The GoodTri-Ace has established for itself a reputation of developing Japanese RPGs with unusual combat systems, ever since they were part of Wolf Team and worked on Tales of Phantasia. I haven't really been able to get into that game or any of the Star Oceans they developed afterwards, mostly because I found their storytelling and art generic, and their action battles needlessly and artificially squeezed into tiny segments that in my opinion would have been served better by turn-based style. But Valkyrie Profile struck a really powerful chord very soon after I fired it up. Either I'm mistaken, or this is the company's magnum opus.
In a world of Japanese RPGs, so formulaic, so similar to each other, so uneasily distinguished by little details that betray the creativity (or lack thereof) of their designers, a game like Valkyrie Profile is a rare occurrence. I've just complained about the generic nature of tri-Ace's other games; it is therefore even more surprising that Valkyrie Profile is as non-generic as it gets from the point of view of storytelling. Instead of controlling upbeat youngsters with questionable haircuts, you are cast into the role of a goddess who indifferently witnesses human drama to select heroes for the Nordic apocalypse. The detachment from the main protagonist should have been considered a minus by all means, and yet Valkyrie Profile magically turns this plot device upside-down and delivers one of the most emotionally powerful storylines I've ever seen in a video game.
Indeed, despite the weak voice acting and the rather non-dramatic cutscene direction, you are exposed to some of the best storytelling snippets this side of Live a Live. You see, even though you are technically the Valkyrie, the meat and potatoes of the story are the heroes you recruit, and many of them delivers poignant, psychologically convincing, morally thought-provoking, and touching tales that become engraved in your heart forever.
Come to think of it, the game's main plot device is as crazy as it is fascinating: basically, you are required to collect the souls of people who died under unusual circumstances and as a result of a conscious understanding of their actions. You witness the last moments of their lives and then snatch them from their grief and into your "beyond-good-and-evil" godly army. I haven't heard of such a concept being employed in a video game before, and I think the story writer not only did a remarkable job at presenting all those little heart-wrenching pieces without letting them deteriorate into soap opera episodes, but also captured quite well the melancholic severity of Nordic mythology while making it a little bit more appetizing to people who outgrew Nietzsche.
That's not all: the heroine herself, that cold, distant goddess, is also not quite what she appears to be. Bits by bits, her past is being revealed to us, and I assure you that you won't have the same opinion of her as you did in the beginning when the game ends. In short, Valkyrie Profile takes the best of Japanese storytelling while gracefully avoiding most of its pitfalls.
It's not all about storytelling, though. Valkyrie Profile also throws some very interesting gameplay ideas into the mix. For starters, it enforces the "no random enemies" policy, which I always welcome. Second, it adds some extra spice with the jumping and the crystal-shooting abilities, which give the game a light platforming and puzzle-solving flavor. And third, it opens a map for you right at the beginning and welcomes you to explore it.
Yes, there is the time restriction, but it's not as paralyzing as some people make it out to be. You can, for the most part, take your time and explore whatever you want to explore. You have those flashing "points of interest" but you can go to other cities and dungeons, fight enemies, chat with people, and generally enjoy freedom. This is so simple, so effective, and yet how many Japanese RPGs do you know that did that?
The battle system takes some time to get used to, but turns out to work quite well in the end. The button combinations ensure that the battles flow regardless of their turn-based nature, and are fast-paced enough to keep you entertained even when you know the enemies don't stand a chance against your too-mighty forces.
As the icing on the cake, there are also some beautiful visuals in the game. The pre-rendered backgrounds don't always mesh well with the characters, and in particular dungeon design can be slightly monotonous, but some places convey the game's unique, brooding atmosphere really well. And the music is excellent. I'll never get tired of that melancholic theme that accompanies us on our sad journey.
The BadValkyrie Profile is different from your archetypal Japanese RPGs in many ways. It is therefore natural that many of its features were met with mistrust and hostility by the conservative mainstream fandom of the genre. Personally, I didn't mind the much-maligned time restrictions or the unusual party-building. That said, I think there are a few flaws in the game, though none too serious to ruin it.
The side-view dungeons may look great, but I'd still vote for regular third-person view or even the good old-fashion overhead perspective. Side-scrolling doesn't work that well with pre-rendered backgrounds, taking away from their 3D potential. As a result, most dungeon areas in the game feel odd, with rather incoherent entrances and exits that turn them into mildly irritating (though never two unnecessarily complex) mazes. The pasting of the characters over the backgrounds is not always smooth, either.
Balance is not the game's strongest side. To ensure your survival within the non-linearly visited locations, most places accessible at any given point contain more or less the same enemies. Most of them are pathetically easy, especially if you take time to train your characters. However, when the apocalyptic battles finally comes, you may find yourself severely under-prepared if you haven't recruited enough characters and learned how to land the right combos. The ambitious narrative structure of Valkyrie Profile leads to pacing problems that perhaps could have been corrected.
And let's not forget the bad voice acting in the English version. No, it's not "so bad that it's good". In a serious story like this, amateurish acting hurts much more than in a stereotypical comic-book Castlevania.
The Bottom LineValkyrie Profile is not for everyone; but if you promise yourself to overlook its quirks and melt in its unique atmosphere, you'll experience one of the most original Japanese RPGs ever. There is a reason why this game got itself a faithful cult following: it was made by talented people who put their hearts into it and managed to produce something that reaches to your soul, but never forgets to entertain you.