Valis: The Fantasm Soldier was released in Japan on a number of different consoles in the late 80s, but it didn't reach the western world until the Sega Genesis port in the early 90s. I played the Genesis version (as far as I know, it's the only version in English), so my opinions are all based on that one. Since it's a port of an earlier game, it feels like an earlier game. It doesn't move like a Genesis game. It's hard to describe, but as I played it, even though it certainly looked like a genesis game with large colorful sprites and multi-layered scrolling backgrounds, the game just had a certain 8-bit quality to it. Does that make it a bad game? No! I love 8-bit games, and still play them, but it might have been a bit disappointing back in 1991 if you were trying to show off your new 16-bit console to your friends.
Valis: The Fantasm Solder is a side scrolling action platformer with an arcade feel. It seems to want to by a Ninja Gaiden style game, but it sometimes feels more like an 8-bit Castlevania title. You mostly follow a linear path, with the occasional maze area thrown in, but I've heard that some earlier versions of the game are more maze oriented rather than arcade inspired. Along the way you fight monsters, collect power ups and upgrade your sword. Each of the game's levels are divided into a few different areas with sometimes drastically different looking background sprites, giving the game a nice variety of scenery.
Most of the design ideas in Valis: The Fantasm Soldier had been seen in numerous games before it, but it did manage to squeeze out some interesting ideas of its own. My favorite aspect of the game's design is how it handles sword upgrades. Weapon upgrades have long been a part of games, and have been handled in more ways than I can count. They generally range from quick and simple as seen in space shooters to complex and elaborate as seen in the role playing genre. The sword upgrade system in Valis manages to stay simple while providing a decent amount of variety and customization. Swords in Valis shoot projectiles similar to the first few Legend of Zelda releases. Sword upgrade icons are found throughout the game representing each of the different sword types. Each sword type has a different strength, some do more damage, some shoot in multiple angles, and my favorite actually shoots homing projectiles that never miss! Collecting a power up for a different type of sword switches you to the lowest of three versions of that type, and collecting the same type will increase the strength of your sword. This method gives you control over finding the weapon that best fits your playing style, but doesn't slow down the arcade pacing.
When swinging your sword around just isn't enough, Valis: The Fantasm Soldier also lets you sling magic at your foes. From the pause menu, you are able to switch between the different spells you pick up along the way, and attacking while aiming up on the D-Pad unleashes the magical attack. There's nothing ground breaking about the spells offered, but they get the job done. Some are better when surrounded by several weaker enemies, and others are better for taking out stronger opponents. There's no indication of exactly what each spell does other than its cryptic name, but magic refills are found often enough that it's usually best to just try them all out as you go.
Each level ends with a boss fight. As would be expected, the early fights are simply a matter of hitting the boss quickly until it's dead. Later bosses take more effort. There's no real clever strategies with these fights, it's generally just a mater of dodging their attacks and hitting them as much as possible. I found that the magic spell with the spinning fireball is useful against the later bosses. It doesn't do much damage when it hits, but it hits often enough that the damage quickly adds up.
So, how do I best describe how I felt about playing Valis: The Fantasm Soldier? The easiest way to describe it would be to say it was almost exactly the opposite of what I thought about Heavenly Sword. There is a lot wrong with Valis: The Fantasm Soldier, and it doesn't really wow in any way, or even make that great of a first impression. But, somehow when all of the many flawed pieces are put together, something just seems to work. I enjoyed this game a lot, even though it's difficult to say exactly why. Some games are just greater than the sum of their parts. And that is why I'm so glad that I don't put scores on these reviews.