When looking at RPGs lately, it seems to be getting harder and harder to tell them apart. You know how it goes—a young hero from a quiet town is thrown into circumstances beyond his control. He sets out to right a wrong and gathers together a band of friends to help him on his quest. After facing insumountable odds and legions of evil dragons/sorcerers/corrupt rulers, etc., our courageous hero emerges victorious to right all wrongs done to innocent townsfolk everywhere. Justice prevails, you win. Throw in some cinematic CG cutscenes, a few well-built female characters, a plot twist involving amnesia and some big monsters to summon, and you've got yourself nearly any RPG from recent years. And then there's Valkyrie Profile.

Valkyrie Profile is a highly nontraditional RPG based upon elements taken from tales of Norse mythology. Not content to merely use a distinctive setting to set itself apart from the crowd, Valkyrie Profile wholly redefines what makes an RPG by taking the dramatic storytelling RPGs are known for and combining it with side-scrolling, 2-D platform gameplay. In addition, the battles are extremely fast and combo-based, featuring more player interaction and fun than I've ever witnessed in a game of this type. Rounding it all out is a system of resource management and skill building which is fathoms deep and allows for a wide range of character customization as well. Oh, and did I mention the game is on a time limit? The overall effect is that you're playing something created by people who were thinking far outside the box, with no fear of breaking standards of what an RPG should be. Unfortunately, while such originality is highly appreciated and should be encouraged, simply being different does not guarantee a success. Most of the chances taken in Valkyrie Profile are refreshing to the extreme considering how stale and plagiaristic RPGs have been recently, but it does go astray in a few key areas.

The game centers around Lenneth, a young girl who dies a tragic death only to be chosen by Odin, lord of Asgard and become a Valkyrie in the afterlife. Her mission is to gather warriors who have died in the physical realm and train them to become powerful fighters for the forces of good—the Aesir. The war bringing end of the world, Ragnarok, is coming soon with the outcome and the fate of existence depending on your recruiting efforts.

Since the point of the game is to acquire, train and deliver warriors who are powerful enough to help turn the tide of battle, it's supremely gratifying to finally play a game where "leveling-up" makes solid, logical sense.Your roster of available party members is constantly changing as you send the ones who are ready to Valhalla and take on new warriors in their place. You will receive a wide range of characters with differing skills and attributes, and with each one comes with a short vignette chronicling the events leading up to their death. It's sometimes tough to let a good character ascend to the heavens, but you have to keep the big picture in mind, and the frequent exchanging of characters makes for an interesting play mechanic as your team becomes continually rebalanced.

The game is broken up into chapters, and has a very nonlinear feeling to it. You are able to choose where to go and what to do, and there are a wide range of locations from the beginning. In addition, most bosses do not need to be defeated, and most areas do not need to be cleared in order to progress through the game, although the overall outcome is heavily weighted by your actions.

Before I go any further in this review, it must be said that his game will literally bring tears to the eyes of anyone who loves stylized, 2-D sprite graphics. The well-drawn character sprites used for the town and dungeon areas are absolutely overflowing with fluid animation. Within a few seconds of beginning the game, it's obvious that the people who spent their time in the graphics department weren't only superb artists, but that they were actually pouring heartfelt love into what must have been a painstaking amount of frames. Their work has definitely paid off. The close-up portraits sport a similarly high level of craftsmanship, though done in a more anglicized style than is usually seen in RPGs. After you get over the initial shock of not seeing the traditional blue hair and huge eyes of the usual japanese artwork, it's a nice change of pace.

Another thing to rejoice over was the return of the parallax scrolling technique—which has not seen much use since the 16-bit era. However, in Valkyrie Profile it's back and in full effect. For those of you who may have started playing games in the 32-bit age, parallax is when there are several layers of 2-D background art moving at different speeds giving the illusion of depth. This abandoned technique adds a special life and vibrance which has been sorely missed in the polygon age, and enhances otherwise static areas into things of beauty. No matter how advanced game technology becomes, there will always be a place for the kind of top quality artwork Valkyrie Profile features.

For audiophiles, the orchestral soundtrack matches the nordic theme of the game quite nicely with an assortment of robust Wagner-ish compositions. Some very rousing pieces to be sure. I would have liked a few more tracks for diversity throughout the course of the game, but the music present is definitely high quality. While on the topic of sounds, I've often been given cause to wonder if the people who pick voice actors for games here in the USA are completely deaf. Thankfully, the voiceovers here are done just as well as the music, and I have no complaints. Valkyrie Profile ranks easily among the cream of the crop when it comes to domestically released games. Lenneth's voice in particular is strong and matches her character effectively, with the rest of the characters getting equal treatment. It's nice to see the ratio of "well-done" to "embarassing" English voiceovers slowly changing for the better. It's about time.

Other positives to note relate to some of the more polished supplementary features in the game. The 3-D map available in the dungeons is excellent, and highly useful given the nature of the sometimes confusing areas. Many RPGs have real trouble with maps, but Valkyrie Profile nails it dead-on. The other thing which struck me as particularly indicative of the borderline-obsessive level of work put into the title was the character update available during the intermissions. Between levels, you are able to pull up full status reports on each and every warrior sent to Valhalla, including watching conversations they've had and brief re-enactments of the battles they've fought in. This level of attention to detail is almost unheard of, and offers a lot of nonessential yet appreciated information for people to sink their teeth into if they so choose.

Speaking of the game as a whole, the good points of Valkyrie Profile outweigh the bad points, but the negatives that do exist are sadly significant and not easily overlooked. The incredibly high learning curve will be the one that hits you in the face first. There are an ungodly huge number of menus, screens and stats to explore and be mystified by, with various points, attributes and skills to manage between as well. As if the effort in learning the inner workings of the hip-deep menu system isn't enough to keep your hands full, there are an absolutely insane number of items which end up cluttering the various inventory screens. I suppose this unwieldy amount was intended for those gamers who like to spend a large amount of time delving into every secret nook and cranny a game can possibly offer, but literally 98 percent of the items I received either sat collecting electronic dust throughout the game or were recycled into magic points without ever being used once. With the vast, nearly limitless array of things to tinker with, it's quite easy to become overwhelmed by the information overload. I felt that the paltry two or three pointers which popped up from time to time were woefully inadequate, and that a meatier in-game tutorial was necessary and could have reduced the "What the heck does this option do?!?" factor by at least 10. Honestly speaking, I felt that I didn't really get a full grasp of the game until the third chapter, and there are only eight to play through on the "normal" level of difficulty.

The towns are very simple, empty affairs with most of the important interaction being a matter of having the right party member in the right place at the right time. It's a real matter of luck and guesswork, and after four or five unsuccessul attempts with the townsfolk I simply stopped gambling with the limited time before Ragnarok. It should also be noted that the writers have a serious addiction to flashbacks during the vignettes. When new characters join your party, the excessive use of flashbacks sometimes interferes with the narrative and breaks up the flow of the stories. A few of the tales were fairly compelling, but most felt like I had tuned into a dramatic television show five minutes before it was over. I knew something important was going on and had seen the outcome (it's always death, by the way), but I didn't know enough about the characters or the situations most times to really make them hit home. A real shame when considering that this could have been used as a powerful opportunity to write some wonderfully deep characters instead of being quick impressions of people we hardly get to know.

Those things aren't necessarily game-ruiners by themselves, but the most serious wrong turn taken by the design team would have to do with the quantity of the game's central storyline, or lack thereof. The average player will want to go through and follow the most natural course of action by keeping Odin's opinion of your efforts very positive, following orders from Valhalla to a "T," and training warriors in order to to assure victory for the Aesir. Knowing this to be the most probable and logical course of play, Tri-Ace did something completely illogical and went out of their way to actually "hide" the storyline of the main character. Revealing anything related to Lenneth's backstory and seeing any of the plot besides the stand-alone vignettes or the war's progress is accomplished by doing a string of highly unintuitive things which any normal gamer would not attempt to do unless they knew about it beforehand. The end result is that the average person will complete the game without ever seeing any development whatsoever in the characters, and not even begin to understand the majority of events or connections between actions taking place. It goes without saying that such choices do not make for a very involving or cohesive RPG. Consequently, the game feels moody and highly disjointed at times, not to mention extremely confusing due to so many holes in the continuity which require a FAQ to fill. This design decision (or painfully obvious mistake, as I like to call it) is an extremely damning one and prevents what could have, and should have, been an utterly stunning RPG from ever achieving its full greatness.

Despite the game's shortcomings, it remains an enjoyable affair from a certain standpoint, and there is a lot here to like especially for old-school gamers or those who are open to enjoy something created with a mindset very different than most of the titles on the shelf beside it . It's a tragedy that the game's potential is unrealized and thus easily overlooked, but in spite of it still provides a refreshing break from the standard self-imposed limitations of conventional RPG thinking. Tri-Ace shoud be punished and applauded at the same time. Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Brad Gallaway
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