Friday, August 16, 2019

Valis: The Fantasm Soldier (GEN) Review

Received: September 6th, 2018 / Written: August 12th-16th, 2019

Alternate Title: Mugen Senshi Valis [ ]
Year: 1986, 1991 | Developed by: Riot
Published by: Renovation | Licensed by: Telenet Japan

To celebrate me getting a Sega Genesis console two weeks ago (no more solely relying on the RetroGen adapter cartridge to play physical Genesis cartridges anymore), let's talk about one of the games I own in my physical collection.  😃

December 1986 saw the debut of Mugen Senshi Valis (which roughly translates to "Dream Warrior Valis") on the NEC PC-8801, MSX, and Sharp X1 computers in Japan, all developed by Wolf Team and published by Telenet Japan, which would then see a conversion on the FM-77 and  NEC PC-9801 computers in March and April 1987 respectively with a take by Tokuma Soft on the Famicom that August.  Upon release it was very successful and popular enough to become a franchise, but despite the first two sequels seeing a release in America in one form the original never quite made it overseas.
Images from GameFAQs; well, no guess as to which cover is superior: the Japanese one
That is, until Riot created a conversion of Mugen Senshi Valis for the Sega MegaDrive (planned by Eiji Kikuchi and Tomoko Miura, programmed by Atsushi Komiya and Yasuhisa Tanaka, and executive produced by Jirō Fukushima, Kazuyuki Fukushima, and Yūji Fukushima) which was released on December 1991 by Telenet Japan, which Renovation released for America on the Genesis that year as Valis: The Fantasm Soldier--only took five years after the debut of the original.  Something to note is that this version in particular is based specifically on the NEC PC Engine Super CD-ROM² version which Riot also developed,
Image from GameFAQs
the only problem was that it had not yet come out as that version wouldn't be released in Japan until March 1992, months after the Sega edition's release.  But since I only played the Genesis version of Valis, I will be covering this version exclusively.

During one school day in contemporary Japan there has been a strange weather shift between storm and rain,
which a schoolgirl named Yūko Asō couldn't help but notice.  While waiting for the weather to fully improve she's met by fellow schoolmate Reiko Kirishima who's holding up an umbrella despite the rain having stopped.  She tells Yūko that she's going to move out of town and has come to say "goodbye", but before she leaves she vaguely informs her that they may meet again very soon.
After Reiko walks out a monster suddenly emerges from the ground and corners Yūko at the spot.  Trapped and defenseless, she shouts for help, and that is when a disembodied voice tells her to hold out her hand.
Suddenly a sword magically appears in her hand and drives the monster away with it.
Shortly after she finds herself in another realm, dazed and confused she wonders if it's all a dream as none of this can possibly be real.  Yūko is then met by Lady Valia who welcomes her to Dream World (one that exists outside of time and space), who reveals to her to have been the source of the voice and explains to her that she's been searching for a brave soul to wield the magical Valis sword in this time of despair.
Valia tells her that the "Yin" and "Yang" has caused an imbalance with people's souls in the Earth, land of the spirits, and Vecanti and that "Yin" has been influencing these souls through a power called "Vecanta".  The one responsible for this is Demon lord Rogles who has locked the source of power referred to as "Yang" in Phantasm Jewelry and broke it into several pieces, with five of his generals guarding it.  The only way to restore the balance is to put all the pieces together which is the only way to defeat him.
Unable to fight Rogles alone, Valia begs Yūko to take up this task and become the Valis warrior which is her destiny.  Yūko then accuses Lady Valia of being selfish telling her that it's none of Yūko's business what's happening and that she just wants to go home.  The queen of the Dream World, sensing the "Vecanta" in her, uses her magic to transform Yūko into a Valis warrior striking the "Vecanta" influence away.  Valia tells her to gather the pieces of the Phantasm Jewelry which will help her along the way.  It is now up to Yūko to restore the balance of the three different realms and put an end to Rogles' reign of terror.

The beginning of Valis warrior Yūko's legacy
The sidescrolling action platformer Valis: The Fantasm Soldier follows the exploits of ordinary schoolgirl turned Valis warrior Yūko Asō, who can move left and right, look up, and crouch.  The C button allows you to jump with how much altitude you gained depending not just on how hard you pressed it but if you held up while doing so which will enable her to leap high up into the air, and if you hold down while pressing C you'll be able to slide down certain platforms; pressing the B button will let Yūko swing the Valis sword, after selecting the magic in the Phantasm Jewelry menu accessed with the Start button (each one gained with the defeat of a boss) you can conjure it up by holding up and B for a requisite amount of MP; and finally with the A button you can literally slide a short distance across.

Fighting off monsters in the subway
Every now and then you'll stumble across pink jewels in midair which you must swing at to reveal its contents: and the contents within will be either a small heart which will restore a tiny bit of your health or a big heart which will replenish a good chunk of your lost health, turquoise-colored power-ups which will augment a varying amount of MP at your disposal, and one of five different magically enhanced power-ups for your Valis sword to fire towards enemies with each swing.  The magically enhanced attacks have three different potency levels should you collect the same icon three times (with the third time naturally being the Valis sword at its strongest), but once you collect a different one it begins again at Level 1.

What could be behind here?
The magically enhanced Valis sword attacks in question are the magic bullets which evolve into a spread shot once you get three of them, the magic laser, the arrow which homes in on the enemy within vicinity (sometimes more than one), the wave beam (which will simultaneously shoot above and ahead of you should if it reaches Level 3), and finally there's the explosion power-up after dishing out a projectile in place.  Should your Valis sword be at Level 2 or 3 if all your health's been depleted then you'll not only begin with the current power-up at Level 1 but you'll begin from the start of the current portion of the stage you are at as each stage is divided into parts, and if you lose all your lives and use one of your continues (of which there are an unlimited amount) then you'll be taken back to the beginning of the stage you were currently at.

Yeah, that's an appropriate attire for this
cold and snowy environment
Hiroaki Kai, Kazuya Tsukasaki, Hiroshi Sawamura, and Toshiya Sazaki all worked on the design for this game and it's very pleasant to look at with their sense of detail and well-chosen color palette.  The first stage that takes place on Earth has got buildings that loom in the backdrop at the start, then once you venture down in the subway there is a cool sense of visual depth with the tunnel as the screen scrolls, and there are a couple Easter eggs in regards to the companies involved (watch out for Riot's logo in the billboard and Telenet Japan's name engraved on the bench); the second stage when you venture in the icy environment there is a frozen look and feel with a detailed reflection of the glaciers in the backdrop and the frozen ground you're treading and the smooth parallax scrolling inside the ice cavern;

Narwhal protruding from the ice
the fourth stage has got neat volcanoes in the back with a continuously active series of dark parallax scrolling clouds; the fifth stage has got detailed ruins; and for another example the castle where you must face Rogles at the end has got a cool-looking backdrop of an interior tower in the end.  Yūko is decently designed in-game, her moderate walking animation is solid, and her jumping, sword swinging, and sliding animations are all done to a swift degree.  The enemies in this Valis installment have all got interesting designs and are backed up by solid animation, and the cool thing about them is that all of the stages have got their exclusive enemy types that are not present in other stages.

Running through the icy cavern
Some of the enemy types you'll encounter are narwhals that emerge from the ice, enemy faces projecting fireballs that blend into the rocky surface, floating enemies that resemble Venus fly traps in terms of teeth, two-headed serpents, red fish, giant hornets, and even enemy soldiers, et al.  At the end of each stage you'll find yourself fighting a boss, most of whom are bigger than you in terms of stature: some bosses you'll fight are a harpy, a wizard, a two-headed dragon, and finally Rogles at the end looks cool with his cape billowing in the air as he glides left and right.  The penultimate boss you have to fight is Reiko, who is a palette swap of Yūko only wearing black and modified to have shorter hair.

Harpy attack
During the intro and ending and after beating the first and sixth stages there are anime cutscenes, with all the characters designed by Osamu Nabeshima who had been involved in the art and continuity of the Valis franchise since the NEC PC Engine Super CD-ROM² incarnation of Valis II in 1989 (he also did the original art for Shin-Nihon Laser Soft's Cosmic Fantasy: Bōken Shōnen Yū and Avenger and would have a drawing credit on the Sega AM7 adaptation of Clamp's Magic Knight Rayearth on the Sega Saturn).  As limited as the animation is in these segments, it's like watching an anime for they are framed well and have a good color palette about them.  😃

Deep in the scorching lava cave
The soundtrack for Riot's take on Valis: The Fantasm Soldier was composed by Minoru Yuasa (who also produced by this game) and Hiroaki Aki (who also worked on this game's design) and the themes they provide here are really engrossing, the instrumentation is great, and they perfectly encapsulate the atmosphere and mood of the present stage--basically, the soundtrack is fantastic!  😃  The title theme is incredible as it sets up the tone for what's to come; the theme you hear in the first stage as Yūko fights off Rogles' forces on Earth is energetic and catchy and basically tells you that you are in for quite an adventure and it's also one of my favorite songs from the game;

Look at that volcano in the background
the icy cold environment of the second stage has got a great composition that's riveting in style, the wilderness theme in the penultimate stage is somber and morbid in tone for it serves as a tragic prelude to Yūko having no choice but to fight her friend Reiko, the final stage theme taking place inside Rogles' castle is relentlessly intimidating, and the credits theme is rewarding and satisfying to listen to when all is said and done.  The normal boss theme is rock heavy, but the theme that plays when you finally confront Rogles is epic and has got an uneasy opening cue.  The cutscenes have got themes of their own, most of them brief, but one in particular is a sad listen in conjunction with one pivotal cutscene in the game.  The sound effects are decently chosen, I like the sound of the Valis sword and how the various magic attacks have their own sounds to them, and the explosion sound effect after defeating the boss sounds very satisfying.

Conjuring magic attack
The timing of the release of the Sega 16-bit incarnation of Mugen Senshi Valis/Valis: The Fantasm Soldier is curious, to say the least.  🤔  By the time today's game came out in America the NEC PC Engine Super CD-ROM² version of Valis II got localized for American audiences in 1990 for the TurboGrafx CD which was the first time a Valis game had been released overseas and for some was the first exposure to the franchise, and the 1990 NEC PC Engine Super CD-ROM²-based Valis III got converted to the MegaDrive/Genesis in 1991 by Renovation Game in both Japan and America.  It's interesting that the first entry was the second Valis game to be given the Sega treatment right after the then-recent Valis III.

Arrow magic
I remember finding out about the Valis franchise over a decade ago when I watched Let's Play videos of the franchise by a user named Valis77 (with entertaining and hilarious commentary); those videos are no longer around (I miss his videos) but there are World of Longplay videos (sans commentary) of games played by him besides just anything Valis-related.  I remember being curious about these games as they looked interesting, but I wouldn't get around to this franchise until several years later because there are only so many games I'm curious about after learning about them being a collector who plays video games plus I'm rather conservative with how much money I spend on them at a time.
Yes, it is possible to change Rena Bland's palette in the former game to match Yūko's, though it might cause a strain on your Super Famicontroller: hold down both shoulder buttons, turn the game on, and don't let go of either button until it's time to take control of Rena
Near the end of October 2016 I would get my first taste of the Valis franchise by importing Telenet Japan's Super Valis: Akaki Tsuki no Otome in CIB condition on the Super Famicom, and then the following October I would purchase Valis III on the Genesis (at the time relying on a RetroGen to play physical Genesis cartridges, but now that I own a Sega Genesis that is no longer the case) which cost slightly more.  I've liked and enjoyed both of these games in their own right,

Fighting beside drainage
and I knew that the next game I wanted to try was Valis: The Fantasm Soldier but the problem was that whenever I looked it up on eBay it always cost a ton.  Once in a while whenever it was time for me to go to eBay I would check to see if there was a copy that was more affordable and not so expensive.  Last year, on September 2018, I finally found a copy that was affordable at roughly $40, which is the most I spent on a Genesis cart out of what I have in my physical collection (and costly slightly more than the Sega Genesis I got recently).  I knew people had reservations with this take on the first Valis, which I'll address shortly, and while I didn't enjoy it as much as the other two Valis games I played I still found myself enjoying it for what it was.  🙂

Keep an eye out for those loose bricks
When Mugen Senshi Valis first came out, long before the MegaDrive/Genesis incarnation by Riot, it left an impact in Japan and became an iconic series for several reasons.  Next to Nintendo's Metroid, it was among the first video game franchise to center around a female protagonist and was one such early video game that progressed the story through anime cutscenes which had not really been done before 1986.  The idea of an ordinary schoolgirl suddenly being thrust into this larger than life scenario and becoming a warrior destined to right the wrong done by evil was a novel concept and the concept of fighting for three different realms is fascinating and explained in a way that makes it easy to understand.

About to enter into the deeper confines of
the ancient ruins
Where the game excels the most is the story, so much so that people who played it back when it first debuted were invested and wanted to know more about the lore of Valis that the series would continue in 1989 with each new installment coming out on a yearly basis until Valis IV bookended the series in 1991 (if you were to only count the canonical entries in the franchise, that is).  The Valis franchise has oft been compared by many to Konami's classic vampire slaying Akumajō Dracula/Castlevania franchise (which also started in 1986) in regards to its structure and gameplay, with the biggest comparison point being

Keep firing magic arrows at the two dragon heads
obtaining power-ups after hitting objects stationed in midair and holding up while pressing the attack button to unleash a special attack towards your enemies.  I can certainly see a similarity having played games from both franchises (mostly Konami's), but I think Valis: The Fantasm Soldier does enough to give itself its own sense of identity as there's no time limit, there is no scoring involved, and you can select which magic to conjure up in the menu when accessing the Phantasm Jewelry menu; and if you swing towards seemingly inconsequential and unimportant portions of the screen, you may just uncover a secret item that will aid you (including a heart, a raise in MP, or an extra life).  😃  Valis was popular enough in Japan that it inspired certain developers to create a game that featured their own take on the formula,
most notably Affect's 1993 kendo-based Nintendo 16-bit exclusive Makeruna! Makendō/Kendo Rage which was essentially a Valis knockoff but with a lighthearted and more upbeat tone with an unapologetically silly and comedic edge to it that made it pleasantly solid feel-good fun.  😄  That combined with the story told between stages (albeit briefly) makes it the closest the console got to having a proper Valis game, more than the arcade-like and largely story-free game that does inhabit the Valis moniker Super Valis: Akaki Tsuki no Otome/Super Valis IV.  But whereas Makeruna! Makendō's sequels each had different genres than the last, the Valis franchise consistently remained an action-platforming genre from the get go.

Wilderness, the point of no return
The gameplay of the first Valis has always been remarked as playing second fiddle to the story on account of the controls lacking polish in areas, which is true of the Sega 16-bit version (only version I played) but I don't think it's unplayable or unreasonable.  The gameplay of Riot's take of the first game mirrors the exact gameplay from Valis III, the first in the series to introduce the sliding ability and utilizing the magic power-ups by holding up and attack (it also uses the majority of Yūko's sprites from the third game), only there's no ability to switch between characters and in this game only you can choose the magic to use against your foes.  Yūko's pacing is of the deliberate variety, but

That fateful battle between Yūko and Reiko
I found that to work just fine here as it makes it easy not to overlook items and to make things more comfortable the enemies are also paced at a deliberate pace, which makes the proceedings feel balanced... maybe a little too much.  😐  Because both you and the enemies are deliberately paced it does tend to cancel out some of the challenge which is low in that regard, and because of that it can be pretty easy to go through most of the game without losing a life; two or three of the bosses might take awhile to defeat the first time, but once you've learned their pattern and/or choose the right magic to use against them they can be a cakewalk (especially Rogles at the end).

🎵 I'm headed straight for the castle
They've got the kingdom locked up 🎵
There are also certain gameplay and structure design choices in this game that I found to be rather peculiar.  The ability to slide over gaps is a curious one, because if you tried doing that towards an open space then you would still slide straight until that process is finished in which case it's time to fall down.  In the third stage one of the obstacles to overcome is jumping over lava, but the bizarre thing is that if you landed on it nothing happens (at least right away) but if you stay on it longer only then will you sustain damage so the moment you land on the lava jump out of it right away.  It's also possible to deflect certain soldier enemies' projectiles with your Valis sword or to simply duck down and attack once they make their move.

That detailed backdrop
There are a couple areas where the translation is a bit spotty: any time you defeat a boss prior to Rogles whenever you get a piece of the Phantasm Jewelry the message says "Get Fantasm Juely" and there is moment in the dialogue sequence when the word "strength" is brought up but instead is written as "strengh"; I get the feeling the translation was done by someone whose English was not their first language.  But the biggest caveat people had with this version of Valis above all else was the pacing of the cutscene dialogue: it is sloooooow.  I understand the need to keep the dialogue in place for a short time so that it gives you a chance to read it all before proceeding to the next dialogue sequence, but in this case they hold it out a bit too long and all the words form up at a snail's pace.

Crouch attack
It's not aided by the fact that the slowness occurs during each angle (usually repeated intermittently) of the anime cutscene in question, and because of this there are some rather unintended side effects.  There is more than one instance when after two or three literal lines of dialogue is spoken it abruptly stops ……… until it's time to resume the rest of the dialogue sequence (usually midsentence, I might add); whatever limited animation there is during these cutscenes is slow choppy, and there are two isolated moments when a character will close their eyes in a choppy manner when talking until they shoot right open as if they had a heart attack.  This game as it is takes roughly fifty to sixty minutes to beat, but a good chunk of that length comprises of the amount of time you spend watching the cutscenes (which cannot be skipped, thereby disrupting the flow) because without them Valis: The Fantasm Soldier is an incredibly short game otherwise.

Platforming upward
But despite these flaws, I still had fun playing the first Valis in this format.  As deliberately paced as the gameplay is and how low in challenge it is as a result I honestly found the proceedings to be relaxing and enjoyable.  The settings were also immersive to explore in terms of surrealism, and I did like the story (despite the anime cutscenes being slow paced).  It also has the honor of being among the first three games I beat directly on my recently purchased Sega Genesis console: Travellers Tales' Mickey Mania: The Timeless Adventures of Mickey Mouse was the first, The Kremlin-developed Domark Group release Marko (a goofy and colorful knockoff of Krisalis Software's Soccer Kid) being second, and this game being the third.  😃
You can't help but feel bad for Reiko.  True, she served under Demon lord Rogles but when she gives Yūko her backstory and true reason for doing so after being defeated, it's a sad revelation: she was never happy with her life and always wanted to feel like she was above others, which in turn made her feel friendless.  That Reiko didn't realize that Yūko was always her friend until she succumbed to her wounds and died is tragic but is bittersweet as Reiko is finally happy in her final moments,
and after being challenged to face Rogles in his castle, when Yūko takes one of Reiko's straps and ties it around her wrist to fight in memory of her it's a heartwarming and inspiring moment as it shows how much she cared for her and how loyal she was as a friend.

Midair slide
Sega loyalists never got to play a straightforward incarnation of Valis II, having only played Valis III and Valis: The Fantasm Soldier, though there was a super deformed (SD) take on the second game developed by I.S.C. in 1992 as SD Valis/Syd of Valis.  Of the three Valis games on the Sega 16-bit console it was the lesser received among the series' fans and enthusiasts, Yūko was renamed "Syd" in the North American version (somehow), and the Genesis cover reused the cover from Laser Soft's Japan-exclusive NEC PC Engine Super CD-ROM² interactive board game Naritore The Sugoroku '92 (which had Yūko as one of the playable characters).  From what gameplay footage I've seen on YouTube of the second game I wonder if the gory nature of some of its cutscenes prevented the chances of a direct Sega conversion at the time.  I haven't played the second Valis in any form yet; I don't own a PC Engine console so my only option is Syd of Valis--provided I get hold of an affordable copy.
With 2020 marking the 30th anniversary of Valis III I've considered reviewing it next year, if I'm still alive and/or still reviewing video games by then; in all seriousness, I'm alive now at 28 and might still be alive then, it's just that time makes me (and the world) grow older
Valis III is cited as among the best, if not the best, games in the series.  I do enjoy Yūko's third venture a little more than this game, the gameplay and story is good, it's got a great soundtrack, it's got a sense of challenge and replay value, and you could switch between Yūko, her twin sister Valna, and Cham at the spot during most of the game.  😃  It also serves as an excellent starting point for those new to the series as it recaps events from the first two games if you haven't played them, and as a sendoff for the blue haired heroine I think it's a good game.
Another thing that's great about Valis III is that Yūko has really grown and matured in her role as the Valis warrior that when it was over her duty was complete and became a goddess, but when the three realms got threatened again fifteen years later by Prince Galgear she couldn't fight these battles anymore so she entrusted and bestowed the Valis sword to the next in line that was worthy of wielding it, Rena Bland.
A shame that Nintendo and NEC were staunch rivals at the time, otherwise a Nintendo 16-bit port of Valis IV would've been a possibility rather than something reassembled to be a thirty-minute arcade game with the sprites, backgrounds, and cutscene stills from that game
And while Valis III is my favorite of the story-driven Valis games I played, I do find myself gravitating towards and coming back to Super Valis more.  As short as it is and not really story-heavy like the official canon entries in the series, I do enjoy playing this game for what it is, I like the swifter pacing thanks to the ability to run via double tapping the side button, there's a sense of polish, and it's got lots of replay value in regards to the ranking you're given after beating it based on your item and time bonus.  😃

The final battle against Demon lord Rogles
The sidescrolling platformer genre is generally not played for story, but the Valis games not only made the exception but they practically pioneered the story-driven platformer genre as it was unheard of at the time, and the video gaming community will never forget this series because of that.  🙂  If you like playing platformers and like your games advanced by story, then this game has a healthy dosage of both, though in the case Valis: The Fantasm Soldier your enjoyment might depend on whether you're forgiving of the deliberate pacing of the controls and slow cutscenes, but if you wish to play the best installment available on the Sega 16-bit format I recommend you give Valis III a go.  Many story-based platforming games have come after the first Valis, most of them eclipsing it in quality, but no matter how many games came after there will never be a fantasy quite like this one.

My Personal Score: 7.0/10
d(^-^)bTO EACH THEIR OWNd(^-^)b
● I should've gotten a Sega Genesis years ago!  Had I known it had cable A/V cable support I would've gotten it, the image quality is clearer and crisper than when a Genesis cart is on a RetroGen, and the screen doesn't spaz out whenever there's a good chunk of white present.  Hindsight has once again made a fool of me...  😔

● The "Special Thanks" segment of the credits pretty much comprise of the rest of the people involved in the NEC PC Engine Super CD-ROM² version of Mugen Senshi Valis that the Sega 16-bit take is based on.

Thank you for reading my review, please leave me a comment and let me know what you think (neither spam nor NSFW allowed); hope you have a great day, take care!  🙂
Man, it's quite the RIOT out there, huh??  ……  Okay...  😔