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Valfaris Review

ValfarisTitle

A couple of years ago now, a small independent action platformer got some attention. Slain had a brilliant art style that was combined with a soundtrack by Celtic Frost’s Curt Victor Bryant. If you wanted a video game that instantly made you think of Heavy Metal music, Slain could easily come to mind. It had a botched launch as there were a lot of technical problems. But the developers truly did overhaul everything to do customers who backed the game justice. And with Slain: Back From Hell they largely succeeded.

Valfaris is the new game from Steel Mantis. Much like Slain, it has a gristly, horrific art style. It too has a soundtrack by Curt Victor Bryant. But it seems to be advertised as more of a Contra inspired game rather than a Castlevania inspired one. Did the folks at Steel Mantis give us an exhilarating Run N’ Gun that old-school NES era Konami fans the experience they remember?

PROS: Builds on everything the developers learned when making Slain.

CONS: It’s a triumph! But it isn’t quite the Contra-like the trailer teases.

METAL: Everything you see and hear screams “Crank it to 11 & break off the knob!”

One thing you can absolutely tell if you’ve played Slain before playing this game is that Steel Mantis learned many good lessons from that process. Right on the title screen, you can notice some cool details. Just like Slain, it oozes Heavy Metal. Your character is dressed like a Warhammer 40k Chaos Marine. There are mountains of fossilized remains of people and creatures everywhere. And you can notice a faded 3D render of the face of the protagonist as if it were made for an early Windows 95, PlayStation, Saturn, or Nintendo 64 game. It brilliantly blends the eras of the 16-bit and early 32-bit and 64-bit processor powered consoles.

ValfarisFirstStage

Upon beginning the game you’ll see a cut scene setting up the story. As Therion, you’re off to a mysterious space station; Valfaris upon it reappearing near a red giant. It was once your home and with its discovery, you decide to investigate. Upon landing on the citadel world it immediately becomes apparent that evil forces have taken it over. So right out of the gate, you’ll be confronted with enemies.

Now while many might think of this game as a Run N’ Gun in the vein of Contra or Metal Slug, it really isn’t. You will be getting many cool weapons throughout the game, and you will be shooting a lot of stormtroopers, monsters, space insects, and more with them. But it doesn’t have that constant, “Go! Go! Go!” pace of a Run N’ Gun. Save for a couple of enemies that actually spawn enemies and a couple of auto scroller moments you can take moments to breathe. And while the game’s stages are linear, there are a number of hidden areas you’re going to want to seek out. In reality, it feels somewhere in between Konami’s two biggest franchises of that bygone era.

 

ValfarisNPC

Basically, it builds on the core gameplay introduced in Slain, and it does so beautifully. It feels very refined in the melee combat. Of course, all of the game’s enemies have an entirely different speed. So while you can indeed, expect to use parrying to your benefit you can’t expect it to be predictable. In Slain, knowing exactly when something was about to hit you was, strangely enough, easier than it is in Valfaris. Fortunately, parrying isn’t quite as necessary as it was in Slain, although there are definitely some moments where it is beneficial. So beneficial in fact, you’re going to want to get that timing down for when these moments come up.

So like Slain you have the ability to swing melee attacks, and you have a block button. The block can not only block attacks but as mentioned can also parry attacks if you hit one a split-second before it hits you. Underneath your health bar is a second bar that is tied to the blocks. Killing enemies with a melee attack can often refill it by dropping blue mana. This meter will deplete when you block attacks, and some enemies have powerful attacks that can take it to zero after one block! So there’s another reason to try to master parrying.

ValfarisAutoScroller

Of course, the big addition to the gameplay here is the shooting. The game starts out by giving you a laser pistol and a lightsaber. But as you play through the game, you’ll discover newer weapons to use. Some of these are out in the open, but other ones will require you to find secret rooms or alternate paths in levels. Which is why the game never really hits the pace of a proper Contra game. You’ll need to take your time to look for these visual cues. It definitely is a bit peppier than Slain though. And while this game doesn’t have as many one-hit deathtraps in the background as Slain did, you still have to pay a lot of attention to the background. Some enemies really blend into the scenery and can knock you into pits, pools of acid, as well as other deadly places.

ValfarisUpgrades

Speaking of scenery, again, I have to point out the painstaking detail of the graphics here. There is a brilliant use of color shading and terrific palettes for every possible section. The environments are wide and varied in Valfaris. One moment you might be in a war-torn battle station. Another, you’ll be in a space bug-infested jungle where even the vines are sentient and lethal. Each stage has a multitude of bosses, most of which are insanely difficult while at the same time being completely fair. When you die in this game, 95% of the time you know it is your own fault. There are a handful of times where a Boss will pull a cheap trick at the last second or the rare platform that looks wider than it actually is. But on the whole, everything feels on the level. So the game fosters an environment where even though you’re going to die a ton, you’re also going to feel determined even if you find you’re getting mad at yourself for messing up.

ValfarisACESHIGH

Obviously, the soundtrack goes along with everything perfectly, as Curt Victor Bryant returns from Slain to continue the shredding. Honestly, the music in this also feels a lot more varied than in Slain, as he touches on the many subgenres of Heavy Metal. There are orchestral moments that lead to a Symphonic Metal opus. There are classic Power Metal moments, Speed Metal tracks during some intense moments, and more. There isn’t much in the way of vocals here, but it’s totally fine. In fact, vocals might even distract from the action going on at any moment,

ValfarisFatalities

And like Slain, you can expect to see a lot of intense, unsettling animations as enemies explode into gibs, get cut in half, smashed by parts of the scenery and more. Getting back to the gameplay, there are also Super Weapons you can use that also uses the mana the blocking function does. These do a lot of damage while consuming a lot of your meter so you may want to use it sparingly. In my playthrough, I tried to use them mostly for the more intense boss fights. Of which there are many. All of the weapons, the melee ones, guns, and super guns you find can also be upgraded at checkpoints. Throughout the game, you’ll find special items you can use to do so. Each of these can be leveled up to around four times and the cost to do so increases each time. As you play you’ll really want to think about what weapons to upgrade. Each weapon is effective on all of the enemies, but some are more beneficial on some than others. So there’s an element of Mega Man here for you to consider as well.

ValfarisBoss

When you do clear the game it will give you a pretty satisfying ending. Throughout the game, it definitely leaves some nods to Slain, but you don’t have to have played Slain to understand what is going on here. After the credits roll you’ll be given an end screen showing you how many times you died, how long it took you to beat the game as well as how many items you’ve found so that you’ll be inspired to play through the game again. It does try to get you to at least attempt a 100% completion run.

While as of this writing I didn’t see it on my physical Switch version of the game, the game’s Steam page does list a New Game + mode being added to the game. So if you want an even bigger incentive to go back to it once you’ve beaten it, you potentially have one. Ultimately though, even if you only play through it once you’ll feel very accomplished. This game pulls no punches. Even the most grizzled video game veteran will be challenged to the nth degree. But again, the whole thing generally feels fair. When you start to notice patterns and understand what you need to be doing things don’t feel so frustrating. They make you feel more determined. You can win the day, you really can. Valfaris is one game you should definitely look into. It’s gorgeous, sounds amazing and is filled with challenges. Just don’t come into it expecting a Contra-like. It is more of an Action-Platformer than Run N’ Gun. But still one of the best experiences you’ll have.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Warhammer 40,000 Space Marine Review

Relic has for the better part of a decade, made some really interesting RTS games based off of Games Workshop’s Warhammer franchise. Each of these games has translated much of the tabletop board game to the world of video games. But in 2011, Warhammer would be thrown into the world of action games. Space Marine brought the lore of Warhammer to a slew of players who may have never touched an RTS or a tabletop game.

PROS: Beautiful graphics, and atmosphere. Solid performance. Multiplayer.

CONS: The game can be repetitive. Limited customization options Multiplayer lowly populated.

WHAT?: You have to unlock classes, and customization options.

For the uninitiated, Warhammer 40K is a decades long running tabletop board game. Featuring figurines for players to customize, Warhammer is about strategy. Battles play out with dice rolls while players keep stats of their armies’ strengths, weaknesses, and supplies. This is admittedly a gross oversimplification of a deep strategy game. But it gives you an idea of what one can expect. Warhammer has such a cult following that it actually spawned several computer RTS games. When Relic took the reigns we saw titles that captured the spirit of the board game version with all off the micromanagement computer strategy gamers love. But with Space Marine, Relic attempted to bring the property to action gamers who may have loved the character design, but for whatever reason couldn’t get into strategy games. As well as the Warhammer buff who also happens to like a variety of action games.

Space Marine follows a single player story campaign in which players take on the role of Captain Titus. Titus is on a mission to save a planet from an impending Ork invasion. Throughout the campaign you will fight quite literally hundreds of enemies in huge firefights. Often reminiscent of games like Serious Sam, Painkiller, and Bulletstorm. However, the game also features a melee combat system. As you play through the missions you will find yourself constantly switching between various guns, and hand to hand armaments. Space Marine does this seamlessly, allowing you to dispatch four or five enemies at a time. With swords, knives, axes, or hammers while shooting other enemies. Shootouts also showcase some of the grittiest visuals the Xbox 360, and PS3 can muster.Enemies will lose limbs from taking a chainsword to the shoulder. Or a torso will explode in a shower of gibs in a hail of gunfire.

The game feels like a really well put together cross between aforementioned arcade shooters, and third person action slashers like Devil May Cry. There is also a health system that is neither quite the widely accepted “Hide behind a wall to regain health” or the classic “Find, and manage stimpacks wisely” systems of yesteryear. Instead, while you can hide behind walls for cover (and stop yourself from losing more health), the way you regain it is through killing. Sometimes this means stunning an enemy to perform a gruesome killing blow. Other times it means using the game’s fury meter. Similar to Alice: Madness Returns’ mechanic, Fury is a meter that will fill your health bar, while allowing for less damage to be taken. You fill the meter as you play. Once you activate it you have a limited time of reprieve before you need to start filling it again.

As the game progresses, you will find upgrades for your weapons, and watch in-game theatrics that further the story. I can’t compliment the graphics enough. Space Marine still looks beautiful, and runs at a smooth frame rate. Nowhere is this showcased better than in the real-time cut scenes. These scenes are accompanied by some really impressive performances. The game’s story goes for the same sort of action movie clichés a lot of other action games have over the past decade. But it still manages to engross you into the world of its source material. It manages to give off some background to newcomers without a lot of speeches. It follows the rule of “Show. Not say.” pretty decently. Even if it does use the tired method of finding audio logs to fill in some of the gaps. While the story is predictable at times, it is entertaining, and the final boss battle features just the right amount of challenge. That said, once you beat the campaign there is little reason to go back. The campaign does have a few drawbacks, that a handful of people will absolutely abhor. First off, the maps are VERY LINEAR. Aside from the rare alcove with a recorded message, levels are rife with models of rubble. These are placed in a way that blocks your every incentive to want to explore. This complaint can hardly be levied only at this game. Most of the single player action games over the last decade have gone down this path. But it would have been nice if Space Marine could have been one of the games to buck the trend. Especially since everything looks so good, and does capture the aesthetic of the board games so well.

The other issue some may have is how the game is structured. Most of the levels in the game follow a formula. You’ll find an ammo dump room, which leads to a skirmish room where you will fight hundreds of enemies. Then you will wander into another ammo dump room leading into a cut scene or story exposition. Then you will fight another 400 enemies before exiting the level. Now if you love old school arcade games, horde modes that force you to micromanage your ammunition, or games like Serious Sam you might not see this as a negative thing. But if you don’t, this can become tiresome. Especially since Space Marine’s campaign is 16 stages long. Some of which can take up to an hour to complete. To be fair the game does try to mix it up with an on rails shooter section or a boss segment. But some may find it isn’t enough to keep them wanting to play through it in one sitting.

Thankfully, the one place where Space Marine truly shines is in its multiplayer mode. Which is also sad because it isn’t populated much these days. The main two modes are a Team Deathmatch mode, and a Team Objective mode. But these are done very well. As in many other games there is a class system:

Tactical Marine: This is the most well-rounded class between speed, shooting, and melee.

Assault: This class allows for jump packs (Jet packs you can fly around with) and has an increased melee range for people who love knives, and chainswords.

Devastator: This is the tank class where you have reduced speed, but can take more damage, and have access to the more powerful guns, and explosives.

One novel feature is the ability to copy load outs. This is a great way for new players to close the gap on higher rank players. Because it lets you respawn with the weapons they killed you with. Do well enough with these, and you’ll level up even faster. Speaking of levelling up, the game also doesn’t dole out XP based only on kills. If you used two weapons on someone there’s a bonus. If you assisted someone else, there’s a bonus.

There is one gripe with the multiplayer, and that’s the fact that classes, and character customization have to be unlocked. You have to grind your way to level 3 to use the classes, and to level 4 to tweak your player model. It doesn’t take eons to do, but it is a nuisance. Also, it would have been nice if Orks, Eldar, and other franchise races were playable factions for multiplayer. There is DLC you can still find for the game that adds in a 4 player cooperative mode where you get to be the Chaos Space Marines. But that’s not really the same thing. But even in its basic state, multiplayer can be a fun alternative to the real world themed shooters out there. The major drawback to all of this however is the age of the game, coupled with the ownership of the developer changing hands. Unfortunately the multiplayer isn’t populated with a lot of random players these days. Many people moved on to newer games so you would mainly have to play the multiplayer option with friends. Things fare slightly better on the PC version but not by very much. The game also isn’t getting the support it once had. That’s because after the game came out, publisher THQ folded up, and the studio making the game was acquired by SEGA.

Should you buy Space Marine? That depends on your taste in games. For anyone looking for a frantic “Kill anything that moves” action game, you’ll have a lot of fun playing through the campaign. It certainly hits all of those notes. But if that isn’t your preferred gaming experience you’ll want to play it in bursts. The formula can become repetitive for those who don’t eat, sleep, and breathe spectacle fighters. Even if it does blend that style, with shooting really well. Multiplayer is going to be a crap shoot at this point. It’s one of the better takes on the competitive team shooters to have come out over the last five years. But it’s also old hat at this point, and people have moved onto other games. If you can still find nine people who are willing to play it with you, it is a lot of fun. But that’s probably a big “if” at this point. Still, it can be found fairly inexpensively, and is a great title for those who are curious about the Warhammer universe.

Final Score: 7 out of 10