Author: John Legendoffzelda
Super Valis IV, Atlus’ port of the fourth installment in the overlooked Valis franchise, suffers the most from a lack of context. It’s named like a sequel, and it’s the continuation of a magical-girl fantasy about a girl named Yuko Ahso, who inherits a magic sword and becomes the protector of a far-off realm named Vecanti. But this game isn’t about her. It’s instead about another protagonist who takes up Yuko’s mantle, since Yuko became a goddess of the realm. Now a new evil has risen with a desire for celestial takeover. This change in narrative isn’t unwelcome by itself, but it needs the context of the entire Valis series for it to work.
In the late 1980s, Telenet Japan created these games with an overall unvarying plot and gameplay structure but heavy storytelling elements; they were personal computer games with animated cutscenes and even voice acting. Because their differences were so subtle, each installment couldn’t stand on its own while still delivering the series’ full experience. This installment bears the least resemblance to the series because of its change in protagonist, and to strip the game to Super Nintendo size, nearly all the storytelling parts explaining this shift are removed. So now the game hardly resembles a Valis title at all. Now it looks like every other 2D platformer game where players can jump through environments and attack enemies. Its secondhand design doesn’t even make it stand out as a part of this format.
Gallagher is the new evil, a former king who escaped his crystal prison at the moment an evil red moon rose in the sky. Free of his entrapment, he recruits old allies in an attempt to control the world. Lena is the new heroine of Vecanti, a soldier given the mystical Valis sword by Yuko in her quest to defeat the crazed king. She’s quite an adequate character, in the way she swipes her sword and builds up to a running speed in each level. And the jumps she can make have some physics to them. Fighting enemies gives the same kind of response, where the player can feel a nice, airy tactility with each hit the sword makes. But with this level of control the player can’t normally choose being fast over being combat-centric. The function of double-tapping the directional pad to run is more complicated than it should be, and besides that, a regular section of a level can find Lena colliding with an enemy every five seconds. The main action has its own emphasis on combat, too, giving her a secondary attack with a variety of styles. As a standard attack, she can fling a piece of magic right at an opponent, and as augmentation, special icons float in the air that she can utilize. With these items she can launch a three-way attack, or a homing shot, and she can even activate a set of armor to protect her from damage temporarily.
The parallel is obvious with this design choice, and it doesn’t reflect so positively on the game. It’s bothersome to see a platformer game copy the alternate-weapon idea of Castlevania, but not the tricky stage layouts or planned enemy designs that necessitate this kind of system. Most enemies go down easily enough or at the same frequency with which the Valis sword itself goes down with each swipe. And enough of the bosses can be defeated using both the items and by exploiting tricks within the game, which takes the strategy and most of the practicality out of using them. In place of those qualities, attention is brought to how clumsy the system is to use. Using these secondary attacks involves toggling through them from a menu and making sure to only use one of them at a time. When the player has one weapon activated, they can’t switch to another before it’s used up or else they override it. It’s even more bothersome to note how the secondary items are the only way to replenish health in the game, or how these items are so scattered throughout the stages the player can’t find a health drop when he needs one.
Conserving health is most often a matter of getting through the stage precisely and with minimum damage, and the level designs facilitate this too much for it to be a strategy. All of the levels feel like the same empty stretch of ground for Lena to run through, with platforming segments all but devoid of imagination. There are no bottomless pits at all and only a scarce amount of dangerous places where the player needs to watch his step; every other instance of jumping from one surface to another is a trudge. These areas are where the secondary items are usually contained, which lessens their desirability and seems to indicate the developers couldn’t figure out where else to put them. There are no well-designed areas anywhere in the game where these items would feel like a benefit or even a reward, and so they just feel like bait to explore every part of each uninspired segment. The frequent appearances of Gallagher’s minions in the particularly long stretches would ideally redeem them as gauntlets to test the player, which only works as a theory. Lena’s athletic skills mixed with these opponents’ rudimentary placements remove the need to even fight them, and it makes them into hurdles rather than legitimate obstacles.
The only opponents that prove exceptions to the lackluster enemy arrangements are the ones who can go through the air, and they’re the ones who pose a satisfying challenge while putting the gameplay emphasis back on combat. The enemies who stand in Lena’s way while shooting eyeballs or showering rocks upon her challenge the player in cheap ways, taking advantage of how much damage she can take at one time and generally trying to keep the player from rushing. It’s as if the game is trying to even itself out while you play it. It wants you to savor combat and platforming stages it hasn’t refined, and presents it with images that aren’t remarkable. Sometimes there’s a vast sea of clouds or a grassy field to look at, but not much else in the way of creativity. The enemies are a mix of creatures and armored knights while the environments are made with standard grandeur, and the main bosses mostly suggest retreads of Queen Beryl’s generals. It’s especially bad for a franchise installment when, by itself, it looks like it has no discernible identity.
It’s possible these images look better on the advanced tech of the PC Engine, as part of the Valis saga where they belong, but on the Super Nintendo they pan out into fantasy pulp. It may just be that Super Valis IV doesn’t belong on this console … not if porting it means disconnecting it from its franchise this severely. This version of the game was unfortunately the formal end to the series, a failed attempt to cross it over to a new market at an opportune time. Even if the gameplay would still have been as pale and mishandled, the series might have lasted longer if its creators waited.
Three out of five stars.
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