Run, jump, attack, headbang to the heavy metal riffs. That is the best way I can think of to summarise Valfaris. This is a run and gun platform shooter akin to Contra, but with a larger emphasis on melee weapons, blocking attacks and manipulating your health bar. Valfaris is one of the best examples of a simple game with layers of complexity that make it fantastically satisfying to play. There are so many weapon options, critical decisions and epic boss fights that I imagine many players going through it multiple times.
One of the main reasons Valfaris is so compelling is that core loop of run, jump and attack. The heavy metal soundtrack works to pull together aesthetics, story and gameplay that simultaneously makes the entire thing very silly and also very serious. For example, when you pick up a new weapon your character, Therion, starts headbanging along to the music. However, once you have a go with your new toy and start to understand how it works, you can cause some serious damage. The constant pursuit for more fun toys and materials to upgrade your current ones is yet another reason to keep playing Valfaris.
The structure of Valfaris is simple. Move forward, best the enemies along the way, have a boss fight, move to a new area. Along the way, there might be the occasional deviating path, secret room or new weapon but Valfaris is primarily concerned with keeping the player moving towards the next exciting encounter. This means that even if you die, which you definitely will (a lot), then the next milestone of progression never feels out of reach. Maybe this time you’ll get past that boss to a new area, or go through these waves of enemies to reach a new gun; each aspect keeps the player hooked and smashing their heads against whatever challenge is currently ailing them.
Another genius addition to Valfaris is the shield. This is powered by a bar of energy that is replenished by hitting enemies with your melee attack. You can also catch projectiles in mid-air and stun enemies if they’ve used a melee attack, with a well-timed button press. This encourages you to get close to your foes and swing your sword around rather than hiding away at the back of the screen. By having this mechanic, Valfaris encourages players to constantly be aggressive and always take the fight to the enemy. And this is reflected in Therion’s personality and the story of the game, meaning that the gameplay and plot marry up in a perfect union. Players can also use their shield to ensure they remain stationary and can shoot in diagonal and vertical directions. This is is another extremely useful addition so you don’t need to spread your focus away from killing your enemies by worrying whether your accidentally moving towards a death pit while trying to shoot upwards.
And then we have the health bar itself. At certain points in your progression, you’ll reach checkpoints or resurrection altars. Here you can spend an Idol that you’ve found previously in your adventure. The catch is that the more of these Resurrection Idols you have, the larger your health bar. This means that every single checkpoint in the game becomes a risk-reward decision between keeping your health bar how it is or sacrificing some of it for a checkpoint. This means that you are essentially gambling on your skills. Do you bank an Idol on this checkpoint for guaranteed progression? Or do you keep that health bar high and hope that you survive until the next area? This simple yet effective method of checkpointing puts the onus on the player to decide how they want to play the game. It also works to alter the difficulty of the game as people can attempt low checkpoint runs or (if you’re a coward like me) use every Altar to make sure they don’t lose any progress. It’s awesome and hunting for extra Idols to buff your health bar encourages exploration in a game that could easily be merely run to the right.
There is another use for the Idols. At certain points in the game, you can trade in any Idols that you’ve collected for materials to upgrade your weaponry. This further stretches that risk-reward system but also picks away at your desire to see your guns shoot bigger bullets and your swords hit harder. Again at the cost of reducing your overall health. My only criticism of this is that you might inadvertently spend so many Idols that your current skill can’t keep up with your newly reduced health. This can make subsequent levels more difficult than they would have been if you hadn’t upgraded your weapons and could mean that some players drop the game and never return because of a perceived spike in difficulty. This is a shame because Valfaris has a well-executed difficulty curve, assuming you don’t hamper yourself by cashing in too many Idols.
At no point in my Valfaris journey (except the final boss), did I find that a boss fight was unfair and like I didn’t know how to win. I would definitely die a few times but I always came back for more as I learnt something from every encounter. This is also true for the parts of a level leading up to the boss. I might now understand how an enemy attacks, how a piece of platforming works or how my gun can shoot homing rockets. Each piece of knowledge builds into the player organically and Valfaris succeeds in making failure never feel unfair. However, the final boss is a bit different because he has three stages and while the first is similar to the other boss fights the last two are not. This shift in style meant that a lot of my learning from previous battles wasn’t very helpful. It also meant that to gain the experience, I needed to get past the first stage of the boss fight each time. This meant that the final boss felt like a bit of a grind rather than a triumphant conclusion.
However, Valfaris is still an excellent example of its genre. The shooting, sword-swinging and platforming are precise and exciting. The heavy metal soundtrack works to tie the world together and as the soundtrack to your murder fest. Any frustration you might have can be worked out by blasting a bit of the soundtrack and getting into the setting of the game. While they didn’t manage to stick the landing with the final boss and some people might accidentally give their life bars away, making the game harder for themselves, even if you don’t normally play this genre I think Valfaris is worth picking up. If you are willing to take some time to learn the systems and have the patience to battle bosses over and over to learn their quirks, then Valfaris is an extremely satisfying and adrenaline-fueled experience.
Thanks for reading. If you want to read about another excellent 2D platformer, then check out my article on Hollow Knight’s map. Alternatively, for something a bit different take a look at Gav’s take on Anthem.