Valfaris: Mecha Therion

Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X
Genre: Shoot-'Em-Up
Publisher: Big Sugar
Developer: Steel Mantis
Release Date: Nov. 21, 2023


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PC Review - 'Valfaris: Mecha Therion'

by Cody Medellin on Nov. 21, 2023 @ 12:30 a.m. PST

Valfaris: Mecha Therion is an action-packed side-scrolling shoot 'em up with a satisfying old-school feel and distinct low-poly art style.

Steel Mantis' first game was Slain, a heavy metal-inspired platforming title that needed a re-release before people saw its solid gameplay mechanics. The team followed up with Valfaris, another side-scrolling game with a sci-fi setting and a combination of swordplay and gunplay steeped in heavy metal. For the sequel, Valfaris: Mecha Therion, the team decided to do something different, and the result is quite fantastic.

Like the first game, Mecha Therion runs on a simple enough story. Based on the events of the first game, your father Lord Vroll has escaped capture once more. As his son (Therion), you continue to pursue him to bring him to justice. To do this, you elect to go through the air as you board your suit Mecha Therion to finish the battle. While story doesn't really matter, it is hilarious to see the game continue its devotion to adding nearly ridiculous lore in its sci-fi setting. The soul of your brother is still encased in a sword, except that it has grown larger to complement the large mech you're piloting. The gun you use doesn't fire bullets but projectiles made from the souls of the tormented. You use blood to upgrade weapons, and the acquisition of said weapons is always followed by headbanging and hair whipping. It's metal, it's ridiculous, and it makes the game quite endearing.

As mentioned before, this is a side-scrolling shooter, not a side-scrolling adventure game like its predecessor. It also isn't a bullet hell shooter, as it goes for the classic mechanic of more enemies than bullets, and it ensures that the automatic camera scrolling doesn't catch you in environmental hazards. As far as the basics go, the game takes the less chosen route in the genre of making your mech go upright; this explains why the game didn't go for the bullet hell shooter route. The game does take a few moments to shift to a different viewpoint where you're flying away from the center of the screen or toward it. It also lets you manually scroll vertically, and while that means it hides some enemies, it doesn't suddenly throw bullets or unavoidable enemies at you.

While this is a shooter, Mecha Therion does a few things differently from other games in the genre. You have three weapons at your disposal at any time: a gun, an auxiliary weapon, and a sword. The first two use up energy, and while you can still use your gun if your energy meter is empty, its damage is drastically reduced. Your sword is not only good for melee attacks but also refilling that energy, since that's the only way you can get energy back. Melee attacks are also useful for nullifying enemy fire, which is more useful than your guns, which can't block all bullets. Your sword is also useful for attacking enemies from behind if you activate the option to automatically turn. It's an option worth utilizing, unless you want to give your fingers a workout. You also have a fourth attack in the form of a dash, which is useful for breaking through fragile environmental hazards and enemies while also giving you a brief moment of invincibility against enemy fire at a great energy cost.

While these are your main tools for offense, they aren't static in nature. You'll run into augments that add new abilities, such as being able to throw your melee weapon like a boomerang. New weapons appear as you progress, so you can, for example, replace the lock-on missile ability with a bomb that inflicts great damage when dropped or a gun that fires electricity that chains into enemies. Each of those abilities can be upgraded, and that currency comes from you killing enemies to fill up a meter to produce Blood Metal for the upgrades. While most of the upgrades simply make those weapons more powerful, you'll perform the upgrades often, considering how the game makes a gradual ramp-up so they seem necessary.

The number of abilities you get to use can seem a bit overwhelming for a shoot-'em-up, but it doesn't feel too complicated in practice. It doesn't take long to get into a rhythm of switching between shooting things that get in your way and then quickly using melee to get some energy back to keep the projectiles going. The game does a terrific job of making you feel powerful against the odds, like any good shooter should. Boss fights feel tough but not overwhelmingly so, and there are some cool parts, like the ability to get into a sword clash that leaves the enemy open for a bit.

The game isn't stingy with power-ups and health pick-ups, provided you concentrate on shooting and getting cash for upgrades. It even takes the time to add in some secrets, which gives the game some replayability beyond playing again at higher difficulty levels, and the presence of a New Game+ helps in this regard as well.

Perhaps the most surprising thing is that the game is generous with checkpoints, which mitigate the fact that you won't respawn at the same point where you died. The system is good enough to be spaced out nicely and never to the point where you'll have to go through a gauntlet of difficult sections before a boss fight. Compared to the developer's past offerings, this is a little more forgiving, but the game remains challenging enough that you can't simply brute-force your way to the end. You'll need to build up some skill with a runtime that is longer than the genre norm.

There is one issue that we noticed that has to do with warping. There were times where the game would suddenly warp you ahead for a second, as if it paused briefly and then got caught up to the present, and objects are in slightly different spots than they were before. It never caused deaths or even a hit on the character, and it never happened at the same spot all the time, but you'll notice it when it occurs. Again, it isn't consistent, but it is something to be aware of.

The presentation retains everything from the previous game but polishes it up. The game still retains the pixel look of before, with a color palette and subtle animations that seem to get a bump in overall polish this time around. The dark sci-fi/fantasy backdrops are complemented by enemy designs that are grotesque and fantastic, and it's awesome to see that the game doesn't slow down one bit when all of this is happening. The game lacks voices, but it makes up for it with a real heavy metal instrumental soundtrack that rarely lets up and fits perfectly with everything else. If you're a fan of the genre, the music deserves to be turned up.

A game like this feels right at home on the Steam Deck, but you'll really need to do some tweaking, as the game is more hardware intensive than expected. The game runs at the device's native 1280x800 with everything cranked up to the max, but you might want to turn down some of those settings unless you're fine with the game running at an average of 40fps with some fluctuation when fewer objects are on-screen. The battery life off on a full charge hits a little under two-and-a-half hours, so there's room to squeeze out a bit more life by turning down settings, a move that doesn't negatively hurt the game due to its pixel look.

Valfaris: Mecha Therion is an awesome shoot-'em-up. It does a good job of encapsulating the classic shooter sensibilities while also making sure the melee combat fits in without feeling shoehorned. The presentation adheres to the heavy metal style artwork well, while also not obscuring anything of importance. The pacing ensures that the frustration is kept to a minimum. It is nice to see a shooter that isn't just another top-down bullet hell game, and genre fans of all skill levels will really enjoy Mecha Therion.

Score: 8.5/10

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