Yuko Ahso, a typical Japanese high school student, happens upon some magical entity that interrupts her otherwise conventional life. She is soon whisked away to the magical world of Vecante, where she learns of a war between good and evil. As the wielder of the Valis Sword, it is up to her to put an end to the conflict. This is a narrative that the Valis series has retold numerous times. It’s boilerplate, as far as fantasy stories go, and I won’t pretend the games have done anything revolutionary with them. But that hasn’t prevented them from telling the story well. Each game advances the overarching plot enough and adds enough personality to make it their own.
So how is it that Valis: The Fantastic Soldier, the NES reimagining of the first game, utterly fails to do the same? Within the series’ context, the game appears on the right track. Rather than present itself like its action-oriented brethren, this game plays more like an exploration-centric action-RPG. Surprisingly, though, Valis forgets to do anything with this set-up. All it has to offer is a flat expanse of nothing, bereft of any character.
This is all counter to the narrative I’ve so often heard surrounding this particular game. Ask anybody familiar with the game, and the first thing you’ll hear is how torturously difficult this game in. Vecante is an impenetrable mess of corridors offering no direction. And waiting around the corner are a litany of monsters, waiting to swarm Yuko. They ceaselessly bob at her as she swats them away with her limp sword. With the game granting her only one life, I won’t deny the validity of this narrative. That said, it doesn’t tell the whole story. The fact of the game’s difficulty is not by itself enough to condemn the game. After all, what I said could apply equally well to Metroid and Ninja Gaiden, two games that people are less willing to criticize. What we need to do is consider the nature of Valis’ difficulty, and how that nature interacts with the fantasy premise.
Not that this approach would help the game. Its ideas about how to design challenges are antithetical to good game design. A bold claim, I know, but hear me out. What makes Metroid and Ninja Gaiden work is that they both have sturdy design philosophies behind their challenges. The former encourages exploration by carefully placing tools throughout its world. Ninja Gaiden tests the player’s reflexes with tense structuring. I can’t say any of that about Valis. Never once do we see it meaningfully engage the player. Its idea of engagement is to obfuscate the one very basic, very easy to discern course of action it provides them. It does this by pelting the player with enemies with routine movements, turning progress into a slog. It does this through lazy map design that neither rewards exploration nor complicates enemy encounters in a way that would make them interesting. So yes, the game is difficult, but that difficulty lacks tension. Without that tension, and without any ideas to guide the design, it’s no wonder Valis feels so bland and tedious.
What’s more, this idea of difficulty runs counter to the fantasy premise that’s so important to Valis. Admittedly, the reasons for why that is are very similar to what I’ve said about the game design as a whole. Yet I still see points that are worth stressing. For the game to follow through on its fantasy narrative, it has to impart a sense of myth through play. Your actions should be impactful; the threats have to be credible; and the world has to capture your emotions enough that you consider it worth saving. I should clarify that the idea isn’t to make you feel powerful. That may be part of it, but power is only in service to lending the experience the import that its fantasy trappings would suggest. Valis II was smart enough to do this as early as its first level.
Sadly, Valis cannot match its successor’s achievements, as it consistently fails to embed myth into its play. The combat is a particularly egregious offender, in this regard. Although I’ve already detailed some of its faults, they take on a different meaning in this light. Where the combat was previously unable to craft engaging play, it is now unable to present Yuko as the hero that Vecante needs. Indeed, she feels weak in this setting. She stands as a small nothing dwarfed by a world greater than herself. Her sword doesn’t cleave monsters in two so much as it lightly brushes against them. Now I’m not precluding the game from emphasizing Yuko’s weakness. I remember Valkyrie Profile using this strategy to great effect. But the only reason that strategy works is because of how well play and narrative work together. The narrative uses its brief vignettes to depict a world on the brink of nihilistic despair, and the gameplay complements that by offering its characters a very clear purpose through death.
For Valis, though, play and narrative are so at odds with each other that the game can’t distinguish fantasy from reality. Part of that has to come from the game’s inability to distinguish anything. With everything resembling everything else, both navigation and world build become very difficult. But the game’s problems goes beyond that. Before Yuko makes her leap into Vecante, she begins the story wandering the streets of Japan. This is a very smart move on Valis’ part, as it lets the game establish what makes its fantasy so magical. By beginning in a normal world the player can relate to, the game has something it can break away from when Yuko begins her journey.
Yet such a break never occurs. Mechanically speaking, there’s no significant difference between Japan and Vecante. The same mysterious creatures float through both worlds, and the level design isn’t sufficiently different between either of them. The only notable differences I could find were the citizens of Vecante who help Yuko on her quest. However, given their lack of magical features, and the game’s utilitarian treatment of them, I see nothing precluding their existence in the real world. Without any mechanical distinction between Japan and Vecante, the game’s premise cannot hold water. I won’t even get into how such developments compound the game’s problems with feeling too ordinary.
I don’t want to come across as declaring normalcy in games verboten. I’ve seen it work countless times before, like in Katawa Shoujo, Tokimeki Memorial, and Yuuyami Doori Tankentai. Even Magical Diary was able to combine the magical and the everyday. What makes these games work is that they actively transform the ordinary into something enticing. Valis, by contrast, does the exact opposite: through passivity, it renders the fantastical mundane. It’s because of this passivity that the gameplay feels so rote, and Vecante so lifeless. I don’t see why things have to be this way. Even as far back as its first entry, the Valis series demonstrated at least some character. Not this game, though. All this game has to show for itself is nothing.