Therion, a prince of the titular Valfaris, returns home in a bid to wreak revenge on his father in Steel Mantis‘ side scrolling shooter.
After some time in the void your character Therion lands on Valfaris accompanied by his ship’s AI. It’s clear that all is not well with his home. Setting off in search of his father the enemies come thick and fast but Therion has a few moves up his sleeve to keep him breathing.
As a game, Valfaris wears its inspiration clearly front and centre from the get go: The heavy metal soundtrack, rich in electric guitar riffs, the names of the weapons of destruction you wield to exact your revenge and a protagonist who would be welcome in most thrash metal bands of the early 90s.
Much like it’s soundtrack, the difficulty is pretty hardcore. A few hits and Therion goes down. Enemies hit like freight trains and the environmental hazards are mostly instakill to make matters worse. It’s definitely welcome then that the controls are extremely tight and Therion is equipped equally to survive his quest.
Like most scrolling shooters, Valfaris offers players the standard jump and shoot functions. Valfaris opts for a sticky aim button to allow eight way shooting as a trade off with mobility — much like Super Metroid before it. In addition to your primary sidearm, Therion carries his own sword for heavy-hitting close-quarter combat as well as a ‘Destroyer’ weapon.
Destroyers have limited ammo, unlike primary weapons, but hand out massive damage. Utilising the blue energy gauge below your health, holding the attack will deplete it fairly quickly but you can be assured that whatever takes the impact will most likely come off worse. The gauge is refilled with blue orbs dropped by slain enemies — as a randomly generated reward — or can be more easily acquired via usage of the close quarter weapons which guarantee blue orbs on impact.
The energy gauge also powers a directional shield which absorbs damage from enemy fire or attacks; Perfectly timed activation will parry physical attacks, or — for incoming fire — it will hold it on the shield allowing a delayed reflecting action. Mistimed however, the shield depletes rapidly and Therion takes the damage of the remaining volley. This can be fairly devastating, or simply spell death, depending on the adversary and your remaining health.
All three weapon types offer a multitude of variation which only increases as you find new variants of each type throughout Valfaris‘ world. Some are found along the main path, others are dropped by the boss enemies at the end of each section and the final ones are hidden in secret areas off the track.
Each weapon can also be upgraded using Blood Metal. This rare resource is dropped by harder enemies and bosses or found in skill shrines throughout Valfaris; these can also be well hidden. An increasing amount is needed to move through the three additional levels for each armament but the rewards can differ. Some offer more damage, others increased range and the final upgrade usually offers a tertiary effect like setting things alight for additional damage over time. The final weapon level also requires another ingredient which is limited in each play through only allowing you to max out a set number of weapons.
In a change to the standards run, gun, checkpoint, boss rhythm, Valfaris makes the majority of checkpoints optional. Activated with Resurrection Idols they function as both checkpoints and upgrade stations, choose not to activate it though and instead keep the idol in your reserve and gain an increase to both HP and Energy.
Defeating bosses increases your maximum total idols, this makes exploration and expenditure critical, and if you are thorough and willing to part with them then you could — realistically — have double the health by the time you get to a difficult boss than if you had been frugal. It’s unlikely on a first play through but the achievements make it clear that completing a run in under two hours — and dying less than 10 times in total — will make heavy use of idol collection and clever destroyer strategy.
Stages are varied and well detailed, it’s clear that the setting is made from a fusion of technology and gothic architecture. It’s not clear if this was the King’s doing or whether it’s a consequence of the void that populates the later levels, but the setting increasingly strafes toward a corrupted and demonic look toward the end of the game. Enemies match these setting changes, and are equally varied, with very little repetition across the stages. They each feature well telegraphed animations – most need to be defeated in a specific way in order to progress in the most efficient way, learning this is key.
Each area is split into several sections demarcated by the optional checkpoints, and are usually split into sections by a boss of some sort. As much as the level and enemy designs are to be enjoyed, the boss designs are even better. Brutal and unforgiving, each boss has a pattern to be learned in order to ensure victory — with some having a faster, more deadly second phase after a set amount of damage. Most also have a final attack triggered upon defeat which can kill you outright if it makes contact, sending you back to the last checkpoint. It’s a shame that a boss rush mode isn’t available after completion but there’s always the option of another run.
Valfaris offers players a hard-as-nails visceral shooter complimented by a heavy rock soundtrack which is at times frustrating. But, if you invest some time in mastering its tight combat systems, then you’ll find enjoyment and more.
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Valfaris is out now on Xbox One, PS4, PC and Nintendo Switch.