Date: 2/25 6:30 PM
Game Time: 02:45
I've reached the point in Valkyrie Profile where Square Enix doesn't want me to discuss any plot details after this, so I figured I'd start the blog now. After this post, I can't talk about the story or SE will send a self destruct signal to the review copy of the game, which could be inconvenient.
For those familiar with the franchise, VP DS (which is what I will call it in this blog, subtitle be damned) is like an anti-VP game. Rather than finding the souls of strong warriors and sending them to Valhalla, you play as Wylfred, whose traumatic childhood warped him into a young adult hell-bent on finding and slaying Lenneth. Lenneth, as in Valkyrie Lenneth, protagonist of Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth. You are the bad guy in this game.
Not content just to set an end goal of "murder beloved character from past games," Wylford also makes a pact with Hel, Evil Norse Goddess of the Underworld whom "Hell" is named after in the Bible. She will grant him the power to slaughter Lenneth only if he taints a plume from her wings with the blood of those who trust him. Yes. Your goal is to make friends, kill them, then wipe the white valkyrie plume in their blood until it is stained black. You are the bad guy in this game.
So whereas VP1 has you rescuing souls and sending them to heaven, after which they will no longer be around to help you in battle, VP DS has you befriending people and sending them to Hel, after which they will no longer be around to help you in battle. Twisted, but cool, yes? To help hammer this point home, right after the game's introduction where Wylfred's bestest childhood friend talks about what a swell guy he is, you can use the plume to kill him and watch him die. What better way to let you know what a heartless guy Wylfred is?
Or at least, Wylfred should come across as heartless. At this early point, he seems rather aloof regarding the grisly nature of his dark task. Like any good RPG, complete strangers plead to follow him around the world, and he seems quite lackadaisical about the fact that once these people trust him, he is expected to kill them. Hopefully some character development will take place there deeper along the road.
Square Enix promises branching paths and dialogue depending on whom, when, and how often you bump off your comrades. I'm looking forward to how this all plays out. Right now, I haven't sent any more of my friends to Hel because I need them in the battles. I'll go more into gameplay details in a later post.
Date: 2/27 5:30 AM
Game Time: 07:48
This game is either really short, or has a lot of chapters. I got a few game overs yesterday, so my real game time is probably closer to 8:30. A had a map where this heavily armed dude with significantly higher stats started out directly in front of my team, plus he had an archer on each side of him for support. I tried it about three or four times and he single handedly killed my team each time. So... I evoked the power of the plume.
Using the plume to murder your friends isn't just a dark gimmick for the twisted; when it is used on someone, it pumps up his stats for the rest of the battle and makes him an invincible tank. After getting crushed a few times on this map, I used the plume on my archer and she killed the aforementioned guy who had previously been taking out my whole team. Then, she walked around the map and killed every opponent. It's like using the bracelets in Jeanne D'Arc, or letting Gig increase your level by 1000 in Soul Nomad and the World Eaters, only unlike Jeanne, it lasts all battle, and unlike Soul Nomad, it doesn't give you an immediate bad ending. What it does do is permanently kill the recipient of the enormous stat boost upon battle's end, complete with a cutscene of said person slowly dying and other party members crying over his grave. It wants you to feel like a heartless bastard for using the plume to autowin.
The combat in VP DS is on a standard tactical grid with combo attacks possible if enough good guys have the same baddie in range, only when you initiate an attack it plays out with the same timing-based, action battle system as VP1 and VP2. Enemies fight the same way. There are fans of tactics games, and there are fans of VP's battle system, but do these two groups really overlap much? If you hate VP's system, you won't like it here either. If you hate tactics RPGs, you won't like the tactics setup here. tri-Ace is really banking on the hope that fans of VP will be interested enough to try a tactics game, and fans of tactics RPGs will be interested enough to try one that requires the precise timing of VP's attacks. It's weird.
So far I've only used the plume for fratricidal purposes two times: once when it first becomes useable and the game sorta tells you to use it, and then on my archer in the impossibattle. I'm going to use it as sparingly as possible and try to keep poor Wylfred from turning into an evil jerk.
Date: 2/28 6:00 AM
Game Time: 14:00
The battle system has one last trick: Sin. At the start of each map, the player will be given a target amount of Sin to dish out. You know the silly Overkill gauge in VP1 that had no purpose aside from letting the player know to stop attacking? It has a purpose in VP DS. Once an enemy's health reaches zero, continuing to attack the foe flashes "Overkill" on the screen. Now the foe's empty health bar will begin to fill up as damage continues to be dealt. This is Sin. When you're done attacking, you are awarded Sin equal to the percentage of the foe's health you dealt to it in extra damage. For example, let's say you're fighting a foe with 1000 max HP. After the deathblow, you keep attacking and deal 500 more damage to it. 500/1000 = 50%, so you get 50 Sin. If you screw up and are out of hits after killing the foe, you get 0 Sin. You can't get more than 100 Sin from a single enemy; once the Overkill gauge fills the foe's life bar back up to 100%, it stops, and when your combo ends you will get 100 Sin for filling the bar 100%, no matter how much extra damage you dealt.
This makes things tricky. On one hand, you want to win the tactical battle. On the other hand, you need to make sure that your killing combo is so powerful that you get a nice amount of Sin from it. These goals conflict, since in tactics games you typically want to deal just enough damage to finish a unit off, not waste character turns to slam the crap out of him with a combo using all four party members. Why should you care about Sin? At the end of the battle, you get bonus items for reaching the Sin quota. If you go way over the quota, Hel is very pleased and you get even more goodies. These items are often useful, so reaching the Sin quota is in the player's best interest.
As for my playthrough right now, I'd say that the tactics elements of the battle system are bringing down the VP elements. In VP1 and 2, missing the timing on a combo wasn't a big deal; if you failed to get a special attack, you could just kill your enemies next turn. In the tactics world, leaving a foe alive when you strategically planned for him to be dead can be devastating. Missing the combo timing on a deathblow can keep you from getting Sin, and because foes have more life and defense than you, most of your damage is dealt via special attacks, not normal ones. For me, this is where the hybrid gameplay is falling apart. If the tactics aspects were more balanced -- enemies generally have much higher statistics than you, and often have cheap ranged attacks -- it wouldn't be as much as a problem. Also weird on the tactics side is that AP is used to cast spells, use abilities, and use items. Busting out with a powerful spell or ability one turn can keep you from using a healing or life potion you desperately need two turns later.
I haven't died since the last blog entry, and I haven't needed to use the plume again. Overall the game is on the easy side. If I were choosing to use the plume more, it would be even easier. I think the only challenge would come from someone trying to play the game without using the plume at all. When you kill off a friend with the plume, Wylfred permanently gains a new, powerful ability that tilts the battle in your favor when you use it. These abilities are so strong, using them is almost like cheating. I've relied heavily on the two abilities I've gained this way to win battles. Without them, I'd have lost several times.
One last note on the story. After an interesting start, it went in a disappointing direction for me. I was hoping it would play out with you behaving like an anti-valkyrie -- a Grim Reaper of sorts -- with vignettes similar to VP1, but that isn't the way it's going. The plot is focusing more on political intrigue than characters and their lives.
Date: 3/4 10:00 AM
Game Time: 17:00
No longwinded gameplay descriptions this time. The last three entries were dominated by that because people seem confused regarding what the heck this game actually is.
I played VP DS on the train Monday while trying to blow off a creepy, talkative guy who kept telling me long stories. I sit in the "quiet car" for a reason. I don't want to talk to you - I want to play my video games! Finally one of the ticket collection slaves pointed to the sign over his head that said "DO NOT TALK" and told him to shut up.
Last night in the hotel I finished up a 4 battle gauntlet I'd been slogging through since Monday. 4 straight maps with no ability to save and no shops inbetween them, and all of the maps were tough. By the end of the fourth one I was out of necessary items and only survived by fleeing (and trapping the stupid AI foes behind a wall) until my AP restored, then running back into the fray. Had to do that twice. Fortunately I didn't die, so I don't know if a game over would have sent me back to the load screen or if I would have had the option to restart the last fight. I love you all, but I am not risking replaying through four tough fights just to see how the game over screen works.
Come to think of it, I've never seen the game over screen. When I know I am about to lose I always reset the DS because it's faster than watching myself die.
The plot seems to be wrapping up its current thread. Hopefully new stuff happens, because if this is a 20 hour game, that would be sorta sad. I think I just passed a branch in the story, and it looks like I went down the evil path. I'm also still waiting for Wylfred to become interesting. He's been a lame duck protagonist all game with no personality whatsoever.
Date: 3/5 11:00 AM
Game Time: 19:00
I finished VP DS last night. I don't know how many endings there are, but I certainly got a bad one. A New Game+ option lets you start over with all of your equipment and skills carried over. This makes a second playthrough easy, since Wylfred gets to keep all the game breaking skills he learns from using the plume on the 1st playthrough. I realize now that VP DS is balanced so that you must use the plume on the first playthough, get the/a bad ending, then use a New Game+ to aim for the good ending without using the plume at all. tri-Ace usually makes some decent excuses to replay its games, and this is no exception. The quirk to this is that the game will always be easy. Using the plume makes the game a snap, then having all of your awesome equipment and skills on the 2nd playthrough will, presumably, make it a snap too.
As tends to be the case with bad endings, it was rather unfulfilling, and I can feel the temptation to play the rather short game through another time just to see a better conclusion. There's also a point early in the game where it seemed like you could choose between 2 or 3 missions based on which political side you want to support. I have a lot of travel time ahead of me, so I'm planning to replay through that story choice so I can report on its impact in the review. Right now I don't know if it affects the plot, or if it just affects which characters you end up recruiting in that chapter.
Date: 3/12 10:30 AM
Game Time: 20:30
I played the first couple of chapters again on the second playthrough. Having the endgame equipment from my previous run makes the battles so easy, they are boring. I made it right about to where the choice between multiple stages occurs, but the gameplay is so mindless I am having trouble forcing myself to play it any more, especially with the much better Class of Heroes currently in my PSP. I wrote up the review last night; I'll be at work all day today, then travelling from NY to VA all evening, so if I want to post it tomorrow, it had to be done by now. Like I figured, I didn't fit everything into the review that I wanted to say, but I think it manages to answer all of the questions potential buyers would have. It'll go up Friday at noon EST.
The lesson here is that dreams inevitably lead to hideous implosions.