Valkyrie Profile

Many of the older console RPGs becoming rare and hard to find items serving only to make it difficult to look back on their history and experience what these titles had to offer players. We can only hope that some of these older titles will be republished sometime in the future, but this seems more and more doubtful as business models continue to concentrate more on future commercial successes than on resurrecting older installments or unique titles that failed to sell well enough to create sequels of their own. As a result, Ebay, friends, yard sales, or scouring the used bins at local game stores have become the only means of attaining these rare titles. Some of the titles that fall into this category include Radiant Silvergun, Panzer Dragoon Saga, and Rez among others…titles remarked upon for unique and dramatic game design limited only by their availability. While they might not be commercial successes, they stand out as remarkable pieces of gaming that make as much a statement about the creativity of their designers as they do with the unique experiences they impart on the players.

In catching up with all of the RPGs that I had missed out on in the past along with those saved from used game bins everywhere else, I finally caught up with Valkyrie Profile. I had managed to snag a copy at a decent price quite some time ago and had only managed to find time to sit down and play through it recently.

Valkyrie Profile is an RPG by Tri Ace, published by Enix for the PS1. It has also been republished for Sony’s PSP.

Come to Me, My Einherjar!

While borrowing liberally from Norse mythology in terms of names and certain places, you won’t need to have read the epics in order to appreciate the game as Tri Ace has taken creative license with everything here.

Valkyrie Profile starts out tragically enough with the death of a young girl as she tries to escape being sold into slavery by her parents. The young boy that attempts to save her cries out as she dies amidst a field of flowers as the game fades out to begin. Make no mistake, Valkyrie Profile is a story of tragedy and sorrow as you play the part of a goddess who chooses the worthy from the dead to fight in the war leading to Ragnarok. When the introduction picks up again, you are now in the role of Lenneth Valkyrie whose task it is to wander the world and select those worthy enough to have a second chance.

Called Einherjar (ayn – HAIR – ree – ar), these warriors will become her traveling companions while adventuring on Midgard. But the time will come when she must make a decision to send them one at a time to the war raging in Valhalla.

There is another story underlying this one… What happened to the girl that died that day? Is there some trace of the past left in who Valkyrie is now?

War of the Gods

So where to start? Be sure to set aside some time when you begin the game as it can easily go to nearly half an hour before you are able to save. There is quite a bit of introductory exposition that takes you through what is expected of you as well as how to achieve what you need to do on Midgard…the world of mortals. Freya will take you through the basics of finding a soul and in getting them ready for Valhalla. As Lenneth Valkyrie, you’ve got a variety of powers and special abilities allowing you to pursue your morbid career of picking and choosing from the dead. By using ‘Concentration’, you will hear bits and snippets from the last moments of the dying and their location will be marked on the map for you to follow. It will also point out dungeons that you can enter and explore.

You are also questing on borrowed time. The game spans eight chapters before the final battle begins at Ragnarok. Those chapters are divided further into ‘periods’, think of them as general ‘movement points’, which are spent whenever you perform an action on the overhead map such as entering one of the locations in Midgard or performing a concentration to find the next soul or dungeon. At the end of these chapters, you will review the progress of the war in Valhalla as well as check on how well your Einherjar are doing. At the end of the final chapter, Ragnarok arrives and the final battle…whatever form it may take…will commence.

When you have found a soul, their location is marked on the map. When you arrive at the location, a brief description of the site comes up along with how many ‘periods’ the trip down will take. Once you decide to take the dive down to Midgard, the tragedy of that person’s death begins to unfold onscreen in the story that tells itself. At a key moment, Valkyrie will appear and make her offer…or save the soul in question from a fate worse than death.

Now that you have a new party member, it’s up to you to develop them as best as you can. When you view them in the party management screen, you will see a laundry list of skills and abilities that you can spend Capacity Points, or CP, on. These are earned every time they achieve a new level. To make things more challenging, not every soul that you recover will start at a consistent level of experience with all of their skills starting as a blank slate. Some might start out high which is good since it also means that they will have some CP to spend and have enough “Divine Materialize Energy”, or DME (hitpoints), to survive more than one blast from a powerful foe. Others will start out low, meaning that they will have to undergo some special attention to get them up to speed. You’re not only developing these characters to help build up a decent party to survive the challenges ahead, but you are also cultivating warriors and leaders that can help shape the war in Valhalla against the Vanir.

What does this mean? To help wage the war in Valhalla, you need to send those of your party that are best able to survive the challenges there. You can only send a maximum of two in any chapter, but deciding who to send and who to keep are important points to keep in mind. As the manual points out, keeping the strongest members for yourself may make things easier to handle on Midgard but fail to bring in the victories needed in Odin’s war.

Fortunately, you are not left completely in the dark as to what you have to do. In addition to Valkyrie’s ‘Concentration’ skill to find souls, you will also be using it to discover dungeons that are filled with dangers and treasures. Here, you can ‘train’ your Einherjrar as you fight the monsters and meet the challenges alongside them. There are no random encounters in the game, no surprises to greet you on your way out of the dungeon. If you can see it, odds are very good that you can avoid it…or fight it. In addition to this, you also have an ‘Experience Orb’ that collects special experience points awarded at events such as figuring out puzzles or completing dungeons. You can dole out these points to anyone in your party especially those that are lagging far behind the others.

Freya will also report out to you at the start of each chapter as to what Valhalla may need in terms of heroes. She will give you the particular values that Valhalla will be looking for in the next chapter (Must be brave, have a high “Hit” skill, be a swordsman, etc..) which helps to allow you to concentrate on developing those in your party that best fit. Every soul you have in your party is also graded by what is called a “Hero Value” depending on their levels and attributes. Freya will set a certain minimum that must be reached or exceeded in addition to the other attributes and skills that she is looking out for. You can send heroes up to Valhalla with low Hero Values but they run the risk of being more of a hinderance than as a valuable aid in the war.

Let’s fast forward to the end of a chapter. After you’ve decided who to send up before you run out of periods in your current chapter, it’s time to see how the war is doing. When the chapter concludes, the “Sacred Phase” begins in which Freya briefs you on the situation in Valhalla. You’ll get to see the status of the Aesir (your side) versus that of the Vanir as well as another faction labeled only as ‘Other’. You can also read up on the reports and view special events that have taken place with the heroes that you have sent ot Valhalla, tracking their progress (or lack thereof) and value in the war against the Vanir. Some of the gods may approach your Einherjar, or your Einherjar may fail in critical missions…it’s all reported out in case you are curious about your former comrades. Unlike a title such as Suikoden where you can direct the course of the battle events in the game with your party members, you can’t take control of your heroes once they are sent to Valhalla. They’re on their own with only the skills you’ve developed for them once they get there.

At the end of these reports, you’ll get a bonus in “Materialize Points” (more on this later) depending on Freya’s assessment of how well you did in the last chapter as well as bonus items and even a powerful artifact or two. You’ll also get the next grocery list of attributes, skills, and classes that she is looking for in the next batch of heroes that you will need to send up. After that, it’s time to head back down to Midgard to begin the whole process all over again to find new souls and listen to their stories.

The World Below

That was a rundown for a typical chapter run which touched on some of the gameplay concepts. Now we come to some of the finer details of the title which add not only complexity to the above, but a degree of control and customization that may be appealing…or frustrating…to some players. For RPG players that like to tweak and play with as many options as possible, Valkyrie Profile has a lot to offer.

Another thing to point out immediately is that there are no stores in the game. That’s right, no ‘starting town’ selling wooden shields or leather boots, no salesmen on the road to sell you Bifrost. All of the items that your party will ever use either must be found in the dungeons, through special events in the cities, or created with your meager reserve of ‘materialize points’. As a goddess, Valkyrie can create objects such as armor, accessories, or healing items using these ‘materialize points’. Most anything can be created to help equip her and her party with the tools they need to survive. To further add to the challenge, there are no temples available for healing, either, and if you opt to rest up to heal comrades or resurrect those that have fallen in battle, you risk spending valuable periods. Coincidentally, you can even choose to sit out an entire chapter by resting up and burning all of these periods until you get to the end (and see the worst ending).

You can also break down items in order to create more materialize points. This is really the only way to earn more other than in waiting for the end of the chapter for your evaluation bonus. You can also transmutate certain others to create entirely new items. Some objects found in the game can be transmuted into powerful accessories, while others are more valuable as materialize points.

Saves are handled in one of two ways in the game, either from the overhead map or within the dungeons through save points. While in the overhead map, you can save at will and manage your party needs such as creating new items and arms. You can also do the same at the save points in the dungeons which are well placed.

As you adventure through the dungeons of Midgard or travel its cities, the game switches to a 2D side scrolling mode. In the cities, Valkyrie dons the normal clothes of a mortal while in the dungeons, she wears the armor of battle. Bitmapped backgrounds make up the locales of the mortal world with paths leading forward into the background or back towards the screen to other locations giving the odd impression that everything is made up of connected boxes. The cities are filled with NPCs, but the dungeons are filled with a variety of dangers and challenges that make them very different from your typical RPG.

The dungeons are also 2D and are filled with a large number of monsters and puzzles to challenge the player. These sequences turns into a sort of pseudo action platformer which may irritate some RPG players that don’t like finding this kind of gameplay while questing. An automap is provided and Valkyrie has the power to create ice crystals to help her climb certain walls, create ice dust that she can jump onto as a sort of temporary platform to reach hard to get to places, or freeze enemies in their tracks allowing you to jump on top or over them. You can even pick up their frozen forms if you want to turn them into a temporary jumping point before they break free. You can also pick up the ice crystals you create, the chests on the ground, or broken pieces of ice to get to where you need to go.

Combat is initiated either by running into a monster which has the nasty habit of keeping you from using your special skills such as spellcasting or your Purify attacks as you lose initiative, or by hitting them with your sword which gives you the drop. Of course, you never want to get hit from behind.

Hidden within these dungeons and in some of the cities, you will also discover other treasures…many of which lie secure within trapped chests. Among these treasures, you will also find books that enable your party to learn a variety of skills and spells. Some skills apply to certain weapons or character classes, others can enable your characters to perform remarkable feats in combat such as automatically reviving the fallen using an item from your inventory. As for the spells, there’s quite a collection that you can have your mages learn. But you need to be careful here. While learning skills can open the opportunity for everyone to learn them, spells are more restrictive in that once a spellbook is used…it’s used. Fortunately, the spellcasters that Valkryie may find do come with a few of their own spells to start off with. You can also transmute some spell books to expand your options, or just break them down into materialize points.

You may also stumble across artifacts. These tremdously powerful (and sometimes mysterious) items are found in dungeons after dealing with the resident boss encounter. You can either opt to keep these which will impact negatively on your ‘Evaluation’ score, or offer them up to Odin like a good goddess. Many take the form of weapons or special pieces of armor making the choice a little more challenging.

Speaking of ‘evaluation’, your ‘Evaluation’ score starts at 100, but can decline whenever you refuse to send heroes to Valhalla or send artifacts back to Odin among other things. If it dips too low, this can eventually lead to the worst ending. By sending up heroes and artifacts, you can maintain good standing and reap the rewards of performing your duty.

Battle Awaits Us

Tri-Ace has also made combat a lot more involving by making the player take an active part in the ensuing chaos. Combat is round by round but many of the actions performed by your party, especially the warriors, resemble fighting combos. And while you might be able to build a roster of characters, you can only field four at any time during combat. You can only change your party makeup outside of combat so making sure that you have the right mix…as well as in paying attention to level up the weaker souls in your group by exposing them to combat…is all part of the gameplay.

In combat, your characters’ actions are determined by the four main controller buttons (square, circle, etc..) as well as what weapons they are armed with. Some weapons allow three consecutive attacks, others allow you to start one and then do a final attack after someone else, and others only allow you to do one massive attack. In addition to these limitations, each attack launched by your characters differ from each other as they battle it out. For example, Valkyrie may charge in with a low slash as her first attack, a sliding kick, and then finish off with an ascending sword blow as her third and final move for that round. Knowing your characters’ attack styles and special moves will be a continual learning experience as heroes head to Valhalla and new ones are brought into the party.

These attacks have multiple effects for both your party and against your enemy. A hit counter logs your successful blows and once it reaches a limit of 100 “hits”, you will be able to engage a special ‘Purify Weird Soul’ attack for that particular character. The meter also starts counting down immediately after the first blow forcing you to keep up the momentum with each successful attack. Even after you launch a character’s ‘Purify’, there’s a chance that you will be able to launch another one with another character for a possible consecutive total chain of four. The meter counts down as it burns through each special attack, faster than the last, so timing is key. Knowing how to best work the combinations that you have with each character’s own set of moves and abilities will determine how well you can survive many of the later battles.

But wait…there’s more. If you attack an enemy while they are in the air, you may get crystals that fall from their battered body that act as bonuses to the experience the party receives at the end. Or, they may get purple crystals that help force down your Charge Time enabling you to take on another special action in the next round. This last is important to enabling your party to do as much as they can in combat.

For the most part, many of your actions can be executed and then when your character is finished, they sit out the rest of the round until the next one. You can tell how many attacks your character has thanks to the numbers next to the attack button diagram representing their action status onscreen. However, some actions will actually impact your character’s ability to do anything special. Particularly draining spells will tire your caster out and Purify actions may force your fighter to wait several rounds until they can be called on to do so again. But the purple orbs released by your foes when they are attacked can help drop the delay, getting them ready to go the next round instead of two or three rounds later. That delay is your ‘Charge Time’ and it can vary depending on what you had done to raise it in battle. Certain spells can easily accumulate a lot of ‘Charge Time’, leaving it to the warriors to try and mine the enemy for purple orbs with their attacks to help their spellcasters out.

You can also customize your characters’ attacks to best fit your strategy. For example, if Valkyrie has three battle moves that she can do consecutively in a round, you can re-arrange them to benefit whatever combination you think will work best with the others. This can result in some rather brutal juggle attacks and chained crystal/purple orb mining blows finishing off with several Purify attacks, turning battle into a massive death dealing blitzkrieg.

Spellcasters are limited by how many spells they can learn, but they are not bound by any kind of spell point system. As long as they know a spell, they can cast it with impunity every round…as long as their Charge Time allows. You can also assign spells to their default attack slot and many of them can be cast against all of the enemies that you will face.

If the above sounds confusing…and it was the first time I tried to get a grip on the system…it actually works remarkably well. Despite the depth that this system can get into, it’s remarkably fluid once you get used to it. Like a fine tuned machine, the gameplay mechanics all come together in a nearly seamless symphony of combos and streaming attacks that not only look good but are also quite satisfying. For this RPGer, what made the gameplay of Valkyrie Profile unique was not in how many options were given to you but in how easily it all fit together. By the time I made it to the end, I was surprised at how well I could negotiate all of the options and manual battles with ease.

Wagnerian Sprites and Sound

The graphics in Valkyrie Profile may not be the best in the world especially compared to what is available now, but the sprite work is remarkable in portraying a wide variety of emotional scenes. The animation work done for the characters literally places each and every one of them on center stage when their story unfolds to when battle is joined. You’ll watch their animated language demonstrate treachery, arrogance, and cry to the heavens when their loved ones pass before them. There were no bubbles over their heads, no teardrop next to their faces. This is further joined by the remarkable portrait art that is found throughout the game for all of the characters.

The voice acting, however, is a mixed bag and was something I had to get used to. Some of them are particularly well done, fitting the characters and most of the scenes well such as Arngrim’s gravelly challenges to his foes in combat or Valkyrie’s proud battle cry and announcement of her Purify move. However, the general voice acting presented within the in-game interludes that portray each character’s stories had moments where they were heard more as stilted recitations that fell flat against the scene they are trying to inject emotion into. In these cases, the text delivery worked better while the sprites mimed their way through the story. Fortunately, none of this severely detracted from the overall presentation of the game.

Motoi Sakuraba’s music evokes just the right sense of adventure and sorrow into the background of the game’s many locations and stories. From the fast paced notes that play within the Cave of Oblivion, to the beats and synthesized flute in the overworld theme as you glide from one end of it to the next on your grim errands, the music keeps you involved every step of the way. While the dungeons share some recycled tunes, the cities are further set apart from each other with their own themes which also brings each place alive. The haunting and grim chords and synthesized choir mourning Crell Montfraigne, a city whose brainwashed citizens are busy waging a religious war against its neighbors, to the oriental sounds and strings that greet Valkyrie when she lands in Hai Lan, the music is also joined by the occasional background ambiance that also bring every scene to life. One of the best examples is within the Valley of the Lilies where Platina had met her end where you only hear the rustling wind blow through the fields of flowers that are still there.

“Lenneth, About Your Performance…”

Valkyrie Profile is a game that offers quite a bit to the RPG player who enjoys a very hands on approach to developing their characters, amassing a vast arsenal, and playing through an involving quest filled with notable characters who have their own stories to tell. The sheer number of skills, customizable attacks, and party combinations are simply staggering. The manual shamelessly covers only the most basic commands and glosses over what you will need to do to survive the game, but the information presented in-game helps to describe the additional skills, spells, and items that you might find.

Still, the title is not perfect. Several players may still be asking questions on some of the other things that are represented, such as what determines how many attacks you may have in a single round (this is determined by weapon and indicated onscreen with the button map), to who can use what armor type or learn what skills when you find them. You will find few, if any, definitions or explanations for the traits, how to best develop your Einherjar, or any hints or strategies to help beginners through the game. What the game does best in offering a deep gameplay engine is only challenged with the scant amount of attention paid to helping players, especially if they have never played an RPG before, in getting used to managing it all.

The controls, especially that in the 2D dungeons, aren’t exactly the most responsive. The worst offender in this category is the way that picking up objects and slashing out with your sword is handled. Both are handled by the same button sometimes causing you to pick up a chest or ice debris by accident when you really wanted to slash out at a monster to get the drop on them.

The game is also extremely linear. Based as it is on a set number of periods, there is only so much that you can really do outside of following the next soul or dungeon. There are ways to manage this time constraint through judicious use of the save feature, but in some ways it almost seems like a lot of work for nothing. Almost as a direct consequence of the forced linearity of the title, the world of Midgard is a relatively bleak and static world. Most, if not all, of the NPCs in the towns and villages scattered across the continent are merely there for window dressing and their collective lines can hardly fill a pamphlet. The only color injected into each region is courtesy of the tales told of the souls that you encounter there for recruitment into Valhalla. For players looking to talking to the NPCs and finding out side quests or tidbits of history behind Midgard and the wars waged there, they will be sorely disappointed. The NPCs in Valkyrie Profile have as much personality as a cardboard cutout at a funhouse. Don’t expect too much inter-party dialogue, either.

The action oriented features of the game may also turn off RPG players more used to ‘traditional’ gameplay mechanics such as issuing orders to party members and watching them go do what they are told allowing you to plan out the next strategy. Juggling monsters, timing your attacks and reflexively reacting to changes in battle as you change up who should attack a particular creature to break their ‘Combo Guard’, jumping over and avoiding obstacles and traps, platforms…these might prove to be more of an annoyance to RPGers unused to finding a platforming ‘fighting game’ with their gameplay.

But perhaps the largest issue that I have with Valkyrie Profile is in how the ending reward is handled. The rest of this section will be on this so be warned if you don’t want to know too much about the ending in general and want to try and get the best one on your own. You can skip down to the last section and not miss anything. With that said, here’s what I had to say about what I thought was Valkyrie Profile’s weakest point.

On my first playthrough, I had gotten the default ending which, quite frankly, was awful. After an exceptionally fun journey to the end, it was as if the grandeur of the Norse inspired opera being played out in the game had suddenly and quite inexplicably ended on a bland note. The grand introductory sequence, the stories behind your Einherjar, and Lenneth’s mystery ultimately amounting to nothing. The journey to the ‘best’ ending, by comparison, not only alters some of what happens in the last half of the game by introducing additional plot twists but gives you an entirely new battle to fight with a dramatically more rewarding conclusion…one that should never have been ‘sealed’ behind an enigmatic set of statistical rules ensuring that it won’t be seen by anyone who fails to follow a specific set of circumstances to get there.

To me, this made no sense. For the effort in getting through the story, surviving the challenges put before you and in experiencing what the game has to offer, one would think that the journey must come to a satisfying end culminating in an appropriate degree of triumph or catastrophe. Most titles do not force the player to defeat all of the mini bosses, find all of the items, and win all of the races. Those that do are treated to neat extras in the game itself as a special bonus…a reward that enhances the journey towards that end…but not as a requirement to the story’s final denouement.

I also may not have had such an issue with this if they had provided the player with the means to make the decisions that would have helped reach it. Valkyrie Profile buries the most satisfying ending beneath a vague set of circumstances and arbitrary ‘variables’ than as a set of decisions led by the player’s active participation in the story. By comparison, the multiple endings in Jade Empire and Knights of the Old Republic can be reached based on the player’s willful decision to follow certain actions and Deus Ex offers the player multiple endings as does its sequel, all of which come to bear at the climax of the performance leaving the final movement up to the player. Even the original Jedi Knight on the PC offered two different endings depending on the decisions that you have made while playing the game, both of which were satisfying. All of these have one thing in common: they were driven by the player who actively participated in making the decisions they chose to role play in the title.

Compounding this is the title’s heavily linear approach to its gameplay progression meaning that a misstep in a previous chapter can easily cost you certain ‘events’. This is especially harsh if you do not have a save to go back to in order to try again assuming, of course, that you know what you did and when. In playing through the quest, I had managed to play through an encounter that felt ‘broken’ after a key revelation is made and the evidence of your hidden past is right in front of your face…only you can do nothing to find out more other than stare at the pixels on the screen. There is no way to interact with what you find, no way to follow up on what you had learned. You can’t travel back to Asgard and ask questions, follow leads, or do the things that adventurers do and many games allow when confronted by something this huge. The title acts as if it never happened. Only afterwards did I find out that I screwed up the encounter and doomed my chances in seeing the good ending. Was there any forewarning? None, none save an arbritrary measure of its impact through a nebulous statistic. Add to this the twenty to forty hours that a single playthrough may demand of you to develop your characters and get through the dungeons without even knowing if you are on the right track and it can easily become frustrating.

This was a confusing decision to make in view of the other challenges that players can amuse themselves with in the title. Before starting the game, you can select the difficulty of the overall campaign which determines how many souls you will encounter, the levels they start at when you find them, dungeons available, items that can be found, etc.. Towards the end of the main campaign when you save, a special dungeon opens up that can be selected outside of the main game as a separate experience called the ‘Seraphic Gate’. The ‘Gate’ is a separate dungeon that offers a series of high level challenges to anyone willing to face them. With these options in place to challenge players who also strive to find and unlock every weapon and character in the title, there really is no reason to hide the ‘best’ ending.

For some it won’t matter because of what else the game offers players in the journey to get there. But for others, like myself, that appreciate a good story and a good ending that tops it all off like the final chapter in a favorite book, it can be an unwelcome twist.

“Was I choosing souls…as though I was picking flowers?”

Today, Valkyrie Profile ranks up there as one of the more expensive older RPGs available on Ebay as of this writing unless you can find it overlooked elsewhere or ask a friendly soul to loan you their copy just to find out what it is all about on your own. Your enjoyment of this particular title will depend a lot on what your expectations are and whether you are willing to bend some of them. RPGers, especially fans of console RPGs in general, will find a lot to play around with in the title’s interesting take on combat and character development. But this comes with a lot of caveats that some may not find as appealing. The game is heavily linear, the 2D dungeon crawling sequences with action oriented puzzles might turn some off, the general world exists only for the stories behind your Einherjar, and in order to get the most out of the combat system your reflexes and timing have to be ready to put in some practice.

If you can get used to Tri Ace’s gameplay system and its action nuances, the result is an RPG that can be as addictingly fun as any other. Valkyrie Profile offers a surprisingly fluid action-oriented combat system, deep character development options, remarkable storytelling for the backgrounds of your Einherjar, exceptional anime style sprite work, and the challenge of having to ‘develop’ souls…your party members…in order to win the bigger battle being waged in Valhalla. It also provides additional options to extend its replayability by offering alternate difficulty settings and a challenging bonus dungeon filled with powerful prizes and enemies that can be unlocked. Coupled with a rousing score, surprisingly decent voice acting from several of the characters, and dungeons aplenty, the overall journey can easily outweigh many of the criticisms above.

It may not please everyone, but the trip to the end of the world has not often been this enjoyable.

– World 1-1

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