The concept of subtlety doesn’t exist in the world of Valfaris, a grimdark sci-fi realm where a grizzled warrior crashes his ship onto an alien world, shooting, slashing and headbanging everything that dares move in the name of vengeance and violence. You’ll shotgun bugs into red mist, collect guns obsessively named around the word ‘Hell’ and ride defeated bosses in the ultimate act of humiliation/ad hoc transportation. And you’ll do it all the glorious sound of crushing heavy metal riffs. Those expecting deft storytelling and delicate subtext need not apply.
Therion is the man of the hour, a long-haired destroyer decked in blood-red armour that wouldn’t look out of place in a Francis Ford Coppola take on Warhammer 40K. His homeworld, the titular Valfaris, has reappeared in orbit around a dying star, but this once impressive citadel has been reduced to an alien nightmare, and Therion suspects his own father is involved in the arcane tomfoolery bubbling at its heart. So he takes his wolf-shaped starship, lands on the surface like a fashionably late rockstar and starts slaughtering with wanton abandon.
Coming from Steel Mantis – the two-man development team that previously brought you the disappointing Slain: Back from Hell – this side-scrolling action-platformer wears its gaming inspiration like a proud badge of honour. With its big guns, constant influx of alien monsters and interspersed platforming sections, this is very much a throwback to the early ’90s heydey of Contra, Turrican and Mega Man of old. It certainly doesn’t reach the quality these greats achieved almost 30 years ago, but it does its best to invoke an era where levels were fast, frenetic and purposefully challenging.
Of course, following in the wake of Slain does bring challenges of its own. In the kindest possible terms, that Gothic action platformer was a bit of a mess, but there were glimmers of a decent game beneath all those faults. Valfaris very much follows the same basic template – fight your way through a series of linear, pixel art levels and defeat a boss at the end of each one – while stirring in new ideas to the mix and re-introducing some old problems as well. For instance, the controls are far more responsive than the clunky scheme used for Slain, but there were more than a few occasions where inputs simply didn’t register, resulting in a boss eviscerating us at the moment of victory. It’s also too reliant on difficult for difficulty’s sake, much like its predecessor, but the inconsistency of that curve isn’t as crippling this time around. It's possible to utilise a lot more strategy, but some bosses are a straight-up lucky draw.
The melee skills and combos – one of the few areas Slain excelled in – have been dropped in favour of a series of basic swords (each with their own stats), while the magic system has been replaced with increasingly more powerful guns. Whereas Slain required a more methodical approach, Valfaris opts for simplicity and speed. Its guns are gloriously meaty to use; the Gatling gun barrage of the Hellwraith turns the wide variety of enemies you’ll slay into alien mincemeat, while the Envoy of Destruction packs high damage at the cost of a slow fire rate. However, having these mapped to the face buttons (‘Y’ for your main weapon, ‘X’ for your melee and ‘A’ for your secondary) doesn’t make for a smooth setup as these weapons are designed to be ‘comboed’ together, and a noticeable delay when interchanging between each one can make utilising the strength of your customised loadout far less enjoyable.
There’s no dodge button this time either, which makes a huge difference when facing larger and more deadly enemies (such as a beast that fires giant green blasts at you while teleporting across the screen and slashing you to ribbons if you stray too close). Your floaty movement makes dodging these attacks more a case of luck than strategy, especially when jumping down between platforms (the only really effective method for battling larger enemies) doesn’t always work. Valfaris just needed an extra string to its movement repertoire to give Therion – and you, the player – a little more agency amid the chaos. You do have a shield, mapped to ‘ZL’, which you can use to absorb incoming projectiles and, if timed right, send them back to their attacker. It doesn’t make up for the lack of a dodge or dash, but it does improve your defensive capability.
Checkpoints – or the sheer lack thereof – were a serious issue with Slain, but it’s something that’s been confidently addressed with the introduction of Resurrection Idols and regular respawn points. Valfaris has certainly inherited an unpredictable difficulty curve, but the introduction of these glowing green tokens helps take the edge off those more unrelenting moments while offering a reward for those bold enough to ignore such checkpoints. Any collected tokens are saved between deaths, and the more you collect without using (either to activate spawn points or in exchange for metal that upgrades your weapons), the larger your health and spirit bars become. There are a finite number of Relics to collect, but having a larger pool of health can make all the difference – however, doing so comes with the risk of dying and being respawned at a checkpoint much further back in a level.
It’s a smart system, and one that works well when the game isn’t actively trying to undo its itself with a familiar problem. The sheer unrelenting waves of enemies that made the previous game such a bore have – thankfully – been toned down, but there were more than enough instances (especially in the later levels) where enemies respawn almost immediately, a factor that reduces strategy to hope and prayer. There’s no real room for exploration, but as you systematically unlock new weapons (which can be upgraded and swapped out at each activated spawn point), you’re left wanting more reasons to revisit levels and utilise new weaponry to unlock additional areas.
While it can often sell itself short in terms of gameplay, Valfaris has style in aesthetic abundance. Every level is filled with lavish details, from exotic alien swamps to the organic hallways of a giant hive, and you’re constantly having to adapt to new enemies with varying attack styles and speeds. Therion himself glows when he’s unleashing a barrage of superheated death, while enemies crumble into gore and viscera when you land a killing blow. Oh, and the headbanging animation that kicks in every time you discover a new weapon is just ludicrously awesome. It’s impossible not to appreciate Curt Victor Bryant’s doom metal soundtrack too, offering a refreshingly heavy alternative to the pedestrian chiptune soundtracks we’re used to with this type of game.
Overall, Valfaris is a much better game than its predecessor, introducing new systems and ideas to help keep its action-platformer formula engaging and interesting. The hand-crafted pixel art style and the brutally joyous soundtrack really elevate the whole experience, even if it ends up falling back into some bad habits. An unpredictable difficulty curve mixed with an occasionally messy approach to enemy spawning can make some levels a blood pressure-spiking experience, but when it’s not trying to undo its own achievements, you’re left with a linear side-scrolling shooter that delivers a mosh pit of monsters, mayhem and metal.