The gorgeous, hand-drawn Metroidvania Valdis Story is a lot of fun. It’s also the first game that’s actually challenged me in the last few months (and there are two higher levels than the one I’m playing, Hard), and while I appreciate being pushed, I prefer difficulty to increase at an incremental/linear rate as opposed to an exponential one. (For instance, Guacamelee, which clearly gated its Super Meat Boy-level optional content and never allowed you to simply stumble into overwhelming boss fights.) Even Dark Souls felt more rational in its decisions, as you always learned something from your deaths–in the cruel world of Valdis Story, you can end up blocking yourself from key locations (like the Library, if you’re carrying the Raven-summoning Old Doll) or dashing through innocuous-seeming areas, only to end up going toe-to-toe with harsh bosses like the Magus. Grinding levels and items that you can use to upgrade your weapons seems necessary, but because the game doesn’t award you power-ups as you progress–as a Zelda game might–it’s easy to fall behind, especially with the counterproductive reward system in which beating a boss with an “S” rank gains you additional experience/stats. In other words, if you fail to perfect a single boss in this vicious cycle, you’re already falling behind, and if you fight them out of order, you’re only going to make things worse, since the length of the fight influences your overall rank.
There are some who will inevitably argue in favor of the somewhat open approach Valdis Story takes–after all, the original Metroid often allowed you early access to areas you probably weren’t ready for. And yet, because the auto-map (a modern amenity/handicap) only shows you the current zone and isn’t always clear in providing directions, it seems to happen far more often in Valdis Story. Throw in some tricky puzzles (made more complicated by the somewhat touchy/imprecise controls) and a dearth of save points, and exploration/experimentation is often punished–you can reset a boss battle only once you’ve lost in it (and this will only restore your potions to the level they were at when you began the fight) and you can’t leave the room if you’ve realized it was a terrible mistake to attempt this so early. (Then again, maybe this is like Vagrant Story and your attacks are supposed to minimally dent boss HP bars.) After this happens to you several times, you regret your decision to not begin on the easiest difficult, but you also begin to suspect that the developers could have planned things out better, to be more sporting, if nothing else.
As it stands, I’m stuck on a boss in the Ziggurat level, with twenty unlocked magical powers (five elements, with four spells in each), and I’ve forgotten both where to go to upgrade my magic attacks (or where to do so) and what I’ll need to improve the armor I’m using–since at this point, grinding an entirely new set doesn’t seem practical. I really appreciate the dungeon designs and the boss patterns, and yet I feel compelled to set this title aside–the effort of the game is outweighing the enjoyment I derive from it. Valdis Story is a bit of a beautiful monster (especially aurally–one of the best indie soundtracks I’ve heard in some time), and I wish it would let me change the difficulty, upgrade equipment directly from my menu (as opposed to running between the three towns, upgrading parts in order to craft better gear), or warn me if I’m underprepared for the battle (as opposed to simply missing a key mechanic: there are no hints in this game). At the very least, Valdis Story is the first game I’ve played in which I think Hard Mode should be locked from the outset: there’s no reason to discourage your friendly neighborhood video-game player from finishing this very good, very hard game.