Let me preface this review with the following statements: First of all, I have a lot of respect for XSEED Games. They’ve provided excellent localizations for a lot of great, niche JRPGs. Their reputation, at one time, landed them an exclusive contract with Marvelous Entertainment. However, that agreement seemed to have crumbled, since Ignition Entertainment and other North American publishers have been bringing JRPGs (published in Japan by Marvelous) stateside. However, even though XSEED doesn’t have exclusive rights to Marvelous games, they are still bringing some of them to America. One such game is Valhalla Knights: Eldar Saga, developed by K2.
And with that preface out of the way, let me say the words I originally intended to use as the opener to this review: “I have no idea why XSEED bothered localizing this game.”
Eldar Saga is the third game in the Valhalla Knights series and the first on the Wii. Valhalla Knights 1 and 2 were PSP titles, and though there were big improvements from the first game to the second, I would argue that the series took a blow in quality with this new Wii title.
The game plays like a really bad 3rd-person-perspective MMORPG. Except, instead of working with a party, you can only get one additional party member (either AI-controlled, or a friend via WiFi). Everything about the game’s combat system is clunky. Targeting is difficult, all inputs come with some unnecessary delay, and there’s no skill involved with the fighting. It’s a button-mash fest, with the caveat that you had best run away when you’re low on HP.
The game’s graphics will do you no favors for combat either. Everything is dark, grey, earth-toned, and blurry. You can turn up the brightness and contrast, but that won’t be enough to help you understand what you’re looking at in most dungeons. Even outdoor fields (such as the Mor Plains that surround the main town of Vestlia) are a dim and washed-out gray. Yuck.
There is an interesting setup to the way this game operates. When you start the game, you have the option to skip over most of the plot and play the end scenario. There are two “Episodes” to Eldar Saga and you can play either from the start. However, if you want to experience the full linear plot, it works like this. First, in Episode I, you create a character who is forced to be a human male. For whatever reason, he has a magical adventurer’s knife and is put in a position to save the far-western continent of the world (named “Eldar”) from monstrous creatures.
Somehow, this default character, who seems like a “nobody” adventurer, brings reconciliation to the four humanoid-fantasy races of the area: humans, dwarves, elves, and halflings. You see, a kid in a wheelchair asks generic protagonist (you) to find star fragments and bring them back to him, which he says he’ll use to bring peace to the war-torn region of Eldar. Whether or not you, the player, trusts wheelchair kid, the generic and personality-lacking protagonist goes along with it by default. So that’s the path you’ll be taking.
The plot, for Episode I, is a recapitulation of so many other fantasy “race-reconciliation” stories. The “Fellowship” of LotR, the main party in Sword of Shannara, or in the original DragonLance series of books, and probably a hundred other books and films. You know the story. The races distrust one another, but your heroic acts bring them together to ally against the monsters. In Eldar Saga, however, this happens in a most unceremonious and forgetful way.
After visiting, and solving the problems of, each of the other races’ settlements, you get the option to give a pretty little earring to a girl. Along the way, you meet four girls: Penelope (human), Amandala (dwarf), Ophelia (elf), and Aigle (halfling). The person who gets the earring determines the end events for Episode I, and it also determines what kind of character you can use for Episode II. This, of course, is because in Episode II you play as the love child between generic protagonist and his newfound sweetheart. Full disclosure: I chose Aigle because halflings need more love and half-halflings make very little sense to my brain. Which, incidentally, fits my feelings about this game perfectly.
So, the awful truth comes out about star fragments and the kid in the wheelchair. You fight a difficult battle and then move on to Episode II. Now, you create a new character, who is male or female, and either fully human, or half-human (with the other half being the race of your mother). This slightly affects the character’s base statistics, and also determines some of the variation in the quest path for Episode II.
I won’t talk any further about the plot. But, in terms of judgment, I will say this: somewhere, behind the sort of boring minimalism that contrasts well against the exciting minimalism of (as an example) Shadow of the Colossus, there was a good idea worked into this game. The execution was a little too flawed for me to offer praise to the plot. And since character development is an afterthought in this game, there’s nothing more to say there. It’s like K2 wanted to develop a “Western RPG,” and their idea of a Western RPG was cutting personality out of each and every character. Bad ideas lead to bad games.
Moving into the territory of character growth: I think there was a really good idea packed into the game here. And if I had paid more attention to the PSP games, I would’ve done better. But I don’t know who’s at fault for my first, erroneous play-through; me, or the game. We as gamers have become lazy, and we rely on in-game tutorials to tell us what to do and how to do it. Eldar Saga had no tutorials built in-game, with the exception of some basic combat functionality in the game’s first dungeon. Regarding stat growth, it’s all a big guess. But if no one else minds me turning this review, for a short time, into a walkthrough, let me explain what I did.
My Episode I character played as a “Fighter” class throughout the entire game. For the first Episode, five basic classes are available for you to play: Fighter, Thief, Priest, Mage, or Bard. With Fighter, I had to stock up on potions between each trek into a dungeon. But I could generally beat down anyone I wanted. And, miraculously (looking back, it really was a miracle), I beat the entirety of Episode I without ever changing jobs. I just figured the game was boring, but one ought to stick to one job. My reasoning? In many games with multiple jobs, such as FFXI, your stats are intrinsically tied to your job. I saw no reason to change jobs since I didn’t want to level-grind from level 1 with weakened stats again.
What I didn’t realize was that all of your base stats (STR VIT DEX etc) apply to your character regardless of job. And the reward for leveling up, in any job, is additional points to throw against those base stats. Thus, the smartest thing you can do is get one job into double-digit levels so that you have sufficient strength, then level up all other jobs to 10 or 20, and you can overwhelm your character with huge boosts in base stats, as well as picking up some of the best skills/traits from the other jobs. In Episode II, your job base expands even further, granted you do the right optional quests. Leveling up becomes disgustingly easy.
Add to this the wildly easy trick to beating a boss, and the game goes from cheap-hard to cheap-easy. There are potions you can use that inflict status effects on enemies and I didn’t really meet any bosses who were immune, including the final two bosses. Stock up on five of each of the standard potions: paralysis, poison, disease, darkness, and silence. That’ll cost you 25,000 gold, not a difficult amount of money to earn come endgame. I went in with a female half-halfing Thief, used these potions, and essentially rendered the bosses harmless within 15 seconds. From there, it was just a button-mashing affair to bring down their health until they were dead. These potions are relatively expensive, so it’s not wise to bring them into standard battles. But bosses go down quick because they have little to no immunity and their recovery rate is slow.
Without turning to GameFAQs or instruction manuals, I slowly figured out the tricks and exploitations to finish this game quickly. And I’m glad I found them, because I don’t think I could’ve handled another hour of level-grinding or dungeon-wandering. The base plot is mercifully short. The most fun you can possibly have with this game is finding another friend who owns and likes this game (good luck with that) who will play alongside you. Having a friend who isn’t a stupid AI-controlled character that gets stuck on small ledges makes a big difference.
Oh, did I mention my favorite part of the game? The music! You know a game is bad when its best marks go to Motoi Sakuraba for his music. Actually, though, Sakuraba held back on the prog-rock and instead went with interesting orchestral work. The town themes are especially strong. The full OST is actually worth checking out if you’re into that sort of thing. Sakuraba even covered “Flight of the Bumblebee” for some special fight sequences against speedy little insects (bees, spiders, etc.).
Concluding thoughts: you have to be feeling starved for an RPG on the Wii to want to play this game. Granted, there’s nothing else like it on the Wii. But if I had to choose, I’d more quickly turn to Muramasa or Final Fantasy IV: The After Years. Really, this game just wasn’t worth my time. If you’re going to pick up this game, go in with low expectations, and that way the game will at least meet, if not surpass, those expectations. And, finally, if you must play the game, borrow or rent before going for the full retail purchase. I love XSEED as much as the next RPG Fan, but I’m still trying to figure out: why bother localizing a game like this?