Note: This review is based on the Japanese version of the game.
Next to Star Ocean, Valkyrie Profile is tri-Ace’s most beloved series among RPG fans. Challenging, innovative gameplay combines with a uniquely mature and original story to create some of the most memorable games around. They hope to continue this tradition with the series’ third installment, Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume, which brings the land of Midgard to the Nintendo DS in the first game in the series to be designed specifically for a handheld. So how did that work out for tri-Ace? Not too bad, I’d say. Assuming that you need some more detail, I have considerately added a few bits below.
CotP is an interesting blend of traditional SRPG style gameplay and the distinctive, action-packed turn-based combat of the Valkyrie Profile series. The game progresses like most SRPG’s with story sequences and breaks between battles for shopping and customizing characters. Adding to the game’s difficulty, the number of battles is fixed, meaning there are no chances for incessant level grinding. There are, however, optional battles that can be found by listening to rumors at taverns in various villages. They provide an occasional opportunity to boost your character’s stats a bit, but these opportunities are hardly numerous.
During battle, when one unit engages another, the screen shifts to a separate combat screen where characters exchange blows. This is where things start to feel like Valkyrie Profile. Characters are assigned to specific buttons, and timing, juggling, and stunning all play important factors into maximixing damage. You will want to take enemies out in as few turns as possible, since every encounter includes a counter-attack opportunity if the enemy is not stunned. Cause enough damage to fill up the battle gauge, and your characters can use spectacular attacks called soul crushes. Like the earlier games, these attacks will depend on the weapons you equip, and they can be chained if the soul crush attack refills the battle gauge.
There are two really neat features that add strategic depth to the game. Firstly, you can gain a variety of bonuses such as a beneficial status, extra experience, and extra damage by setting your characters up in specific formations around enemies. The most powerful of these is the grand cross, which is all four characters surrounding a single enemy on one side. Using formations can drastically improve your characters’ stats and make battles more profitable. Secondly, characters can attack multiple times in one round if they remain in range of an enemy being attacked by another character.
Counter-attacks can make it costly to send a single character to combat an enemy. By moving characters into range and ending their turn, you can set up a formation, have your last character attack, and everyone else will join in, allowing you to obliterate the enemy, avoid counters, obtain extra crystals for experience, and use soul crushes to maximize karma gains.
What’s karma you say? I’m glad you asked. Karma is the stock and trade of the underworld’s Queen Hel, and each battle requires you to obtain a specific amount of it by “overkilling” enemies. The challenge added by this requirement is significant, as it will dictate the priority of enemies and which characters you use to attack them. Often, you will need to chain soul crushes or use formations to obtain the maximum 100 karma points from an overkilled enemy. The more karma you get, the better rewards you will receive at the end of battle. Fail to meet the karma requirements, and you will be punished with an extra, super-powerful enemy in the next battle. This effect can stack over multiple battles, so repeated failure can make the game virtually impossible.
The most dramatic and interesting gameplay feature is, without a doubt, the goddess feather. You will receive this early in the game, and you can make a party member attain god-like power instantly by using it. We’re talking stats that get boosted by a factor of ten, so your archer with 2000 hp and 300 ATK, is now…well, you can do the math. The catch is that at the end of the battle that character will die. Permanently. This will change the story and difficulty of the game significantly.
Valkyrie Profile DS offers multiple pathways, beginning mainly in Chapter two, when you have a choice of three different destinations. The locations represent easy, medium, and hard paths through the game, and will determine which characters you can recruit. Along with this, the main character learns extremely powerful battle skills with each use of the goddess feather. For example, use it on a certain character, and not only will they become super-powerful and win the fight for you, but they may leave you with an ability that allows you to paralyze every enemy on the field for three full turns. Finally, enemy AI is pretty dumb. They have zero aggression and will usually sit back and wait for you to get in range. There were numerous battles where I was outnumbered and outgunned that the enemy could have won by just being a bit more assertive. Yet I could almost always win merely by keeping characters just barely out of range, and surrounding one unit at a time.
Add all of this up, and you have a game that can suit most SRPG players regardless of skill, but will still frustrate. If you want an easy game, use the goddess feather a lot and take the easier path. After a couple of uses, you will likely have abilities that can turn even the trickiest fight into a cakewalk and thus you will not need to use the feather any longer. If you want a challenging game, try to win without using the feather even once and take the hardest path. This was the path I took on my first playthrough. It was very tough, and I do not recommend it for people unfamiliar with SRPGs, but it does lead to a unique ending. There are battles that seem virtually impossible without feather abilities, particularly an encounter in chapter three. I had to save a character who was so far away from my units that it took two turns to reach her while the enemies could always kill her on the first turn. There is also a new game+ feature that allows you to start from the beginning with all of your abilities (including goddess feather skills) but none of your experience. This allows people to beat the game without using the feather if doing so on a regular new game is too difficult. Generally speaking, battles often feel either too easy or too hard, and for me it seemed like the former was a bigger issue. Still, I give the game credit for having such flexibility and integrating the challenge into the story the way it does. CotP is similar to Breath of Fire V in this way.
All in all, CotP plays very well and manages to mix the vibe of Valkyrie Profile with that of a traditional isometric SRPG. Shoddy AI and unbalanced difficulty are blotches on an otherwise interesting system.
While far from envelope-pushing, CotP is a decent-looking game. I loved the style of character portraits. The series has always maintained its own look distinct from traditional anime-esque JRPG’s. Soul crush animations are a hoot, though you’ll probably start skipping them after a while. Stages are usually multi-tiered, of an average size (a bit bigger than FF Tactics), but not particularly detailed or attractive. There are also a number of excellent FMV scenes.
Graphically, CotP is as good as any DS SRPG, but it is certainly not the sort of game you would buy for its looks.
CotP has great sound effects and top-notch voice work. The percussive and rich sounds of sword strikes and magic blasts will make enemy encounters thoroughly enjoyable. The voice acting is surprisingly subtle and affecting. Every recruitable character conveys a unique personality, thanks partly to good scenario writing, but equally due to some considered voice work. Will and Eris are consistently good, and the knight Gendal has some funny lines after using his soul crush.
Where the game falls flat is in the music department. 90% of the songs are DS versions of tracks from Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth. In one sense, this is probably the biggest compliment one could give, since the first VP game had an excellent soundtrack. Nevertheless, the DS cannot do these songs justice. Most especially, the battle songs lose a lot of their synthy dramatic orchestrated goodness and feel like they were done on Mario Paint. The fact that these are rearrangements of good songs makes it worse. More original music would have been nice, or at least better instrumentation and production.
Taking on the role of a young adult named Willfred, your goal is to get revenge against the Valkyrie Lenneth, who took your father Theodor’s soul to Valhalla. It is unclear at first why Will blames the Valkyrie, since Lenneth did not actually kill Theodor, but as the story unfolds, we begin to see his logic. The unambiguous theme of the game is the senselessness of war. Will is rebelling not against the Valkyrie, but rather the entire ideology of glorified war and “honorable” death in battle.
Whereas the first Valkyrie Profile usually presented Lenneth’s work in a positive light, stressing the virtues of those she chose, this game shows the aftermath of Theodor’s departure in dark story sequences. We see the family’s struggles without the father, the death of Will’s sister due to malnutrition, and his mother’s delusion, as she believes that Will is actually Theodor. It is more than a little heart wrenching to watch, and Will’s anger and frustration gradually become palpable.
What makes Will unique is his amorality. In his quest for vengeance, he meets Hel, queen of the underworld, who promises to aid him in his quest. She gives Will the goddess feather and tells him that by accumulating enough sin, he can summon Lenneth and become powerful enough to defeat her. As explained above, the feather significantly affects gameplay, but it also alters both the story and Will’s personality. Set during a succession crisis between two brothers, both of whom seek to become king, Will fights as a mercenary generally indifferent to the politics of the day. Whether you help one brother, the other, or neither will depend on your choices. There are multiple “bad” endings, which I will not spoil here. I will only say that they call to mind terms like “Shakespearean Tragedy” and “bitter irony.” It is, for the most part, a good and depressing tale with the comedy of the Seraphic Gate to lift your spirits should you be talented enough to meet the conditions necessary to unlock it.
No two runs through the game are exactly the same, and there are four endings to see. Seeing all of the different characters and endings isn’t terribly time consuming either, as CotP is the shortest RPG I’ve played all year. Getting to most of the endings takes about ten hours, with one available in just five. You can beat the game on a long bus ride and see every path and character in under 30 hours. Quite suitable for a handheld, says I.
Continuing my tradition of not writing very much in this section, I will just say that the one thing I really like is that the game does not contrive any forced use of DS functionality. I did everything there is to do in the game without taking my stylus out or touching the screen once. Other than that, the game is responsive and plays like most SRPG’s, and really did not present any problems, nor anything that stands out as praiseworthy.
CotP is the worst game in the Valkyrie Profile series, but it is definitely my favorite SRPG on the DS. It’s much darker and more interesting than Revenant Wings or FF Tactics A2, and generally a more satisfying game. That said, the unimpressive AI put a sour note on the experience. A simple “hard mode” would have helped the difficulty level issues, and the feather abilities also drastically cut the challenge. The less-than-stellar music does not help either. In spite of these flaws, CotP is hard to put down given the fun combat, refreshingly short playtime, and strong replay value thanks to a large cast, multiple endings, and the fantastic and funny Seraphic Gate (for my money, the most fun part of the game). Valkyrie Profile and RPG fans of all stripes will get a kick out if it.