Bringing classic gameplay back to life is a double-edged sword.
The “Metroidvania” platformer enjoyed its heyday some 15-20 years ago when Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night ruled the roost, and eventually found their names lent to the genre’s title. While many games since then have borrowed the tried-and-true mechanics of these classics, Valdis Story: Abyssal City is one that does so while also re-creating the aesthetic of the old-school consoles — its colorful art style would feel right at home on a PlayStation One. The hours of engaging gameplay at hand will especially satisfy the nostalgic.
But beware: Valdis Story is not for the faint of heart.
You begin the game as Wyatt, the leader of a crew who is fighting to bring balance to a war between angels and demons. Wyatt is searching for his father before a battle-gone-wrong separates him from the rest of his crew and the player’s adventure ensues.
The story accompanying the ten to fifteen-hour playthrough is as substantial as it is intriguing — developer Endless Fluff clearly has a penchant for writing while avoiding its namesake. Through communication with townsfolk, you learn of the Dark Goddess Myrgato and how she killed her mother Valdis, the ruler of all. A great struggle over control of the world has since resulted between Myrgato and her twin sister Alagath, the Goddess of Light.
What seems like an obvious setting of Light versus Dark is not so cut and dried in Valdis Story. Both goddesses are thirsty for power, and each requires human souls to populate her army. Wyatt and his crew are caught in the middle — with no “good” side to pick, they simply want the war to end. You’ll need to hunt through optional entries in the “Lore” section to get the most out of the narrative, and there’s a good bit of dialog to sift through (though, an option to review dialogue after the fact would have been very helpful). Those that stick with it will be rewarded with an engrossing universe that could house any number of titles to follow.
As with its classic inspirations, the bulk of the gameplay in Valdis Story is spent battling enemies and exploring the side-scrolling landscapes. The satisfaction of a good Metroidvania game is intact; you’ll come across many inaccessible doors and return to them hours later with a means of entry, filled with anticipation of what could be behind them. The location of your next task is not always obvious, with a vague line of text serving as the only clue. This lack of hand-holding might frustrate in other games, but it’s a boon to Valdis Story, as revisiting areas to more thoroughly explore only enhances the whole.
There’s a solid progression system in place, injecting RPG aspects to great effect. Experience is earned through defeating enemies, with a substantial amount of unlockable skills and stat upgrades to choose from as each new player level is achieved. There’s even somewhat of a crafting mechanic — materials collected in the wild can be provided to vendors to increase the effectiveness of armor and weapons, or create new ones outright.
The combat in Valdis Story is its apogee. Stringing together combos with the aid of unlocked skills is enchanting from start to finish. Magic plays a major part, serving as a gratifying complement to melee swordplay. By the game’s conclusion, you’ll have access to a generous amount of spells ranging from elemental attacks, to stat buffs, to abilities that help you reach otherwise-inaccessible areas.
The depth of combat comes to light most effectively while entrenched in the numerous boss fights. Some of these tests are quite stiff, particularly later in the game. Success comes through experimentation, practicing different spells on different bosses, and even exploring the area where the battle takes place. But if nothing’s working out, doubling back for some old-fashioned level grinding goes a long way.
Valdis Story is finishable well before the unlockable skill tree is exhausted. Between this and the multiple skill levels, along with the option to play as other characters with noticeably different play styles, there is a hefty amount of replay value in Valdis Story. A quick peek at the forums will expose a vested interest among the playerbase in going above and beyond — a true sign of a captivating game.
But where Valdis Story shines in its exploration, progression, and combat, it occasionally falters in its platforming. Jumping has an uneasy float to it, and grabbing on to ledges can feel imprecise at times. These issues don’t hinder the experience until you happen upon the several areas with maddeningly demanding platforming sequences. This is where the throwback style comes back to haunt, and Endless Fluff too often channels the sadism of old.
Littered throughout are time trial-esque sections. Often, you’ll hit a switch and you’re given a number of seconds to reach an area before a door closes. Other times, you’ll have to escape a cavern before it collapses. It’s these areas where the platforming problems are most prevalent. In order to succeed, each jump and dash must be performed flawlessly. One misstep and you’re starting over — it’s occasionally rage-quit material.
In addition, there are several situations where you may be required to jump off a ledge with no indication of what’s below your character — even for a modest hop. I found myself yearning for an option to scroll the camera slightly forward for a glance at what’s ahead, but the game relegates the player to a leap of faith. If it goes wrong, fighting your way back for a second try can take quite a bit of time in some cases — particularly in the early going.
The controls themselves contribute to frustration. Valdis Story is best played with a gamepad, but the default layout of a couple of often-used commands is peculiar. On an Xbox 360 controller, a helpful spell menu is accessed by pressing both the right trigger and the B button, and the spells themselves are cast by pressing the right trigger with the appropriate direction on the D-pad. However, the B button on its own is used to block. While in a battle and alternating quickly between blocking and casting spells, it’s far too easy to accidentally launch the spell menu, a frustrating distraction.
The dash ability is a bigger problem, as it is paramount to succeeding in all but the easiest battles in the game. Valdis Story tasks the player with pressing down on the D-pad followed by a direction to dash, left or right. A Street Fighter-style “hadouken” movement will pull it off, but as the more difficult battles require precise execution, it’s puzzling that the maneuver can’t be bound to a single button. All the more confounding is that the left and right bumpers on the controller go entirely unused while combinations of buttons are needed for things like menus and special attacks.
The platforming and control issues wouldn’t be so pronounced were it not for the fact that Valdis Story is quite difficult. Before you’ve managed to adapt to the floaty platforming and odd control scheme, this game can be extremely frustrating. You’d do well to resist the urge to throw your controller and instead give it another go. Valdis Story makes you earn your progress, and that makes success all the more satisfying.
Reviving the gameplay of classics is dangerous -- too often our memories betray us, forgetting the problems that game development has overcome over the years. But while playing to our nostalgic whims, Valdis Story still manages to feel new, and it builds a universe that deserves to live on in future titles. Fans of the genre should take note with reservations: you’re going to be frustrated, but it’s worth the fight.