I’ve been a fan of heavy metal for pretty much as long as I’ve been listening to music. I enjoy quite a lot of musical genres, and depending on my mood, I can be found listening to everything from a capella to zef or anything in between. But regardless of where I roam musically, I’ll always end up returning to my comfort zone consisting of 2–3 guitarists, a bassist, a drummer, and someone with long hair screaming into a microphone like a banshee. But it’s not just the music; the artwork has always fascinated me. Artists like Derek Riggs, Ed Repka, and Vincent Locke, for example, with twisted hellscapes and gruesome images of violence or gore, speak volumes as to the content of the music, even if the people making it are usually thoroughly nice chaps who drink herbal tea and play teddy grab machines when they’re on tour. But what if you could play the cover of a heavy metal album? Steel Mantis has you covered for that with Valfaris: Mecha Therion, the third in their series of heavy-metal-inspired action games.
The first two games were run-and-gun type affairs in the same vein as classic games like Metal Slug or Contra, complete with pixel art graphics. This time, however, the developer is mixing it up a little, as Valfaris: Mecha Therion is a side-scrolling shoot-em-up in a 2.5D style reminiscent of something you might expect to see on the Sega Saturn or original PlayStation. With a l polygon count, heavily pixelated textures, and minimal animation, this is clearly an homage to a slightly later era of gaming than its predecessor, as well as to the demonic wasteland ethos of so many metal covers.
As with the previous title, you play as the titular protagonist, who is somewhere between a barbarian and The Slayer from DOOM. Now that he’s killed all the demons that invaded his hometown, he’s off for revenge against their leader. Of course, he’ll need a flying mech suit to do so because why wouldn’t you? Yes, this is a shoot-’em-up, but instead of controlling a flying vehicle, you are actually just the protagonist in a flying suit, and it’s a fairly uncommon mechanic that you don’t see often. You’re armed with three weapons, one of which is always your sword. This opens up the possibility of an even more unique mechanic: melee combat in a side-scrolling shooter! And you will find yourself having to use the aforementioned sword an awful lot, as it’s the main way to recharge the energy for the rest of your arsenal. I actually found it to be one of the better armaments when upgraded anyway, so I used it a fair bit. You can deflect projectiles as well, so it serves as a shield as well.
Whilst the fifth generation of videogames is evoked from the look and feel, I very much doubt that those consoles would have been able to move quite as many lighting effects as is seen here. The graphics might be low resolution, but there is a lot going on, and the power of modern computing is definitely present in abundance. This game looks how most of us feel that those games looked back in the day (as long as you don’t go back and actually check). There’s a LOT of pixelated gore and blood as well. I imagine that not many people are considering whether they should buy this for their kids, but if you were, I probably wouldn’t! For those of us who appreciate a bit of over-the-top demon viscera, though, it’s a delight!
Valfaris: Mecha Therion plays like a modern version of those older games as well, with a difficulty curve that’s just that bit more forgiving than games of that era, and frequent checkpoints are provided, meaning that memorising the sequence of enemies is a fair bit easier. That’s not to say that it’s an easy game; it’s just that it’s not at that level of insane difficulty that’s synonymous with the classics of the genre like Silver Surfer or R-Type. There are still a few parts that could have been more forgiving, such as the tendency for the game to scroll itself and squish you against the end of the screen if you’re not moving quickly enough. It keeps things moving at a good pace, but it does feel a bit unfair in certain parts where precise timing is needed. On more than one occasion, I had to choose between flying into the path of enemy fire and trying to deflect it all because waiting for a more opportune moment to swoop in was no longer an option.
Like Valfaris, former Celtic Frost guitarist Curt Victor Bryant provides the soundtrack, and it is as banging as you’d expect. Much like his former work, there’s a variety of different subgenres present here. Most of it has a classic metal feel, but there are definitely elements of thrash and speed metal as well. It’s up there with the DOOM series for me as music that stands really well on its own merits, as well as being perfect for the theme of the game. It’s energetic and gives that sense of “kill everything before it kills you” urgency that you want in a game like this.
If you like a good shmup, then this is definitely one to pick up. The soundtrack is great, the level design is great (bar a few minor niggles), and the look and feel is like playing a long-lost Nintendo 64 game that you only just discovered. This is one of the most accomplished shooters that I’ve played in a long time, and whilst I appreciate it’s a bit of a specialist genre these days, if it’s one that’s your bag, then this is definitely one to grab.
Valfaris: Mecha Therion (Reviewed on Windows)
Excellent. Look out for this one.
A really nicely crafted little shooter with a banging metal soundtrack and the look and feel of the PlayStation 1 era. It’s well worth checking out if you’re a fan of the genre.