It’s been a minute since I sat down with the heavy metal horror adventure that was Slain, an exciting if somewhat flawed game from Steel Mantis. Combining some strong gameplay with a pure aesthetic of horror metal, Slain had a lot of potential and was unapologetic about its intentions, which both worked and didn’t in terms of making the game both enjoyable and have replayability in my eyes. There’s something about serendipitous decisions that make me feel that game reviews are actually read and have effects, because Steel Mantis, for whatever reason, heard what was being said about Slain and took that into serious consideration for their second title. If you liked Slain but felt something was lacking, hold onto your magnificent hair and killer instinct: it’s time to go offworld and follow the story of Valfaris.
Valfaris is the name of a fortress planetoid which was once beautiful and lush, but then vanished suddenly from the eyes of the universe. Now, without warning or preamble, Valfaris has reappeared, orbiting a dying sun in a far-flung corner of eternity, now rampant with decay, darkness and madness. Therion, a former inhabitant of Valfaris and heir to the throne, has seen what befell his beloved space citadel and firmly believes it is his father’s doing. Armed with his amazing energy sword, a bevy of laser pistols, shotguns and more, and teeming with grim determination, Therion is going to invade the fortress, slashing through layer after layer of rot and insanity to get to the tainted core – his father – and carve out the problem to finally bring peace and respite to everyone.
Valfaris follows directly in the footsteps of Slain in terms of simple concept and execution, but there is a lot of deviation that makes this a superior and, frankly, more enjoyable game. In essence, what worked about Slain is still in play here: Valfaris puts you in the shoes of Therion, and you need to move through multiple, side-scrolling stages of ballistic violence and anger in order to reach several bosses that need to be dealt with before moving on. It’s got a bit of a Castlevania feel to it, as there is a bit of exploration and backtracking to it, but most of the repeat motion and offshoot paths are organic, asking you to move in one direction before being led back to where you need to be. Therion is equipped with three weapons, essentially, with a melee, a ranged, and a “specialty” weapon being part of the buffet. The specialty is usually a more exotic ranged weapon that uses the power meter, a light blue meter that sits with your health meter and gets depleted by either the special weapon or the shield being used. Therion will also discover a wide variety of weapons along the way, and now the ideas can start to separate from Slain in a big way. Oh, and being able to time your shield perfectly to catch projectiles and then shoot them back at enemies? Not only cool as hell, but incredibly valuable from the word go and can be the lifesaver you need in the future.
You see, Valfaris has a bit of an RPG methodology to it in giving you multiple choices for what you can and cannot do within the planet. As Therion dives deeper, more pathways will open up if you’re willing to look for them, and the rewards are always something to make you more of a badass. You’ll find the different weapons that I mentioned above, creating a full, selectable arsenal that can really change up the game dynamic for you (plus finding the weapons makes Therion headbang to reference the previous game). The Wolflight, for example, creates a constant beam of boiling punishment upon whomever is in the crosshairs, allowing you to impact maximum, consistent damage as long as you’re on your toes. Can you beat the game without the Wolflight? Probably, but it certainly made some of the bosses much easier. Additionally, exploration will find you both Resurrection Idols and Blood Metal, with the former being needed for respawn points and the latter being used to upgrade whichever weapons you like. Interestingly, though I found several cool and massive swords throughout, I preferred using the original Therion blade, simply because it smacked energy out of enemies and allowed me to charge up the secondary weapons that much faster. So dumping Blood Metals into Therion’s first sword resulted in a much stronger, much hungrier weapon that really made later levels feel that much more satisfying.
I adore how they handled save points this time around, with the Resurrection Idols being the best of “bet on yourself” sort of concept. Therion is able to hold a certain number of Idols in his inventory and drop them at different points, which allow for him to respawn there if he dies and also change his equipment. However, if you hold onto them till you’re at capacity, finding additional Idols then powers up your health and energy, and being able to take another hit or fire one more missile can be the difference between life or death. Naturally, hedging your bets in such a way makes for a much longer and further distance betwixt the respawn points, but that’s ultimately your call: you aren’t just at the mercy of what the game wants to do, unlike Slain. So if things are going well, and you’re cocky or even confident, go ahead: keep the Idols, scrap the saves, and make yourself the biggest damn headbanging hero in all of the known universe.
Valfaris really does improve on so much in terms of graphics and design that it almost feels like a different company at work here. Choosing to stick with a slightly jagged, rough design, Steel Mantis’ decision to make their second adventure in space instead of a dingy castle plays out well, drenching everything in toxic, neon colors and interspersing plenty of necrotic technology to imply and showcase the corruption and horror within. Instead of sticking just in the gothic horror vein, Therion gets to see all sorts of evils and demons, from grotesque insect lifeforms to deranged computers gone psychotic and even space dragons at one point. The delicious soundtrack of Curt Victor Bryant (back for a second game) keeps you in the headspace appropriate to driving, determined and utterly metal gameplay, but the variety in locations actually gives it life and excitement this time around. Despite a more turbulent landscape, I felt significantly more at home with Therion, who set the stage right away by landing on top of several aggressive soldiers in a literal wolfship, which is my new favorite method of space exploration. Therion has the kind of humorless smile and application to violence that makes sense here: he isn’t relishing the destruction, but he doesn’t hesitate when it comes time to strike down the massive bosses that have taken over his former home.
Now, it should be noted that the gameplay is still incredibly hard, and I don’t want people thinking that, just because Valfaris improves upon the systems and ideas that actually make it possible for people to progress that it’s gotten easier. Far from it. Enemies drop from all angles and often will try and snipe you from barely on screen. Minibosses will stop you cold, forcing you to figure out patterns (like needing to parry a death knight’s swinging blow in time to fire back), and will seriously screw you over with the only reward for defeating them being a quick health restore and a pat on the back. The bosses themselves are nightmarish, both in appearance in effect. Dealing with the twin bosses of Tomb Keepers in the historically metal Egyptian tomb nearly caused my controller to go sailing out the window, but controllers are expensive and I live on the sixth floor, so I pulled my punch. But the game is still challenging, demanding that players figure out what needs to happen in order to win and rarely, if ever, giving you hints before throwing you to the beasts, maw first.
I wanted to like Slain, and I did, to an extent, but there was something missing there that kept it from being a better game for me. Valfaris hits the nail on the head, creating a more robust world, cooler and more engaging mechanics, and making me step up my own gameplay in order to explore further and try to find peace and respite for my character and his homeworld. It’s exciting, it’s got plenty of choices, it’s rough as hell to try and get through and the soundtrack has its finger on the pulse of a multifaceted metal opera, dragging the player through a dark but visible Hell of cosmic design. Plus, with the promise of the upcoming Full Metal Mode (which is like New Game+ with a higher difficulty and a special, unannounced weapon), I’m intrigued and excited by how much Steel Mantis is putting into this game. If you liked Slain, you will LOVE Valfaris. If you weren’t a fan of Slain, you should still give Valfaris a chance. And if you want to see what it’s like to pilot a Death Mech through the gore-soaked landscape to fight a goddamn Dinosaur King, then Valfaris is where you need to be.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Nintendo Switch code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Gameplay - 9/10
Graphics - 9/10
Sound - 9/10
Replay Value - 9/10
User Review( votes)
Valfaris crashlands onto the Switch, bringing the same amazing soundtrack of its predecessor and bringing better gameplay, better atmosphere, and more carnage.