I remember the first time I clapped eyes on some Warhammer 40,000 Space Marines. Granted, they were badly painted, but my initial thought was how cool and badass they looked. The chunky armour, the beefy boltguns and chainswords (that predated Gears of War, by the way), and just the general tone they conveyed. This is what nine year old me considered heavy metal coolness.
Twenty four years later, I still think they’re pretty cool. Tastes come and go, but there’s something about Space Marines that keeps them cool. I say this, because I’m wondering if someone in the Steel Mantis team feels the same.
Valfaris is the Space Marine that sees heavy metal as a way of life, not just a musical genre. The overtly heavy tone in this makes Brutal Legend look like a Mild Fable. This is definitely the game that watched the Heavy Metal movie from the 80’s and has never let it go.
Chugging guitars, headbanging and badass weapons are the playlist of the day in this ode to run and gunners, but it doesn’t come easy. It is not for the faint hearted, and it is going to kick your ass. Shall we explore that a bit further?
Disclaimer: I have had the review code for Valfaris for a few weeks, and I haven’t finished it. Not for lack of trying, it is harder than anticipated.
So, is Valfaris on par with Cuphead in terms of sweary frustration, or do I just suck at it? Well, a little from column A, a lot from column B…
Alright, slight exaggeration there. There’s no difficulty selection for Valfaris, it just literally gives you a crash course in playing right from the get go. But it’s not of a Soulsborne level of hard, yet more of the old school manner of hard: you have to be aware of platforming, as well as the challenge enemies throw at you.
For you see, if it weren’t already obvious from the screenshots in this review, Valfaris is a run and gunner in both classic homage to Contra and Metal Slug, as well as modern contemporaries like Axiom Verge, Dead Cells, Sundered and Hollow Knight. It’s that perfect mix of new-old, or old-new, visuals, the retro aesthetic of the glorious 16bit era, spruced up with a few more sprites for some slicker animations. Like the headbanging, for instance.
It’s not without its modern trappings though, which some may see as blessing or a curse. Some people like the option of playing as is, with the weapons you get and zero enhancements for that real challenge. Whereas some like being able to upgrade stats and weapons, to give you that beefed up feel as you take on all comers. Luckily, whilst Valfaris does have a somewhat standard upgrade system, it is purely optional.
As you’re battling your way through the titular fortress of Valfaris, you collect Blood Metal(s). These are your currency for your arsenal to upgrade, of which there are many to pick up along the way. These upgrades boost weapon stats in many ways, such as longer sword blades, stronger fire from blasters, to everything in between.
But let’s back up a minute, and get a better idea of why we’re on Valfaris in the first place.
The game opens in the cockpit of our hero, Therion, who looks like a descendant of Vigo the Carpathian from Ghostbusters II (but more metal). He’s just discovered that the titular fortress of Valfaris, a large and once verdant paradise, has suddenly reappeared into the nearby orbit of a dying sun. Once a lush and rich floating utopia, it has fallen into decay and darkness since its disappearance some many years prior to the game’s start.
Therion, a son of Valfaris, feels compelled to root out the evil he believes has been wrought by his father Vroll, thus beginning this adventure most metal. That’s not an exaggeration, by the way. This game is so fueled on heavy metal, it’s hard to resist the urge to constantly throw the horns whilst playing it. Picked up a new weapon? Guitar solo. Boss fight? Serious riffage right there, brah. Crash your ship as you land into a pile of enemies as you land on the first level? Damn son, you’d think Zakk Wylde was in the room with you.
You start your quest by indiscreetly landing your ship, not as gracefully as Samus, but in more than one piece than Bulletstorm’s Grayson Hunt. Therion is angry, channeling his inner Kratos and just wants to carve a path of destruction to his father, hell or high water. Armed initially with a plasma pistol and a sword that can only be described as a flaming lightsaber, your tasked with both doing and going right, charging into the fray to wreak havoc and let slip the dogs of war.
Alright, slightly carried away with my own sentence there, but that’s what this game does to you. It’s just so ultimately badass, as Space-Marine-totally-not-going-through-a-phase Therion has no hesitance to decimate all in his path. You can shoot in eight different directions (either moving/jumping, or statically aiming with L2), or hack enemies that get all up in your grill to chunks. And they will, for Valfaris does seem to have a very high respawn rate for standard enemies. Again, this is less of a Soulsborne trait, more of a Contra one. Daudling too long will see you getting overwhelmed if you don’t keep on top of it, so the impetus is to run and gun.
Yet whilst it’s not a straightforward horizontal, left to right across the screen affair, saying it has “hints of a Metroidvania” would be a lie. Sure, there are some areas you’ll need to hop up or down into to unlock a door in the previous area, or some secret nooks for a Blood Metal or Resurrection Idol, but it’s not something you can come back to later. One such progression puzzle has you find a derelict ship, to which you need a fuel cell. But it’s less massive backtrack to a previous area, more a pretty obvious deviation to a mini boss(ish) arena fight. So it’s essentially point A to B, with a bit of a sidetrack to C sometimes. It’s never too mentally taxing, more of an aside to break up the flow of shooty bang bang at times.
Said shooty bang bang does come in a few varieties, to suit different styles of play. Granted, it’s not as variable as most “play it your way” styles of games, but there’s a bit of variety in there to please most. Your standard pistol starts off firing one straight shot, but can be upgraded to fire multiple shots at once. Or you can pick up a submachine gun-like pistol and focus on upgrading that instead.
Likewise your sword, which can be upgraded to have a longer reach and deal more damage. Or if that isn’t to your liking, you can swap it out for a slower but harder hitting broadsword, which can also be upgraded. Rounding off your arsenal is your heavier, special-er weapon. Assigned to O (on the PS4), it’s a stronger weapon that uses a finite source of power: your energy bar.
The tactical part of play here is that your energy bar is also your shield. So sure, you could go in [literally] guns blazing, but you’ll take too much damage and die quicker as a result. You can replenish shield, though, either through scant pick ups, or connecting with melee attacks. It’s not so much a risk/reward system, but more a means to add a bit of energy and non-stop balletic action.
Do you hang back and pick things off with standard firepower, swatting things away when they get too close, or do you Errol Flynn your way in, hacking and slashing the absolute death out of everything in your way? I’m not going to say, “The choices are endless”, because they’re not. But you can choose the tactical or guts and glory approach, each having their own benefit from time to time.
If I had to find a negative (which I guess I do, as no game is perfect), it would be that sometimes the game is bastard hard. Now, as is always the case, that’s down to personal skill. You may feel cheated at times by how quickly you tank up hits and damage. You might find it a bit bullshit that you can be hit by some long range shots that shouldn’t have hit you. Or, you could be an absolute reflex wizard and breeze through it with no challenge whatsoever. Hell, there’s a trophy tied to finishing a playthrough with less than ten deaths. So the game knows it’s hard.
But ultimately, that’s down to you, the player. If you enjoyed the challenge that Cuphead, Sundered and all the others bring, then Valfaris is your next port of call. If you aren’t a fan of hard as nails throwbacks to older games, you may not like this. Or if you sit somewhere in between, you cannot go wrong with the heaviest, metal-est platform action game going.
Me, I’m going to keep on playing Valfaris. Whether I’ll finish it or not is another. But then, this is me who has only recently beaten Sekiro, so never say never. It’s a challenge, but it’s so intense that I want to power through with it.
Death to all with metal.
Valfaris is available now on PS4 (reviewed on), Xbox One, Nintendo Switch and PC
Developer: Steel Mantis
Publisher: Big Sugar
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional code from the publisher. For our full review policy, please go here. If you enjoyed this article or any more of our content, please consider our Patreon.