From developer Steel Mantis comes Valfaris, out this week for Playstation 4 and Xbox One after an earlier PC and Nintendo Switch release. We booted up one of Sony’s consoles for our hands on review of this gorgeous retro-inspired action platformer.
Valfaris isn’t the first time we’re playing something from Steel Mantis, whose previous game Slain: Back from Hell saw a Vita release that we reviewed close to three years ago. For a while there Valfaris was also scheduled to come to the Vita, but that version never materialized. There are definite parallels between the two games though, especially when you consider the visual styles and the soundtracks, which we’ll talk about later.
Switching from an occult setting to a sci-fi approach, the titular Valfaris is a giant space fortress that was once built to be a paradise for its inhabitants. When it suddenly vanished, it was deemed lost, but it’s now returned and has drawn the interest of our hero Therion, who roots lie on Valfaris as well. In true Event Horizon (the movie) style though, Valfaris is no longer the same, as it’s become infested with a dark evil. Therion is eager to face it and travels to his former home armed to the teeth – he’s got some questions he would like answered.
In terms of gameplay, Valfaris is heavily inspired by classic action platformers of the early nineties like Midnight Resistance and Turrican, titles I fondly remember because of their seamless blend of platforming and gunplay. As is clear from the setup there is a narrative that connects everything, but the focus in the game is firmly on the on-screen action – which is all about your mighty warrior going up against countless freaks of nature and outer space mutants.
A mix of melee and ranged combat, Therion can use a sword for combat that’s more close-up or switch to his gun whenever he wants. There’s a more powerful gun as well, but as is the case with his shield it needs a power meter to be charged in order to use is. You have unlimited ammo, but using the safer (ranged) option of your basic gun doesn’t give you the energy reward that a sword kill does – which creates a nice flow of gameplay styles that changes as your needs change.
This is especially true during the game’s frequent boss fights, where your heavy weapon can deal a lot of damage and you’ll need your shield as well. Besides guarding you from projectiles, it can also bounce them back at enemies when timed right, so that’s a skill you want to master in order to survive. Valfaris is a tough game, so it helps to become comfortable with its dynamics earlier rather than later.
A lot of difficulty comes from the fact that enemies will attack you from multiple sides, often with several of them at once. There’s a good range of enemy diversity as well, so you can’t just stick with the same tactics for very long. Luckily, you respawn when you die and this is a useful part of your learning curve as you progress through the station.
Besides ‘regular’ pickups (that you also need to activate checkpoints), you can also accumulate “blood metal” – which serves as a way to level up Therion and his abilities. You can power up your weapons this way, but there’s always a bit of a catch when it comes to how you spend your blood metal. You can choose to upgrade the basic loadout that you start out with, or you can hang on to your precious blood metal and spend it on a weapon you find later on in the game. The dilemma, of course, is that getting to that point might be a bit of a challenge if your initial weapon never received an upgrade.
Of course it’s a small step from “blood metal” to the game’s soundtrack, which was done by Curt Victor Bryant and thus is very metal-heavy. While a great fit with the game’s heavy emphasis on explosive action and gore, it’s not the kind of music that plays comfortably in the background and your personal taste will determine if you’re going to turn the volume up or down a little bit.
Valfaris’ visual style was designed by Andrew Gilmour, who also did the art for Slain back in the day. Steel Mantis’ new game feels like it just has a bit more polish and detail than Slain did, but part of that is probably because I played Slain on a Vita rather than a PS4. There are additional upsides to playing Valfaris on a PS4 as well, since I remember Slain not having the smoothest performance and the action in Valfaris flows extremely well.
If you’re a fan of retro-infused run and gun action platformers, then Valfaris is one of the best examples we’ve seen recently. It’s gorgeous to look at, challenging but fair, and a joy to play.