The team that created Slain: Back From Hell blasts out their new game from the fiery depths of Lucifer’s furnace straight into the far reaches of space. While the resurrected phoenix of Steel Mantis’ last game didn’t quite rise to meet its potential, Valfaris comes flying out guns blazing with an air guitar at the ready.
We play as Therion – son of Vroll – who must scope out an alien planet where his father had once ruled. Taking a side step from the melee-heavy antics from the studio’s last venture, Valfaris mixes close-quarters combat with a trenchcoat full of firepower. The result is Contra crossed with Doom, sewn together with heavy metal album covers boiled into a xenomorph stew and a sprawling biological landscape where the only friend you have is an apparitional AI assistant to help aid your way in the search for answers.
Therion has three attacks at his disposal: a standard weapon type that holds an infinite amount of ammo; a weighty short-ranged attack that will refill your power meter with every strike; and a more powerful secondary weapon that burns meter with a much stronger output. He can also use this same meter to fuel a defensive shield – which can counter a projectile back to its sender if timed right – or even stun an enemy with a successful melee parry. When all are dancing together, meter management and refill acquirement soon become a satisfying juggling act that leaves no skill neglected.
It’s a combination that really works well for Valfaris’ high-octane approach. Weaker enemies can be disposed of quickly with the standard weapon or can be farmed to keep the bigger gun topped up ready for when stronger foes are thrown into the mix. There’s a decent balance of having to think about what’s in front of you without becoming too taxing in execution. While there are plenty of areas to investigate to reap rewards, there’s very little in regards to puzzle-solving which fits nicely in this case not to break the tempo.
The gap between checkpoints is very generous with a catch. To activate a checkpoint the player must insert an Idol of Resurrection which are often found hidden or strategically placed throughout the game. The thing is, an Idol of Resurrection will also increase Therion’s life meter if the player decides not to spend it. There’s also the option to trade them for a Blood Metal alloy which can be used to boost weapon abilities. Despite usually anchoring the Idol of Resurrection into checkpoint landmarks, it did give me more reasons to explore the landscapes and even gamble skipping some checkpoints altogether. With so many different types of weapons to be found and upgrade, obtaining Blood Metals soon became something that was tempting enough to exchange for rather than just stumble across.
With all these mechanics working together, Valfaris becomes a much more intriguing voyage than the average Contra-inspired shooter it could have easily have been. Certain weapons can be heavily relied upon due to their practical use and upgrade potential, which did give me little reason to experiment too much. However, when I would start to play around with something new I often found that they had more worth than first meets the eye. Which goes to say, it’s very unlikely that many will upgrade all available weapons during the first playthrough. Unless of course, you’re willing to risk it for a biscuit and completely neglect activating checkpoints.
Valfaris happens to be a good looking game, too. It has an interesting art style that sort of toys with 2D pixel graphics to look somewhat like a vanilla PlayStation or SEGA Saturn game. Usually, a game of that generation really doesn’t have the same eye-candy appeal that their 16-bit predecessors still have today. Yet somehow, there’s a really unique visual charm to Valfaris that just works. The heavy-metal soundtrack to accompany the visuals fits just as well here as it did in Slain: Back From Hell, in not being too on the nose for those not quite as keen on that particular taste in music. In fact, it’s a pretty great soundtrack, especially during the boss battles – something Valfaris is never short on.
Although I did find some enjoyment from my time with Slain: Back From Hell, it was pretty clear that its problems far outweighed the game’s potential. It’s fantastic to see, then, that Steel Mantis has gone back to the drawing board and really taken the time to figure out how to play their next move. Venturing through organic alien landscapes and through the dreaded depths of an extra-terrestrial catacomb keeps the eye-candy interesting and consistent. The level design keeps the gameplay variable beyond its influenced nature with some intelligent pacing and platforming to boot. There’s really never a dull moment in Valfaris, which is pushed further by maintaining a challenge while not feeling too overwhelming at any given moment.
Needless to say, I really liked how Valfaris has turned out. Its old school roots of arcade run-and-gun feel nurtured and cared for in a way that freshens the genre up with some great ideas, a balanced difficulty curve, wonderful level design, tight controls and a wide variety of enemies to plow through. It never tries to be anything more than it needs to be, including the time it takes to beat it. It’s the developer’s second chance at a first impression that deserves to make as much noise as the pluck shredding the strings of the electric guitar that used to compose the game’s soundtrack. With a promised Full Metal Mode in the works to ramp up the challenge, I can really see myself venturing back into the intergalactic undergrowth of the dangerous planet known as Valfaris.
Version Tested: Nintendo Switch
Review copy provided by Big Sugar