By Any Other Name
HIGH A great art style and intriguing fiction…
LOW …undone by an absurd amount of filler and unnecessary mechanical complication
WTF An elite military monster-hunting unit that ends up fighting in its skivvies a third of the time? Buy some armor, kids!
For an hour or two after it began, I was head-over-heels in love with Dark Rose Valkyrie. With this game, Compile Heart had seemingly decided to step out of the otaku-bait niche that characterizes the majority of its output. This developer (known mostly for middling JRPGs starring underage anime girls) had employed veteran ringers from Bandai Namco’s Tales franchise to put out something a little more “prestige”. The result was particularly appealing, as it reminded me strongly of Sakura Wars, a tactical JRPG franchise owned by rival publisher Sega.
Though Dark Rose Valkyrie is a JRPG of the more traditional, narrative-centered variety, it, too, takes place in an alternate 1920s Japan ravaged by monster attacks and reliant on the pluck and absurd weaponry of a government-sanctioned squad of cute teenagers with superpowers. Players are roped into commanding the squad and hunting down the “Chimera”, monstrous creatures mutated by a virus of the same name. Shades of anime series (and oddly enough, Insomniac Games’ Resistance) abound in Valkyrie‘s alternate-timeline dystopia.
But truly, the candy-colored style of Sakura Wars is Valkyrie‘s most prominent aesthetic touchstone thanks to the character designs of artist Kosuke Fujishima (also known as the man behind Ah! My Goddess!) I’d even put money down that his characters in Dark Rose Valkyrie are specifically evoking Sakura Wars with their imperial-retro color-coded uniform style. It’s an homage I welcome, considering that Sakura Wars as a brand is pretty much dead outside of Japan, so I’ll take what I can get. Granted, these similarities were surface-level. Once the glow of nostalgic reminiscence had faded, the game looked a fair bit shakier, taking a step or two back for every step forward.
Valkyrie‘s story strikes a decent balance between the cutesy antics of its mostly-female cast and the grim task they must accomplish. There’s something inherently depressing about the notion that a culling is the only way to prevent the spread of disease through a population, but by Jove, that won’t get in the way of occasionally seeing these girls go to the beach every now and then. A capable localization job also helps sell it, emphasizing characterization within the common anime archetypes embodied by the cast. Beyond simple appeal, getting to know one’s girls takes on additional importance when singling one of them out for treason becomes the narrative’s other major objective.
Dark Rose Valkyrie tasks players with conducting ‘interviews’ with the squad in order to uncover inconsistencies in their testimony that will hint as to who the traitor is. The traitor’s identity is different with every run of the game, so walkthroughs can’t spoil the revelation, but this mechanic could have been better constructed. The interviews are disappointingly limited, possibly due to the fact that the random nature of the mechanic prevents the game from writing the betrayal in a way that genuinely fits whomever it might be. Worse still, there’s little real investigating to be done. What could’ve been the most memorable aspect of the game – and certainly its most unique – ends up feeling like an undercooked minigame with an inordinate amount of influence over the ending.
Indeed, a lack of balance in the design and structure seems to be at the root of Dark Rose Valkyrie‘s problems. While there’s too little of the cool investigation and traitor-hunting, there’s too much obvious filler and time-wasting additions. The pacing of the plot is constantly being drawn out, first by recurring antagonists that seem inspired by Pokemon‘s Team Rocket, and later by mandatory side missions that consist of tedious ‘go here, kill this’ busywork.
The battle system is also another victim of this design imbalance. At first, the complexity of its simultaneous turn-based style is refreshing, adding a welcome dose of spectacle to the monster-killing. Party members and foes both take their turns governed by a real-time action bar, with each action taking time depending on its effectiveness. With enemies able to attack and interrupt characters while they charge their big hits, effective timing becomes a key part of combat.
Sadly, the system starts to fall apart after a while thanks to lackluster encounter planning and bizarre enemy scaling. Before long, enemies alternate between being so easy to kill that the attack animations feel like a waste of time and being so tough that players run out of ability points and end up slogging to the end by sheer attrition. An overly-dense system of customization and progression also tends to bury players in menus, while at the same time annihilating the individuality of each character by giving them all the same upgrade paths.
Compile Heart’s ambition in trying to leave its comfort zone should be lauded, but unfortunately, Dark Rose Valkyrie‘s release in a period full of landmark JRPGs (not least among them Persona 5 and Final Fantasy XV) highlights how tough it is to make a JRPG that can stick the landing. In leaner years it would be endearing enough for a player to push past its awkward aspects, but against such stiff competition, there’s simply no reason to settle for this botched execution.
Disclosures: This game was developed by Compile Heart and published by Idea Factory International. It is currently available on PlayStation 4. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and was reviewed on the PS4. Approximately 53 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game’s rating is T, and contains blood, drug references, fantasy violence, language, and partial nudity. The characters fight mostly inhuman monsters, and the violence is bloodless, though death and injury are often implied in dramatic scenes. Cutscenes and combat both occasionally show characters dressed in revealing underwear or swimsuits.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: The game features subtitles in English. There are no audio cues necessary for successful gameplay.
Remappable Controls: The game does not contain remappable controls.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes in the game.
Today he continues to write for a living while trying to turn his fledgling knowledge of Japanese into a marketable skill. He is Managing Editor of Japanese culture site Japanator and is a Contributing Editor for Destructoid. He has written for The Escapist, The California Literary Review, Esquire Magazine, and proudly holds the badge as the premier apologist for Star Trek Online.