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SummaryCham, wham, thank you, ma'am
The GoodValis II was a very interesting anime-style story-driven platformer. The sequel removes some of its gameplay features (such as armor equipment), but also adds some cool new ones, and corrects many of the predecessor's flaws.
The game controls smoothly, and finally the girls jump in such a way that you don't want to reach out and smack them or contact the nearest hospital to cure them from unknown, yet deadly limb decease. Wait a minute, did I say "girls"? In plural? That's right: in Valis III you don't just control Yuko, but can switch between three female protagonists almost at any time.
The good part is that all the three girls are fun to control, and each comes with her own strengths and weaknesses. Yuko is the all-around balanced character, but perhaps the least interesting of the bunch: sword-slashing quickly gets tiresome. Valna doesn't hit hard, but her attack is magical and can spread across a fairly large area, which is perfect for targeting enemies that come at you from strange angles. Finally, Cham is pure Castlevania-style goodness, as she whips her way through hordes of colorful demons and pesky leaping guys.
Each character can also collect colored orbs and cast magic of three elements, which is quite cool, especially the ice magic that freezes enemies. Overall, the ability to play as any of the three characters is a definite highlight, even if the differences between them aren't that pronounced (until later stages, when choosing one character over another becomes much more crucial).
The stages are imaginative and varied, with interesting enemies all around, and some beautiful locations that will stay in your memory. The forest with transparent enemies is a short, but very memorable stage. The slippery ice stage, as insanity-inducing as it was, is also quite good-looking. There is hardly a boring moment in Valis III: just when you begin to think you'd like a scenery change, this change comes, and you are taking to a completely different area with different enemies and challenges. The world of Valis III is at times magically appealing and atmospheric.
Like other Valis games, this installment is hard, and some of the stages are an absolute nightmare. That said, the boss battles were a pleasant surprise, being much less aggravating than it is often the case in comparable games. I was actually able to beat many of those bosses on the first try, and believe me, you'll need this relief after having restarted a stage several dozen times because you kept missing the same treacherous jump. I would probably dismiss this game as unfairly hard if the bosses were as challenging as the platforming sections.
In a typical Valis fashion, there are anime cutscenes that advance the story. While I was more impressed with the scenes from the previous game, I think it is always a plus when you can relax, sit back, and watch a silly stereotypical anime plot unfold, patting yourself on the back for having completed a particularly agonizing level.
The BadThe "Valis curse" continues in Valis III. Controls are fairly smooth, so you won't have to worry about unbearably choppy jumping animations. But the difficulty level is, as usually, screwed up to the point of driving potential customers away. I like Valis games, but I understand why they never got too popular: the balance issues are almost unforgivable.
You know how hard and unfair platformers can be, with all sorts of devilish traps and maddening enemies. There is such stuff in Valis III as well - you'll particularly grow to hate those guys who leap out of nowhere just when you jump onto another problem. More serious, however, is the infuriating "knock back" feature: enemies do not only damage the girls, they push them backwards. Combine than with tiny platforms you'll often find yourself on, and you'll get instant painful death in lava or other unpleasant liquid way too many times.
Jumping is still a problem; even though it controls better than before, there are too many places where the jump has to be pixel-perfect. You also have the ability to slide, which is awkwardly mapped (Start + down button? Who came up with that idea?) and not particularly interesting - except that some platforms require you to slide from one to another instead of jumping on them. Which sane person would choose to slide over an empty space between two platforms? Everyone's normal instinct would be to jump. And yet if you try to do that, you'll miss the jump and will have to start the stage over.
The difficulty of the stages fluctuates widely: some of the levels pose very little challenge, while others belong to the toughest platforming segments I've come across. There is a nightmarish level in which you have to jump on icy, slippery platforms, fending off respawning hordes of flying and leaping enemies. Near its end those platforms suddenly grow wide apart. You know you won't be able to make the jump, yet naturally you try - over and over again. After nearly losing my sanity, I discovered that the only way to jump over those platforms was freeze enemies with ice magic and hop over them. This is a cool puzzle in theory, but in practice you'll run out of magic points after a couple of unsuccessful hits, and there won't be a way to replenish them and finish the level. Which means that the only way to beat that stage is to do this freezing thing perfectly from the first platform to the last. I don't want to imagine the frustration of a person who plays this on a real console and wastes loads of time by replaying the whole stage just to get through that segment.
The Bottom LineExtremely irritating issues aside, Valis III is still a cool platformer and probably the most satisfying installment of the series. It's not Rondo of Blood, but multiple protagonists and challenging gameplay will make you want to re-visit this semi-forgotten escapade of three magical anime girls.
I recommend the TurboGrafx CD version with reservations. Nice extra cutscenes, redbook audio and obligatory voice-overs aside (the acting in the US release is bad, though it does have a peculiar charm), the biggest difference are additional stages that were absent from the Genesis release. It's great to have more material, but there is a catch - some of the more frustrating stages are exclusive to this version. Play at your own risk.