Note: This review is based on the Japanese version of the game.
Valkyrie Profile is tri-Ace’s newest RPG for the Sony PlayStation, and it is one that truly impresses. At a glance, it appears to be somewhat similar to Star Ocean: The Second Story, tri-Ace’s last RPG. In reality, though, Valkyrie Profile turns out to be one of the most innovative and original RPGs in recent memory. And unlike the majority of today’s RPGs, execution does not take a backseat to innovation in this particular case; Valkyrie Profile is one of the finest RPGs ever released.
In Valkyrie Profile, you play as Valkyrie, the Goddess of War. On the world of Valhalla, where Valkyrie and the rest of her Earth God cohorts reside, King Odin is preparing all of the denizens for a massive war of the gods. Past wars have been a breeze for the Earth Gods, but the presence of Ragnarok in the Van God opposition causes this particular case to be a serious concern for Odin. So, in order to get the upper hand, Odin sends Valkyrie down to Midgard, the realm of the mortals, where she is to collect the tainted souls of dead warriors and send them up to Valhalla to aid in the war effort. While in Midgard, Valkyrie’s contact with Valhalla rests with another goddess named Frey.
Meanwhile, in Altoria, one of Midgard’s largest kingdoms, an evil sorcerer named Lombart has put a scheme to gain control of the kingdom into motion. By acting as one of the King’s closest advisors, he arranges the murder of Jillard, the kingdom’s princess, framing the kingdom’s strongest and most prominent soldier, a man named Aruze, for the crime. Valkyrie, able to hear the cries of tortured souls, is naturally drawn to the scene.
As Valkyrie arrives in Altoria, she immediately collects Jillard’s soul, as the kingdom’s princess possesses considerable aptitude for magic use. She then goes to find Aruze, who by now has discovered Lombart’s treachery and confronts him. The warrior is no match for the powerful sorcerer, though, and only with the arrival of Valkyrie is Aruze saved from Lombart. With the help of Valkyrie, the powerful Frey, and Jillard’s soul, Aruze is finally able to put the evil mage down once and for all.
However, before his death, Lombart was able to get the entire kingdom to fall for his scheme. So now Aruze is a heavily wanted man, and it doesn’t help that the royal guards arrive as he is finishing off one of the King’s most trusted advisors. With the help of Jillard’s soul, Valkyrie convinces Aruze that his place is with the gods, not in an Altorian dungeon or as a fugitive. So rather than allowing himself to be arrested, Aruze fakes surrender, dropping his sizable sword on the ground, only to plunge his main gauche into his heart as the guards approach. Valkyrie then collects his soul, adding him to her budding collection of warriors.
Thus begins Valkyrie’s search for souls worthy of fighting in Valhalla. Valkyrie Profile’s storyline is likely its strongest individual facet, as it possesses one of the most compelling plots yet seen in an RPG. As Valkyrie progresses in her mission, she learns shocking truths about the world that she lives in as well as her own forgotten past, keeping players riveted to their PlayStations in the process.
In addition, character development is excellent in spite of the large size of the cast. Valkyrie Profile also contains some of the most poignant storyline moments in RPG history. Because Valkyrie collects the souls of dead or dying warriors, players will get to witness these individuals’ last moments in Midgard, and how those around them are affected by the losses of the dearly departed. Most of these storyline sequences are handled absolutely beautifully by the scenario writers at tri-Ace.
Although Valkyrie Profile is perhaps strongest in its storyline department, its gameplay is what sets it far apart from just about any other RPG out there. From layout to battle system, Valkyrie Profile is one of the most innovative RPGs ever released.
Unlike most RPGs, where time is generally not a restriction, Valkyrie Profile demands strict adherence to a timeline. The game is divided into 8 chapters, each containing 24 periods. During each chapter, certain tasks have to be completed within the 24 periods to insure the success of the Earth Gods (and the continued powering up of Valkyrie and her allies). Every location you visit costs a certain number of periods, depending on the circumstances, so you can’t just run around exploring locations indiscriminately. Fortunately, Valkyrie Profile does an excellent job of telling you where to go next.
By pressing the “start” button on the world map, Valkyrie can use her Soul Concentration ability. This allows her to hear the cries of the souls that she is to rescue and localize them to a particular town, telling players where they should go. Sometimes, instead of going to a town to collect a soul, a dungeon is revealed, prompting Valkyrie to accomplish a specific task there.
Once in the towns and dungeons, Valkyrie Profile switches from its overhead 3D flying world map play to a 2D side scrolling engine not unlike that of Atlus’ Princess Crown. In the towns and dungeons, Valkyrie can run and jump to explore her surroundings. Areas in a different plane from that visible onscreen can be accessed by pressing up or down at the appropriate locations.
In the dungeons, Valkyrie can also perform additional moves, such as swinging her sword and shooting ice crystals. Enemies are visible before they attack, and the ice crystals can be used to either temporarily freeze them in place or build platforms to allow Valkyrie to reach otherwise inaccessible areas. Combat is initiated when Valkyrie either runs into an enemy or hits it with her sword; hitting an enemy with your sword guarantees you initiative, while running into enemies usually gives them the chance to strike first once combat begins.
In spite of its heavily action-oriented area map play, Valkyrie Profile possesses a battle system that is nearly entirely turn-based in nature. In combat, a different button controls each playable character’s attack, and players can time these attacks at their own discretion. Proper timing in executing attacks is important. Many enemies can guard against attacks unless they are properly timed, and if you string your attacks together closely enough, you can accumulate a multitude of hits on an enemy. Hitting enemies repeatedly can cause them to drop items or give you more experience, and when a certain number of hits is reached, your characters can perform additional powerful attacks on the enemy, at the cost of having to wait longer before they can attack again. Each character can learn new special attacks as the game progresses.
Valkyrie Profile utilizes a skill system that is strikingly similar to that of Star Ocean: The Second Story. Skill points are earned after gaining experience levels, and they can be applied at the player’s discretion to any skill that a character knows. New skills are generally acquired through the exploration of dungeons; they appear in the form of books that can be read.
Although Valkyrie Profile’s skill system carries the same foundation as that of Star Ocean: The Second Story, it does hold some significant differences. At certain points in the game, players are requested to send one of their characters up to Valhalla. These characters have to meet certain requirements, one of which is their Hero Rating equaling or exceeding a certain level. Instead of leveling up a character’s skills, players can increase certain attributes that cause the character to have a higher Hero Rating.
In addition, Valkyrie Profile’s skill system is improved over that of Star Ocean: The Second Story. Nearly all of the skills in Valkyrie Profile pertain directly to combat or attribute increases. Therefore, Valkyrie Profile doesn’t get bogged down in menu-related activities like tri-Ace’s last effort did.
As a whole, Valkyrie Profile excels in the execution of its gameplay. Commands are carried out crisply, both in and out of battles. The innovative layout never runs into major execution problems, and the battles, despite being turn-based, are generally so intense that they carry a distinct arcade feel to them. The difficulty level does a good job of staying balanced throughout, and the game gets easy only if you know exactly what you are doing.
In spite of its overall excellence, Valkyrie Profile’s gameplay does have some weaknesses of note. Because of the time limit on completing each chapter of the game’s story, players will be unable to explore Midgard at their leisure. Fortunately, there’s rarely anything to see in a location unless the storyline takes you there, but the feeling of freedom is still noticeably absent in this game. Also, several of the dungeon tasks are poorly defined; it’s prohibitively difficult to figure out what you need to do in these locations except through trial and error.
In addition, many weapons have a tendency to break when they are used in combat. Although this feature serves as an effective deterrent to overuse of these weapons, it still ultimately proves to be more of an annoyance for players than anything else, forcing them to save often and reboot in order to preserve a valued weapon.
Although Valkyrie Profile’s control is overall quite strong, it does end up being the game’s weak link. Directional control is responsive, and Valkyrie moves through the side-scrolling area maps at a good pace. Pressing twice in a direction will slow Valkyrie down for precise positioning. The menus are extremely well organized and easy to navigate.
However, some annoyances creep into the control. The jump control is imprecise, which is a pain because there’s quite a bit of jumping to be done in the area maps. In addition, the directional pad is overtly responsive to the double-press, so players will find Valkyrie slowing down at times when they want her to move quickly.
Graphically, Valkyrie Profile is one of the more impressive games for the PlayStation. The 2D backgrounds in the area maps are beautifully drawn, and the sprite-based characters hold a great level of detail. In battles, the monsters are similarly well drawn and detailed, and the spell effects are spectacular. The colors used are a touch on the drab side, but they fit the somber mood of the game well.
The animation in Valkyrie Profile is excellent as well. Although some of the background animation is choppy, the character animation is some of the most fluid seen in a sprite-based game since Konami’s Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, both in and out of battle.
The CG movies dispersed throughout the game are also competently constructed. They animate smoothly and realistically, with minimal graininess. Although their content isn’t among the most spectacular yet seen in RPG CG movies, they get the job done nicely.
Valkyrie Profile’s art is also noteworthy. Although there is an anime opening movie, the bulk of the art in the game is drawn is a style that leans more towards the realistic than towards anime. The character designs are attractive, and the portraits that pop up when characters converse look good.
Perhaps the only area of Valkyrie Profile’s visual presentation that needs work is the polygonal world map. Like that of most other tri-Ace games, Valkyrie Profile’s world map is blocky, lacking in detail, and excessively drab in its coloration.
Like its visuals, Valkyrie Profile’s sound department impresses from the beginning. Sound effects, especially in battle, are full and booming. The profuse voice acting in the game is also of very high quality. It’s realistic and full of appropriate emotion.
The most impressive aspect of Valkyrie Profile’s sound department, though, is a soundtrack that is no doubt composer Motoi Sakuraba’s best work. Like Sakuraba’s past projects, the Valkyrie Profile score features complex melody construction and a slew of time signature changes. There are differences between Sakuraba’s newest offering and his past works, though, that improve its quality immeasurably. Throughout the Valkyrie Profile soundtrack, the melodies are consistently compelling, much more so than in any past Sakuraba scores. In addition, the arrangement of Valkyrie Profile’s soundtrack is much subtler than the overtly grandiose arrangements of soundtracks such as that of Star Ocean: The Second Story. Although it still is more grandiose than the average RPG soundtrack, Valkyrie Profile’s soundtrack fits its heavenly theme quite well, and it ranks as one of the best soundtracks to emerge in the post-16-bit era of gaming.
Valkyrie Profile is overall one of the finest RPGs available, and, along with Square’s Chrono Cross, it ranks as one of the two best games of its genre to be released in Japan in 1999. Don’t miss out on this one.
Valkyrie Profile has not been announced for a US release. However, with the rebirth of Enix as a publisher in the US, an American version of the game seems a distinct possibility.