A sneak peek of alien slaughtering mayhem.
Sometimes, retro-style games that pull on the nostalgic heartstrings are good for little else. As someone for whom run ‘n’ gun shoot-’em-ups largely passed them by in their youth, I wasn’t sure that Valfaris would be my cup of tea. But apparently a young dog in old dog’s clothing can teach another old dog new tricks. I got hands-on with a preview build at EGX Birmingham and had a chat with designer and coder Thomas Jenn of Steel Mantis about their plans for the game.
Valfaris is a sci-fi shoot-’em-up set on a wild alien planet. You play Therion, a Warhammer-esque space warrior wielding meaty guns and a giant pulsating energy sword, his long hair flowing in the wind. Within seconds, armoured space hounds charge at you and try to sink their teeth into your flesh. All while a face-melting heavy metal soundtrack riffs away in the background, composed by Curt Victor Bryant of the 80s metal band Celtic Frost.
“The original concept was Andrew Gilmour’s (the artist and visionary of the team); it was his vision,” Thomas says. “He was inspired by games like Diablo and Heretic, with the dark Gothic style. There’s definitely a lot of inspiration from there in the art design.” This is comprised of hand-drawn pixel art in a distinctly 16-bit style. Stark industrial architecture is overgrown with exotic alien flora. It’s a dark and gruesome setting, made more so by the limbs all-too-ready to detach themselves from the torsos of your slain foes. “But in terms of the gameplay,” Thomas adds, “That’s coming from games like Contra and old-school platformers.”
Anyone familiar with the latter will instantly feel at home here. Valfaris is relentless, throwing attack hounds, soldiers, bombships and much more in your direction. I was pleasantly surprised by the unpredictable movement patterns of some of these, which kept me on my toes while playing the demo. And as badass as Therion looks, he can’t take too many hits before he falls in battle.
At least you have a great armoury at your disposal. There’s your basic – but still effective – plasma pistol with unlimited ammo and your sword, which is not only powerful but recharges a handy projectile force field. Soon, I come across my first two-handed destroyer weapon to round out my arsenal, a beastly gatling gun called the Hellwraith. Rad.
This original stock of weaponry feels satisfying and powerful, but I’m not even scratching the surface of what Valfaris has to offer. “There’s gonna be a lot of weapons, and they’re all gonna have quite different functionality,” says Thomas. “But we want people to choose. We don’t want to have situations where you won’t be able to get past if you don’t have a certain weapon. There’ll definitely be situations where it’ll be advantageous to have a certain weapon, but we don’t ever want to say ‘you can’t go through here,’ because then there’s no real choice.”
This choice extends to not only the weapons you wield but how you can upgrade them over time. He likens it to Dark Souls, in that “anything goes, and you can upgrade weapons, so you find the ones you like and then you put all your upgrades into those. And because there’s only so many upgrades to go around, you’ll get locked into your decisions. We like that kinda thing – we want people to stick with the decisions they make.”
I encounter a large cyberdog which blasts around via boosters in its legs and fires homing rockets from its back. This wipes me out on my first attempt, but I get the impression that I haven’t seen anything yet – time prevents me from progressing much further, but if this sub-boss is anything to go by, the real bosses should be hard as nails.
Valfaris is shaping up well, but it comes from shaky roots. Previously, Steel Mantis released Slain, another old-school shoot-’em-up, with disastrous results. “I wasn’t on board at that point. That’s why they brought me on, because they needed someone to fix the game – the coder basically abandoned it,” Thomas explains. “It got released in a completely broken state. It was non-playable almost, and people were going mental about it – rightfully so. Basically, they gave me the code and a few months, and I tried to work on it, but I was just like, this is too far gone, it’s utterly abysmal. So I just deleted all the code and started over.”
From what I’ve seen of Valfaris so far, I’m optimistic that history won’t repeat itself. Thomas’ assurance gives me faith, too: “I want it to be actually working properly. I don’t want to have to do an emergency patch immediately. But this time I’ve been here from the very start, so I can be sure that it’s not going to be a total trainwreck. I’ve enjoyed starting from scratch, because this is like my game now.” We can look forward to Valfaris’ release on PC, PS4, Nintendo Switch and Xbox One in summer 2019.