Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria – PS2

Our non-valkyrie protagonist, protagonisting

Our non-valkyrie protagonist, protagonisting

Imagine the worst thing a video game has ever done to you. What games did you invest time and money in only for them to pull some dick move on you, probably leaving you swearing at the top of your lungs at the TV screen? If you finish Jurassic Park for the SNES, you get a delightful little non-ending that consists of the loading screen playing in reverse, which after a team of friends and myself spent an entire night of caffeine, headaches and dial-up internet walkthroughs to do, left me with an empty feeling, much like waking up next to a prostitute hungover and broke, except without the exciting evening to balance it out. Or one of Anne’s favorites; spending hours early on in a game going through side-quests, leveling up to the ultimate attacks, finding the ultimate weapon, and then the game murdering the character and taking with it all the equipment, experience, and precious moments of your finite life span along with it. Final Fantasy, Legend of Dragoon, take your pick. This one happens often enough. How about forced stealth, babysitting missions, or quick time events?

Full disclosure: I might give away some integral plot points of Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria, but I refuse to call them spoilers. See, to spoil something implies that it began with a certain level of freshness, but this game holds the record for most rotten-to-the-very-center-of-its-being of any game I’ve ever played.  If Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Jesus and Buddha collaborated to breath life into this game to make it human, it would still back over your cat with a humvee and then try to console you by saying, “At least it wasn’t a dog.”

Release the Kraken! Because apparently Norsemyth doesn't have enough monsters to keep us interested?

Release the Kraken! Because apparently Norsemyth doesn’t have enough monsters to keep us interested?

The first time I played this game, I swore I’d never do so again. I lived in a studio apartment and had to apologize to my neighbors for regular disturbances as I screamed profanities that would offend sailors at the top of my lungs. Hours upon hours of my life spent leveling up to plow through impossible enemies would vanish into oblivion as a clunky game mechanic would have my party trip over a blade of grass, leaving the nearby monsters to drive them into the mud like lawn darts. After figuring out from Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth that the game innovated RPG combat to stress set-up and strategy over power-leveling and high stats, I realized I simply didn’t know how to play the game right before. As it turns out, I rather enjoy the games combat system and find it highly engaging, much like the system for The World Ends With You, which I’ve found amazing ever since hoisting myself to the top of the learning curve with a few crampons and a good length of dental floss to use for rope.

No, to get to the real, black, shriveled prune of a heart of why this game laughs in the face of all who dare to play it, you have to examine the things the game designers did intentionally. For starters, for a game that claims to profile a Valkyrie, it spends very little time doing so, in favor of constantly introducing new characters with no relevance on the plot in the least. I didn’t often appreciate the half-hour long snooze-fests that introduced einherjar in VP: Lenneth, but Silmeria swung the opposite direction, introducing dozens of playable einherjar with no backstory whatever except for an entry in the status screen. They have no effect on the plot, but the game expects you to play with them and level them up anyway for the sole purpose of transferring their souls…well, maybe not to Valhalla due to Silmeria’s war with Odin…but to somewhere not nearby your party. Yes, by transferring them you get an item that permanently increases any characters stats, but it seems like time spent leveling up useless characters would help more if you spent it on the main characters of the story.

Our titular valkyrie, not valkyrie-ing

Our titular valkyrie, not valkyrie-ing

Speaking of which, you only really get two. Well, maybe one and a half, since the protagonist spends half the game possessed by the spirit of Silmeria. See, at the critical act one climax, you lose all your main characters–permanently–except for two, except Silmeria’s spirit goes on to bigger and better things. So you better hope you have some einherjar left over, especially a mage, because you never get them back!  Sure, the plot gives them back to you, but the game has changed their stats and attack patterns enough that you can’t call them the same person once you get back into combat, sort of the games way of saying, “Sorry I ran over your cat with a humvee, but I’ll give you a coupon for a free pizza to make it up to you.” Without Silmeria, you have no power to call einherjar, so if you had set them all free–like I did the first time I played–you may find yourself drastically shorthanded for the rest of the game. Then, for whatever reason, the game gives you a slew of playable characters literally in the final dungeon. In fact, by the time you actually get to see and play as Silmeria, you’ve already explored 74% of that level.

But perhaps the worst offense of all, VP: Silmeria reunites you with your trusty mage, a major playable character, a powerful magic user, and a Harry Potter impersonator, for one dramatic battle with Odin…and then leaves your party permanently to become the game’s end boss. Also, his lust for Lenneth, a character mentioned only once before, motivates everything he does. So…really, I don’t entirely know what Silmeria has to do with anything.

Just a little cranky. Apparently he lost all purpose in life after killing Voldemort

Just a little cranky. Apparently he lost all purpose in life after killing Voldemort

But really, the story lacks the cohesiveness of a wet post-it note, surpassing its predecessor for scattered, irrelevant, and unexplained plot points. It seems like Enix intended to make this sequel as they wrote the original, and they do connect a number of plot points and locations together, even if they don’t feel compelled to include explanation or reasonable motivation for characters’ actions. I could have connected with and found interest in the villain, had they ever decided to explain his obsessive crush on Lenneth, but they don’t even give us as feeble a reason as “has a thing for platinum haired vixens.” Furthermore, it seems highly unlikely that anyone crazy enough that Hannibal Lecter, Jack Torrence and the Joker want to keep a healthy distance would have the wits to put up an intelligent, rational and friendly facade for the majority of the story. Several characters from VP: Lenneth make appearances here, but the game never bothers to explain how they exist in both the Ragnarok-era of Lenneth and the ancient past of Silmeria. Near the end of the game, they throw some very elegant prose at you that I may have found slightly more moving had they ever bothered to establish some sort of theme or direction for the story. Then they try to explain some stuff about an alternate history, how these events happen after Ragnarok for Lenneth and the villain who have traveled through time, but before Ragnarok for everyone else and…honestly, they lost me.

Even a major antagonist takes priority over Silmeria on the box art.

Even a major antagonist takes priority over Silmeria on the box art.

For all its flaws, I don’t want to condemn the game to the coldest, darkest region of Hel quite as much as I did the last time I played it.  As I mentioned before, I feel they revolutionized RPG combat–or would have, had anyone figured it out. Rather than focusing on fighting enemies, gaining experience, buying stronger weapons, and fighting more enemies, the monsters throw challenges at you. You have only a few menu options, and can’t use more than a single spell or item every so often, but it gives you choices to make that you don’t commonly find in these games; do you want to split up your party into two groups to distract an enemy? Would magic or physical attacks do more damage here? Do you need to take out smaller enemies, or can you go directly to killing the leader? While the main maps, oddly enough, give the player only two dimensions to work with, combat maps switch to a 3D perspective where monsters and players alike move across terrain, trying to avoid getting taking hits.

An insipid, directionless story, but beautifully rendered.

An insipid, directionless story, but beautifully rendered.

Furthermore, the care they neglected when writing the story obviously went into rendering the characters, cut scenes, and scenery. You’ll have plenty of eye candy for those moments your attention wanders off of the vapid plot.

And, thankfully, they got rid of the sushi bars. Influenced by Norse myth or not, that just didn’t make sense.

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Valkyrie Profile (Lenneth) – PS1, PSP

Freya Odin Lenneth
Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria hit stores when I lived in Korea.  Square-Enix pulled off promotion after promotion advertising it, and this intrigued me–I hadn’t seen a video game advertised, really, since Nintendo wished to share exactly how “rad”; of a game it had produced. (After which, the world didn’t see a more egregious misunderstanding of rap until this.) The game looked wonderful, beautifully rendered, and epic.  I hadn’t heard of the original, but I knew I needed to play this game! So I bought it and played it, only to find out that Squenix had promoted the wonder, beauty, and epic-ness as a distraction from unrelenting difficulty due to bad gameplay mechanics, bugs, poor play control, and a storyline written by manatees.

“Have you played Valkyrie Profile 2?” I asked my friend Al later that year when I met him in Taiwan.
“Don’t,” he replied, several months too late to save me.

However, he did recommend the first game, so I immediately set out to find a copy.  And with equal expedience I placed it on permanent “wish list” status when I saw its price average at well over $100.  As you can imagine, although I hadn’t liked the sequel, I knew I needed to play this game!

A battle maiden limited by periods? Dear god, do they even think these things through before they translate?

A battle maiden limited by periods? Dear god, do they even think these things through before they translate?

Valkyrie Profile, which Square-Enix has re-released on the PSP as Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth, tells a story based on Norse Mythology.  Odin finds out about the impending battle of Ragnarok, and needs warriors.  He and Freya call upon Lenneth, one of three Valkyrie sisters to go scour the corpses of Midgard for bodies he can stick on the front lines.  From there, depending on whether you chose easy, normal or hard mode, you get a certain amount of time, called periods, to zoom and soar over an oddly diverse continent, looking for people on the verge of death and dungeons to crawl through to train them.

One of Wagner's less-popular operas. Onis don't tend to live quite so far north.

One of Wagner’s less-popular operas. Onis don’t tend to live quite so far north.

The game has a few issues I need to point out.  Valkyrie Profile develops a story based on Norse Mythology in the same way that God of War develops a story based on differential calculus, Thoreau’s “Walden” and the Japanese Stock Exchange.  Yes, they both have something called a Valkyrie, and all the gods have the right names, but after an early scene that takes place in an old Norse . . . sushi restaurant, any semblance of viking culture stands out as coincidental, something that makes you stop and ask, “Hmm, how did that get there?”  In your first battle, you face off against a harpy, as if someone handed the game writers a copy of the Prose Edda and said, “We need monsters to battle! Find some for us,” and the writers looked up from playing Pokemon long enough to see a really hard book, put off doing the work until the deadline, then struggled to remember anything at all from learning about mythology in grade school. In fact, except for a bunch of dragon-esque looking monsters, I didn’t encounter a fight with a recognizable Norse beast until literally just before the final boss.

And here we have...a mermaid?

And here we have…a mermaid?

Next, while I don’t generally demand insightful character development from a story, it might be nice when a game has a title like, say, “Valkyrie Profile.”  “Interesting,” I say to myself.  “What might a Valkyrie have to face in her daily life? What conflicts might she encounter?  Could she face difficult challenges in fating people to die in battle? Or does she have self-image doubts because of waiting tables in Valhalla for a bunch of drunken einherjar?” Unfortunately, we don’t really see anything nearly so interesting.  Tri-Ace gave her character just enough depth to hold its head under until that final bubble of personality popped out of existence.  She delivers a cliched pre-ultimate-battle speech indicating some sort of epiphany, but the game provides us with no build up to indicate why this apparent character trait matters.  Furthermore, even though Freya introduces the Valkyrie to us as “Lenneth,” the majority of characters and even the menus refer to her simply as “Valkyrie,” a point best illustrated by one scene where an einherjar party member states, “Lenneth is Valkyrie’s real name?”

Kinky

Kinky

The entire story comes off as disjointed, really.  The search for einherjar entails using Lenneth’s Spider-Senses on the world map, then flying to an indicated town to collect a soul.  Once entering the town, the player watches an extended cut scene involving the doomed character, seeing a snippet of their life and the conflict that led up to their death. Usually. They forgot to actually kill off one character before he joins your party, but hey, we can just fill in the blanks, right? Maybe he got drunk and fell off his horse or wandered to close to a rampaging myna bird. Anyway, sometimes these cut scenes take forever.  Other times, we see a few disjointed clips, and then a death.  Then the einherjar joins your party and never says another word.

Also, while games offer unique applications of music and put a lot of good soundtracks into the world, I feel the world map sections missed their chance to let players fly a Valkyrie around the world to this song.

Did I mention you only get to move in two dimensions? But hey, the design looks great!

Did I mention you only get to move in two dimensions? But hey, the design looks great!

Similar to Silmeria, Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth doesn’t feel satisfied with its difficulty level until it beats you until your characters have no internal support beyond a sack of bone meal and pated organs.  While at first I lamented the fact that Enix had seemingly duped me into grinding for yet one more game, I later realized the half-turn-based, half-real-time battle system actually innovated a non-level-focused brand of combat.  The game hands out experience like a disapproving politician, trying to punish you for your dependency on fighting monsters to level-up.  Instead, the player can win battles at a low level simply by preparing properly, using equipment and characters to their most efficient potential.  They didn’t accomplish this well, offering a muddled system for buying and selling (re: creating from and converting to divine energy) items, a menu that tells you nothing about what effects certain pieces of equipment will grant, and absolutely no indication that you should consider anything except grinding, but with some work, it might be a nice alternative to formulaic and repetitive RPG combat.

But believe me, it needs work. Badly.  Magic, while clearly overpowered, more than compensates for that by requiring excessive wait periods between casting spells.  Characters charging their magic can attack for a small amount of damage if they’ve learned the ability to summon a familiar, but can’t so much as use an item to heal in the interim. I found three mages in a party can make it pretty easy to plow through enemies, but you really need this many to use magic effectively.

The game found an interesting way to increase replay value.  Rather than shooting for ending A, B, or C and then looking up the other two on youtube when you finish, Valkyrie Profile actually sends you along alternate story paths based on the decisions you make, leading to more or less of Lenneth’s personal story, and the game culminates in alternate final dungeons with alternate final bosses which lead to the three alternate end-game cut scenes and credits.

RetroArch-0909-035901Oddly enough, despite the shallow story, sloppy menus and item system, broken battle mechanics, disjointed story, and complete lack of direction, I actually didn’t hate playing this game.  Yes, I know I forgive RPGs more easily than they deserve, but after finishing Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth, I feel tempted to play Silmeria again, and I know I didn’t enjoy that game.  It surprised me, because objectively I shouldn’t have enjoyed this game. But somehow I did, and I do acknowledge the value in playing this game.  I wouldn’t buy the game for $100, but it does have some value to it.

Coming soon, look for articles on Perfect Dark and Resident Evil: Deadly Silence.  I may actually play through Silmeria, in which case I’ll probably drop off the map for a while.  GRE coming up, plus long games equals I hope you’ll remember to check back every few weeks for an update. Thanks for reading!