Saturday, December 27, 2014

I Declare You to be Living Impaired: The Ballad of Valkyrie Profile

You've gotta hand it to the Animaniacs... they could frustrate anyone into lip-quivering submission, from a thinly disguised Sam Donaldson to Death himself. I still never figured out why the Reaper sounded so Swedish in that episode, though...

Holy crap, it's a female lead character in a
video game! And she's fully dressed!
Anyway! One of the PSP games I bought a few weeks ago that didn't get mentioned in my big pile 'o reviews was Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth. Frankly, I didn't think a glib paragraph-long summary would do it justice. Fourteen hopelessly addicted hours later, I'm certain of it. 

Normally, I'm not a fan of RPGs... I just don't have the attention span for them. However, on rare occasions, something will come along that reaches beyond the boundaries of the genre and grabs me by the throat for a couple of weeks. Something like Panzer Dragoon Saga, or Suikoden and its sequel, or, well, Valkyrie Profile.

Here comes the pain! 
I didn't know much about this game when it was first released for the PSOne back in 2000... just that the death blows were called "Purify Weird Souls," a term which aspires to the heights of Shakespearean lore but ends up crashing headfirst into the Japanese/English language barrier. Silly as the title may be, Purify Weird Souls is the compelling hook in Valkyrie Profile's combat system, and one of the many ways the game distances itself from the status quo of Japanese RPGs.

See, each character in your party- from swarthy swordsmen to demure mystics to designate leader Lenneth- is assigned one of the face buttons on the Playstation controller. Each hero springs into action with a tap of a key, limiting the need for boring menus and ending fights almost as quickly as they started. Beyond that, the members of your party can attack a single enemy en masse, breaking their guard and opening the door to devastating combos. 

String enough attacks together and you'll be able to perform a coup de grace which brings down all but the hardiest foes. You can even chain together each of your characters' Purify Weird Souls attacks, turning an already defeated monster into a thoroughly beaten dead horse. There's not much point in going Shazzang on the easily dispatched creatures early in the game, but in later chapters, you'll need every ounce of power you can squeeze out of your characters to defeat the harpies, dark knights, and Iori Yagami-ish vampires that stand in their way.

And how will you recruit these heroes? The same way you usually do in these games... by finding them. After they die. Okay, that part's new! Lenneth's a Valkyrie, and only picks allies who are past their expiration dates. She scours the countryside, listening for the dying gasps of worthy warriors, then invites them to fight alongside her in the afterlife. The best of these soldiers will even get a free trip to Valhalla to clash with Loki and the Vanir army. Choose wisely... the fate of the world depends on it!

Unlike the Suikoden games, new party members are handed to you on a silver platter. You just have to meditate to find them, then fly across a beautifully rendered landscape to their current location. Since most of the work is done for you, you can sit back and enjoy each character's dramatic and surprisingly detailed introduction. These stories don't always have as much impact as they should thanks to shaky scripts and miscast voice actors, but they nevertheless go a long way toward humanizing the cast and fleshing out the storyline.

Sharpen your blades... the enemies
just get more vicious as you progress.
It's clear developer Tri-Ace put just as much effort into Valkyrie Profile's graphics as it had its characters. Much of the game is seen from a side view, with brilliantly drawn characters set against backgrounds that are low on vibrant color but overflowing with ambiance. Lenneth sets foot in everything from opulent kingdoms to ramshackle ghost towns, along with over a dozen spine-tingling dungeons. Your first thought when you visit the Cave of Oblivion, with its gooey strands of spider web stretching from floor to ceiling, will probably be "How the hell do I get out of this place?" (You'd better listen to your gut on this one... the cave is teeming with the game's most dangerous monsters!)

There are just two problems with Valkyrie Profile. The first is that the game engine feels slightly wonky, with running and especially jumping lacking the fluid grace you'd expect from a Nordic goddess. The second is that the game is complex, even obtuse at times. You'll play for hours before you understand how some of the mechanics work, and it's entirely too easy to leave your fighters unprepared for battle because you forgot to switch on their skills, or boost their personality traits, or equip them with an important item they'll need to win fights in Valhalla. Even the seemingly simple combat system can leave you overwhelmed because the infinite combinations of weapons and characters can bring a lot of guesswork to the Purify Weird Souls attacks. Expect some initial frustration and a few paper cuts from leafing through the official strategy guide.

It may be as dense as a lead brick, but it's hard to ignore the defiant creativity of Valkyrie Profile. You won't find a single Japanese RPG that plays like it... and after a quarter century of games stubbornly stuck to the Dragon Quest template, that's a huge relief.

(images culled from multiple online sources) 


  1. Ah, I've been curious about this one--both the PS1 original and this version--for ages now. Sounds like it's worth picking up! (I'll go with the PSP version, as the PS1 original is pricey these days--of course.) I don't suppose you've played the DS sequel?

    1. Don't know if I've played that one, but reviews indicate that it's a Tactics game, with tenuous connections to the main series. I'd skip it until you've tried the PSP version.

    2. Ah, that's too bad. That it's a Tactics type of game, I mean. Also, a bit of research suggests its art style is nowhere near as nice as the PS1/PSP versions. Oh, well. All that said, I can't help but wish the PS1 version were cheaper these days. Complete copies on eBay go for more than $100--compared to the PSP version, which goes for about $12 new. Ugh. Not that I have anything against playing it on my PSP, mind you, but I'd probably prefer to play it on my PS1 + monitor. Again: oh, well!

    3. Well, if it's any consolation, you can play it on a TV set using composite cables. The PSP-3000 lets you do that; just one of its many amenities. I do understand how you feel, though. The game was designed for the big screen and would likely be more exciting that way.