Valfaris is a vicious, tough-as-nails run ‘n’ gun platformer inspired by the likes of Megaman, Super Turrican, and the Souls series. Valfaris’ aesthetic is unmistakably original and gorgeous. It has some of the slickest pixel art this side of the PS1 era. It also runs like a dream on the Switch. It opens with the protagonist in his spaceship talking to his ship’s AI to a rockin’ guitar track, and immediately just oozes Heavy Metal magazine vibes. It’s a perfect intro. The style is everywhere, but especially in the creature designs and in the animation when picking up a new weapon. When you pick up a new gun, the screen zooms in to your character as he rocks his head to a thrashing groove.
The plot is fairly barebones. You play as Prince Verion, and you are returning to your home planet of Valfaris to murder your father for his crimes. As you play through the game, you won’t get a great deal more backstory, other than other villains complaining that your father ruined Valfaris with his greed and his experiments. Verion pretty much agrees with all the enemies, but just slaughters all of them on the way to destroying his father, as neither side really cares to come to any sort of understanding. The game is bookended by some text exposition, but most of the story is told environmentally. Forests and jungles and temples have fused with grotesque machinery; a once verdant utopia filled with ripped up metal and corpses. The environments and enemies are at their best when they are relentlessly sci-fi, like the jungles teeming with alien life or city factories oozing with bodies. However, some of the levels are a little more safe and tired, like a somewhat banal — and seemingly endless — Egyptian temple-themed level with skeletons and giant stone monsters. I suppose those meet the standards of a metal-themed game, but perhaps not a wild sci-fi ride. Given the difficulty of Valfaris, it is also disappointing that it ends with an unsatisfying cliffhanger.
The game is tough as nails. Those looking for a challenge will not be disappointed, but prepare to meet with some frustration. The combat system gives you a sword — a small weapon that can be fired infinitely — and a bigger weapon that wreaks more havoc. You also have a shield that can be used to parry and stun enemies or reflect projectiles back at them if timed correctly. If the shield button is held, it must also be aimed in the direction that attacks are coming from. The shield and the big weapon both use the same energy system, which depletes rapidly but can be refilled through melee attacks, which effectively forces the player to balance melee attacks, shooting, and shielding. If you use your shield too much, you cannot shoot at an enemy until you melee them. The shielding system feels cheap, however, and we wish that the shield energy was separate from the gun energy. If your shield breaks, you just have to jump around dodging or meleeing until you can find more energy. I found the parrying finicky and unreliable, and came to avoid it at all costs in life or death situations. There are some sword-fighting enemies and bosses where the game forces you to use the parry, which is rather frustrating because I could never get a full handle on the system. Verion has to finish whatever he is already doing, whether shooting or slashing, let go of that button for half a second, and then hit the shield button to activate it. It feels slow and punishing.
The game provides you with a variety of powerful weapons and blasters and launchers. They can all be upgraded using Blood Metal. Blood Metal is found on tougher, optional enemies or from secret areas. The game is very linear, and on my playthrough I only found a few of these areas, which mostly hid slightly harder platforming challenges. Most of the gnarliest weapons — a flaming sword and a tarantula leg that absorbs health from enemies — are found in the very late stages of the game. I had already used my upgrades on other weapons, and I was shit-out-of-luck on upgrading the newer ones, which effectively rendered them useless. I wish there was a way to re-spec your character so that I had a chance to try different weapons and playstyles. Having said that, many sections of the game all but require you to use a specific type of weapon, which makes this aspect of the game all the more frustrating. Had I not upgraded my earlier weapons, I doubt I would have made it through those particular sections. (Note: the dev says it’s adding a NG+)
There is a Souls-inspired revival system. You collect relics, which you can use to set checkpoints. If you power through segments of the game without using a relic on a checkpoint, you will gain health and energy permanently until that relic is used. This would be an extremely risky strategy to use on a first playthrough, however, as the game never hints at what is coming next. There may be a massive stretch of enemies and platforming followed by a mini-boss or two between two checkpoints. The game does not hold your hand, and I found myself losing tons of progress trying to build my stats ever so slightly. I would advise a new player to use as many checkpoints as possible. It is very easy to know when a run is lost, and you will likely not make progress, and I wish the game had a restart checkpoint button to speed things up.
Though slicing heads off and blasting soldiers to little bits of sinew is the game’s bread and butter, there is a fair bit of platforming in Valfaris. I found it to be less consistent than the shooting. Prince Verion feels too heavy, and I often missed easy-looking jumps because I launched from a pixel too far away. In the latter half of Valfaris, I found myself replaying segments over and over again because the game would crowd the screen with infinitely spawning enemies during more demanding platforming bits. This felt cheap and like a way of padding out the game. There is an enemy later on that takes one hit to kill but its only goal is to jump onto you and carry you off a platform. Replaying levels to master them is one thing, but I never felt like this added anything to the game. When you start a section over, enemies are in the exact same place and jump on you from the exact same part of the screen so it just becomes an exercise in rote memorization. In the later parts of the game, I also got wrecked by bosses that exploded upon killing them, causing me to replay entire boss fights.
There are also vehicle sections, where you plough through levels with a flamethrower-wielding, laser firing mech. These are an absolute blast. I wish the game had more of these. There is nothing more satisfying than stomping on the heads of the goons that gave you trouble five minutes ago.
The soundtrack is a delightfully apocalyptic doom metal extravaganza. However, when you die the game loops the same riff that you heard before, and the song does not progress until you reach the next section. I ended up hearing the same sections of tunes over and over again, which became exhausting.
Many of the bosses are massive and stunning, and where the game excels. I especially liked a giant eyeball that tests the player’s intellect by forcing you to play cups-and-balls with an orb containing its soul.
Valfaris is a tough but often frustrating rush through monsters, robots and corpses that takes some dedication to finish, but rewards those patient enough to plough through with an adrenaline rush and a feast for the eyes. I just wish the combat felt more fair and platforming more polished so that the gameplay was as satisfying as the visuals. The narrative should feel more fleshed out and complete instead of perfunctory and teasing.. Silky smooth pixel art just isn’t enough these days to justify the relatively hefty price.
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