Valfaris by Steel Mantis
Valfaris is a side-scrolling action shooter with Contra genes showing up dominantly in its family history Its aesthetic is carefully shaped to feel like someone took a bunch of metal album covers and stitched them together into a grim, doomed world full of walking nightmares.
Stuffed with action, gore and an over-the-top story, Valfaris is tailored to draw a particular audience to its mosh pit.
Exposition First, Then Explosions
Valfaris has little need to justify the gauntlet of explosions and giblets it’s about to thrust upon its player. but that doesn’t stop it from trying, because why not? The titular fortress of Valfaris disappeared from galactic charts sometime in the past and, as these things always do, it has returned crawling with dripping horrors to be expunged from its many biomes.
Therion, a man who dwelt on this fortress world when it was a paradise, arrives to cleanse the many creatures from his old home.
There, happy? Now we can get onto blowing things up.
I was initially put off by the overbearing grimness of Valfaris; the music does a good job of immediately creating a sense of not just horror but also despair. This is a style for a particular audience or, more precisely, for a particular mood, as after a few screens of laser-blasting action I found my inner classic Doom fan – a game I can’t help but return to from time to time – and got stuck in.
Sword and Shield and Gun – What, No Axe?!
The action here is compelling and well-tuned, with enough variety to leave a few play-styles open for that essential sense of personalization. Therion starts with a pistol, an energy-consuming shield and a sword (which causes enemies to drop energy). He can also acquire heavier weapons that also consume shield energy to deliver a stronger kick.
I found myself wielding my trusty sword more than the pistol, choosing to “catch” projectiles with my shield before returning them at pace rather than waste shield energy on silly things like heavy weapons.
This soon changed as the boss battles forced me to throw everything I had at the enemy before recharging via the sword.
Each weapon slot – pistol, sword and heavy – can be filled with one of a variety of alternatives and each can be further upgraded for more options, providing a good selection of combat styles to choose from. I enjoyed experimenting with this and just wished it was easier to respec and try different possibilities.
Hard Rock, Harder Action
Speaking of which, Valfaris doesn’t really do “easy.”
At first, I found the game to be fairly straightforward, but it doesn’t take long before things start ramping up. It isn’t grindingly difficult, but there’s enough challenge to force a few retries on particularly tricky areas or bosses, making this feel very much like a spiritual descendant of Contra and similar shooters that set the bar for ’90s side-scrolling action.
I’ve already discussed the visuals, but it’s worth re-stating that Valfaris is, at its core, a Heavy Metal game. The gore and grim environments are lovingly crafted, and the artwork is nothing short of exceptional.
The music, composed by Curt Victor Bryant (who played in seminal extreme metal band Celtic Frost in the late ’80s and early ’90s), is also very metal in its inspirations but actually does a pretty good job of providing some variety in styles, evoking a sense of hopelessness in the opening areas of the game.
Valfaris is an action-packed, aggressive and unrepentantly angry piece of ’90s-style shooting. It’s enjoyable to experience a game that doesn’t so much as flinch in delivering on its particularly thematic – and perhaps niche – manifesto.
If you’re a metal fan looking for a game that captures that “album art made manifest” feel or simply someone who loves a good shooter built on the retro-style of ’90s titles, then this is worth blasting through.
Valfaris is available via the Nintendo Game Store, Sony PlayStation Store, Microsoft Store and Steam.
Watch the official Valfaris trailer below: