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Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume
Platform: Nintendo DS
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: tri-Ace
Genre: Strategy RPG
Format: Cartridge
Released: US 03/17/09
Japan 11/01/08



Scorecard
Graphics: 75%
Sound: 80%
Gameplay: 83%
Control: 82%
Story: 77%
Overall: 79%
Reviews Grading Scale
 
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Four-pronged strikes: The toothy bat monster's one weakness!
 
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Pretty much the only map in the game without brown in it.
 
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One of the many elaborate Soul Crushes.
 
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Finish your bickering so I can Plume one of you!
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Sam Hansen
Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume
03/27/09
Sam Hansen

A few years ago, I had pretty much come to the realization that I was never going to be able to play the original Valkyrie Profile. And I was at peace with that, I really was. But then Square Enix came along and ravaged the globe with its relentless port tornado, leaving rehashes of gems like VP in its wake for consoles that I was (and still am!) too poor to invest in. So even if I wanted to play the tri-Ace treasure, I'm now caught in this dilemma where I can either shell out two hundred dollars for the PSX version or an equally painful…well, two hundred dollars for a PSP and the remake. Salt in the wound, I tell you, salt in the wound.

But hey, no hard feelings. Silmeria was a nice placebo, and now that I've got Covenant of the Plume locked into my DS, I'll be able to stop whining for a little while longer. Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume is Tri-Ace's latest dip into its distinguished Norse mythological franchise. For those who have stuck with Lenneth and the Einherjar since the beginning (lucky bastards...), this is more of the same medieval goodness that you've come to expect, albeit on a smaller pair of screens.

In the world of Midgard, warriors brave their opposition with courage and intrepidity, never once fearing the aftermath of the battles to come. They stave off the onslaughts, yet cordially welcome the blows that end their days among the living. When a deserving fighter is felled, Lenneth - the Battle Maiden, Chooser of the Slain - descends from the heavens to pluck those of worth from their mortal bodies, thus turning these chosen men and women into members of her own celestial army. In exchange for the souls, Lenneth leaves behind a single feathered plume upon the body of the deceased, a token signifying the individual's valiance in battle to the loved ones he has left.

Wylfred, the protagonist of our story, is one such person to have experienced the pains of losing one of kin to the battlefield. The death of his father sent his mother spiraling downward into depression, and without a breadwinner to provide for the family, his sister succumbed soon after to famishment. Now seeking revenge against Lenneth for pillaging him and his family of happiness, Wylfred heads off on a journey in search of the glorious Battle Maiden.

And then he gets killed by a low level monster.

Lucky for him, a certain Hel, Queen of Niflheim, isn't quite ready to let him die off just yet, and calls out to the freshly fallen fellow with an intriguing proposal. It seems as though she understands his plight and offers Wylfred the destructive power he needs in order to overthrow Lenneth: The Destiny Plume. With it, Wylfred can transform his allies into near-godlike weapons and have them lay waste to whatever their hell-bent little selves want. The catch is that whomever it is used upon dies soon after. Quite the double-edged sword. Yet driven by revenge, he accepts the offer, and is bound to the Covenant of the Plume.

I'm not even going to try to beat around the bush here: That's an awesome premise for a game, especially an RPG. The problem is that we aren't really treated to a whole lot of the Plume throughout the story. As soon as it's introduced, it immediately gets pushed to the side to make room for a story largely centered on medieval politics. And hey, that's cool; I'm always up for an onion-layered story, but I definitely would have liked to see more of this fascinating device outside of the battle system (more on that later).

The story itself isn't all that bad. We've got kings and queens, castles, ye olde, Shakespearian style dialect ("Surely you jest!"), backstabbing, motivational wartime speeches, serf vs. royalty plots, etc. You know, Middle Age, antediluvian stuff. When the story isn't being told from its omniscient perspective, players are expected to visit the cities' many taverns and listen in on rumors circulating the lands. In other words, you have to go out of your way to read walls of text in order to properly understand what's going on. I can't say I was a huge fan of this, as I'd rather have my story spoon fed to me, but I suppose it gets the job done. Everything flows together nicely, and I'm sure fans of political intrigue will get a kick out of it. But the story is pretty much just that: Politically intriguing. Save for the radicalism of the Plume, we’ve seen this all before.

Midgard itself is quite the dismal stage, surely befitting of the war story it houses. The setting is medieval right down to the fractured cobblestone walkways, and it all looks pretty darn snazzy despite the DS's hardware limitations. Players won't be feasting upon illustrious arrays of colors (I'm crossing my fingers that you all like your pale greens and dirt browns), but there are plenty of well-textured, sepia-drenched locales for everyone's eyes to glaze over. Water effects in particular look great. I remember walking onto a battle map with this enormous waterfall cascading through the screen, bobbing these little tufts of tree branches and bushes up and down as it descended into the mountain's crevice. It's scenes like these that made me fully appreciate the setting.

The comparatively sparse, anime-styled character models, on the other hand, didn't do much for me. I'm not really sure if I should be blaming the sprites for being too simplified or the scenery for being so rich. All I know is that the two don't mesh splendidly.

Similarly to the visuals, the auditory presentation contains some canopied highs and laugh-inducing lows. Great assortments of tracks can be heard wherever you go for the most part, and the soundtrack pairs well with the game's graphical style. Most of the musical offerings are composed of strings (lots of violin and harp action, here) and pianos, with a fair helping of operatic vocals. Much of the more intense, battle-oriented stuff swaps the acoustic in favor of a more synthesized sound. CotP occasionally feels the need to blast these heavier tracks at you during completely inappropriate story events, making for some awkward mood transitions. At times, the game goes from soothingly calm to holy-crap-monsters-have-attacked-holy-crap-holy-crap with the grace of a swan... roller-skating on an oil-slickened ice rink.

I can't say anything interesting about the sound effects, as it's mostly your standard fare. Worth mentioning, however, are the unintentionally hilarious "crowd" sounds. In the beginning of the game, for example, a certain character spouts a joke, causing a small group of people to erupt in laughter so rowdy that it would have taken twice as many people to muster it. No text. Just laughing. It was so boisterous, comedy club-esque, and ill fitting that I couldn't help but laugh back. And then write about it!

So now let's bring the Destiny Plume back into the picture. Without it, CotP is your average strategy RPG combined with Valkyrie Profile's signature "button-per-character" battle system. Players can formulate parties of up to four fighters (each assigned to one of the DS's four input buttons) and run around on gridded environments, attacking whoever is unfortunate enough to be within weapon range. Anyone who's played genre staples like Final Fantasy Tactics should feel right at home with the out-of-battle format. The game is strictly played with buttons; there is absolutely no touch-screen functionality to be found, which is definitely the way to go for a game like this.

Upon selecting a target, however, players will transition into a battle phase (a la past VPs) where they must press their specific character's attack button to chip away at enemy HP bars. If multiple characters are within range of the same enemy, all of them will hop into the battle, allowing players to rack up combos and activate crazy, over the top Soul Crush abilities depending on how well they link their team's attacks. The more synchronized you are, the easier your combo meter will build up. Do it well enough and you can juggle your opponents for boosted experience points, receive an additional number of attacks, and ultimately churn out a Soul Crush with all four characters.

But what about the Plume? As it turns out, the piece of down plays a much more prominent role in the battle system than it does in the story. At any given time during combat, Wylfred can yank it out of his pocket and use it on any of his non-guest allies, causing their stats to inflate to stupidly high values. It’s like upgrading from a butter knife to a bazooka capable of shooting explosive sharks with teeth made out of lightsabers. It's awesome. But as previously mentioned, the character will immediately die for the remainder of the game upon winning the battle.

That said, is utilizing the Plume's power worth it? If you weren't yet convinced, there's even more incentive for you to willingly off your party members. Alongside the temporary stat enhancements, players will instantly max out the Sin Gauge, another game meter that, when filled, grants players powerful items and armor from Queen Hel herself. If you don't feel like Pluming a character, the Sin Gauge can also be filled by overkilling enemies (that is, damaging them after they've already been killed), though it's infinitely easier to Plume it to max. Additionally, Wylfred gains some amazingly useful and totally permanent skills to help ease the pain of losing a fellow comrade.

So do I kill my friends and earn some new equipment and abilities? Should I spare their lives for use in later battles? Players will undoubtedly encounter these tough to answer questions during their initial playthough of the game. The Plume mechanic is very inventive, and more or less creates this system of checks and balances that will forever be in the back of the conflicted player's mind. For the most part, I didn't think CotP was all that difficult, but there were definitely moments where I found myself unable to do much of anything without the Plume's assistance. This is largely due to the game's completely unbalanced nature. Enemy statistics are just so ridiculously high that you'll inevitably need a Plan B.

Certain battles requiring Wylfred to rescue a character before dying will also warrant Plume use thanks to the complete and utter stupidity of the NPCs you're trying to save. Of course, they feel oh so inclined to attack the enemies around them, causing unavoidable counterattacks that do nothing more than give you even less time to help them. Your only choice is to power up and steamroll their way.

Your actions will also spill into the story, but not necessarily in the way I would have liked. CotP has a branching path structure, with the Plume playing the central role in where your travels will take you. A New Game+ option is provided to intrigued players wanting to experience the story from different angles, and since items, armor, and Wylfred's Plume skills carry over from playthrough to playthrough, your second time around will be much less painful than the first. The plotline differences between paths do change (for instance, a guy I killed in one became an ally in another), but they aren't in any way affected by whom you kill off, making party members completely detached and meaningless once their individual stories are taken care of. If you're looking for a character-driven tale, then look elsewhere, because it sure isn't here.

Aside from those small qualms, I had a great time playing this game. Fighting was as slow as any other strategy game out there, but the methodical attack sequences were great fun, especially when I managed to quadruple-team my enemies and beat them silly with combos. Tack on the ingenuity of the Plume and you've got a solid system with some fresh gameplay ideas.

It's certainly not going to herald the same success or acceptance that the original sleeper-hit did, but Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume is still an entertaining spinoff to the well-known franchise. Flounders aside, there's a fun little game here; the Plume's morbidity alone makes the title worth checking out. Those looking for tried and true strategy goodness with a few additional bells and whistles should give this one a try.



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© 2009 Square Enix, tri-Ace. All rights reserved.


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