Starting up Vafaris was a hugely nostalgic action for me, not only because the 80s sci-fi stylings reminded me of teenage genre novels and heavy metal album covers, but also because Steel Mantis’ previous game, Slain: Back From Hell, was my first review for TheSixthAxis.
Valfaris isn’t a sequel, but still has many similarities to that game. Indeed, despite the futuristic setting and range of laser weapons, Valfaris rewards the use of melee weapons through a solid risk and reward system.
Having mysteriously gone missing, the space fortress Valfaris suddenly reappears in the orbit of a dying sun, having been thoroughly transformed from a paradise to a hellhole. You play Therion, a loyal son who must return to Valfaris to discover what has tainted it. So far so generic, but the narrative isn’t particularly important here. It sets the scene for an action-packed journey across a metal (in material and atmosphere) landscape that is filled with robotic and organic threats.
The pixel art aesthetic of Valfaris is wonderfully crisp and suits the over-the-top 80s feel perfectly. Despite the metallic setting, there is a surprising amount of colour and contrast throughout the game’s levels, although there are times when the screen can feel a little cluttered. This becomes particularly awkward once you’re trying to dodge multiple projectiles, but didn’t cause too many unfair feeling deaths.
This isn’t to say that you won’t die, as Valfaris is still a punishing game. Fortunately, regular checkpoints and rapid restarts mean that death is mostly a learning experience rather than a major hurdle. The music is suitably metal, but can be a little repetitive as it largely chugs away in the background without much in the way of hooks or melody. This is a shame as the combination of setting and music works perfectly well together.
Therion is equipped with three types of weapon: a regular sidearm with unlimited ammo, a melee weapon that generates power upon contact, and a powerful secondary weapon that then unleashes that power. There are many different weapons to discover within each set, with most having well balanced strengths and weaknesses.
The need to build up power with your melee weapon before you can use your missile launcher or flamethrower makes for a fluid combat system that keeps you moving. You have to balance the need to get up close to build up power, and the natural inclination to keep distance and fire from afar. Added to this risk and reward system is the fact that your shield uses the same power resource, so there is danger in relying too much on the powerful sub-weapons.
Once the combat system clicks, the game opens up to become a hugely enjoyable challenge, but there are clear difficulty spikes that are a little too reminiscent of Slain. You have a health bar and healing pickups are occasionally dropped by enemies, but it is quite common to find yourself killed very quickly if you make a simple mistake. This is especially true in some quite tricky platforming sections where mistiming a jump will see you immediately killed by environmental hazards. A few sections proved a little frustrating, but it rarely felt as if it wasn’t my own fault and concentration was generally rewarded with progress.
Every weapon that you collect can be levelled up by collecting Blood Metal, with the final upgrade requiring the rare Blood of Valfaris material. This light RPG approach is a welcome addition, but does mean that earlier weapons feel more powerful than later ones until you find the items needed to upgrade them. This was especially the case with my sword, as the speed at which your beginning weapon generates power proves particularly useful.
Upgrade materials are scattered throughout the levels, with some being hidden behind extra tricky platforming sections or fights. Fortunately you keep the collected items even if you die, so you aren’t forced to repeat those sections once you have beaten them. The green orbs that activate checkpoints are also often hidden away, as extra ones you find can be exchanged for upgrade material at regular upgrade stations.