Saturday, October 31, 2015

Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume, review

(All images used for review purposes only.)

Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume (Square Enix, 2009)
I do not understand why strategy RPGs are so popular for the Nintendo DS. I played Valkyrie Profile: Silmeria for the PS2, and that was a really great game. With Plume, the story path is dictated for you, and there's virtually no option for churning to build your character levels up. Everything revolves around the tactics you use for each battle. Fortunately, it is possible to earn extra experience if you do the battles right, but it's equally possible to go into the battle with the wrong approach and get your butt kicked. I was following one of the walkthroughs on GameFAQs, and I figured that when I got to the point where I could choose between the easy, normal and hard paths that I'd take normal. After dying horribly for the fifth time on the same stupid battle, I had to reboot the game and start all over again from the beginning, throwing away 3 hours of game play, just to opt for the easy path instead. Very annoying. Having said that, I finished the game, got the New+ screen and went back through with all of my equipment and items, and this time Normal wasn't much of a challenge at all. But still...

(Sequence from the opening CG.)

The story is that your character is fighting in a war in Europe, while a few of the Norse gods (Odin, Frey) are watching above to see how you do. If you don't get the "best ending" of the game, they send you back to try again (New+). Your character's father was killed by a Valkyrie, so you have this revenge motive going for you. However, Hel picks you as the minion for a rival Valkyrie and you get the Valkyrie Plume. This Plume let's you sacrifice your party members during battles. A sacrificed NPC becomes invincible during the battle, but then dies when the fight is over. You, however, pick up specific skills from "plumed" characters, such as being able to paralyze all of the enemy for 3 turns, silencing everyone, or guaranteeing critical hits for all party members for 3 turns. The first time through the game, you're expected to plume between 3 and 5 characters; any more than that and you get a "game over". The second time, it's 2 to 4 characters, and the third time through you can't sacrifice anyone. Fortunately, "plume skills" carry over to New+ games.

(Party configuration and setup menu. This shot is actually from the Seraphic Gate optional dungeon that only opens after you get all three endings.)

The game is divided into a Prologue and 6 chapters. In the Prologue, Hel forces you to sacrifice your best friend, which gives you the plume. In Chapter 1, you meet a warring father and daughter who eventually join your team. In Chapter 2, you can pick between the easy, normal and hard paths, which each tell a different version of a story about a war in one city, and which each gives you 2 or 3 different party member depending on which path you pick. Chapters 3, 4 and 5 continue the storylines about the war affecting different people in different ways, and giving you a few more party members. This time, the path changes depending on how many times you plume your party members. 2-3 times will give you the bad ending, 1-2 times will give you the normal ending (depending on WHEN you plume them) and 0 times gives you the best ending. Chapter 6 is the ending, and can consist of 1-2 boss fights. So, it is possible to take the easy path and try for the best ending, but you'd have somewhat weaker party members, and absolutely no plume skills to work with. And believe me, the ability to sleep ALL of the enemy for 3 turns can be the difference between winning and losing the later fights. Having every hit turn critical can speed up boss battles a lot, too.

(Character movement phase.)

The game mechanics are interesting, though. You have your basic stats (Atk, Hit, Mag, Def, MDef, etc.), which are boosted by your weapon, armor and temporary item buffs. Your character is a warrior, while the party members can consist of archers, magicians, lancers, brawlers and samurai. Movement and attack range depends on the character class. You can have 4 members in the party, while the enemy may have 4 to 10 members. If two or more members can attack the same target, then when one member decides to attack, the others join in. So, for stronger bosses, you could have the entire 4-member party hitting him 4 times (once for each member's turn). As you hit the enemy, a counter tracks the number of hits. If it becomes full, and if your weapons include Soul Crush specials, you can get an SC super attack. You get 1 second to push the button associated with one of your SC-equipped party members to pull off a Crush attack. If the counter reaches full again when that Crush ends, you can press the button of one of the remaining characters to do another Crush attack. In this way you can "over attack" the enemy. This means that when the enemy's HP goes to zero, you start accumulating "karma points" (called 'sin' in the U.S. version of the game). Each enemy can represent up to 100 karma points. Each storyline battle has a karma requirement (100 karma, 200, etc.). Reaching this requirement gives you a couple rewards from Hel. At 150% and 200% levels, you get better rewards. As an example, say you have a battle with a 240 karma requirement, and 6 enemies on the field. If you can over attack each one of the enemies to zero their HP and then bring the karma counter up to 100 before the fight times out, then there's a possible 600 karma from the battle, and rewards at 240, 360 and 480 karma points. Rewards include rare healing items, accessories, and top shelf weapons and armor. Pluming a party member automatically gives you 100% of the karma requirement for that battle...

(Combat phase. If they're within range, it is possible to have multiple party members involved with each attack, on both sides.)

Over all, I consider Valkyrie Profile: Plume to be a very frustrating game. I like the character designs and background artwork, and I love the music. The story is ok, although I generally jumped over the dialog without trying to read the kanji. The problem is that even if you have super-powered weapons and equipment in the New+ game, things just drag. There's too much time spent waiting for the enemy to finish moving, or for fights to end. Strategically, the fights follow a "surround the enemy one at a time, hack them to bits, repeat" pattern. You can end certain fights fast by killing the enemy leader, but then you're sacrificing experience points - which are hard enough to get as it is - money and weapons. And if you don't meet the karma requirements, Hel will send Reapers in the next battle, which will force you to plume a party member, meaning you won't be able to get the best ending. Additionally, while the New+ games let you carry over equipment, items and any skills you learned, you lose all your experience, money and levels. So you're always restarting back at level 1 each time. Unless you saved certain items that give you 30,000 exp. (obtained as rewards from Hel), which can give you a good boost up. On my third play through the game, I had ten of those exp. boosts, which kicked me up to level 27 at the prologue. This helped a lot when I finally got to the best ending in Chapter 6.

Again, there's a disadvantage to buying some games used. In VP:P, it's that you get the optional dungeon already unlocked. When you turn the machine on, there's New Game, Continue, Seraphic Gate and Options. Seraphic Gate is the optional dungeon that becomes available after you unlock all three endings. There are 10 main floors, with half-floors in between them. You start on floor one, which gives you one of the main storyline bosses, and some minions. The bosses and enemies have item drops, and there are occasional hidden treasures you can reveal if you're equipped with the right accessory. The half-floors just have 4-8 standard enemies. The top 5 main floors house the Valkyries, and a super-boss. When you clear floor 10, you're transported back to floor 1 and you have to climb back up again, but this time with tougher enemies, although the dialogs for the bosses seem to remain the same. If you clear floor 10 ten times, you receive the strongest sword in the game. But at that point, there's really nothing to use it on, making the entire exercise kind of stupid.

Summary: I bought VP: Plume used for 500 yen because I enjoyed playing Silmeria on the PS2. It's a good game if you like SRPGs, but I consider the game play to be too dragged out. Not really recommended

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