I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a sucker for aesthetic consistency. I enjoy art that values style and showmanship over content and while those things are often not enough for me to overlook something horrendous, they do soften what would be a spine-shattered fall in quality. Susan Sontag best described this type of style with “Camp Theory” which, to paraphrase her, is the celebration of all things “over-the-top” in a way that’s self-aware.
Certain media interprets this theory differently; Hip-Hop culture used to value copious amounts of gold chains, while many sci-fi stories embrace the silliness of aliens and space travel in such an enjoyable way you can’t help but appreciate it. Yet when I think of Camp Theory, what really stands out to me is Heavy Metal in all its iterations, because the genre of Metal is classified largely based on being overdramatic to the point of absurdism. Watch anything from classic Iron Maiden to more modern stuff (with the weird masks and strange contact lenses) and the thing that unites them is a darkness that would be stupidly ridiculous if it weren’t so knowingly tongue-in-cheek. It’s this idea of metal that Valfaris seeks to capture and it does so with a blood-soaked fervour that’s difficult to overlook.
This isn’t a difficult game to understand. You’re a warrior prince returning to his home planet of Valfaris to exact revenge upon your treacherous father. That’s about as much narrative as you’re getting and if you’re not happy with that you can go sulk in your room. Valfaris sets up a very simple revenge story and then takes it to the absolute extremes in terms of that there most important word aesthetics. The screenshots in this review just don’t do this game justice because it is undeniably one of the most unapologetically Metal (the capital “M” is intentional) games I’ve had the pleasure of playing. Environments are always dripping with blood and gunk, skulls adorn the walls and tanks and everything just seems to be alive in the grotesque and uncomfortable manner. Valfaris is so proud of its Metal roots that Therion, your character, head-bangs viciously whenever he acquires a new weapon. It’s so ridiculous that it’s fantastic.
Speaking of weapons, this game has a whole bunch, each appealing to a different playstyle. While clearly drawing gameplay inspirations from Contra, Valfaris elects to provide the player with an upgradable inventory of guns and swords rather than random pickups. With a surprisingly large roster, every weapon feels like it has a unique playstyle that provides an experience that works around how you want to approach levels that are just swarming with enemies. Also, I should point out that I’m a sucker for a punch rail gun and I was not disappointed.
Beyond the weapons and side-scrolling shoot-em-up action, Valfaris goes to great pains at providing some fantastic boss fights. Every one incorporates a different move set that mirrors the location it’s based in and they’re not friendly in the slightest. This game doesn’t pull its punches, much like its inspirations (on both accounts) and you’ll end up dying a whole lot. Yet Valfaris skirts around potential frustration by including a very clever revive mechanic. Throughout every level you’ll find Resurrection Tokens that when spent at certain locations create a checkpoint, but if you choose to hold onto them you get a boost to your health and energy. It’s a really clever system that forces players to constantly choose how bold they’re feeling. Both options have benefits and trade-offs that make for some tense choices that only make Valfaris and even more compelling experience to play through.
That’s just one of the clever little things Valfaris does to subtlety help the player. Hitting enemies with your melee weapon earns you back some energy to fire off your big gun (*bigger gun) which incentivises getting up close and personal with the hordes of strange lizard creatures and amorphous blood slimes. Upgrade materials are locked within optional mini-bosses, pushing you to get more aggressive at greater risk to your yourself on the basis that your reward will be worth it. It’s the best parts of Contra without frustrating death mechanics or unfair spawns, resulting in a side-scrolling shooter that feels fantastic to play.
Tying the whole thing together is what is, to absolutely no-one’s surprise, an utterly bitchin’ soundtrack (Can I say that? Is that allowed on this site? Is that my one allotted swear to keep this post PG13 gone?). Rising and falling based on the tension and difficulty of the rooms, the brutally heavy metal that slams your face as your churn your way through hordes of enemies is exceptional. As someone who owns a decent amount of vinyl, I’d pay for an LP of Valfaris’s OST so I can be even more a pretentious nerd than I already am.
Valfaris is a love-letter to many things. Classic shoot-em-ups, strikingly vivid heavy metal bands and campy sci-fi, it sticks its gory fingers into a great many pies and somehow manages to make them all taste a little better in the progress. Weird image, I know, so as I try to conclude this review, I think there’s only one way to properly sum up how good Valfaris actually is: It’s the best Iron Maiden album cover you’ve ever played.
Last Updated: October 21, 2019