Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth Review
Fresh off their work on the macroscopic Star Ocean 2, the innovative Enix subsidiary development house called Tri-Ace wants to try something new. An incredible risk in any market - let alone the style-obsessive RPG market whose love of spiky-haired femme boys is quickly outstripping our love of the bald space marine - their project is miraculously given the go ahead. Tri-Ace takes a heaping spoonful of Nordic mythology, adds some Super Mario Bros., a dash of female empowerment, and sets it all on a timer for about 200 years. Literally. Part of Valkyrie Profile's charm is its dedication to new ideas - you've got 200 "periods" until the end of the world and if you haven't assembled your dream team in time for Ragnarok, then you're SOL. Anyway, back to the history lesson...
Profile hits the shelves in Japan and does fairly well for itself (600,000+ copies), enough to push an eventual, if somewhat belated, sequel that came out earlier this year subtitled "Silmeria." But here, with a lack of aplomb or commercial appeal, it fails to breach even 75k. So few discs are manufactured that even those few who want it (likely those who knew about it ahead of time) have a hard time finding a copy. Good impressions and reviews make their rounds, but no market impact relegates the game to the dusty shelves of the die hard.
That is, until eBay comes knockin' on heavens door. It isn't quite the rise of the phoenix, but Valkyrie Profile is quickly pushing top dollar on the auction site and it has continued for seven years since. Until now that is, because some kind soul has seen fit to republish the legendary RPG on the Playstation Portable with a few tweaks to round out the package. Or maybe it was just some higher-ups at Square-Enix attempting to drum up anticipation for Silmeria's US release in September. Either way, we end up with a revival of one of the greatest and most interesting role-players to come out of the land of 32-bit and every gamer with a PSP is better for it!
The past is important for understanding where Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth stands today, but it's also prudent to talk about the game proper for all those who failed to play it the first time around. As a Goddess of Battle and one of the three who determines the fate of fallen souls, it's Valkyrie's job to find heroes from the human world with the right stuff to lead a holy war on the plains of Valhalla. In order to do this, you've got to recruit the recently dead, build up their stats, and eventually ship them off to Lord Odin. It's not that simple, though, because Odin wants powerful warriors who not only possess strength, but the candor and leadership of a true hero. In the process of leveling your Einherjar (as they're called), you need to consider their equipment, their personality traits, and battle skills. The latter two can be modified by points you obtain from leveling a particular character. In this sense, Valkyrie Profile shifts the focus from that of a traditional RPG to one where the absolute final battle must always be considered in every action you take. This is all under the dark cloud of the approaching storm as each time you enter a town or a dungeon, you spend more of your available periods. The clock is, essentially, always ticking, requiring you to be two steps ahead of your current situation. It's part of the unique strategy employed by Tri-Ace to set Valkyrie Profile apart from the rest of its ilk.
That's not to devalue the Einherjar as individuals, though. Any time you use Lenneth's power to seek out souls on the edge of oblivion, you'll be treated to a series of cutscenes relaying their melancholic tales. Though the middling quality of the voice acting and translation (mostly leftover from the PSX version) dilutes the impact somewhat, these are stories told with a keen emotional edge that rarely, if ever, descend into wrist-slashing melodrama. Magic and strange creatures aside, Midgard is full of people who make sacrifices for their loved ones or feel their heartstrings plucked by the plight of the unfortunate. Even Lenneth has her own mysterious past to discover.
It's a demure world of silent beauty - brilliant rays of virtue shining through the dim, medieval-gray tones of Midgard. Nowhere does this show better than in the game's artistic style. With the overworld as the only exception, the entire game is played on a traditional 2D plane, which lends itself to elaborate scrolling backgrounds and beautifully animated sprites. For a seven-year-old PSX port, it's one of the best-looking games in the PSP's library. In a few cases, things had to be reformatted, leaving them over-stretched for the portable's wide screen (one obvious example is the camp menu), but when this isn't the case, the extra visibility helps open up the environments even more.
Of course, it's more than just pretty to look at - the use of two dimensions is also functional. Dungeons are constructed around classic platforming principles. You won't necessarily find bottomless pits or strategic jump-a-thons; rather, this is a way of introducing some fun and interactive mechanics while making platform puzzles out of obtaining special items. Oh, and you can see enemies in the dungeon at all times, meaning no random battles.
When you do find yourself in a bit of a scrap (and you should so you can level up!), the first thing you'll notice is that, like so many other aspects of Valkyrie Profile, it's a little different and a lot of fun. Instead of popping up a menu or having to take turns, Tri-Ace adopted a little bit of Star Ocean's real-time battle engine while adding a way to actively control all characters at once. Each of your four party members is mapped to a face button and you simply hit the corresponding button when you want them to attack. On the surface, it seems horribly simplistic, but the deep level of strategy quickly reveals itself. It's still turn-based in the sense that your characters and the enemies attack in different phases, but it's real-time because each technique has its own special properties and timing issues. If you want to deal massive damage, you'll have to execute each character's attack at the correct point. For instance, some enemies can guard against combos, so you'll have to have enough characters impacting it in order to break its shield by having them all strike at one time. Once the guard is broken (or just before it, depending on the length of time it takes the character to attack), send in your most powerful ally to mop up. Timing, character strength, and attack properties all need to be taken into account when planning your battle strategy. All of this happens relatively fast, making it far more engaging than your standard RPG fight.
There's a lot to learn in Valkyrie Profile, certainly much more than I've outlined here. In that sense, it may be just a tad too esoteric for some people to stick with. Though I've since played the game through to completion a couple times, I remember when I first picked it up and became frustrated about halfway through the second chapter. The game doesn't hold your hand very often and it's easy to become paranoid that you made the wrong decision early on meaning that you might not do as well when you get to the final battle. "Did I level my Einherjar enough?" or "What if I sent up the wrong character too early?" These are some of the questions you might be asking yourself and with the timer ticking down to Armageddon, it only adds to the anxiety. Valkyrie Profile isn't for everybody, but it's a generally well-crafted game that's deserving of your money if you even remotely think you might like it.
For those that have played it before, it remains as engaging as ever and now you can take it with you wherever you go. The PSP edition boasts new cutscenes (and they are quite nice), some slightly redone music, and several other tweaks here and there. Loading is a bit of a mixed bag - honestly quite good in most cases, but certain actions like accessing the camp menu seem to take longer than they realistically should. None of this changes what was a fantastic game in the first place and it's worth picking up and playing through again in anticipation for the prequel Silmeria in just a couple months time.
7/21/2006 Cavin Smith