When developer and designer Andrew Gilmour first revealed Slain: Back from Hell to the gaming populace as a heavy metal 2D action game, he did so with the amp turned all the way up to 11. The process behind its creation wasn’t very dissimilar to the genesis of early heavy metal albums, as the initial mix of the game was raw and heavy, but certainly not for everyone. I actually had the chance to play the prototype build, and with enough feedback and redesign, the final game was far more realised and polished where it became clear that Gilmour and his team learned a great deal in a very short time. Now with all that experience in place they come back with a bigger second game, very much in the same vein as the second album of a new metal band. Valfaris is a much different game from their debut effort, but it is still very much a heavy metal 2D action experience.
If Slain: Back from Hell was a heavy metal rendition of Castlevania, then Valfaris is a heavy metal rendition of Contra. Going for a sci-fi space shooter theme instead of a demonic medieval affair, the latest by Andrew Gilmour feels like a modern power metal album infused with sci-fi themes. The notion of a 2D heavy metal action game isn’t just in the soundtrack, but also apparent in the presentation and overall game design; this is as hard-hitting as 2D action games come.
Valfaris takes place in a continuous world that feels like different stages of a Contra game all logically structured together as one massive game world. Now this isn’t an open world Metroidvania by any stretch, but there are certainly aspects of that in the level design, where each of the segments cohesively merge into one gigantic level. It is a linear 2D action game with tight platforming, hoards of enemies and brutal boss battles, all organically paced to scaffold the player into increasingly difficult scenarios. The illusion of having independent, tightly designed levels attached together to create an epic game world is certainly effective, but no doubt the gameplay action is as focused and tightly designed as any good Contra game.
What’s great about Valfaris is that every segment is a thoughtfully designed exercise in 2D action platforming and shooting, and what really complements the design are the frequent checkpoints between segments, which also serve as save points. Being able to exit and return to the game at the last checkpoint really helps with accessibility and playability, making it an experience that players of any skill can enjoy. The checkpoints are generously and logically placed, usually right before a new level segment and before boss encounters. What’s also helpful is that all item pickups are retained even if you don’t make it to a new checkpoint. Taking a page out of old Resident Evil games, you actually need to grab tokens to activate these checkpoints, but even these are reasonably easy to come by and collect.
Valfaris on Xbox One plays incredibly well, where the controls and mechanics are as responsive as you’d hope for a sublimely designed and hectic 2D action game. The main character has all the skills you need to navigate the treacherous terrain and vicious bosses, especially with a selection of badass weapons and arms to vanquish foes in heavy metal fury.
The main weapon has an unlimited fire rate, the heavier sub-weapon makes use of an energy gauge, while the melee option can be used in closed-quarters combat. The combination of these three weapons works extremely well, allowing players to figure out their own approach in using the arsenal. Personally, I tend to lean more towards melee blade combat, especially during boss encounters. What’s cool is that a variety of new weapons can be picked up for all three categories, and they can also be upgraded using materials which are actually quite scarce; it is a matter of figuring out which weapon and type you’re most inclined to use and then focus the limited materials on upgrading those.
The graphical visual style of Valfaris resembles a lost artform of 2D games being built with pre-rendered 3D sprites to achieve a sense of pseudo 3D. This was especially the case on 16-bit consoles where games like Killer Instinct, Primal Rage, and even Donkey Kong Country made use of detailed pre-rendered sprites to create a convincing 3D aesthetic. Of course, 3D games on console have now come a long way and no longer need to rely on pseudo 3D trickery, and so initially it is a little strange to see it present here… but very quickly it starts to make sense given the overall heavy metal presentation.
What’s great is that the visuals of Valfaris aren’t some retro gimmick, as the pre-rendered 3D sprites are used to create a stunningly detailed alien planet with intricately animated sprites bringing grotesque alien creatures to life. The densely coloured visuals lend nicely to the stage appearance too, especially thanks to the dynamic lighting and particle effects, and so it never once feels dated. The unique visuals really help bring the heavy metal inspired artwork to life. The only real challenge is that sometimes the backgrounds are so detailed that it can be a tad tricky to figure out which parts are décor, and which are meant to be interacted with in order to move the game along.
The music of course is the strongest aspect of the epic heavy metal presentation in Valfaris, and the soundtrack does not disappoint in the slightest, especially given the involvement of metal veteran Curt Bryant, who is known for his work as a Celtic Frost guitarist. The sound explores different metal sub-genres than those in the soundtrack of Slain: Back from Hell, steering more into the power metal style of bands like Dragon Force and Iced Earth. There’s heavy use of duelling guitars and doom-laden chords, but what’s good is that there is a sense of sound design where the tracks are specifically manufactured to provide a unique sense of atmosphere for each area and sequence. It’s one thing to have a soundtrack that is in your face, but it also helps to have it designed around the experience itself. In this regard the soundtrack of Valfaris really complements the overall gameplay pace and level aesthetics.
If Slain: Back from Hell was like a debut metal album with raw imperfections, then Valfaris on Xbox One is that second chart-topping album with stronger production values. This heavy metal rendition of Contra features a consistently strong level design complemented nicely by modern gaming conventions, with everything coming together cohesively to provide a satisfying and challenging experience for players of all skill levels. With an exceptional heavy metal presentation thanks to a brilliant soundtrack and uniquely detailed visuals, Valfaris is as metal as gaming gets.