Valfaris (2019)

Sometimes you just need to take a break from the massive open world RPGs and the like and dive into some old-school shooters. Valfaris is a modern indie game that was clearly inspired by the past. Its roots stem from the genre of run-and-guns that began with the classic Contra. Initially I was skeptical of Valfaris; I felt like it was nothing more than a stylized throwback without anything to make it standout. But I was wrong, even though Valfaris is from an ancient genre it manages to be unique by virtue of its carefully crafted level design.

Valfaris is an old-school run-and-gun that plays heavily with the themes of metal. The game reminds me quite a bit of DOOM stylistically, the key difference being that in Valfaris you are obliterating aliens instead of ripping demons apart. The music is appropriately metal, pumping the player’s adrenaline without becoming too hectic or distracting. I will mention that the visual sprites could sometimes be a little messy and hard to read.

I appreciate the game’s commitment to the theme, and individually all of the artwork is great. However, when the environments, backgrounds, enemies, projectiles, and animations are all together sometimes the screen would be difficult to read. This could be a little frustrating in more challenging portions of the game as you may not have even seen the attack or enemy that damaged you.

Where Valfaris shines isn’t in reinventing the genre, but instead it is the tightly designed levels that makes Valfaris enjoyable. Run-and-gun games are historically difficult, and Valfaris is no exception. However, I very rarely felt like the game was being unfair. The time between checkpoints felt perfectly designed. The tension created by weathering a horde of enemies, praying that a safe haven would be right around the corner is exhilarating. The absolute relief when hitting a checkpoint after a challenging section cannot be understated.

Moreover, the enemy design in Valfaris is superb. Most enemies are absolute cannon fodder, letting you shred your way through a level. But there are a few tougher baddies scattered about to up the challenge. Keeping on your toes, making sure none of the weaker grunts damage you while dodging the more elite aliens is a careful balancing act. But the key that makes Valfaris so engaging is that it follows the historical strategy that staying in motion is the best way to avoid damage.

Being aggressive, firing your gun constantly, swinging your sword at nearby enemies, and just moving around is the best defensive tactic. Staying in one place and shooting at enemies as they come is ineffective. They will catch you with stray shots and many enemies spawn from hives that will keep pumping out threats until you destroy their nest. That feeling of rushing in and causing havoc is superb.

Without a doubt my favorite aspect of Valfaris were the bosses. Every single one felt punishingly difficult the first time I encountered them. But fairly quickly I realized how predictable their patterns were and how consistently I could dodge them. I never felt like I got lucky, but instead that I mastered the boss and every one of their attacks. Without a dodge-roll, and your only defensive tool being a shield that saps your energy, running around and positioning yourself correctly becomes all the more important. It’s not a game of reactions, but a game of learning to stay mobile.

Valfaris gives the players an absolute arsenal of weapons to choose from for being a fairly short game. Surprisingly, each weapon is extremely unique and has different use cases. The difference in damage, range, spread-pattern, and special effects make every weapon fun to test out. I believe they are all fairly viable, although some are inevitably more powerful than others. You can equip a single sidearm, a melee weapon which deals high damage and restores energy, and a powerful main weapon that consumes energy when used.

It’s fun to test out different loadouts. But a critique that I have is that the upgrade system hampers the player’s ability to try new weapons. There are limited materials that can be used to upgrade your weapons, so once you start upgrading one it feels like you are committed to that choice. Especially once you get to the later part of the game you probably have a max-level weapon and aren’t going to want to swap it out for a fresh new one. I wish I didn’t feel so constricted when upgrading my weapons so that I could have experimented with some of the interesting choices that the game offers.

An interesting aspect of Valfaris is how it encourages and rewards risk in different ways. The most obvious is with the concept of Resurrection Idols. One of these can be found in every section between checkpoints, and extra ones can be found by diligent explorers. It costs a single Idol to activate a checkpoint. But if you choose not to activate the checkpoint and push forward, you get to keep the Idol. For every extra Idol you hold you gain bonus maximum health and maximum energy. I personally never took the risk and skipped a checkpoint, but it is an interesting risk for more experienced players to choose to gain a permanent bonus.

Moreover, at the end of every level there is a machine in which you can exchange bonus Idols for weapon upgrade materials. Effectively trading max health and energy for more power. The risks surrounding Idols and how to spend them is definitely an appreciated player choice. Another way the game handles risk is by encouraging the player to run around and slash at enemies. Melee attacks generate energy, which can be used for your heavy weapons and shield. So, if you want to play it safe and stay at range with your sidearm you can, but if you want to cause mayhem you need to slice up aliens to power your destructive rocket launchers and such.

Overall, Valfaris is an excellent modern run-and-gun. It’s hard to stand out in a sea of games that all stem from a genre that started 35 years ago. But Valfaris masterfully captures the thrilling side-scrolling action that defines the genre. The best way to describe it is 2D DOOM. Which is a pretty high compliment to give to any shooter. Despite a few minor issues like messy visuals and stunted upgrade paths, I believe Valfaris is an excellent game. It is for these reasons I give Valfaris an 8/10. While not being anything mind-blowingly new or innovative, Valfaris is the essence of run-and-gun.