Note: This review is based on the Japanese version of the game.
Enix and tri-Ace, the makers of the acclaimed Star Ocean series, have teamed up once again and created a truly incredible game. Valkyrie Profile’s highly innovative gameplay and battle system, as well as its touching and poignant story, made it a non-linear Action RPG that earned rave reviews all across Japan.
Upon booting up the game, the player is taken directly to Valkyrie Profile’s title screen. Here, among the usual assortment of options, are two titled Prologue and Opening Movie. Yep, that’s right, this is one game that doesn’t require you to wait for minutes on the title screen before being able to watch its opening. A subtle, and rather insignificant, but nevertheless convenient feature. The anime opening is very nice, even though it’s rather short, and shows the cast of characters and some fighting scenes. Afterward, the heart-wrenching prologue tells the tale of a young boy named Rucio and a girl named Platina. Living in a small village in the mountains, their relationship and cruel, tragic fate set the tone of the rest of the game.
Valkyrie Profile’s story is loosely based on Norse mythology. There are two main worlds in existence: Midgald, the earthly realm of humans and other beings under the control of Odin, the King of the Earth Gods, and Verhalla the city in Heaven where Odin and the fellow Earth Gods live, and where they control and manipulate the events happening on Midgald. The game’s story begins when Odin summons Renas Valkyrie, the Goddess of War, to his court in Verhalla. He and the Goddess of Life, Frei, explain to Valkyrie that they are about to engage in a war against the Van Gods, a rival race of divine beings. Valkyrie’s services are needed to gather the souls of warriors, known as Einferia, on Midgald who are worthy to fight in these heavenly wars. Frei decides to accompany her for the time being and the two teleport out of the palace, descending to the lower realm to begin their quest.
Once in Midgald, Valkyrie is free to fly around the world as she pleases and visit the many towns, but objectives are accomplished by using an ability known as Soul Concentration. It focuses her energy and allows her to locate the soul of an Einferia, pinpointing its location on the world map. Upon flying to that location, the game then engages in a long and poignant scene showing all the details of the character’s life, followed by their tragic death. Some of these scenes are among the most touching I’ve ever experienced in an RPG. Valkyrie then receives the character’s soul, which joins the party. There are a total of twenty-four characters that can be obtained in this manner, four of whom are hidden.
However, sometimes Soul Concentration directs Valkyrie and her party to a dungeon and not to a character. In this case, she must fly to the dungeon and battle her way through it. Dungeons are long series of flat, 2D maps, which Valkyrie can travel between by going east, west, south towards the screen, or north away from the screen. There is also no need to worry about not being able to find an exit, because a window with a green arrow appears every time you stand in front of one.
Dungeons are heavy in action and platform elements and require the use of Valkyrie’s many skills. The first of these is her Crystal. Pressing the square button will make Valkyrie throw a small crystal that travels a limited distance in front of her. If this crystal makes contact with a wall, ceiling, or other solid surface, it solidifies into a crystal that can be used as a platform. Crystals are generally fragile, though, and standing on one for an extended period of time will cause it to collapse. Therefore, shooting a crystal platform with another crystal will result in the formation of a larger, more stable crystal. Finally, shooting the large crystal another time will cause it to shatter and stardust will slowly float down. Jumping on this dust will create a temporary floating platform for Valkyrie to use. There are many other abilities the crystal allows for as well. Shattering a crystal that is directly next to you will result in Valkyrie being catapulted in the opposite direction, useful for getting up onto hard to reach platforms. Another important use it has is its ability to freeze enemies (which you can see on the screen, by the way) temporarily and avoid combat. Mastering the use of her crystal is vital to success in every one of the game’s dungeons.
Other skills that Valkyrie has include jumping, sliding, and even more importantly, using her sword, which is swung via pressing the circle button. Aside from slashing at crystals, you must always try to engage in battle by hitting an enemy with a sword slash. If you do so, Valkyrie’s party will get a preemptive strike. However, if you fail to hit the enemy with a sword slash before battle and merely walk into them, the enemy will get a free attack in before you do. This detail can bring great consequences if your characters are already weak.
Valkyrie Profile’s battle system is a fresh and unique one, as well as being complex. Your four-character party engages in battle in a diamond shaped formation. There are three strong attacking characters in the front and one weaker character, usually a mage or an archer, in the back. Each character in this diamond corresponds with the respective button on the controller. For example, Valkyrie usually leads the attack and is controlled with the square button, the other two attackers with the X and triangle buttons, and the mage with the circle button. Each character also, depending on the weapon that they have equipped, can strike the enemy a certain number of times, ranging from one to three. Pushing a character’s respective button will result in them running forward and performing a single attack. This works fine, but success in battle is highly dependent on combo attacks in which all your characters barrage the enemy with hits in a fluid sequence. Combo linking requires a great deal of practice and experimentation with different types of characters. Some enemies also have a skill known as Combo Guard, which allows them to block all the hits in a combo. In order to break through this line of defense, you generally need to hit the enemy in one area causing him to block, then strike him in another while he’s vulnerable. This is known as a Guard Crush.
Performing strong combos has many advantages. Enemies will only drop treasure and other items if hit with a successful combo. You can also knock items off of them called Mystic Gems. Each of these gems that you receive gives you a bonus 5% of the experience you receive from the battle. Building up the combo meter to 100 also allows your characters to execute special attacks, known as Ougi. Ougi attacks are very strong and often hit multiple times, which can result in the combo meter being raised back up to 100 again so that another character can use their ougi. The disadvantages to using these supreme assaults on the enemy is that your characters receive Charge Time, or CT. While they have CT, warriors cannot use ougi and mages cannot cast any spells, leaving your party fairly vulnerable. Fortunately, your characters will lose one point of CT every turn, and hitting an enemy with a good combo can also result in them dropping CT Gems, which also take a point of CT away from a character. As you can see, the basis of Valkyrie Profile’s battle system is timing and coordination.
At the end of each dungeon are special items known as Artifacts. Upon receiving an artifact, Valkyrie has the option of either sending it up to Odin, as he has ordered her to do so, or keeping it for herself. Keeping an artifact reduces your Estimated Worth, a statistic that begins at 100, by five points, while sending one up increases the value by 1 point. It is important to maintain a balance of artifacts that you keep and those that you send up, because letting the number drop too low will result in angering the gods and being subject to their wrath. Dungeon completion also yields bonus experience points, which you can allocate to any character or characters you choose, or save them for later.
Odin also requires that you transfer one character up to Heaven during every chapter of the game. The characters transferred must fit certain criteria that Frei outlines for you. The better the characters you transfer, the more Materialize Points (Valkyrie Profile’s currency) and artifacts you receive. If you decide not to transfer any characters, you will be given fewer materialize points and artifacts, and your estimated worth will drop as well.
Another important aspect of Valkyrie Profile’s gameplay is the time system. There are eight chapters in the game, each of which are broken into a number of periods. In Normal difficulty, there are twenty-four periods in a chapter, and every action you do in the world uses a certain number of periods. For example, using Valkyrie’s soul concentration takes two periods, visiting most towns takes one period, and dungeons usually take two periods. You can also rest on the world map from one to three periods, which will restore your characters’ Divine Material Energy (Valkyrie Profile’s version of HP) and revive fallen party members. Provided that you use them wisely, there are always enough periods to accomplish everything that you need to in a chapter, usually with several to spare for further exploration.
After all the periods in a chapter have been used, Frei summons you back to Heaven for what is known as a Sacred Phase. Sacred Phases occur between all chapters and are used to see the status of the wars in Heaven, as well as prepare for the next chapter. Valkyrie can monitor the progress of the Einferia she has transferred, as well as see how the Earth Gods are faring against the Van Gods and other races. It is also here that Frei rewards your efforts with Materialize Points and artifacts, as well as tells you the criteria for the following chapter’s Einferia to be transferred.
Many of Valkyrie Profile’s gameplay elements are similar to tri-Ace’s other games, such as Star Ocean: The Second Story. For those familiar with Star Ocean, Valkyrie Profile also uses the same Skill system. Skills are learned by reading books found in dungeons and are divided into four categories: Reaction, Support, Attack, and Status. When a character gains a level, along with experience, he also gains Capacity Points, which can be put into learning the variety of skills. Many skills only affect a character’s stats, while another may provide abilities in battle. Although a character may have a plethora of skills available, he can only have two reaction, one support, and one attack skill equipped in battle. Maximizing the efficiency of your characters and their skills is essential.
Valkyrie Profile also differs from many other RPGs in the aspect that there are no shops in which to purchase goods. Instead, all “shopping” is done on the world map or at save points through the main menu, using an option called “Divine Item”. Using the Materialize Points you receive at the end of every chapter, you can create a variety of weapons, armor, items and accessories. Items can also be “sold” by transferring them back into a lesser value of Materialize Points. Materialize Points can also be used to “transform” an item to one of an opposite quality. For example, it costs 5 MP to transform the spell “Reduce Power” into the spell “Reduce Guard”. Accessories such as the Transformation Gem and the High Transformation Gem allow for even more powerful transformations, and many of the strongest weapons and spells in the game can only be obtained in this manner.
Varying difficulty levels are also available in Valkyrie Profile. When starting a new game, you are allowed to choose between Easy, Normal, and Hard levels. There are also three endings to the game,
a bad ending, normal ending, and good ending. When playing on Easy, only the bad and normal endings are available, while you can get the good ending in Normal and Hard modes. There is also a bonus dungeon in Hard mode along with four hidden characters, as well as a pleasant surprise for players who have finished Star Ocean: The Second Story. Hard mode also has an almost entirely separate set of dungeons from Easy and Normal, adding a lot of replay value to the game.
Aesthetically, Valkyrie Profile’s graphics are truly beautiful. The character and enemy sprites are quite decent in size and animate fluidly. There are also large anime character portraits that appear during conversations and which convey a variety of poses and emotions. Backdrops are very scenic and vibrant. There were several places in the game where I stopped playing temporarily to admire the fine artwork and listen to the outstanding music.
The music in the game was composed by Motoi Sakuraba, also known for his work in, you guessed it, Star Ocean: The Second Story. It has very similar melodies to Star Ocean and maintains the same feeling.
The themes of battles and dungeons are appropriately upbeat, while the songs that play during tragic scenes of death are very emotional and somber. Sakuraba really captured the tone of the game in his powerful compositions.
While Valkyrie Profile was excellently done in many ways, one aspect I felt could have been improved on was control. Although it made great use of analog control and dual shock support, Valkyrie has limited control while airborne. There were several annoying occasions in which I would accidentally jump into, rather than over, an oncoming enemy. This is because the angle of her jumps can often be awkward and may take a little getting used to. Some areas also include insanely difficult platforms to reach, such as the treasure chests in the bell tower of the Golia Church, which require advanced use of the crystal and often result in frustration. However, these are very minor complaints in the broad scope of this game’s excellence.
Overall, Valkyrie Profile is one of the finest RPGs on the PlayStation. Enix and tri-Ace’s magnificent combination of unique, non-linear gameplay and a deeply touching story make it a must-play game. Its plot will take you on an emotional rollercoaster with its themes of love, betrayal, and fate. Highly recommended.