History has no shortage of brutal games about blowing up aliens, demons, or the undead to a metal soundtrack. Doom has certainly brought that back into the mainstream as of late. However, it isn’t quite so often that the traditional aesthetic of heavy metal is the core focus of the game. With developer Steel Mantis‘ Valfaris – much like Slain: Back from Hell – the music, visuals, and gameplay feel like they were pulled straight out of an Iron Maiden album cover, and it works.
Fear of the Dark
The transition of ‘brutal’ games from dark and foreboding to a much more bold and colorful place has been one that made the genre a great deal more appealing. Valfaris is very comfortable in this spectrum. The game immediately bombards you with a design filled with vivid color as well as grotesque environments and enemies for you to wail on with your weapons.
The game sets you up in the role of Therion, who is some sort of undefined warrior sailing through space on a ship shaped like a wolf. You have just rediscovered your lost homeland, Valfaris, and decide to swoop in to check it out. But of course, it’s swarming with all sorts of nasty enemies. The bit of story within the game expands on your role as the son of the (now former) leader of Valfaris, and you discover what happened since the space-bound city had gone missing.
Not Afraid to Shoot Strangers
Valfaris wastes no time having you plunge into the role of tearing apart enemies. With your character wielding a gun and a sword at the same time, you end up using both quite liberally in this process. This may be one of the first games where I’ve used ranged and melee in almost equal parts. Normally, in games where that’s an option, I end up leaning on one way more than the other.
There are three slots available, one for your primary weapon, one for the melee, and one for a specialty ranged weapon that uses your energy. Energy is also used for your shield, so there is a tradeoff in firing that specialty weapon. However, hits with the melee weapon provide regeneration for your energy, so you’re motivated to get in close and start sword fighting.
Each of these slots has a decent collection of weapons you can obtain throughout gameplay. Some seem less useful than others, but they are all unique. You can also upgrade each one independently with items you collect to give them more damage and some extra functionality that is useful in particular areas of the game. The upgrade items are sparse compared to the number of weapons you get, but another collected item, the Resurrection Idol, can make them a little more common – if you choose.
Within the game, you’ll pick up many Resurrection Idols. These floating green icons have several uses, but their most important is allowing you to enable checkpoint altars that you respawn at when you die. Of course, when I say “most important,” it’s relative to their similarly important role of increasing your health bar. So every time you pick one up, you’re harder to kill. However, spending them to enable checkpoints prevents you from having to repeat large portions of levels when you die.
This tradeoff is a great addition to the game. It gives you the option to trade the potential replaying large chunks of the game for being a lot harder to kill. Every time you come to a checkpoint altar, you get to look back and say, “How tough was that? Could I do it again?” The answer, for me, was generally, “yeah I need this checkpoint,” but for some – probably the Dark Souls crowd – the reward may outweigh the frustration of replaying areas.
Of course, Resurrection Idols have a third use – you can also trade them in at certain locations for additional weapon upgrade material. This can be extremely helpful, but if I knew what weapons I was going to use most often, I might have avoided trading in many at all since I upgraded some weapons that I rarely used in the rest of the game.
Valfaris, with its ‘tough, but fair’ difficulty level and creative enemy and boss design is simply fun to play. The powerful screen-shaking attacks you deliver (and receive) make the fact that you’re going to die dozens of times a lot easier to forget. I did have some issues though. There were a few moments where I questioned the volume of enemies thrown at you in just random bits of the level. I even had some problems where the game was extremely choppy even though the framerate was still sitting at (locked) at 60. Even with those issues, though, it was fun to play.
I think if you have a taste for gory metal-infused universes and some tough part-Mega Man/Contra, part-Ninja Gaiden gameplay, Valfaris is definitely a game to pick up. It feels more cohesive and a bit fairer than Slain did, which is a great thing to see in a follow up from a developer. You just have to be able to tolerate getting your ass kicked – which seems to be something a lot more people are cool with these days than they used to be.
Did you try Valfaris? What do you think of it? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.
Valfaris is a challenging but well-designed classic sidescrolling shooter with an interesting twist on the progress and save mechanics. It also pushes the "heavy metal" aesthetic to the max both in visuals and music throughout.
- Great heavy metal aesthetic
- Functional and fun sidescrolling shooter/melee mechanics
- Unique checkpoint and health combination design
- Challenging gameplay that isn't too punishing
- Some strange slowdown issues throughout the game
- A few random difficulty spikes that seemed unnecessary