Developer: Enix, Tri-Ace
Valkyrie Profile is the answer to the question that no one thought to ask until 2000 - what would happen if you loosed the Japanese on Norse mythology? The answer is that you get a game that drops one antagonist race of gods (the Jotun), gives Frei a sex change and features a world that somehow squeezes in Edo-era Japan. Throw in a few giant robots and some Rei clones, and you've practically got Evangelion.
But you can't just judge Valkyrie Profile on its mythological excess. Even taken only at face value, it's a beautiful game that mixes a terrific soundtrack with entertaining combat and unique party customization mechanics. Dig a little deeper, and you start to see the makings of one of the most grossly underappreciated games of our time. It manages to avoid Xenogears' excessive narrative bloat by asking the player to uncover the story themselves, in the process cleverly subverting its own premise. It juggles its massive cast of characters almost as effectively as the terrific Suikoden games. It avoids the technical missteps that hobble Final Fantasies VII, VIII and IX, and even ages better than the highly-regarded Vagrant Story?.
And yet, it's been almost universally ignored, barely even meriting a footnote in the rich history of PlayStation RPGs. Part of it can be chalked up to simple bad timing. Valkyrie Profile not only had a lot of ground to make up in not being a Square RPG, its release happened to come barely two months before the launch of the PlayStation 2. If you want to know what that meant for the tip of the spear of what was supposed to be Enix's new bid for America's heart, just ask Sega what happened to the Dreamcast. The resulting failure ensured that it would drop off the radar of all but hardcore RPG enthusiasts, many of whom couldn't help noticing that the going rate for a new copy of Valkyrie Profile was reaching Chrono Trigger? territory.
Unfortunately, many of the RPGs of the time were willing to be innovative, but not so much their newly-minted fans. No Square, no sale, they said. And that went double for the fact there were no spiky-haired pretty boys sporting oversized broadswords. No, Arngrim didn't count. The idea of an ostensibly non-linear RPG that starred a Valkyrie tasked with collecting souls was confusing and terrifying. And, of course, the final nail in the coffin was that it was a side-scroller featuring sprite-based graphics. In our time, we would call them "charming," or perhaps "beautiful." In 2000, they could be tolerated, but blocky PlayStation polygons were almost always the preferred choice amongst mainstream gamers.
But it was those same graphics that allowed Valkyrie Profile to age so well, making it one of the very few PlayStation games to look like something other than a heap of pixels, bland textures and janky animation. There was some fantastic art there, and it was reflected best in the final attacks, most of which featured gorgeous pyrotechnics. In fact, it was the few instances when Valkyrie Profile caved and included CGI that it suffered most. Far from being Square-calibur, Valkyrie Profile's cutscenes looked terrible and animated even worse. Unfortunately, they also made up a good chunk of the ultimate magic attacks. Their only saving grace were the unbelievably cool incantations that came with them.
That's right, Valkyrie Profile was a talkie. Doesn't seem so great now, but back then, most RPGs were essentially still in the silent film era. Plenty of grunts and gestures, comparatively few words. But Valkyrie Profile went all out on the voice acting front, and the result was some serious atmosphere. Because, you know, there really was no mercy for the damned when facing great magic. And god forbid that there be a vocal vaccum when the bad guys have no escape from the grasp of catastrophe. Not only did spoken dialogue grace every single one of the animated cutscenes (which were, thankfully, not CGI), it found its way into battles and ordinary conversation as well. Every battle opened with a, "Come to me, dark warriors! Battle awaits us!" Every attack had an accompanying battle cry, and every victory offered up a well-deserved, "Get thee hence, oblivion awaits you," or the equivalent. These battle cries added punch to every attack, made the villains sound damn cool and generally just worked because the voice talent got into it in a way that actors in later games simply didn't. Want an example? Look at Valkyrie Profile's own sequel, which featured voice talent that spent most of the game sounding half asleep.
The battles weren't the only beneficiary either. The voice work went a long way to adding weight to the story, most especially the sequences that involved collecting new members for your menagerie. As you might expect from a game that asks you to don the wings of a Valkyrie, these sequences involve a whole lot of death, which brings with it an excellent chance of falling into the chasm of cheesy dialogue and groan-inducing drama. Thankfully, these fears are put to rest the moment you hit 'select' and the voices begin to swirl -- a select preview of fatalities to come. The screams and sobs are shocking the first time you hear them, putting you in the mood for the upcoming vignette better than any CG cutscene or sad tune ever could. And when Lenneth comes face-to-face with the freshly deceased at the sequence's conclusion, the acting is often understated, even genuinely moving. While the quality is occasionally uneven, it's quite a remarkable achievement for a game to feature a large number of scenes that are non-interactive and unskippable, but are nevertheless consistently engaging throughout. Done poorly, they would have sunk the entire game. Instead, the music and voice work makes them memorable.
These scenes are the backbone of Valkyrie Profile's story, each of them adding color to a world on its way to oblivion. Taken separately, the majority of the characters are entertaining in themselves, excepting a few like the dreaded "Lapis! I choose you!" mermaid scenario. Viewed as a whole, the player begins to get a sense of a story running in the background as multiple recurring characters begin to appear, many of them affected in some way by prior deaths. Particularly sad was the decimation of nearly an entire party of adventurers, most of whom are tortured, turned to stone or simply killed in battle, leaving only a single character to mourn their deaths. Other deaths are brought about by recurring villains like Lezzard Valeth, bad choices or simple chance. In fact, if a character is named, there's a reasonable chance that they'll be in your party before too long. It doesn't pull punches either -- Valkyrie Profile is one of the few games in which I've seen a character actually go ahead and commit suicide. And they didn't exactly overdose on sleeping pills either. It's strong stuff, and it pretty much ensures that you have a strong connection to the characters throughout. Of course, their deaths are just the beginning. After we're done drying our eyes, the real work begins.
Character customization is a big part of Valkyrie Profile's appeal, not the least because it's supposedly the main point of the game. After all, there's a war on, and those einherjar aren't going to train themselves. Meeting the challenge means not only knowing how to arm your charges, but also how to distribute points into a range of available skills and talents. Complicating matters is the fact that requests will come down from Valhalla for specific fighters such as archers, scouts, mages and whatever else Odin needs to combat the Vanir legions. Building up the right kind of fighter will earn you accolades, measurable progress in the war and a whole lot of nifty new items. An ill-prepared fighter will just get themselves killed, thus depriving you of the chance to read about all their achievements over the course of the intermissions.
Here's Valkyrie Profile's dirty little secret though -- as much as the gods beg and whine, you don't want to send up too many einherjar. The game will keep pushing you to be a good little Valkyrie, keep to the beaten track and send along those warriors, and that's exactly what the majority of players will do. But as you lurch merrily toward Ragnarok, niggling mysteries will continue to appear. What in the world is up with Brahms and that castle of his? Why is the field of flowers so important? What's Lenneth's connection to Lucian, and what the heck is a seal rating anyway? The willingness to sacrifice a few days of game time to curiosity goes a long way in Valkyrie Profile, ultimately rewarding the player with a far richer experience than they would have had otherwise. It's this desire to make players work to uncover the game's mysteries themselves, rather than forcing them along a linear pathway, that brings it to the level of greats like Chrono Trigger? -- games in which the player could have as much or as little of the overall experience as they want.
Naturally, this went a long way toward improving Valkyrie Profile's overall replayability, but it wasn't the only thing. Enterprising players will quickly discover that each of the available difficulty settings are practically different games unto themselves, with the normal and difficult modes each serving up their own unique dungeons and characters. Choosing hard mode also gives you access to the flame jewels, which must be collected to open up the bonus Seraphic Gate. Weirdly enough though, hard mode is actually easier than normal mode. Yeah, you have to deal with all of your characters arriving at Level 1 along with more difficult puzzles. The items you get in return are far superior though, and you get quite a bit more time to fulfill the conditions for the best ending. Now, if you want a real challenge, try getting anywhere other than Johtenheim in the time allotted by the normal mode.
Really though, fantastic as they are, the challenge, storyline and voice acting are ultimately there to feed into one of Valkyrie Profile's biggest strengths as an RPG -- its excellent battle system. At a time when many RPGs featured strictly menu-driven combat, Valkyrie Profile introduced arguably the best and purest example of the Tri-Ace battle system. While Valkyrie Profile: Silmeria? introduced a number of interesting innovations in the ability to break enemy body parts while actually navigating the battlefield, the classic Valkyrie Profile largely kept things easy and intuitive. But that simplicity could be very deceptive.
When confronted with a battle, it's the natural instinct of a first-time player to immediately commence hammer all four of the Dual Shock's face buttons in an effort to get as many hits as possible. But it isn't long before they realize that it's a waste to just try and pummel the enemy, because many of the hits will simply miss. As time goes on, it becomes easier to come up with a combination of hits that ensures that all of your party members get a hit in, quickly building up the hit meter and allowing you to purify those weird old souls with a satisfying ultimate attack.
There are complications, of course. Sometimes, the enemy will simply dodge and counterattack with a devastating of their own. At others, you'll find yourself unable to break through their shields, or dizzied by one of their assaults. And, of course, they might just cut loose with some great magic and a wicked incantation of their own, at which time you can pretty much kiss your whole party goodbye. That, of course, is why abilities like Guts are pretty much essential to your party's survival.
If the battle system has one weakness, it's that it can get a bit repetitive at times. After a while, you'll find yourself going through your prescribed attack order, unleash all of your ultimate attacks, rinse and repeat. There are a few things that keep it from getting too repetitive though. The first are the aforementioned voices, which really does go a long way toward spicing up the battle. The second is that the very nature of the game means that it's necessary to frequently switch up your party, so your battle combinations will always be changing. And finally, the music is awesome. In fact, Valkyrie Profile has some of the best video game music ever.
In keeping with its occasionally over the top voice work, Valkyrie Profile's tunes are surprisingly upbeat for a game about death. The driving electronica serves as a nice contrast to all the serious stuff though, and having great battle and dungeon anthems doesn't preclude it from serving up a few rather emotional tracks as well (the song that plays when Lenneth is out collecting souls comes to mind). It's the kind of stuff that'll get you humming years later, and serves as the final, integral piece to the complex puzzle that provides the unique and entertaining atmosphere that sits at the very heart of Valkyrie Profile. It takes huge chances with each piece, from the story and music to the battle system and the voice work, and if any of those elements had turned out to be subpar, the whole game would have had a good chance of going off the rails. If you want proof of this, you need only look at how stunningly dull Silmeria is in comparison with its lethargic music and dull voices.
But it didn't go off the rails. It came together beautifully to provide an entertaining, well-made, even emotional experience that has aged wonderfully. And yet, it's been criminally overlooked in its own era and our own. It limped through retail, became a cult classic on eBay, and went on to be almost universally ignored by pretty much anybody who ever sat down to draw up a top ten PlayStation RPG list. It's a shame too -- surely there is no justice in a world where an overwrought, incomplete mess like Xenogears can ride to universal acclaim while an outstanding, nuanced, downright beautiful RPG like Valkyrie Profile can't even crack a Top 100 Must Own PlayStation Games list. Surely it's a miracle that it has any sequels at all when the original gets so little love.
Well, here's some love now. There were plenty of PlayStation and Saturn RPGs that had the ambition and innovation to become classics, but none of them brought it home quite as well as Lenneth did. Many games compare, but few surpass it. The best RPG of the PlayStation era came on the wings of a Valkyrie.