Hey, kiddos! Do you remember the times when it was cool to be edgy? A complete quipping badass, with a mane of hair dyed in some fantasy colour. And of course, all your weapons are called something badass, like Beckoning of Ruination, or The More Unavoidable Than Taxes Gun, or the Cor Blimey Cudgel!
I jest, of course. None of the names in Valfaris are as good. VROLL’S SIDEARM. BLOOD AXE. THERION’S CALL. And of course, the unforgettable Plasma Pistol. I read a lot about how Valfaris is REALLY METAL and you can get REALLY METAL on Valfaris, but to my admittedly limited understanding, it just drew constant Shadow the Hedgehog parallels.
Therion is the edgiest god damn goober I have ever seen in my entire life. There’s no self awareness either. He’s a quipping, unflappably badass man with a blue mane, that still looks like a corpse in what an art student showing you his “lewd” ignominious drawings would describe to you as hauntingly beautiful. It tiptoes around the funny and fucking silly better than Duke Nukem used to, but I’m not sure it’s entirely intentional.
Therion headbangs every time he finds a new weapon. His armour is BLOOD RED, he has a badass AI assistant that’s green and she’s totally cool with showing him her boobies. He’s a master of the sword and gun combat school, but he’s not a pirate.
Somewhat confusingly, he is super tiny compared to everything in his universe, and there’s no feasible justification for it either. At one point he kills one of his brothers, and he’s about the size of one of his toes. This just reads like a list of “Things an eight year old considers cool”. It’s almost like Axe Cop, but played completely straight.
There is an excuse plot and some very silly but unmemorable quips. I managed to retain “I bring blood and thunder” so not particularly original, either. I will praise the art with the usual caveat that pixel art is the McDonald’s of video game art, and it rarely looks bad. The colour palette could use some work, though. It’s enamoured with its dark somewhat womb-y on different stages of decay tones, and Therion being decked out in fully BLOOD RED armour doesn’t help tell him apart.
The level design is ho-hum, featuring a jungle, a tomb, a lava castle and a purple void. Very old school, and you’re not there to look at the levels anyway. The enemy design is interesting enough, featuring nightmarish parasites and generous overuse of skull motifs. It really looks like something you could see in some obscure Danish death metal band’s cover.
The animations don’t do it much justice at times. Most of them are a little stiff, with enemies simply curling their arms up to get the point across that they’re coming at you. Ranged enemies tend to load up their shots simply by throwing some particle effects around, and I think something as simple as a sniper actioning the bolt before shooting you and ejecting the previous bullet would already be an upgrade. When a sorcerer is decked out in Space Marine gear and charges up his spells by steadily pointing his staff at you, you may not be giving all the spectacle that you could. This also would give players the option of reacting to stuff rather than expecting it and timing it. Parrying attacks is quite twitchy because of the tiny buildup times they get.
Still on the topic of design choices, even his weapons bleed as he uses them. It makes his characterisation as a snarky, Whedon-like character all the more confusing. The guy’s just out to kill, or oust his dad, Vroll, from a position of power. But he doesn’t seem to even enjoy fighting or bathing in the blood of his enemies, which is kind of a given with this type of character. In fact, he tells the final boss that he has no intention to die here and it just feels more heartfelt than badass.
I managed to guess two plot points in the game: One, we’ll fight a skeleton with a gun. Two, we will never even see Vroll. The game finishes on a sequel hook. Valfaris, the name of the somewhat dull, oddly inspired by Super Mario level progression world we visit is just one of about 9 traces of Vroll left around the world. So we may or may not get more details on Therion’s brother who is a sword and how Therion and the unnamed AI hottie he came to meet.
But enough about the plot: Let’s talk gameplay. You’ll probably see this come up a lot particularly in my reviews, but it seems prehistoric to make a 2D game that requires you to aim at things and still map aiming to the movement. This is why old metroidvanias, and Megaman to some extent gave you extra stuff or a pretty hefty melee focus. As it stands, Therion frequently needs to dive the enemies and stay squarely in the dangerzone if he wants to hit them with his gun. The game is as bare bones as you can get for a metroidvania.
Melee attack, gun, bigger, resource eating gun and shield. That’s all you get. No double jumps, no float, no dive-kick, nothing. The core gameplay loop gets dull pretty fast, but to it’s credit, they introduce melee enemies largely out of nowhere in the second half of the game and that shook things up quite a bit. I must have died an odd 400 times learning to reliably parry, but I got there in the end. The final bosses are very parryable, if you got the patience for it, and that is satisfying in some ways. Speaking of bare bones, no new game plus option.
Still, I figure it’ll be easier on your brain if you just find ways to cheese the enemies while taking the least amount of risk possible. I was pretty determined to give the game a fair chance and finish it, and as a result I had a pretty bad time. Retries galore, the odd bullshit post-boss-death cutscene that would have me killed to a lingering particle effect requiring me to repeat the whole damn thing, and a plethora of GOTTEM moments that the game sprung on me did it no favours.
As I felled the final boss I was twirling my moustache at the scathing review it was gonna get, but a couple hours away from it gave me a bit of perspective. Is it fair to say that a sadistic, annoying game is annoying and sadistic when that is it’s very purpose? Why yes. In fact you could say it’s unrealistic to say otherwise.
An artistically driven game, that aims to bring the feeling of a metal war ballad to life. I would say it falls just a little short, but with a whole saga planned, Steel Mantis has time to perfect it. It very much falls into the “Why would you do this to yourself?” category of video games that are so popular nowadays. If you’re in the mood for an obnoxiously difficult metroidvania, you could get this on a sale. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must go chew on some small furry animals to mitigate my feelings of UNYIELDING RAGE.