each player in multiplayer also has their own randomized set of classes, too.

First 25 mage class icons in a final state (plus 2 sketches).

-So what is a mage class?  Essentially it defines your basic abilities.  The way the game controls is now completely different, and a lot more like a classic Metroidvania title rather than taking inspiration from MMOs.  This way always our goal with the first title, but somewhere along the lines we strayed.  You'll always have four abilities at your fingertips, which are entirely set by which mage class you choose.  Each mage class has a primary, a secondary, a special, and an ammo-based attack.  This lets us hand-tune the combinations of spells to make many interesting sets that you'll switch between on occasion depending on what kind of area you're about to embark into.

-The controls are also streamlined.  That whole mouse+keyboard thing was really a bad idea, as some players pointed out to us.  That sort of freedom of aiming really kills the classic Metroidvania style of a game like this, and makes it so that keyboard-only players and gamepad-only players are at a huge disadvantage.  So we're moving down to two streamline control schemes that are equivalent with one another: keyboard-based and gamepad-based.  And yes, the tab-targeting is gone since that basically acts like a cheat at this point without free-aiming of the mouse.

Please note!  We're not just taking away control options for kicks, or because we think people were "doing it wrong."  But the fact remains that generally a game is built around its controls, especially as an action game.  We're trying to maintain as much flexibility in the controls as we can while not making it so that people are playing fundamentally different games that we can't make universally fun.  Placing wooden platforms was trivial with the mouse, and so is killing a bat.  But it's incredibly frustrating with any other sort of input.  When you get right down to it, what we're trying to make is a Metroidvania game, and I don't personally know of any of them that use a mouse-style of control.  Hence we're going a bit more standardized with that, and I have to say the controls feel really good.
 Lighthouse building in a final state.

- But back to the whole customization thing.  Rather than customizing yourself with what you craft or what you happen to randomly find from missions or in a cavern, now you customize yourself with perks and feats.  

-Perks: Each time the world level goes up, everybody gets a list of new perks that they can apply to themselves.  You can choose only one per level to apply to yourself, but you can reconfigure your choices later if you change your mind (not in the field; when you return to certain safe places).  There are 20 possible levels to attain, and 5 perks per level.  However, only a randomized 2 perks will be available to all players right at the start of achieving any particular level.  By exploration, players can find tokens that will unlock the other three perks on each level and thus let them further customize themselves.

Perks are basically things like improved health or speed, better jump height, etc.  They are largely replacing the enchants model from the first game (enchants are also gone).

-Feats: feats are actually active abilities that you can trigger on yourself, like double jump, miniaturize, etc.  You start out without any of these, but you can acquire them by busting into skelebot research facilities and hacking their mainframes.

-The last way that you can customize yourself is by the choices made on the world map, in the macro-game.  These are choices that affect all players, and/or survivors.  By capturing certain buildings, for instance, you can increase the distance you can see in dark places.  By capturing others, you can make it so that you are able to go into excessively hot or cold areas (the heatsuits and snowsuits are replaced by this mechanic that is integrated into the strategy/citybuilding side of the game).

-In general, this game is really a mix of straight-up Metroidvania style shooting and dodging with the longer-term thinking and planning on the world map.  With customization and character loadout choices thrown in -- made more interesting by the fact that you can't just line up all the "best" spells, but instead have to choose which full loadouts will best fit the current circumstances.  So there's quite a few more interesting choices to make now, without there being so many individual choices to make except in the macro-game.
 A Wild Garden Age statue in a finished-but-for-final-shading-and-texturing state.

-Physics!  The physics of the game are also going to be tuned quite a bit.  That's something we haven't implemented yet, but we're experimenting around with various ideas for it and think we know of a number of ways to make that feel smoother and nicer.  Simply having it so that the terrain is actually built for you rather than just being procedural all over the place is going to make a big difference, of course.

-Bosses!  There's going to be a lot less emphasis on bosses in general in this game, because they were too frequent in the previous game.  However, the encounters with regular enemies will be a lot more interesting because of that.  With bosses we're going to be moving to multi-stage behaviors where they shift behaviors mid-fight.  We'll also be having smaller, saner boss rooms that really give a better Metroidvania vibe.

-Spells!  Some of the old spells, like shields and seize and so forth, are being removed -- they either weren't useful enough (seize) or they were unbalancingly useful (shields).  We'll also be revising most spells in general, adjusting their characteristics and size and move speeds and all that.  These go along with the physics changes in general, and bosses will get the same treatment.  And then we're also going to be adding just tons and tons of new spells and spell visuals for all the mage classes.  a number of them will essentially be visual upgrades from one spell to another, but that's something players have asked for for a while; essentially there won't be any invisible "this spell is stronger but looks the same" modifiers or levels.  The stronger ones will look it!  Spells also will have a vastly lower cooldown across the board, meaning that you can get a much more satisfyingly fast-and-furious effect with them.

-Ammo!  A single spell out of the four you get from each class will be ammo-based.  Enemies will drop either health or ammo when you kill them, and each ammo pickup is only part of what is needed to cast the ammo-based spell once.  So these ammo-based spells are really something that you'll want to use sparingly, but since there is a pretty low cap on how much ammo you can hoard, you're still encouraged to use them periodically.  Like in a Metroid game rather than in something like Final Fantasy where I hardly ever use a consumable weapon.  And not all the ammo spells are weapons -- one of the animal-related mage classes has an ammo ability to turn into a bat (as in the first game), and that effect lasts until you take a hit.

-Health!  In general, after playing a lot of Cave Story and Super Metroid and similar games lately, we've realized that in AVWW1 players really have too much health.  And so do many of the monsters.  All in all it was trying to be a bit RPG-like and thus turning into a bit of a slug-fest.  That's something we're rebalancing entirely to be more in keeping with the other Metroidvania titles, and even games like Zelda.  That's one of several things that should lead to a much more satisfying experience in our opinion.

 An evergreen forest object in a finished-but-for-final-shading-and-texturing state.

-I've mentioned that missions are gone, but I've not mentioned what is replacing those.  That's a bit hard to answer in a specific fashion.  I suppose the best answer would be "the game."  In other words, AVWW1 was kind of an undirected sandbox in most areas, but in some areas you could take on these instance-based missions and have a somewhat more directed time with them.  In Valley 2, the entire flow and point of everything is different.  All of your adventuring is directly in service of your larger strategic/citybuilding goals, and your strategic/citybuilding goals feed right back into making you more powerful so that you can take down the overlord.  

It's a much more tightly integrated loop there, AND the actual gameplay locations for the game in general are more unique and interesting, so the need for missions themselves really vanishes.  Which is a good thing in my opinion, as they felt a bit artificial in execution anyhow.  I really prefer how everything is so concrete here and is so tied together into your overall goals of both halves of the game.

 -Call in the Mercenaries!  Some parts of the game will intentionally have uneven difficulty, however.  These particularly challenging areas are often caused by enemy buildings that project onto the world map tiles nearest to them (and some other enemy buildings block travel on the world map until you send your survivors to destroy them, incidentally).  Sometimes you'll need a bit of an extra push to make it through an area like this.  Well, another thing that you can collect out in the world are mercenary coins which you can then use to call the mercenaries in on a hotline.  When you do so, they'll travel with you like a familiar (or like one of those NPCs from the first game that floats after you during a rescue).  They'll stay with you until the next level-up or until they die, and the added firepower can be a real boon.  It's also another decision point on how you best use your resources, which is critical on higher difficulties.

 A Wild Garden Age object in a finished-but-for-final-shading-and-texturing state.

- If you're interested, the citybuilding/strategic model has five main resources: Food, Scrap, Mana, Morale, and Housing.  Each one of those works differently from the other, and each one can only be impacted by your actions in the strategic mode; so in other words, you can't play a poor strategic game but then grind on the adventure side to make up for it.  We've put in a lot of work to make sure that while the two modes do have tight integration between one another, you can't just grind in one mode to win at the other.  You have to actually play well (for the difficulty level you've chosen) at each half of the game to win.  And you'll be flipping back and forth between modes pretty regularly, to keep either side from getting stale; each enriches the other.

-Oh, and yes: you can also lose the game, as well as being able to win it, now.  Despite the fact that you are un-killable thanks to your oblivion crystal, if all your survivors die then you lose.

-And also: there's all new objects for the game in terms of the art, too.  As you've seen throughout this post, Heavy Cat is working on all-new time-period-appropriate art that is a lot cooler and more unique than what we had in AVWW1.

- Also also: the platforming difficulty is going away, as are most of the things it affected.  No more falling damage, no more rising lava, no more bouncing spike traps (regular spike traps remain, though, as do dangerfalls, blade traps, and mines).  Also the freefall missions might be gone, but their concept is retained through some freefall segments you'll run into from time to time.

Monster at the sketch stage: Procompsognathus. And yes, one mage class can transform into these.

Overall Goals
So!  If you've read all of this, then I imagine you found it quite a lot to parse.  It was obviously aimed at people already very familiar with the first game, and so highlights all the differences -- of which there are quite a few.  But why so many changes?  Did we really have to change X or Y?  Wasn't X or Y feature in the first game really fun, and thus shouldn't it have been included in the sequel?

I'm sure I'm going to be fielding lots of those sorts of questions, but the general answer to those questions is: we made the choices we did because it contributes to an overall tighter, more cohesive game.  A few specific examples below:

Loss of the sandbox
The first game was trying to be both a sandbox and a directed game, and that's just not very possible -- or at least not in a way we were happy with.  The first game was always hugely successful at being a sandbox you could just run around in and have a good time at, but it was substantially less good at providing a forward-moving experience with tension and a satisfying game arc.

That was something we repeatedly tried to address throughout the beta of the first game and after it's release.  However, we met with only mixed success.  At this point I'm convinced that we took those concepts as far as we were able to in the framework of the first game.

Thus we really needed to get back to the roots of what we wanted to build in the first place before sandboxiness invaded the first game's design: a spiritual sequel to Actraiser with a much deeper citybuilding/strategic component, and with better platforming in a Metroidvania style.  

In order to do that, we needed to not have players faffing around with endless collection quests trying to find materials for crafting, or grinding for just the right spells, or doing all that manner of thing.  Instead we needed to have some broad and important choices that players could make quickly to customize their character and then could later change at will if they changed their minds.  

That sort of thing keeps the action and the strategy game moving, but it means that we basically had to cut out this.  But that was fun!  That's why we still have the first game as a separate product that we bundle with the sequel (and vice-versa).  That way you can play the more sandboxy game, or you can play the more directed, intense, interesting game.
 Monster at the sketch stage: Ice Esper.

Loss of the mouse controls and shield spells
Both of these things have an enormous impact on balance.  You could argue that these things are a matter of taste and customization, and I'd have to agree -- that's why they are in the first game, and why they remain there.  But these were one of the biggest ongoing challenges to balance in the first game for me, and they are things that really put large segments of the player populace at a disadvantage if they don't use them.

Here again, it comes to getting back to the roots of what we were trying to do.  Yes, Terraria uses the mouse controls -- so do numerous other PC action-adventure games with a 2D sidescroller view.  So do a lot of MMOs and RPGs.

In the first game we were really enticed by the allure of all those things, and so we let our design drift and become unfocused.  In other words, the design tried to become all things to all people, and Environ became a world that you could come and do whatever you wanted in.  That's pretty fun!  But it's very difficult to make a truly compelling game that way.  What we needed to do with the sequel was really focus, and make the original game we set out to do.

In terms of Mario Bros. games, what if Mario had a rocket launcher he could aim in any direction?  What if he had a force field he could toggle on and off periodically at will?  That might be entertaining for a bit, but that would fundamentally make a different game, I think.  And I don't think a better game -- for Mario, all the enemies are designed around him not having abilities like that.  So to give him those abilities means the levels would be crazy easy and hollow.

On the flip side, the game Intrusion 2 uses mechanics like aim-anywhere firing, and it's a brilliant game.  All the enemies are designed around the powers that your avatar has, and so everything fits together just right.  But of course the character there doesn't have the movement abilities that Mario does -- if the character there had that kind of speed and jumping ability, then I suspect its mechanics would really start to break down -- in the same way Mario would if you gave the wrong weapons to him.
 A Wild Garden Age skeleton in a finished-but-for-final-shading-and-texturing state.

What I'm saying is, games are additive in nature -- you can't just throw any old thing in there and expect it to be the same game.  If you add a single new piece to Chess, you've dramatically changed that game.  It doesn't matter what the piece even does.

In the case of AVWW1, we had the movement speed of Mario 3 or so, and the aim-anywhere nature of Intrusion 2.  We also had control schemes that did not support aim-anywhere, and that made it so that players were playing two different games.  And that meant that enemies really couldn't be balanced around either, since in some cases could aim super-precisely and in others they could not aim remotely that well.  What a mess.

Again, I still think that really worked out pretty well in the main, but it's definitely a more niche experience and a bit rougher around the edges because of that.  By focusing on specifically the kind of game we're actually trying to make, and not dragging in stuff from other unrelated genres if it doesn't really complement it well, we have something that's a lot tighter and more fun.  It's not about taking options away from players it's about creating one game at a time rather than a whole soup of games.

And of course then we're adding tons of options in the style of the core gameplay that we're going for, too.  (As noted throughout the document above).  So there is that. ;)

We still have a long way to go before we're ready to let people start playing the beta of this, but we should be ready for it in the November timeframe.  We're really excited about how it's coming along, though!

Here's the forum thread for this post if you want to join in the discussion about it.