The gods must be lazy.
Owning a PSP has been an exercise in prolonged buyer's remorse. No matter how many useless Carrot Top skins, fanny packs, or "portable" home theater kits they cram on shelves, the damn thing is just too short on long games.
Proving that a million timid voices clamoring in unison can occasionally be heard, Sony has finally started dotting their PSP library with RPGs. The latest, Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth, is a fairly straightforward port of a six-year old PS1 game, not exactly the kind of thing that gives us newfound respect for our dusty PSP. Still, it’s an interesting, engaging game that at least stops the RPG withdrawal shakes.
Steeped in Norse mythology, Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth
lets you play as the Battle-Maiden Lenneth, goddess and Chooser of the Slain. You’ve been charged to scour the war-torn land of Midgard for the worthy souls of warriors, thieves, and mercenaries in an effort to prepare for the end of the world, or Ragnarok. Hovering over Midgard, you attune yourself to the thoughts and emotions of the earth in order to find souls ready to be freed from their mortal vessels. The bulk of the game has you visiting the melodramatic, final moments of each character's life, taking them into your party for training and purification so they may be sent as Einherjar, or lesser warrior gods, to Valhalla to join Odin in his raging war against the Vanir.
The really interesting twist is that during it all, the final battle of Ragnarok is steadily approaching. Whether you enter towns to acquire characters or dungeon dive to train them, moving around the map triggers the passage of time. This creates a great sense of urgency and tension, leading you to play as efficiently and productively as possible. It is entirely possible to run out of time periods, still too weak to beat the game, and be forced to do it all again. With a lot of risk-free, sandbox games crowding the RPG market, it's incredibly refreshing to play a game with a real hardcore consequence, even if the game is kind of old.
But as excellent of a job Valkyrie Profile does of gracefully whisking you away in its cool premise, it awkwardly drops you into gameplay limbo. You won't know what to do or where to go, so you'll fly around the map, giggle to yourself a bit, and waste a bunch of periods visiting random towns to talk to NPCs for some direction. Then you get none, reset the game to get your wasted periods back, and poke around like a chimp to see that the only way to progress is to hit the "attune to thoughts" button. Oh, darn.
Indeed, the game world is linear in its presentation, though every town and dungeon pretends to be replayable. But you won't want to explore so much after being slapped on the hand for errantly wasting time. What's that new spot on the map that just popped out of nowhere? Save. Explore. Restart. Slap.
Despite this weird design incongruity, Valkyrie Profile
adheres to some fairly typical and rewarding dungeon crawling. The battle system is fast and light. Each of the 20 or so characters is either of the archer, knight, or mage type. The face buttons are mapped to the primary attacks, so the turn-based battles zoom by at a good clip with button-mashes for the fighters and archers, and single taps for the casters.
What makes it all work is the timing and sequence of your attacks. Most of your physical attacks will be guarded, so you'll have to open the enemy’s guard with a spell, then attack with your melee fighters. If you can juggle enemies, you'll be rewarded with an extra item or two and a couple experience point multipliers. And if you hit them on the ground, you'll get gems granting special moves or magic to be used again, since in another twist, casters don't have to manage mana meters.
The elegant simplicity of this combo system is fun for a while, and it's nice to get away from menu-heavy battles, but many of the enemies can be killed in one shot, so you'll barely need to see what kind they are before you vaporize them. What's worse, against certain monsters your party will also be vulnerable to one-hit kills. These wild shifts in enemy difficulty can make progress tiresome, because even if you have killed every enemy in every previous dungeon, you can still pick a fight you simply can't win. Save often.
Thankfully, you can skip enemies when the potential experience points are not worth the risk by making an ice platform to jump clear over them. Played as quirky platformers, the dungeons have multiple paths leading to different treasure rooms but only one path to the boss, and usually only one exit, which doubles as the entrance. After you kill the boss, snag all the loot, and wax all the monsters, you’ll have to trace your steps to get out because there’s no “quick exit” option or spell. My Valhalla for an Escapipe!
Speaking of items, there are no shops or traders to visit. Instead, you can break down items into points. It's truly a bodega of the gods, since you can access it whenever you're flying about or even at save points. The problem is that the items themselves are repetitive and sometimes have no useful effects. You'll get a ton of the same stuff and feel bogged down in all this crap, being that your inventory doesn't have a "sort" function. The shopping menu, like many of the game's menu-based functions, is deeply buried under layers of WTF.
There are a ton of stats and ranks to jack up for each character, ranging from skills, abilities, talents, and even personal traits like "Drunkard" or "Flirt." It has a very Pokemon
-ish feel to it; you actually come to care about your party mates, and you have to decide whether to keep that badass samurai dude for Ragnarok or send him off to aid Odin in war. And watching your dudes do well in the afterlife is the game's brightest reward. So long as you send a pair of heroes to Odin each chapter, his army will win, but man, that's almost of full day of gameplay. It’s pretty addictive and effective.
It also just plain pretty. The framerate occasionally chops while navigating dungeons and in narrow rooms the graphics can blur up a bit due to the 4:3 to 16:9 stretch, but otherwise it all moves very smoothly. The PSP-only CG cutscenes are gorgeous and dramatic. An ethereal soundtrack keeps the mythological mood in check, even though the voice-acting won’t win any awards.
It's easy to see what made the original Valkyrie Profile
a cult hit for the PS1 back in 2000, and PSP owners starved for a decent RPG shouldn’t hesitate to check out this solid if flawed port. We’re just hoping we see something actually new soon, at least before the floodgates open in 2007.