If one were to combine the sword and sorcery feel of a well-scripted D&D campaign, the strategic elements of a game of chess, and one super-dark game device prompts you to kill your best friends if you’re not doing well, the result would be developer tri-Ace’s Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume for the DS. The majority of the actual gameplay is dedicated to strategic combat elements, but there is also plenty of RPG style combat engagements and a very heavily developed (and incredibly mutable) story to keep any serious gamer engaged for hours.
The story is difficult to nail down (for reasons I will discuss in a minute), but the single consistent element is the protagonist, Wylfred, is deeply distraught by his father’s death in battle, and has vowed vengeance against the Valkyrie Lenneth, the goddess of fallen soldiers who marks which men are to die in battle and live in glory in Valhalla. Wylfred takes very little solace in the fact that his father is in heaven partying with history’s greatest warriors, particularly when his little sister dies because the family is steeped in poverty since his father can no longer bring in money. Wyl, like most angst-ridden teenagers, decides the best thing for it is to run away from home, earn money as a mercenary, and, at some point down the road, track down and wreak vengeance upon the goddess of death. And this is just the back story you get during the training level; things get even more depressing after this.
Mar. 17, 2009
The game opens as Wylfred and his best friend Ancel, who insists upon accompanying Wyl on his adventures, gear up for their first big battle as mercenaries. One of the monsters defeated in the battle isn’t quite dead, and mortally wounds Wyl, who, as he lays dying, prays that any power at all be made available to him so that he might not die before fulfilling his quest to destroy the valkyrie. His prayer is answered by Hel, the ruler of the underworld, who also has it out for the valkyrie, and who gives Wyl command of one of the most innovative (and kind of messed up) narrative gameplay tools I’ve ever seen: the Destiny Plume.
The Destiny Plume is a magical feather that saves Wyl from the brink of death, and can “unlock the potential” of any ally, basically turning them into an uber-powered, unstoppable, one-hit-kill machine, who will tear through any and all enemies remaining on the battlefield. There’s a hell of a catch though: once an ally’s potential has been unlocked and they’ve ripped through everything around them, when the battle round is up, they die. And to make this very clear, they do not die the way a Pokemon dies, where you just get it healed up and you can use it again. They do not die the way Mario dies, where he just gets another green mushroom and tries again. No, they die the way Aeris died in FF VII: you can never use them again, there is a little death scene, the other allies cry, the voice actor sighs out a death rattle, and Hel congratulates you for being evil enough to sacrifice your friends for the purpose of your revenge quest. Oh, and you find all this out at the end of the first level when you have to use the plume on Wyl’s childhood friend Ancel. That’s right, you kill your best friend in the first ten minutes of the game.
The Plume isn’t an absolute necessity in combat, just a constant presence and temptation to be a quick fix to sticky tactical situations. In addition to a set number of enemies on each battlefield, Hel requires a certain amount of “Sin” be wrought by Wyl in the course of battle, which is achieved by dealing damage to an enemy after his or her HP is drained. If the amount of Sin sought in the battle is not met, Wyl has failed Hel and she will send extra powerful enemies to fight against him in the next battle, but he can always fill his Sin meter up instantly by activating the Plume and sacrificing one of his allies. This objective adds a very nice dimension of depth to the game’s narrative, since each battle stage has its own unique narrative motivations, and it would be easy to get caught up in the different stories, were it not for the constant reminder of Wyl’s mission and his covenant with the underworld. There are also a lot of playable characters available to join your party, so the game is structured with the expectation that you will need/want to use the Plume several times, but it is a strategy game and you will eventually run out of allies, so be smart with your sacrifices.
As engaging as Valkyrie Profile’s story is, the strategic battle system will undoubtedly dominate gameplay. Each battle is between Wyl and his allies and several enemies spread out across a grid-based map. Turns are divided into ally phases and enemy phases, during which each combatant can move around the grid, attack enemies in range, use provisions on themselves or allies, employ tactical measures that will affect enemy units behavior, or, in Wyl’s case, turn an ally into a raging hulk for the rest of the round.
Allies’ position on the grid is as important, if not more, to RPG elements like spells, weapons and stats. Each unit has a specific range of attack determining which enemies they can attack, which enemies can attack them, and which allies they can help. Attacking an enemy from behind can stun them, making it impossible for them to retaliate, getting inside an archer’s range means that their bow and arrow is rendered completely ineffective, and attacking with an ally in range means both units get to launch attacks against the single enemy target. There are also offensive and defensive bonuses to be gained for surrounding an enemy in a particular way (e.g. if you position an ally on either side of an enemy, their attacks to 30% more damage), and you can position a weak unit behind a stronger one, and as long as the units remain in line with the enemy, attacks targeting the weaker unit will hit the one in front of it instead.
There is a separate screen for an actual attack against an enemy, where the grid falls away and only the units attacking each other are visible. This stage is also turn based, but reaction time is still important to an extent. I found out the hard way that if an ally’s magic attack launches an enemy into the air, it’s no just for show and any physical attacks triggered before the enemy hits the ground will be completely useless. You also get a chance to trigger over-the-top but very satisfying finishing moves if you react fast enough (good for racking up Sin).
The graphics are pretty good: while the environments, dialogue scenes and finishing moves all look nice, the little avatars for the units on the battlefield can be a little goofy looking, especially when they get a triumphant close up at the end of a successful fight. I know DS graphics are capable of that last extra step, and while it’s refreshing to see a game privilege story over graphics, I’m still going to keep pushing for games that achieve both in equal measure.
All in all, Valkyrie Profile is a very technically sound game. The story and gameplay are strong, and while using the Destiny Plume may have triggered some slight psychological trauma over the course of gameplay, I definitely count that in its favor, and cannot advocate strongly enough that games follow Valkyrie Profile’s lead and make story innovation an active part of gameplay. For fans of the strategy genre, it is definitely worth the full forty dollar purchasing price.