Violet Wisteria is an unabashedly old-school homage to Valis

You may recall back in May of 2022 we told you about Violet Wisteria, a loving homage to Telenet Japan’s Valis series. Well, nearly a year later, the game is finally with us, so it’s time to look at how this passion project came out. Spoiler: pretty well — though if you didn’t grow up with older games, there are a few things you’ll want to bear in mind before diving headlong into this one.

In Violet Wisteria, you take on the role of Wisteria, a young woman from Earth who was chosen to wield the Violet Sword and defend the Higher Realm from nasty horrible bastards. Unfortunately, she found herself unable to return home after her victory over the forces of darkness, so she settled for becoming queen of the Higher Realm’s capital city Halacion instead — a post she apparently continued to occupy for millennia.

Things most certainly didn’t end happily ever after, sadly, because one day Halacion finds itself flooded with monsters, leaving Wisteria (still seemingly wearing the same dress she’s had on for a thousand years) to take up her sword once again and kick some monstrous booty into the next millennium. It’s at this point we join the story.

Violet Wisteria

Following the attractive PC-98-style pixel art introductory sequence, it’s into the action, and it’s immediately clear how much creator KaniPro Games loves and respects the classic Valis series, since everything from the screen layout to the proportions of the characters on screen are very similar.

This is no straight clone, however, and this is immediately clear from the helpful interactive tutorial that makes up the first area of the game. While the Valis games were in some ways as much shoot ’em up as they were hack-and-slash platformer, Violet Wisteria has a somewhat more sedate pace and an almost puzzle-like feel. It still features some tough platforming, but at its heart this is a surprisingly cerebral experience.

This feeling stems from its unusual combat system, which is based on colours. Wisteria is capable of unleashing three differently coloured attacks from the Violet sword: red, white and blue. There are several different control schemes that can be used to control these attacks, with the default being the D-pad: attack while pushing upwards and you get a blue slash; attack while pushing downwards and you get a red slash; attack neutral or sideways and you get a white thrust.

Violet Wisteria

Different enemies can only be defeated using a specific colour, and just to confuse matters slightly it’s not a simple case of matching the attack to the enemy colour. Rather, white enemies require a blue slash, red enemies require the white thrust, and blue enemies need the red slash.

This might sound confusing, but thankfully, by default the game displays coloured cues above each enemy to tell you which colour you should be using — though this can be turned off if you want an additional challenge. The game’s interface also indicates which colour you’re about to use, the enemies that it’s effective on and the enemies that are immune to that colour.

The reason why the colour system isn’t a simple case of just matching colours is because hitting an enemy with the same colour has its own distinctive mechanic: it repels Wisteria with a strong degree of force. And this isn’t just to throw you off balance — though accidentally triggering it at the wrong time can be disastrous — rather, it’s frequently used throughout the levels as a means of crossing gaps that are too wide for Wisteria to jump by herself.

Violet Wisteria

The repelling mechanic can be used to either knock Wisteria backwards or upwards depending on where she is when she hits the enemy, and the game has you making use of this right from the very beginning. At no point is it overused as a gimmick, however; it’s just something you’ll need to bear in mind as you play.

Violet Wisteria is paced in such a way that you’ll rarely need to face more than one or two enemies at a time, and most enemies move reasonably slowly or using predictable patterns. This means that you usually have plenty of time to figure out the right colour and ready an attack — though as you progress through the game you’ll start to encounter situations where you need to increase your response time or perhaps dodge dangerous stage elements at the same time as using the proper attacks.

It’s a solid mechanical basis on which to build a game like this, and it works well — though it will take an initial adjustment period and a bit of practice to get right. And you’ll have plenty of opportunity to get some practice, because Violet Wisteria is both very challenging and unforgivingly old-school in its punishment for failure.

Violet Wisteria

Losing a life sends you back to the start of the subsection of the stage you were on, and continuing after losing all your lives sends you back to the beginning of the whole stage. And you have limited continues. Also, you can’t save. I mean it when I say this is old-school in its design and structure, so be prepared! If you grew up with PC Engine and Mega Drive games, you’ll be right at home; if you’re a young ‘un more accustomed to the conveniences and allowances of modern games, you might be in for a rude awakening!

So long as you’re on board with that particular design decision, Violet Wisteria is a thoroughly interesting and enjoyable game. Its action is smooth and fluid, and the pacing is well-crafted to remain challenging without being overwhelming. Its visuals and animation are very nice indeed, and the sound… hmm.

The sound is odd, with much of the music having a heavily discordant component that comes across as a bit strange the first time you hear it. I really wasn’t sure about it to begin with — but I found the more I played Violet Wisteria, the more I came to appreciate this particular stylistic choice. The rather unsettling feel of the soundtrack was particularly effective in the game’s second stage, which also features some nightmare-fuel imagery in the background — so it’s clear that this was intentional. It was just rather striking and surprising.

Violet Wisteria

But in some ways, it’s just another example of how KaniPro Games was keen not to simply make a slavish recreation of Valis for modern systems; rather, they wanted to draw inspiration from the classic platformers but still provide their own distinctive, unique twist on the formula. And they’ve certainly succeeded in that regard; Violet Wisteria is recognisable as an homage to Valis, but it’s also very much its own distinct thing, and it’s absolutely unashamed of everything it is.

That’s a bold creative statement, and one I very much respect from a passion project like this. Sure, certain elements of Violet Wisteria may cause some folks to bounce off the game — or even steer clear of it in the first place — but for those who are on board with what it has to offer, it’s a very good game that offers a stiff challenge and a decent amount of longevity.

Violet Wisteria is available now for Windows PC via Steam.

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Pete Davison
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