Nowadays, most RPG developers strive for at least a bit of innovation in their games. Most create one or two unique systems in hopes to draw players to their titles, with the remainder of the game being roughly as innovative as the wheel. However, what happens when numerous unique game systems and an interesting story premise are seamlessly combined into one game? tri-Ace's Valkyrie Profile is born. While not perfect, it provides an experience never before delivered in an RPG.
One needs to only view the title screen to instantly see how Valkyrie Profile is a departure from the norm. Along with relatively standard "new game", "continue", "configuration, and "sound mode" options, there is also a "prologue" option to view a scene, which provides background information on a certain character you meet later in the game. In addition, an "opening movie" option lets you view a short-but-sweet anime introduction showing various characters you might meet along your journey. It's only a title screen, yet it demonstrates the utmost control for the player.
Another feature, which is often found in non-RPGs, are three set difficulty levels called "easy", "normal", and "hard". Not all endings are possible in easy mode, but they are in normal mode. Hard mode is geared towards a seasoned player who wants to experience the ultimate in challenge from this game.
The main objective in Valkyrie Profile revolves around the Sacred War in the gods' world of Asgard. The Allfather Odin calls upon battle maiden Valkyrie to recruit fallen souls from Midgard and train these Einherjar for Odin's battle against the Vanir.
For future reference in this review, Valkyrie is called Lenneth, mostly by Freya, and it serves as her actual name. The name Valkyrie is used mostly by humans.
Once Valkyrie has been informed of her duty, Freya, the goddess of fertility, takes her down to Midgard for her first dungeon experience. Lenneth and Freya are floating above Midgard, which is actually used as the overworld view. Freya directs Lenneth to perform Spiritual Concentration, the special ability Lenneth uses to either find new Einherjar or new dungeons. In this case, she finds the Artolian Mountain Ruins and the introductory dungeon begins. This is the only place Valkyrie is accompanied by Freya, mainly as a way to explain the basic gameplay mechanics. These comments are extremely useful to get one's feet wet and the difficulty level is very low so the dungeon's emphasis is on learning the game and not battling difficult foes that are increasingly prevalent later in the game.
At the end of this dungeon and most others, artifacts are available for the taking. If you send them up to Odin, your evaluation rating goes up one point. Each item you take will deduct five from this rating. The total evaluation rating (out of 100) shows how pleased Odin is with Valkyrie's work.
After completing Artolian Mountain Ruins, you are free to fly through the skies of Midgard and go anywhere you wish. However, to progress in the game, Lenneth must perform her Spiritual Concentration and find the souls of other soon-to-be-dead fighters. A story sequence showing the character's untimely demise is displayed and he/she is assimilated into the party afterwards. Then, Spiritual Concentration is performed again in which case a new dungeon will be uncovered where your Einherjar and Valkyrie can rid Midgard of any "defilers of souls". After the dungeon, Spiritual Concentration will likely reveal another character on the verge of death.
This pattern repeats through eight chapters, with 24 periods per chapter. Each time Valkyrie enters a town, enters a dungeon, rests, or witnesses a story sequence, periods are used. When all 24 periods are used in any specific chapter, a Sacred Phase begins. This is where Freya meets with you to discuss your progress as well as the progress with the war against Vanir. If you've sent fighters up to Asgard, then you can even track their progress and learn of their deeds in battle. Lenneth is also rewarded with valuable Materialize Points and artifacts depending on how pleased Odin is. Finally, Freya requests the type of character Asgard needs next, and during the next chapter it's wise to fill her requirements by sending someone up who fits the bill.
I found the Sacred Phase to be necessary in order to facilitate some interaction between Valkyrie and the fighters you've sent up. However, some of the battle scenarios presented for one character may repeat for another and that really takes away from the originality of the Sacred Phase. If a battle was won by one character, why would another character fight the exact same one?
The dungeons in Valkyrie Profile are reminiscent of 8 and 16-bit 2D side-scrollers with a few RPG elements mixed in. Movement from side to side is common, along with lateral movements to the background or foreground. While navigating dungeons, Valkyrie may jump, slide along the ground, and climb ladders. In addition, she can climb by shooting ice crystals, which stick to most walls and floors in dungeons. They can be shot in succession to create jumping platforms to reach otherwise inaccessible areas. Also, shooting crystals at the ground can give Valkyrie that often-needed extra boost. If Valkyrie jumps on them three times, they shatter and she falls to the ground. However, Valkyrie can stack these chunks of ice to make a longer-lasting platform. Up to two can be shot in the same location, which creates a larger block of ice. A third shot shatters the ice and crystal shards fall to the ground. Jumping on these shards while they're still airborne will create a temporary crystal platform, which comes in handy. The wide array of uses for these crystals makes them the ultimate tool and an excellent way to add depth to gameplay.
Since enemies are shown on-screen in this game, there are three options for engagement in battle. Valkyrie can: a) run into the enemy, which gives the enemy the advantage in battle b) slash the enemy with her sword, which allows her party to strike first, or c) freeze the enemy using her ice crystal ability and bypass the battle completely. Again, an abundance of choices gives the user much more control over the game.
The battles capture the very heart of this game's innovation. At first it looks extremely simplistic, but as the game progresses, additional features and an added difficulty level keep the battle engine fresh and entertaining all the way through.
Before delving into the battle engine, it's important to know about CT (Charge Turn) gauges. The CT gauges prevent the constant use of special attacks or magic. When any part of the CT gauge is full, magic and/or special attacks cannot be used. Each turn, the CT gauge gradually decreases. When it's empty, those aforementioned attacks can be executed. Some attacks fill the CT gauge completely, while others just add one bar. Without this addition to the battle engine, Valkyrie Profile would be way too easy and simply consist of constant special attacks.
There are three types of characters available in battle: fighters, archers, and sorcerers. Fighters and archers can attack every turn and only fill their CT gauge when using their special attacks. Fighters can only hit enemies in the front row, while archers can hit any enemy. Sorcerers can also hit any enemy, but their standard attacks are magic-based and fill up the CT gauge, thereby limiting their quantity of attacks. Also, when their CT gauge is full, sorcerers cannot use items, unlike archers and fighters. Finally, sorcerers are the only characters who can actually use magic, but again, it fills up their CT gauge.
All four characters in battle have a button on the PlayStation controller that corresponds to their position on the battlefield. Pressing one of the buttons causes the character to attack the selected enemy. Pressing the buttons at different times and in different orders open many possibilities for devastating combos.
Well-placed combos raise the Special Attack Gauge and when it reaches 100, any character who has an empty CT gauge may perform his/her special attack. If by performing this special attack the Special Attack Gauge fills up again, another character may use his/her special attack. This can continue as long as the Special Attack Gauge reaches 100 by the end of each turn and at least one character has an empty CT gauge.
Raising levels in Valkyrie Profile upgrades characters' attributes and also provides the character with CP (Capacity Points). These precious points can be used to learn skills like counter attack and auto potion, which can be equipped on your characters. New skills are found and learned throughout the game. CP can also be used to alter a character's traits, but that information can be found below in the menu explanation.
The only standard portion of the battle engine is the use of DME (Divine Material Energy, in effect HP), magic, items and running away. Each character is allotted DME like in any RPG. Magic is only available to sorcerers and has normal attack/defense/healing/status properties. Items are used normally, except by sorcerers who must have an empty CT gauge. Running away in this game gives one a bit of a break by making the enemy vanish.
Even though learning the entire battle engine can take awhile, the first few dungeons contain enemies that are easily taken down with just standard attacks and the occasional special attack. Still, the first few hours of the game can be an overwhelming experience and some casual RPG fans may not be able to sit through it.
The menu system shares the same complexity. In addition to engaging Einherjar in battle to train them, you must mold their traits too. Each character comes with a list of positive and negative traits which all add up to a collective hero value for each person. With the use of CP, positive traits like "brave" and "prideful" can be increased and negative traits like "worrier" and "tonguetied" can be lessened. This increases the overall hero rating, which must be at a certain level to send a character up to Asgard. This level increases as the game progresses. The possibilities are endless with CP!
Along with just using items and equipping weapons and armor, these possessions can be "transmutated" or changed into another specified item. They can also be converted to Materialize Points, which serves as the game's currency. Some items and weapons are gained in treasure chests, but many items are found in the "Divine Item" option in the menu screen. Using Materialize Points as money, most or your equipment can be purchased here. However, since Materialize Points are only gathered from Sacred Phases or from items, it must be used wisely. Also, since some weapons have a certain percent chance of breaking, big decisions must be made.
When receiving artifacts, or completing dungeon puzzles, Valkyrie is awarded Event Experience. This can be distributed in any way desired in order to raise levels of any characters currently on Midgard. This is quite useful in raising weak characters to a reasonable level so they will survive battle in the early stages of training.
Overall, the aforementioned gameplay involving the battle and menu systems are two significant strong suits in the game. However, Valkyrie Profile shares a flaw that occurs in nearly every action-based RPG. This game has control problems, albeit not large ones, but significant enough for a detailed mention. To facilitate running and walking, a method of tapping the directional button twice for one function and just once for the other was formed. One could configure it so walking was the default motion with running needing a double tap, or visa versa. It looks good on paper, but when put into practice it can cause some frustration. When lining up for a jump, one can inadvertently hit the directional button twice thereby forcing Valkyrie to jump in "walk mode" which causes a puny jump that usually lands her way short of her goal.
Another annoyance is accessing treasure chests. This task is accomplished by pressing down and then the X button, but Valkyrie must be placed precisely beside the chest or she will pick it up. Then, if you slip and press the X again instead of the circle button to drop it, you'll throw the chest and possibly break the item inside.
Other than control, another area in Valkyrie Profile that fell short was town exploration. Granted, with the period system in place, not much time can be devoted to visiting towns. However, the generic and boring conversations with townspeople caused me to cease town visits as they just ate up time. A few items can be found in each town, but other than that and the pretty scenery, they're not very useful to the game.
The graphics in Valkyrie Profile mostly consist of 2D hand-drawn side-scrolling dungeons and towns. The only polygons in Valkyrie Profile rest in the overworld view and make up the weak point of the graphics. The overworld is quite bland with limited detail and an excessive amount of fogging. However, the side-scrolling areas are much more pleasing to the eye. The dungeons and towns are simply beautiful, with excellent hand-drawn backdrops, containing varying scenery from a mossy rainforest to ancient temples and castles. Valkyrie's fluid animation through these dungeons left me moving her around and just watching the crisp movements she made. It's instantly apparent that much care went into designing the multitude of animations for Valkyrie's sprite in and out of battle. In towns, she disguises herself in human garbs and her jumping ability decreases, as her control feels less goddess-like and more human. This melding of control with the story is an excellent touch! In addition, all battle animations for other characters share the same sharp movement.
Aside from the anime introduction, the only FMV in the game is mostly CG-based and it's sparse at that. More common in Valkyrie Profile are FMVs within gameplay events. For example, in the first dungeon a door opens and a pillar crumbles, both with overlaid FMV covering part of the screen. Most of them look great, while a few are extremely grainy. Those few don't detract from the graphical presentation much, but it is a momentary eye sore.
The splendid musical score is composed by Motoi Sakuraba, who is known for his work on Star Ocean: Second Story and Tales of Phantasia. Combining errie mood music for story scenes with upbeat dungeon music and splendid composition of both creates a nearly perfect musical experience for this game. The only problem rests on the fact that many dungeon tunes sound quite similar. Like most of Sakuraba's video game projects, an excellent sound test mode is available for your listening pleasure.
Aside from various musical scores, Valkyrie Profile contains numerous bits of spoken dialogue and battle cries throughout the game. This likely presented a challenge to Enix America since their previous works on SNES often required little to no voice acting. However, they gathered decent acting talent and overall the voice acting gets an above average rating. Most importantly, the voice you hear the most in this game, Valkyrie's, is excellent. It suits her demeanor and matches the Japanese version well. Freya also has a notable voice. However, some voices don't fit like Odin's "old man" voice, the childish voice of Llewelyn (who also does the voice of Ash in Pokemon), and the annoying utterances of Lucian and Platina. All things considered, the translation and voice acting were very well done. Also, the few name changes, like "Aruze" being changed to "Arngrim" were warranted and all decent decisions.
One segment nearing the end of this game begs mentioning and that's the second to last boss battle fought when approaching the middle ending. This creature not only bears little significance to the story, but its difficulty level is a bit unexpected and extremely unbalanced. I believe the addition of this battle breaks the overall tempo of the game and while the glory of finally beating the beast was worthy of a lengthy celebration dance, it really took away any and all suspense when fighting the comparatively easy final boss. It by no means ruins the game, but it was a source of frustration for a few days.
To sum it up, you can't go wrong with Valkyrie Profile. With such a deep battle system, an advanced skill and trait system, and an intriguing story all presented with crisp graphics and sound, VP boasts one of the best RPG experiences on the PlayStation. The only group of RPG fans who couldn't possibly enjoy this game are those too attached to the ease and dullness of the norm.