Friday, May 6, 2011

Of Import: Valis III: The Fantasm Soldier (PC Engine)

I've been playing a number of the Valis games recently, featuring the side-scrolling, demon-slaying adventures of the schoolgirl warrior Yuko, and it's time this week to take a look at Valis III: The Fantasm Soldier for the Japanese PC Engine.  (Which for some random reason I am tackling after we've already sampled Valis IV and Valis II.  I never claimed to be particularly organized!  Besides, almost every game in the series is subtitled The Fantasm Soldier, so it's easy to get confused.  I swear!)

Valis III did see North American release on a couple of platforms -- there was a TurboGrafx-CD version for the U.S. version of the PC Engine, as well as a Sega Genesis edition of the Mega Drive version on cartridge.  I have only previously played the Genesis version, so I'm not going to attempt an East vs. West comparison for this one; based on Valis II, the only differences I would expect involve English dubbing of the animated cutscenes.

The game opens with an extensive story sequence, featuring a couple of warriors in some past era taking down a huge red monster: 

And the betrayal of some kind of council by an evil wannabe ruler:

Then a retrospective crawl recaps the stories of Valis I and II, which would be very helpful if it were in English; I always felt lost jumping into the partially-released North American versions of these series mid-story.

The Valis series definitely improved as it went along -- the big innovation here is the ability to switch between characters with slightly different abilities.  The game starts with Yuko running across the rooftops in her pajamas, prior to claiming the Valis sword central to the series:

Leaping after the falling sword and grabbing it out of the air transforms Yuko into her Valis no senshi form, better armored, apparently, even though she's now wearing considerably less than she was before.  She runs along killing various enemy creatures and collecting health and weapon powerups, before running into her greatest foe -- a furshlugginer control scheme that requires the player to press DOWN on the control pad along with the tiny RUN button to slide under obstacles.

This would be remedied with a more organic approach in Valis IV, but it's a serious nuisance in this game.

The PC Engine version prominently features an NEC logo during the first boss fight.  This guy isn't too hard to deal with -- Valis can just kneel in front of him and strike him repeatedly with her sword, while his lethal-looking spheres spin harmlessly by above her head.  Once he's dispatched, Yuko is reunited with her old friend Lita (?), who now becomes a selectable character... that is, she is selectable if we hit the RUN button while NOT hitting down on the control pad.

Most of the bosses I encountered weren't too hard to deal with, but there are also some unfairly tricky platforming sections -- it took me numerous tries to get across the second gap here, and when I finally made it it appeared to be because I hit exactly the right pixel, enabling Yuko to bounce off of three invisible steps across the chasm.

Not fun, and without the Magic Engine emulator's save state capabilities I doubt I would have continued.

For a moment, we wander into classic mythology, as this hooded boatman takes Yuko across a dangerous lake.  But halfway across, he abandons the boat, and our heroine must take on a fire ring-spewing sea serpent.

Eventually, after a few more boss fights and side-scrolling, sword-swinging, platform-scrambling sections, we have assembled our trio of heroines -- Yuko, the warrior maiden Cham, and Yuko's sister Valna (who looks like Yuko with a different hairdo):

So now we have three characters with slightly differing abilities to choose from.  Beyond this, Valis III just presents more Valis action -- run to the right, or to the left if the scrolling stops moving to the right; pick up power-ups; kill monsters; and repeat.  The Valis games are audiovisually attractive and reasonably fun to play, but they're also typical of the 16-bit era -- fast-moving, good-looking, but not always particularly deep.  I would guess that the anime-style intermissions and character designs have more to do with this series' enduring popularity than its gameplay.

The US and Japanese versions are both readily available for purchase online -- interested readers might find a copy here or here:

Valis III 3 PC-Engine CD

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