You’d struggle to find a set of games better suited to a convenient retro compilation than Valis: The Phantasm Soldier. The late '80s/early '90s platform-shooter Castlevania-ish hybrid series spans at least half a dozen formats from esoteric Japanese computers to the Mega Drive, each release — even when they’re supposed to be representing the same game — often remarkably different from the last; each one worth playing in their own right even if only for historical curiosity’s sake.

Sadly that’s not what Valis: The Fantasm Soldier Collection is. Instead we get a trio of PC Engine Valis’ with Japanese text and speech only in the import version we reviewed — the upcoming localisation for the West will feature English subtitles on eShop and the Limited Run physical release. There’s nothing wrong with just the PC Engine versions in theory (it is certainly the format that tends to spring to mind when most people think of the series), but this isn’t described as ‘Valis: The PC Engine Collection’ and 'rewriting' an entire series’ history purely for commercial convenience isn’t something any of us should be encouraging. And even if PC Engine Valis is all you’ve ever known, wanted, or cared about, there’s still a problem: this collection is incomplete.

We’re not even concerned about the lack of the relatively obscure and completely frivolous Valis Visual Collection disc either — it’s Valis IV that’s missing. All of it, completely. The vastly reworked Super Valis IV for SNES is available to Nintendo Switch Online subscribers, of course, but the PC Engine version is absent here. We hoped against hope it would be a cheeky surprise that’d pop up after clearing the other three (it’s omission is unlikely to be a licensing issue as the current rights holder sells it elsewhere), but no. It’s really not there.

Maybe there’s a good reason for all this. Maybe they chose to include the PC Engine versions alone because emulating one format, well, it takes a lot of skill and dedication, so they considered it better to focus on one rather than do a dozen badly. Maybe the first three games have been emulated with such an astonishing level of care they ran out of time and/or budget to include for the fourth?

Or perhaps this is just an incomplete selection of games, adequately emulated.

There is some good news here. Each Valis has its own music player and cutscene viewer, and neither of these need you to reach the appropriate part of the game to unlock anything. All retro packs should be this way by default in our opinion, presented as interactive museums for old games. Full scans of the original manuals as well as the back of each case and even the CDs themselves are also available to view, faithfully preserving the beautiful artwork and helpful hints within.

In-game it’s all a bit more OK, with perfunctory screen options — 4:3, pixel perfect, and full screen — no scanline filters of any quality on offer, and some resoundingly typical save state and key config options. As if to ensure your first impression is a disappointing one, the menu access prompts linger on screen — and over even a 4:3 image — by default, unless you dig through the menus and find the option to manually switch them off.

With all that out of the way there’s still one final hurdle to overcome, and for the first time it’s not the collection’s fault. On the main menu the games are sensibly arranged in numerical order and so most people will play the first, come away largely entertained bar a few issues (the opening cutscene sadly chooses to briefly share a shot of a schoolgirl’s underwear before putting her in a battle bikini, and also contains rapid flashing so severe it should come with a warning), and then dive into Valis II… and then wonder what happened to the graphics. And the cutscenes. And most of Yuko’s moves. And all the polish you’d enjoyed just one game ago.

A quick check of the release dates underneath each game’s box art reveals the issue. On PC Engine the Valis series released in this order — 2, 3, [4],1. Yes that’s right, the first game made its PC Engine debut almost two years after the third, leaving anyone looking to experience this 30-year-old series for the first time with an odd conundrum: Do you play in story order, and hope you can power through that jarring dip in quality between Valis and Valis II? Or do you play in release order, watching the games become more refined over time even though it means only getting around to the beginning at the end?

In spite of myriad flaws, Valis is a hard series to dislike. The CD-based soundtracks will appeal to anyone whose favourite anime has a LaserDisc release, all synth rock and catchy drum beats. The stiff jumps, gravity-defying horizontal slides, and anime warriors shouting at bad guys in huge cloaks recall happy Saturday mornings spent cross-legged in front of old CRT TVs. Each game plays differently to the last, if not always better than the one before it and save states help to smooth the rough edges caused by knockback and the odd difficulty spike while still allowing those in search of an authentic retro experience to fight their battles from the previous checkpoint.

However, with plenty more material available that carries the Valis name, it's hard not to come away from this collection feeling somewhat disappointed. It could have been so much more.

Conclusion

If you’re going to release something titled Valis: The Phantasm Soldier Collection it’s not unreasonable to expect it to contain a full complement of Valis games, even if only for one format. Unfortunately, those hoping for a one-stop Yuko (and friends) shop are going to be disappointed. What's here is delivered in a no-nonsense, serviceable fashion, and newcomers may well fall in love with the action heroine’s slightly awkward games... only to find they’re missing the final entry.