VALIS: The Fantasm Soldier Collection (Nintendo Switch)- Review

Title: Valis: The Fantasm Soldier Collection
System: Nintendo Switch
Price: Around $50 in Yen
Release Date: 12/09/2021 (Japan) 2022 (Elsewhere)


Story

In this compilation of three of the five Valis PC Engine titles, you take control of Yuko in three adventures to save the dream world with the mystical sword of valis! Known for mixing platforming with anime cutscenes, these are the PC Engine versions of Valis I-III, completing the Yuko saga of the story. Yes, Valis IV is absent, and I have a theory on why a bit later.

Presentation

Upon opening the collection, you’re greeted with a lovely title screen consisting of key art from the PCE games, and past that is a simple game select menu, labeling the three games along with their original release date. Once you choose what game to play, you get several more assorted options to pick from, including a typical save/load feature, control guide, and other cool bonuses such as full scans of all three manuals, a sound test per game (though it does not sadly include every song, as it appears to be based off the Project EGG soundtrack releases), and a cutscene viewer.

The cutscene viewer here is pretty notable, since it includes every cutscene in each game, and appears to directly jump to a save state of them that you can’t control: pushing the A button pauses the scene like that of a movie, and that’s pretty much all you can do besides backing out. Thus, you can watch them all like a mini movie! (Though of course, this being an import at the moment, it’s all in Japanese, and the US version won’t include the english dubs for II/III anyhow) The most interesting aspect of the cutscene viewer to me though, is how it doesn’t include the versions of the cutscenes from Valis Visual Collection, a strange PCE disc that consisted of just Valis II-IV’s cutscenes. This may sound weird, as you’d assume that these would be the same as their retail counterparts, but it actually means a lot when it comes to Valis II.

Valis II on the PCE is notable for being one of the first CD games out there, and as a result, the then-impressive cutscenes had to be forced into a border. In the main game, this border is a weird dark green, having any cutscene that doesn’t show off a full-scale image surrounded by a weird green box at all times. But when Laser Soft made Valis III a year later, they got over this limitation and the cutscenes are as you’d expect. Thus, when they went back to do the visual collection, they managed to take advantage of the 1993 advances and go back to the Valis II cutscenes and make the borders black, touching them up a bit. While it’s a very minor detail at the end of the day, it would have been a pretty sweet QOL touch to use those upgraded cutscenes for this gallery. (I get why the visual collection itself isn’t here, since it ignores Valis I and includes Valis IV, which is absent from this compilation!)

When it comes to in-game UI options, you don’t really have much. There’s an indicator on the bottom left of how to bring up the menu or rewind, but you can thankfully disable that. There’s also three typical screen size options, from pixel perfect, full screen, and full screen, but that’s about it.

For the games themselves, they’re pretty darn solid considering how they were early CD titles: with Valis 1 here being an excellent showcase of the Super CD-ROM card, easily having the best quality visuals and the most godly soundtrack of the entire set, ending off nicely with a wonderful vocal ending theme that is thankfully intact in this release. Every last track in this game is a must-listen, having been gorgeously remixed from the PC88 original, unlike II and III which were original compositions for the system.

Valis II, being the first one to come out and one of the first CD titles ever, does look rather plain, with a lot of the levels being incredibly generic looking with dull backgrounds, and the cutscenes having that aforementioned green border, and the music is also beyond forgettable, though well composed enough that it’ll not annoy you. Sadly, the PC98 version’s amazing score wasn’t brought over here outside of the title screen song, which is a huge crime since the computer versions have some of the best songs in the entire franchise, while this PCE game, developed alongside it, goes for more generic stuff.

Valis III sports a much better presentation to it than II, with way better cutscenes that would set the stage for how good IV and I look, good sprites that are easy to distinguish, (and would outright be reused for the Genesis ports of III and I) and slightly more memorable music, with a great instrumental ending that ties the trilogy up nicely.

Gameplay

You know the drill for compilation reviews here: we break things down game by game, then look at the package as a whole! I already mostly covered what this trilogy includes, so yes, I should start by noting that the biggest omission here is Valis IV, which was the final game in the franchise and takes place many years after Valis III, completely ditching the old cast in favor of some new protagonists. While I’d personally would have also liked to see the X68K version of Valis II and the original PC88 version of Valis I for preservation purposes, IV is easily the one that will confuse people on why it isn’t here, since if they threw it on, you’d have pretty much the entire series in one go: why ignore it?

Well, it seems to me that this compilation’s theming is all about Yuko, the main protagonist of I-III and the eyecandy for the franchise. In Valis IV, she pretty much only exists as a goddess in cutscenes, and contributes little to the game in general. Super Valis IV had her as a secret playable character, but not even that could make the cut, unfortunately. (That version is on Switch online however, if you’re up to check it out this minute!) Thus, I’m assuming they only stuck with I-III, and only the PCE versions, due to how they all connect for a consistent narrative that could be called “The Yuko Saga”. (Funnily enough, PCE Valis I wasn’t even developed by the same team that made II-IV, so there’s still some slight inconsistencies as a result) Hopefully a future compilation throws Valis IV in alongside the other Valis I/II versions absent here, or even just as part of a general telenet PCE compilation, as the company made many, many more games for the PC Engine than you might think!

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As I noted earlier, you have a typical save state feature and a rewind option, which come in handy quite a bit, especially with how aggravating parts of I and II can get. Unfortunately, the rewind here isn’t the fun kind that you’d expect from an emulator, but rather, an automatic save state like that in the Namco Museum Archives compilations, meaning that you’ll jump back a few seconds to a premade save state, leading to moments where you may have to rewind and fiddle around a bit to avoid that mistake you made. It’s better than nothing, but still a frustration.

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It should also be noted that as far as I can tell, the in-game save features for these games do not work at all, due to the emulator loading a save state to skip the PC Engine bios screen. Thus, you’ll need to use the save states for your progress. (thankfully all the in-game saves did to begin with was just keep track of the stage you’re on, but it is a strange way to handle the BIOS situation…) Onto the three core games.



Valis II (PC Engine, 1989)-
This is where it chronologically started on the good ol PC Engine. One of the first CD based games out there, this is a pretty typical action platformer where Yuko must make it to the end of each stage, defeat the boss, and do that several more times until you reach the ending. Unfortunately, it is by far the most mediocre of what is on offer, due to absolutely dull level design that mostly consists of you running in straight lines, climbing platforms, and doing it over and over again until you reach the end boss.

The weapons on offer here for your sword are average, and you can upgrade each weapon a few times until you die, but the messy level design will almost certainly ensure that you’ll be trapped in tight hallways with no way to jump over certain enemies, and if you aren’t powered up enough, you will take damage. The game also loves to throw repeat spongy minibosses at you, with Stage 4 doing it to the point of infuriation. Almost like some sort of weird mercy to the nonsense it throws at you in stages, dying to a main boss respawns you immediately, making every boss fight a complete trivial joke due to how easy it is to build up extra lives.

The computer versions weren’t all that great either, but they at least had more open level design and way better story/music going for them. Still, as a CD debut, this game helped be one of the first of many thousands of video games printed on the media, so I am glad it’s included. Play this first to make the other games impress you more!

Valis III (PC Engine, 1990)- This game came out a bit before a year and a half later than Valis II, and a ton of improvements were made. The controls are far better and more responsive, the level designs are actually good now, and there’s now three playable characters to switch between with the press of the pause button, each with their own method of attacking, and even unique pre-boss dialogue! There’s even a new slide mechanic, though it’s executed in a very weird way that has you holding down and start, but this compilation also allows you to assign the shortcut to a button so you no longer need to do that awkward combo. You can even cast magic now, which is also given a unique button, but that’s the simple castlevania style of using subweapons so you really don’t need that. They help in a pinch with defeating tricky to reach enemies, and is even essential in some parts to progress due to clever puzzles.

To be brutally honest, this one is actually the most fun and balanced of all three games. Even if it is a bit too easy at points, (especially with the included rewind) the multiple playable characters, fun stage layouts, and cool boss fights lead to a pretty darn enjoyable time, even if the presentation outside the cutscenes is nothing to write home about. Considering this is the second ever time this port has been reissued, (outside of a Project EGG release, it never has been ported at all, and even skipped PSN despite I and II making it) there’s no better time to check this platformer out and see if you have a fun new action game to add your favorites.

MUGEN SENSHI VALIS (PC Engine, 1992)- This one, lone game is the main motivator for me buying this compilation, and likely will be the same for a lot of others considering how II and III got US Turbo CD releases, but not IV or this one. Alas, it came out far too late to be practical enough to do. This game takes the core idea of the original PC88 Valis, ditches the abhorrent labyrinthine level design from those versions, adds the magic system and slide from III, and refines the controls even further to make the tightest controlling, well designed and most challenging of the PCE games.

See, here in Valis I, memorization is absolutely essential to taking out the bosses, since they don’t play around at all. You start each life with half of your health, meaning that you’ll have to fight your way towards reaching your max HP, and each cleared stage will reward you with a new magic spell: these spells can be the most vital way to turn around a boss fight, so just like you would in a castlevania game, saving your resources for tough fights and resisting the urge to use them against normal grunts is the key here, leading to a remarkably satisfying challenge all around.

Every stage offers a good variety of powerups for your sword, and most of the older ones from II make a comeback, now far more useful than they were in that game, (where the wide shot was pretty much the only one that didn’t suck) so really Valis I stands as easily one of the finest gems on the entire PC Engine, leading to a best possible way for a series to end: remaking the original, doing a satisfying remix, and outright replacing it. If you feel the need to only play one game in this compilation, and don’t mind the challenge level and higher barrier to entry, then absolutely give this one a spin.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I am very happy to say that this Valis compilation is not the slapdash compilation I and several others feared it would be, and quite a bit of love went into what would seem to be a simplistic compilation: special control mappings, manual scans, and bonus menus all lead to this being the best method by far at playing the included titles, and the only real flaws I had here were minor nitpicks only die-hard fans would notice, and the lack of other versions of the included games that I feel would add extra value. (Genesis Valis 1, X68K Valis II, Genesis Valis III, and of course, Valis IV)

Despite the meh quality of Valis II, the excellent packages that are Valis I and III easily make this a buy, even with the pretty high Japanese MSRP you’ll spend to play these. While I wish this package could have done even more cool stuff such as throw in old trailers and prototypes, what we have here is excellently presented by the folks at D4 Enterprise (Wii U Virtual Console TG16 + Project EGG emulators), and I’m super excited that Edia is actually doing something with the Telenet properties, and something fun at that. Here’s hoping we see the Valis series come back with a new game, in as great of a way as Blaster Master Zero!

I give Valis: The Fantasm Soldier Collection an 8 out of 10.

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