Valkyrie Profile is one of the most nontraditional games I’ve played recently. As with most anticipated games on my backlog, I went in with almost no knowledge, I’d only heard it was an action-style RPG, like Tales or Star Ocean. Of course, I also knew that it had some Norse mythology references, that the main character was a goddess, and I’d actually watched the bizarre opening scene some 7 years ago. As gameplay started, I was quite surprised to find out that it was a kind of side-scrolling RPG with a very unique battle system that’s not quite action-style, but not a traditional turn-based one, either. Furthermore, Valkyrie’s mission is to gather the souls of dead humans, not before the player witnessing their respective ends… Making it also a quite depressing game, even if Valkyrie is giving them “a second chance” – in reality, that is simply using their skills in the war between Aesir and Vanir, the war of the gods.
Game: Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth
Platform: PlayStation Portable
Release: 2006 (PSP remake)
Original release: 1999 (PlayStation)
Valkyrie Profile is a strange game, but with numerous merits. There is a good main storyline within it, but sadly it is a bit too well-hidden. Much as I hate needing to use a guide to beat a game I’m playing, I must thank Erunion from Backloggery who warned me that playing the game normally would merely earn me the “second best,” and non-canon ending. The particular sequence of actions required to get on the path to the best ending could only be discovered by a first-time player by pure chance, so I have to recommend that anyone starting this game consults a guide in order to see the best storyline. It is a story of gods, but not the almighty, flawless beings humans see, but rather ones who, much like humans themselves, would wage war between each other, not afraid to put even the whole world at risk in their quest for ultimate power. Aside from the story, Valkyrie Profile’s gameplay is also a great deal of fun, even if it takes some getting used to, as it’s so unlike any other RPG.
KNOW THE GODS AS ONE OF THEM
Valkyrie Profile tells the tale of Lenneth Valkyrie, a 6th rank goddess (yes, they have a strict hierarchy), who is sent by the almighty ruler of Valhalla Odin to gather Einherjar (human souls) from the human world of Midgard, who would then serve as soldiers in the war against the Vanir (race of ice giants that wages war against Valhalla). Before it all starts, though, there is an interesting opening scene about a young girl named Platina and her friend Lucian. I was reminded of Xenogears when the game began, as this opening scene seemingly had nothing to do with the story at hand. Nevertheless, like in Xenogears, you understand its significance eventually (although I must say it was much easier to guess early on in this case).
The Einherjar Valkyrie recruits retain their human form and abilities, and, once sent to Valhalla to fight in the war, they can even rank up in the Aesir hierarchy as they achieve certain feats. Lenneth’s mission seems simple and straightforward at first, but, if the player takes the right actions, soon more interesting details about Lenneth’s origin, the reasons for the war between Aesir and Vanir, the role of Midgard in the gods’ plans, etc. will be revealed. Taking those steps truly opens up the story and reveals its hidden strength. But if you just tread the path set before you by Odin and Freya, the game will be quite unfulfilling in the story aspect. Still, when evaluating the game, I must take into account the “canon” story branch.
One thing that must be emphasised in such a review is that Valkyrie Profile is a rather depressing game. For Valkyrie to get the chance to recruit an Einherjar, the human must have died first… And the game makes you witness to those people’s final moments (usually, they are slain in battle). As a rather sensitive person, I was feeling down quite a bit in my first 10-15 hours with the game, seeing all of my future battle partners first die as humans, often in quite heartbreaking circumstances. But at least, through those scenes, each of the people that can be recruited gets a little backstory, explaining their desires and motivations in their human lives. For all of them, Valkyrie’s offer to fight for Valhalla is a “second chance,” albeit not something that can remotely compensate their lost lives.
ONE GODDESS, MANY POWERFUL HUMANS
The cast of Valkyrie Profile is both a strength and a weakness. On one hand, there are quite a few interesting characters among the many you can recruit. On the other, because there are so many characters, a lot of them will be left out in the gameplay. And, once their story bits before Lenneth recruits them are over, that’s usually it. Still, this is not a Chrono Cross situation where all kinds of worthless people (and other creatures) join you for no good reason at all, and most of them don’t get more than a couple of lines of “development.” Each of the characters you recruit gets a rather long backstory cutscene (or series of cutscenes), and some of them even appear on multiple occasions, for instance, somebody dies and you recruit him/her, and a few hours later in the game the turn of his friend, his love interest, or even his enemy to become Einherjar comes.
Nevertheless, the main cast of the game is decisively strong. Of course, it’s not quite on the level of the best RPGs in history, but the major characters are fleshed-out very well. Lenneth Valkyrie, the protagonist, gets the most screen time. Before all, she is a goddess, and she acts like it. Her voice actress really does her justice. Her voice comes off as cold, in her communication with some of the future Einherjar she’s about to recruit, even if she understands their tragedy, she still acts from the height of her position as a goddess. She calmly explains the situation to them and why their best option is to join her. She is loyal to Lord Odin and wants to succeed in her mission to help Valhalla win the war of the gods. The player has the chance to uncover a whole lot more about her on the “canon ending” path.
Many gods and other great figures known from Norse mythology participate in the game – Freya, Thor, Loki, Ull, Eir, Surt… Freya is Odin’s right hand, and the one who gives Valkyrie orders and assesses her performance between chapters (the game is split in 8 chapters, each of them containing 24 “periods,” which are units of time used when visiting locations. At the end of the 8th period, Ragnarok is to begin). She also teaches Valkyrie the basics in the very beginning of the game, which serves as a tutorial. Once your Einherjar have been sent to Valhalla and fighting against the Vanir, they’ll occasionally have exchanges with some of the other gods that you can watch.
But, at the end, it’s the interesting people and their tragic tales that truly make this game… The ruthless warrior Arngrim (the first human Valkyrie gets to recruit, and something like a right hand for her until the end of the game), the fearless Japanese (the land is called “Yamato” in the game, but it’s quite obvious what the analogy is) samurai Jun and Suo, the conceited princess Jelanda, the lying thief Badrach, the powerful mage Mystina, mystthe kind-hearted Belenus, the innocent young Llewelyn, sent to war by his militaristic government right after he gets together with his first love… Of course, Lucian, an honest man forced to live a dishonest life by the circumstances. But also Lezard Valeth, the talented, but heartless mage who will stop at nothing to achieve his goals.
It’s truly remarkable how many of Valkyrie’s recruits manage to get you attached to them despite the short on-screen time they get, story-wise. That’s because, while short, those backstory bits are written very well and can strike a chord in the player’s heart. The tragedy of human death and the meaninglessness of human life when put into the perspective of war between the mighty gods make the game a rather depressing experience, but still a bittersweet one due to how well it all is presented.
UNCONVENTIONAL, BUT ENTERTAINING GAMEPLAY
At about 40 hours, Valkyrie Profile is more or less the standard length for a JRPG of the PlayStation era. But it offers very unconventional gameplay for an RPG, much like the previous PlayStation game I reviewed, Vagrant Story. The overworld is simply Valkyrie flying over the world of Midgard, the human world, and picking a destination to land into. It’s a unique approach, and one that works very well – on one hand, you can’t be caught in a random encounter as you travel between locations, on the other, it’s not the ridiculous automatic movement between dots on the map like in Final Fantasy X. It’s win-win, as it’s both tangible (rather than “teleportation”) and safe movement. At any time, you can activate Valkyrie’s “spiritual concentration,” which will show you your next location – a town or a dungeon. Still, you’re not obligated to visit that place right away or even ever – you just receive a hint that going in that place will result in recruiting a character (if it’s a town) or, respectively, fighting in a dungeon.
Once you pick a location, you enter a fully 2D side-scrolling mode. You can move back and forward, you can jump, climb stairs (when they’re present), enter buildings (in towns) or move between screens (in dungeons), etc. You also see your enemies on the screen before you enter a battle. Valkyrie can do a few more interesting things in this mode – slash with her sword, which starts a battle and gives you incentive in it, if used against an enemy (just bumping into an enemy means they’ll either strike first or, at best, you won’t be able to attack at full potential), shoot a short-range crystal which allows you to climb walls or reach high places, or slide on the ground, which can be used to go through low passages.
Battles are a main reason why Valkyrie Profile is so unconventional – they are turn-based, but with a little real-time twist. Your party and the enemies take turns attacking. However, when it’s your turn, you can choose with which character to attack. Your party usually consists of four, and each of the four main buttons means attacking with the character in the respective position (conveniently, your battle formation is also in the shape of a diamond). If you chain enough successful hits, a “special” meter goes up, and, if it reaches 100, you can unleash the special attack of each of the characters that participated in the combo. Those moves are quite flashy and powerful, especially Valkyrie’s Nibelung Valesti (which goes through three different forms through the course of the game, each adding more damage to the previous) and Arngrim’s Final Blast. The weaker enemies get obliterated by 1-2 of these after the normal chain of attacks, meaning you can usually finish an enemy off in a single turn.
Boss battles are usually considerably tougher than regular ones, although there are exceptions. The final stretch’s bosses are accordingly hard. There are also some nasty difficulty spikes, most notably Lezard Valeth’s tower where even normal enemies can easily obliterate your party unless you’re very careful and apply good tactics and/or take the time to level up. A couple of enemy types appearing at different points in the game can also catch you off-guard, suddenly destroying you right after you smashed tens of foes in the same dungeon with ease.
Some of the characters possess the ability to use magic. That makes them a good deal different from swordsmen and archers (Valkyrie alone can use both swords and bows). Mages require more charging time on average, so they miss a few turns after performing offensive magic (healing/stat boosting/stat reducing magic usually requires less recovery time). However, there are equippable items that can reduce charging time and make mages more useful. The different weapons available have different characteristics, and some allow you to attack more than once per turn (usually at the cost of the attacks doing less damage). It’s not possible to launch more than one magic attack per turn, however.
“Materialise Points” are the game’s currency, used to buy weapons, equipment and items via the “Divine Item” option in the menu screen. They are granted to Lenneth by Freya between chapters, depending on how well she’s doing. Lenneth’s Evaluation is an important statistic, it signifies how appreciated her work is by Odin and Freya. If it drops too low, you’ll be in trouble. As for the human characters, it’s important to have a high Hero value for them before sending them to Valhalla. The higher it is, the better they’ll do in the war. Aside from leveling up and getting stronger, it can be increased by improving some of their personality traits by using Skill Points in a special menu screen.
The game also offers the ability to control your characters’ growth to a certain extent – executing some events in dungeons gives you experience points to distribute among anyone in your party. But the main source of leveling up is just battling. The aforementioned Skill Points are the more important aspect of controlling your character’s abilities yourself. There are certain pre-existing abilities you can improve by spending those, like Fight, Tactics, Leadership, Resist Damage, etc. There are also other abilities that you can unlock by finding and using certain tomes. Some of those are class-specific – only swordsmen/archers/mages can use them. Through tomes, you can also unlock various magic spells to teach your mages.
PRETTY ENVIRONMENTS, FITTING MUSIC
Valkyrie Profile is sprite-based, like some of the finest PlayStation games. The sprites are big, beautiful and quite detailed. Valkyrie’s Nibelung Valesti animation, for instance, is quite unforgettable, and signature of the game’s sprite work. The Lenneth (PSP) version offers CG 3D-animated scenes that are really beautiful. The town and dungeon environments are also quite pretty (one complaint with the towns is that there are too few buildings you can enter). Dungeons are usually true to one particular theme, but with enough variation to be aestetichally pleasing. The only big black spot, as far as looks go, is the incredibly bland final “dungeon,” I don’t know if the deadline was tight, or they were trying to make a point, or something. It was just strange.
The soundtrack by Motoi Sakuraba is quite solid, if nothing exceptional in comparison to the finest of the era. There are a handful of really memorable tunes (I added two to my music playlist). While most are rather forgettable, they are still nice to listen to, and they fit the game’s atmosphere nicely. My favourite song plays during some of the most emotional moments in the story. It’s called “Behave Irrationally”.
ONE OF THE TOP PLAYSTATION RPGS
I won’t be the first, nor the last to say that the first PlayStation is an absolute heaven for RPGs. And Valkyrie Profile is not merely another one of them – it’s right up there with the best. It’s a memorable experience, a fascinating story about gods, humans and their interactions, and home to a very diverse and likable cast of characters – from the righteous Lenneth to the evil Lezard. The gameplay is very unique and takes some getting used to, but, once you get the hang of it, it’s quite fun. The game allows for tactical freedom in battles and offers a lot of customisation options for the characters. The only big downside is that it is unlikely you get the best ending on your first playthrough, unless you use a guide. Still, I recommend Valkyrie Profile to all JRPG fans.
FINAL SCORE: 8.5/10