Enthusiasts of the Sega Mega Drive and/or the PC Engine will no doubt be aware of the Valis series; they’re a wonderful bunch of beautiful 2D platformers starring a sword-wielding schoogirl. Their bright manga-like visuals really stood out and made it worth trying to struggle past the oftentimes brutal difficulty.

Violet Wisteria looks to recapture that magic by offering a similar style, in all its glory, coupled with a very interesting mechanic or two of its own. But will that be enough to satisfy a modern crowd?

Many thanks to the publishers for the review code.

MASS WISTERIA
Violet Wisteria stars the titular Wisteria as she heads out to save her kingdom from the evil wizard Maskandes. His creatures are running rampant across the realms, and it is our heroines job to put a stop to it. With her magical sword in hand, nothing will stand in her way.

The story is reminiscent of many games in the era with its simplistic tale of heroism. What helps sell it all though as a narrative are the beautiful cut-scenes that help set the scene. Sure, they won’t wow you away with the storytelling, but the aesthetic alone is enough to help make you fall in love with Wisteria and her world.

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The gameplay also draws heavy inspirations from the Valis titles, as well as other 16 bit titles of that era. In addition to the colourful fantasy visuals, the game also features that same punishing platforming that should make retro enthusiasts feel right at home. What sets Wisteria apart, however, is its central gimmick: you sword is fused with colour magic, and each colour is only effective against certain enemies. If the enemies are blue, you need to hit them with red; if they’re red, you hit them with white; and finally whites are weak against blue.

This rock, paper, scissors setup is surprisingly trickier than you may think, and often forces you to stop and think for a moment before attacking. The game does helpfully place a coloured icon above their head as default to help you identify their weakness, but having to hit them with a different colour to their appearance did throw me off almost every time.

The reason why this system is so tricky to get used to is partly down to the other central gimmick that the sword has; should you hit someone with the same colour, rather than the one they are weak to, you will be propelled backwards – thus inevitably throwing you into a pit. Or, alternatively, over one should wish to do it intentionally. It’s a neat concept that’s really rewarding when the game requires it as part of the platforming, although doing it by mistake means that you’ll probably find yourself send to a rather embarrassing death.

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And deaths are very costly in this game, with them often forcing you to restart from either the start of the level or the latest checkpoint (which are very widely spaced). Wisteria does have a rather generous number of hearts on the default difficulty, which are usually sufficient for most encounters outside of boss battles, but the problem is that most of your deaths will be result of falling into a pit – which kills you instantly. It’s a very old-school approach, and with the limited number of lives and continues at your disposal, it will no doubt put many off. A practice difficulty is still available (and also still really challenging), but given that the game doesn’t allow you to reach the final stage on this mode, it’s probably not worth bothering with.

Despite the difficulty though, Violet Wisteria is a rather fun little retro throwback game that feels quite unique due to its core gimmick. Whilst I would say that it doesn’t completely work as well as you may hope, due to the constant need to stop and think about your colour choices in order to avoid an embarrassing death, but it’s still rather neat. The randomised colourisation of the enemies also ensures that you can’t simply memorise their colours in order to brute force your way through. I kinda wish it did though as the enemies are probably the blandest part of the experience, with them feeling a little generic and sometimes awkward to fight.

This is more than made up for by the vibrant and imaginative stages complete with solid platforming and excellent boss fights. These behemoths make great use of Wisteria’s colour powers, and even offer their own indicators to help you realise how best to affect them. These fights are also where you’ll probably want to make use of your magical spell, which use the same three colours as your sword albeit with unique effects for each one. The white magic, for example, shoots a narrow laser across the screen and requires that your foe is directly opposite. Magic is theoretically unlimited, as Wisteria has no magic meter, but each spell will drain your time limit thus forcing you to think about whether or not spamming spells is worth the penalty. It’s a great system that’s very well implemented.

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VERDICT
Violet Wisteria offers a bunch of unique twists that make it stand out from most retro platformers, even if they do result in making this a tough game to master. With its punishing difficulty and limited lives, the game is clearly designed for the enjoyment of retro masochists – but I’m sure others will appreciate the solid platforming and interesting core gimmick, even if they’ll probably struggle to make it to the end!