Review – Valfaris: Mecha Therion
I’ve been a big fan of Steel Mantis’ games since I discovered (albeit a bit late) Slain: Back From Hell, and with each new game they continue to improve and impress me. Steel Mantis’ creative director, Andrew Gilmore, expressed on his X handle that they enjoy changing up genres because “we as devs don’t want to keep doing the same stuff over and over.” I respect that a lot, however, I can also see it not landing for everyone. If someone loved the genre of Valfaris, but may not like shoot ’em ups (thus forth referred to as shmups), then continuing the story of Therion may not be as enjoyable. Fortunately, I do like shmups, and I have to commend them for constantly trying something new, while keeping the same heart and soul of what they excel at.
Valfaris: Mecha Therion continues the story of Therion and his pursuit for Lord Vroll. Escaping Valfaris, Therion has now tracked Lord Vroll across the galaxy and with the final confrontation, Therion unleashes his ultimate weapon: a massive mech of metal destruction. During this final push you’ll encounter massive beasts, advanced weaponry, and even Lord Vroll’s own elite mech guards. Along your quest you will also encounter a friendly rebellion group who has rallied to fight back Lord Vroll’s hold on their cities. This creates some cool moments where you’ll team up with this rebellion group and fight alongside of them.
Obviously the biggest change for this sequel is that it Valfaris: Mech Therion leaves its 2D action-platformer genre and switches to a 2.5D shmup. This means you’re constantly being pushed forward into the action, which relies much more on quick reflexes and constant movement. Focusing on mech gameplay isn’t a shock after some of the levels in Valfaris featuring large mechs, but just be prepared for a very different gameplay focus in this one. That being said, there is no half-assing the shmup genre in this sequel because Steel Mantis knocked it out of the park.
While the general gameplay concepts remain the same, there are some key changes that I think are for the better, and one I wish they would have kept. While the main weapon setup is similar, piloting a mech means there are some extra features to add. You’ll still be able to equip a main sword, gun, power move, and you can now equip mods. You do lose your shield, but that is replaced by using your sword to destroy oncoming projectiles or to parry melee focused enemies. Much like Valfaris, you’ll be constantly rewarded with new weapons that all have their own unique properties and usefulness. I absolutely love the variety here and besides a small few, I feel like they all are worth using.
However, a big change to the gameplay is that there is no way to upgrade or boost your total health or power. Unlike Valfaris, there aren’t any resurrection stones to bank in order to increase health or use at checkpoints. This gets rid of one of the more unique features I thought Valfaris had, giving the player a bit of risk and reward. Instead, checkpoints here are free and there are no items to bank in order to increase health or power. Instead, health and power are static and the only things to upgrade are your weapons. I have to assume this was a change needed for the genre, since the combat is far more fast paced and you only have a small amount of life.
The general gameplay tempo in Valfaris: Mecha Therion is definitely increased moving to a shmup as it is constantly pushing your forward through the levels and into non-stop waves of enemies. With the new tempo comes some changes to how your guns and energy for power weapons is handles. You still technically have unlimited ammo, but there is a power meter that drains from the weapon. If the power meter is full, you’ll be doing the weapons full damage. As it drains out you’ll still be able to use it, but it will do far less damage. You then need to let it refill by not using it. Power weapons use up energy, and the only way to refill that is to use your sword. I feel like this creates a more balanced combat system because you can’t just simply rely on one weapon for encounters.
Upgrading weapons requires you to still collect Blood Metal, which is earned through increasing a meter by decimating your foes. About half way through the game you’ll also get the ability to use the Blood of Valfaris to earn Blood Metal. However, these are limited items only found through hidden areas or certain enemies. You also need the Blood of Valfaris to upgrade your weapons past level two, and each weapon has up to four upgrades. While they removed the risk and reward of the resurrection stones, giving you the ability to use the Blood of Valfaris to increase your Blood Metal gives more player decision that I like.
Being able to equip modules also gives a bit more customization to the player. However, I feel like some of the modules are so necessary to the gameplay that I felt stuck having them always on and only having one slot to really change up. For example, one of the modules is the ability to be able to charge your melee weapon and throw it out like a boomerang. This is a huge factor in the gameplay that feels more like a necessary combat move more so than just an additional module.
Another that is definitely just an option, but I always had it one was the ability to auto detect hidden areas. Hidden areas are found throughout the levels and these provide valuable items such as Blood of Valfaris or even new weapons and modules. For me those two modules were always equipped, and then around half way through you get to equip a third module which was fun to play with because there are definitely some nice bonuses and boons to be had with them. One module increase the power of Bathoryn which is the soul of Therion’s brother manifested in a sword, as well as unleashes enraged ghosts when you use your boost. Heart of Xyla increases you melee combat when facing formidable foes.
I did play Valfaris: Mecha Therion on my PC with an i7-9700k, RTX 2070 and 16gb of RAM, and it ran flawless. However, I found that majority of my time was using my Steam Deck. I have to say that this game is perfect for some on-the-go gameplay. The pick up and play quality of each checkpoint is fantastic and makes it easy for short bursts of gameplay. While I experienced no issues on my PC, the Steam Deck did have troubles keep a solid 60fps with the graphics options at the highest. There wasn’t huge drops in FPS and it never chugged badly during intense gamepaly moments, but it was noticeable during some parts where the 2.5D transitions would happen. Ultimately it didn’t impact my gameplay or enjoyment, but with my pre-release copy it isn’t solid 60fps on the Steam Deck on High settings.
Visually, I just absolutely love Steel Mantis’ art direction all around. The pixel art is so well done and the visual style is so consuming I find myself wanting to take pictures of all the great enemy and environmental designs. Obviously the art style still remains that striking neon, bio-mechanical, space aesthetic like Valfaris, but they stepped it up even more this time. With the move to being a 2.5D shmup, Steel Mantis was able to pull of some very cool scene transitions and different camera angles. Some of these offer some awesome views of the battlefields outside of the traditional 2D style and it really adds depth to the visuals. There are some parts where the aspect change does make it hard to decipher some incoming enemies and attacks, but ultimately I really enjoyed these segments.
There really isn’t anything to negatively critique the sound department for, so here are all the things I love about it. First and foremost, the soundtrack is obviously fantastic featuring a set list of metal tracks and that fits perfectly with the tone and aesthetic of the game. Just like their previous games, any time you collect a new weapon or mod you’re greeted with some headbanging guitar riffs to enhance the feeling of a new weapon of destruction. There isn’t any voice acting, of course, but it just isn’t needed in a game like this. Just give me the heavy weighted and chunky gore sound effects to go with the destruction, and that’s all that is needed. All of the guns and power weapons have their own unique sounds, and they all fit with their design and function. I don’t know how Steel Mantis can improve in this aspect, but honestly I’m not sure they need to.
Valfaris: Mecha Therion is a fantastic follow up that still nails the feeling of the original regardless of the genre change. For me the genre change did not impact my enjoyment of this title, but I can see how this may turn someone off if they want to finish Therion’s story, but don’t like shmups. It was a bold decision by Steel Mantis, but one I think they pulled off with its own ideas and engaging gameplay. This is easily one of my favorite shmups, but also a game that I would recommend to anyone who loves good action focused gameplay and fantastic art and sound direction seeped in metal. Steel Mantis has ushered themselves into my top favorite indie developers that I will always await their next project.
Moving to a 2.5D shmup shows off some very slick scene transitions that look amazing with Valfaris’ cyberpunk, neon, bio-mechanical art style.
With Valfaris: Mecha Therion changing to a shmup we get to experience a bullet hell, movement focused, version of Valfaris that excels in pushing the action.
The way Steel Mantis bleeds metal music into every inch of their games always impresses and it’s flawless to me here.
The blend of metal music with the constant action of a shmup is a fantastic experience that I would recommend to any fan of the genre.
Final Verdict: 9.0
Valfaris: Mecha Therion is available now on PC, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S.
Reviewed on PC and Steam Deck.
A copy of Valfaris: Mecha Therion was provided by the publisher.