Sunday, April 3, 2011

This is the Saddest Song in the World: Valkyrie Profile Lenneth

This is a game in which a mermaid commits suicide. Which is fine if you're Hans Christian Andersen, not so much for the rest of the world.

"This sounds like the game for me!"

Valkyrie Profile Lenneth is a remake of the original Playstation game, Valkyrie Profile. This PSP version does little more than enhance the graphics, but it's coming from pretty spectacular source material, so that's all it really needs to do.

VP Lenneth tells the story of Odin's Valkyrie, Lenneth.  Asgard is on the eve of Ragnarok, Twilight of the Gods, and the All-Father needs some bodies to fill the ranks of his Einherjar.  Einherjar, for those not familiar, are the legions of dead warriors whose souls reside in Valhalla, fighting every day and feasting every night in training for the final battle.  Now that it's on its way, Odin wants to make sure he's got enough manpower to beat back the giants and dark elves and whatever else they blamed for pestilence and sunsets in ancient Norway.

Dwarves were the leading cause of impotence.

So Lenneth goes down to Midgard in search of some souls.  And that means watching just about everyone you interact with violently die just before recruiting them.

My game-collecting habits are, I believe, a little odd.  If I'm going to buy a game, I want it in the original case. The instructions should still be in there, as should any extras the manufacturer threw in to sweeten the deal.

The watch is so you know when it's go time.

Often this means excessive scouring of eBay, Amazon, CheapAssGamer, or other sites I might stumble across while searching for game sales to find my collector's items fully intact.  No copies of Alundra with the cheap paper map still included?  I'll wait.  Other times, it just means waiting for a remake to come out and buying that instead.  For reasons which apparently make perfect sense to me, I've absolutely got to have a game with every single piece included, or else just buy the handheld remake.  Either way, I'm good.

Although, I suppose in this case it's not really that odd.  I might be single-minded in my desire to have my games with every piece intact, but I'm also neither dumb nor lousy with disposable income. 

Her game collection must be incredible.

Valkyrie Profile, the original one for Playstation, is probably the most valuable PSX game in existence.  A factory-sealed copy can sell for up to of $500. Valkyrie Profile Lenneth, the exact same game with enhanced graphics on a handheld system, was $19.99 at GameStop.  Also, I'd just received a $50 gift card from work as a holiday bonus, because the theatre business is obviously booming.  Thus, this became another PSP game on my shelf, unplayed as I waded through my PS2 backlog, with every intention of putting this one off until my girlfriend did a very thoughtful thing and bought me Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume.

Since I already owned Silmeria, the first sequel in the series, which I don't even really remember buying to be honest, I figured her gift was as good a reason as any to finally beat a handheld game.  Let me explain - I own a plethora of games for both the PSP and Nintendo DS.  I've beaten approximately one of them - Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Time.  This was also a gift from my girlfriend, along with the DS itself (she's REALLY good at presents).  Now, I've played lots of handheld games.  I own lots of handheld games.  I'm just really, really terrible at going through them all the way.  After Mystery Dungeon I put in Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days.  I wasn't very far into that when I gave it up in favor of Pokemon HeartGold. I kinda beat HeartGold; I made it past the Elite Four and my rival, I just didn't go on to challenge the second half of the game.  In any case, that's where it starts getting a bit crazy.

Celebrities - is there any point they can't illustrate?

I stopped playing Pokemon and picked up Riviera: The Promised Land, which I played long enough to make a post about before switching over to Dragon Quest IX.  I made it really far in DQIX and then stopped playing for no reason, save maybe to change over to Monster Hunter Freedom Unite.  That went out the window when I bought Etrian Odyssey - which is still sitting in my DS, a little more than halfway done, since I bought Knights in the Nightmare and started playing the downloadable Yggdra Union which came with it. Maybe the above picture is inappropriate after all, because even though I was playing, I certainly wasn't winning.

So along comes my girlfriend with a game completing my Valkyrie Profile series, and I decided that it was time to take a stand.  Thus Lenneth became one of the only handheld games I ever completely defeated, and man, am I sad.  Not because I played it, but because this whole thing is just depressing.

I'm going to talk about the game now.  It'd be better if you just think about baby bunnies in teacups.

If you're a fan of Marvel Comics powerhouse Thor or just happen to have taken a gander at the Poetic Edda, you might be familiar with a few of the concepts this game presents. Odin's the king of the Gods, Asgard is a golden realm which stands apart from the mortal realm Midgard, Loki is a dick.  If you got that much, you're good to go.

So Odin charges Valkyrie with the task of going to Midgard and finding dead people.  The important thing to keep in mind with anything Norse is that the mythology is supposed to be a reflection of the times, and vise versa - which means that if the end of everything is coming to Asgard, you'll be able to tell because terrible things will be happening here on Earth.

Ragnarok began some time last year, modern theologists believe.

So in our very first adventure with Valkyrie, we watch as the willful princess Jalenda plots a clumsy revenge against the mercenary Arngrim for embarrassing her father in front of his court.  Her plan involves donning a disguise and pretending to hire him for a job, but whatever she had planned beyond that we never find out.  She never shows up to their meeting, so Arngrim figures she lost her nerve (having already figured out what was going on), shrugs it off, and takes a job escorting a wagon to a neighboring kingdom.

Then the royal guard shows up and searches the wagon, and of course find the kidnapped Jalenda inside.  As Arngrim is being interrogated, the soldiers give the princess a potion the king's vizier said would help her if she was injured.  Viziers being viziers, this was naturally a dick move in disguise.

Why do kings even hire these guys?

Jelanda, screaming the whole time, becomes a hideous monster and kills several of the guards.  Valkyrie appears and puts an end to her, because she's already dead inside.  Arngrim hightails it out of there and goes to murder his way through the castle to take revenge on the Vizier.  Lenneth shows up again, and the two of them put an end to the scheming old man.  Arngrim threatens a few more soldiers, and then commits suicide.  Valkyrie collects him and Jelanda and sets off to find more souls.

So that's the first story.

From there on out it only gets worse. Midgard is in what seems like a perpetual cycle of warfare, betrayal, and misery. Llewelyn falls in love with a nobleman's daughter, so they arrange to have him sent off to war where he dies on the front lines. Shiho's magic song emboldens the soldiers of her nation, so when she peacefully surrenders to the enemy their commander kills her on sight. Suo, a warrior from that unit, is overcome with grief at allowing it to happen and lets himself be killed by angry townspeople. Nanami wants to make her adoptive parents proud by undertaking a ritual only true-blooded members of the family line can complete, which ends with her dead at its finish.  Lorenta is murdered by her husband after he's turned into a monster by one of her students, covetous of their decades-long marriage. Yumei, the aforementioned mermaid, was the result of a forbidden love affair between her mermaid mother and human father.  After being shunned and ridiculed her whole life by the mer-people, she assumes a human form and goes in search of her dad only to find out he died years earlier, happy and surrounded by his surface-dwelling family.  She marches back into the ocean, still in her human form, and drowns.

That's only half the Einherjar you meet.  Here's a bunny.

And lest we forget Valkyrie herself, treat yourself to the scene which airs when you let the opening menu idle.  In it we get to find out that Lenneth was once a human girl named Platina, and she runs away in the middle of the night with her best friend Lucien.  Lucien takes her away, we find out, because her parents sold her into slavery, just like his parents did his little sister. After running until their lungs burn through the night, they stop in a field of poisonous lillies. Lucien urges them to move on, but Platina, unable to deal with the memories of her brutal life anymore, literally lays down and dies in front of Lucien as he begs her to stand up and run.


On a happier note, Lucien and Valkyrie are eventually reunited - after he's murdered by royal guards scouring the slums because the nobility got sick of poor people. Oh wait, I almost forgot the part where he dies in the arms of the woman who loves him, whom he could never fully love back because he never really got over Platina. Platina, who, as Valkyrie, remembers nothing about their time together. 

If you can sit through the agony of character recruitment, you're ready to play the game.

"Also, fetch some coffee."
Lenneth is divided into 8 chapters, and each chapter further broken down into 24 periods.  Periods are consumed in two different ways.  The first is Valkyrie's spiritual concentration, which she uses to locate the towns where she can find Einherjar, and the other is whenever she enters a town or dungeon.  When all 24 periods are consumed, the chapter ends and you're brought back up to Asgard to review how the war is going and if your Einherjar are helping.  Freya, Odin's personal secretary, will let you check on the status of each warrior where you can see little snippets of them interacting with the Asgardians or participating in the war. From there, you'll be given an assignment to find a new Einherjar with specific traits to send up during the next chapter.

The period system is a challenging constraint at times.  Several Einherjar are predetermined to show up in certain chapters, others are semi-random.  All the dungeons in the game are specific to one chapter.  This means if you die and get kicked out of one, or stop in the wrong town and waste a period on your way to recruit someone, you might run out of time before the chapter ends and not be able to do everything. Ragnarok is coming, and it's not going to wait if you need more time to level up.

"I got places to be, man."

You also receive a bonus for challenging yourself - if you put the game in Hard mode, it stunts your EXP but adds more dungeons and Einherjar you wouldn't have been able to access otherwise. Of course, that means more periods spent going through them on a more difficult setting, meaning more potential to screw up and miss out.

The dungeons are crucial for pretty much everything, and you want to clear all of them at least once. You see, Odin's not just looking for any old Einherjar - if they don't meet his specific demands, you lose favor with him for sending them up.  If Odin's not happy, your rewards at the end of each chapter go straight to Niflheim and the war starts turning against the Aesir.  Every warrior has specific traits which make them a unique snowflake, but you all learn the same skills.  Leveling up gets you points you can spend strengthening an Einherjar's beneficial traits and weakening undesirable ones, as well as building up their combat skills to meet the All-Father's demands.

This is critical because clearing dungeons also nets you valuable relics. Odin already called "dibs" on all of them, so you either send them up to him, never to be seen again, or keep them and lose favor. Poor favor means your post-chapter benefits will suck - unless you sent him a really kick ass Einherjar, in which case he doesn't even notice the fat stack of relics sticking out of the sack marked "relics" slung over your shoulder.

Doesn't even bat an eyelash.

This is important because most of the relics are great and you want to keep them. Some are great weapons, others have passive traits, a few just give you a massive amount of MP, which can be used to divine items and equipment. Bottom line is relics are great, and keep Odin happy by feeding him dead people so you get to keep them. You'll need all you can get, because combat can get rough.

On its surface, Valkyrie Profile is a typical turn-based RPG.  You get a turn, the monsters get a turn, you keep hitting one another until somebody dies. The only thing it seems to do differently initially is giving different weapons a chance to hit more than once per turn.  It turns out this is pretty vital to everything.

Each successful strike translates to points on your combo meter.  Reach 100 and you'll be able to perform a powerful combo attack.  Reach 100 again, and you can follow up that combo with another, and so on, growing more powerful with each successive strike. Every character has their own unique combo attack, and so as your party grows you'll have to learn how to time each round of battle so as to best reach 100. Mastering this can become critical around Chapter 4 and later, when enemy difficulty really ramps up.  Fortunately, near the end of Chapter 4 you also get the chance to equip yourself with weapons which will let you glide through Chapters 5 and 6, but as you near the end of the game the challenge comes back with a vengeance.

What further differentiates Valkyrie Profile's combat is that it pays attention to things like positioning and timing.  If you charge an enemy and knock him into the air at the same moment another Einherjar fires an arrow, the arrow might miss.  Likewise, you can, by attacking too quickly, move enemies out of range of your magic users so their spells are wasted.  Magic users can do the same, perhaps hurtling a foe into the air, just as you rush in for a sword-strike which won't hit anything. You've got to learn how each party combination fits together and what order you should perform your attacks in. Not only that, but you can actually hurt yourself when counterattacking. If you dodge an attack but counter too late, the target will have already moved away. Too soon and the tail end of the attack you dodged will hit you anyway.

They managed to fit a lot of nuance into a pretty simplistic formula, but that's probably to be expected by the guys who came up with the battle system for Radiata Stories and Star Ocean: The Second Story.

So if you can get through the heart-wrenching parts, the story is very good, the animation and cinematics are stunning, and the score is top-notch as well. While the mythology is kind of sketchy, the presence and proper characterization of a whole slew of the Norse pantheon is a treat for buffs of the subject. The multiple difficulty modes and endings give it some strong replay value, as well as the hints you get about the sequel, Silmeria. By the end of the game, the absurdly powerful Vampire King, Brahms, as well as the insanely powerful and insanely creepy and just plain insane Lezard Valeth are both unaccounted for, plotting their schemes for the next installment. Brahms has a connection not just to Valkyrie, but also her sisters, the other two fate Goddesses, and Lezard is a sorcerer who has decided he loves Lenneth and is going to have her by any means necessary.
He turned to sorcery after the mix CDs didn't work.

It's a great game, doesn't take a lot of time to get through, and if you're able to plot out a course to the good, or "A" ending, you're given some intense and at times truly touching moments. Of course, no matter what you do, Ragnarok happens and the world ends, but believe it or not that's not really as important as it sounds by the time you reach the finish line. I think it's there because the game wasn't quite depressing enough and they couldn't get the CG of drowning puppies finished by deadline. Regardless, I recommend playing this one through if you've got a PSP and time to spare. Or if you've got the original PSX copy, you could play that, or, I don't know, snort coke off of it using a solid gold straw, Mister Millionaire.

In any event, with Lenneth out of the way for now, I've got poll results to uphold.  I'm smack in the middle of my second playthrough of Tales of the Abyss, but when that's done, I'm moving on Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne. After that, I've got a project planned I hope we all can enjoy which I'm calling "Almost Got 'Em."

Until next time, keep playing - through those tears in your eyes.

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