One of the reasons that I received Valfaris for review is that I’m classified as the “heavy metal guy” of the team which struck me as an odd determiner of eligibility. Sure, I’m a fan of a particular genre of music, but what does that have to do with the price of bread? Well, to put it simply, Valfaris can only be described as metal as all hell. Brutal, relentless and a euphoric release of pure, uncontrollable anger. It’s a game that reminds me of old Iron Maiden cover art and makes me nostalgic for the 16-bit era ultra-hard side-scrollers that had a hand in turning me into a real man.
Valfaris doesn’t play around either since it drops you right into a looming, brooding hellscape full of unfathomable horrors and treats a “break” merely as a concept. It’s like walking in on a Cannibal Corpse moshpit in nothing but your underpants and it’s honestly all the better for it.
For the glory of Valfaris
Even the summary of Valfaris’ story is as metal as it gets. You play as a man called Therion who wants to kill his father because he turned the once idyllic paradise of Valfaris into a something out of an H.R. Geiger nightmare. Therion and his trusty AI must wade through this horror in order to avenge his planet and boy, is it quite the tour. The story of the game doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of what the game is going for, but I loved how self-aware it felt throughout. It’s a game that already knows it’s ridiculous and they leaned into it by making the dialogue humorous and delightfully tongue-in-cheek.
Instead of a story, the game rather focuses its energy on gameplay and presentation. The environments that you go through are all extremely varied while still retaining this endearing heavy metal aesthetic. Everything is as brutal as it can be. Big hulking metal machines of death littering the landscape, creeping vines, forboding horrors and everything else you can find on a death metal album cover.
It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a game that is so confident in itself.
The game leans hard into the 16-bit era visuals and even though that might sound like the visuals are simplistic, the opposite is true. Valfaris is a gorgeous game with striking colours, beautiful animations and some of the best environmental pixel art that you’ll ever find. It sets an amazing tone that lasts for the whole experience and every level is a treat to traverse since you want to see what crazy new themes and enemies they went for.
The world of Valfaris that they have created is probably the game’s biggest strength and, most importantly, it helps bolster the enjoyment of the gameplay.
A lot of easy comparisons can be made to describe Valfaris. There’s a huge Contra influence in how your character handles while there’s also a Ghosts ‘n Goblins vibe when it comes to difficulty. A large number of classic action-platformers can also be found on the game’s sleeve, but it would be very foolish to call the game derivative in any way.
Therion has three weapons at his disposal namely a sword, sidearm and a heavy weapon. Melee is often risky, so the sword has big damage to compensate for that while the sidearm goes the opposite direction where it outputs less damage for the advantage of range. The heavy weapon drains the energy bar since the effects are rather drastic and you can recharge it using your melee attacks. It’s very carefully and deliberately balanced in order to make combat as fair as it can get.
Along your journey, you get access to more weapons that fit into the three weapon types which changes the properties of your attacks in a huge way. And they throw these weapons at you like tomatoes at a crappy glam metal concert. It’s almost overwhelming how many options the game gives you with these frequent weapon drops since each weapon is vastly different from the rest. You can cater to your playstyle too since, for example, you can get guns that have high fire rates but have less damage or more precise guns that pack a punch but are tricky to aim.
It’s all about what you’re into and can work the best with. You can upgrade these weapons using Blood Metals scattered throughout the stage which increases damage and sometimes gives the weapons all new properties. All this balance and smart design make for a very catered and satisfying gameplay experience that often also encourages experimentation. The controls are remarkably tight too even though the game does rigidly stick to old school platforming sensibilities. Aiming in particular is tricky since it goes in the cardinal directions and diagonally instead of freely, but you get used to it pretty quickly.
They also implemented this ingenious checkpoint system that is pushing the concept of risk/reward to the extreme. You get Resurrection Stones that you can place on altars that act as your checkpoints. The clever part is that these Resurrection Stones also increase your health and energy and the more you have, the higher those stats will be. There’s always a Resurrection Stone close to an altar as well so what happens is that the game gives you a choice: activate the checkpoint or keep the Resurrection Stone and brave the storm until the next altar.
That may sound a little broken when you first hear of it since how hard can it be to just get to the next checkpoint without dying? Surely you can just farm up Resurrection Stones easily? Oh no, no, no, my sweet summer child. This game punishes you. Valfaris lives on that dangerous cusp of difficulty where it can be too much to handle sometimes and it very carefully navigates it in order to make it not too frustrating.
Bang your head
Valfaris is difficult as all hell, to put it bluntly. A lot of the sections you have to get through require perfect platforming, overwhelming hordes of enemies coming for you and precise planning if you don’t want to horribly die, which you will do a lot of anyway. Thankfully the checkpoint altars I talked about earlier are frequent and if you die, you instantly respawn at the altar with zero consequence.
The game gives you all of the tools you need to succeed and every death that happens is almost always your fault in one way or another. While some sections may feel unfair at first, you slowly figure out what you need to do and over time you get a lot better at navigating the game’s brutal difficulty. A lot of this difficulty comes from the plethora of bosses you encounter since they are often monoliths of terror that will absolutely murder you in a second if you’re not careful enough.
The bosses demand great respect for their designs as they are so extremely different from one another and all have these wild and unsettling forms. They’re an overwhelming force most of the time, but you always have the capability to summit them if you just use the right combination of attacks and learn their intricate patterns. The reward for beating them is very Dark Soulsian since you will often throw your arms up in celebration and get a great big rush of euphoria.
The difficulty did leave a slight rift in my enjoyment of the game. A few times they dialled the difficulty up to a point where it did feel like I was just dying constantly without much progression and frustration grew inside me. While I fully understand that it was my fault for dying, these frustrating sections are often interlaced into more manageable ones which tend to break up the flow.
Metal as Hell
All this time talking about the game and I haven’t even mentioned the metal soundtrack yet. It almost goes without saying, but the soundtrack is banging. Heavy, slow guitar chugs and symphonic metal influences perfectly colours in the game’s canvas during slower scenes while the tremolo picking death metal madness you get during combat will make you want to punch a wall with your head. It’s important to note that it isn’t overwhelming either since I know full well that metal music can be a bit too extra sometimes, but it doesn’t veer into that jet engine territory at all, it’s all very tasteful. The game obviously loves its heavy metal influences and the soundtrack definitely doesn’t disappoint in its plodding heaviness.
While Valfaris is a homage to classic 16-bit ultra-hard action-platformers, it isn’t stuck in the past. It’s wonderfully designed, has an immensely strong identity of its own and brings stellar gameplay just to prove that it’s not messing around. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a game that is so confident in itself and even though I sometimes felt like throwing my controller at a baby seal because of its harsh difficulty, I never lost my respect for it.