Thursday, July 26, 2007

PlayStation Portable (PSP) - Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth - Several Hours In

Review: I came late to role-playing games. Had a bad experience in the late 80's that put me off the genre until 2005. Now I eat 'em up, especially Japanese RPGs. Valkyrie Profile was a PlayStation JRPG I sought for my library. The cheapest it could be had - used - was $80 USD. That's a collector's price, and I'm a player not a collector.

Then Square-Enix released Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth for the PlayStation Portable and Valkyrie Profile: Silmeria for the PlayStation 2. I thought they were both sequels to Valkyrie Profile, and Silmeria is. But Lenneth, to my surprise and delight, turned out to be a direct port of the original.

The story is pretty good; it's actually a set of smaller stories united by a very recognizable version of Norse mythology. Ragnarok, the final battle between the Norse gods and the Giants is nearly at hand. A valkyrie named Lenneth is sent to Earth to gather the souls of fallen human warriors, prepare them for battle, and send them to heaven to be part of the army of the gods. There are, as in any RPG, liberties taken with the backstory and characters to make the game work, but in this case less than I would have thought.

Graphics and sound are pretty good - for a game created for the original PlayStation. Most games made for the PSP are closer to the presentation quality of the PS2, but this is a straight PS1 port. Voice work is adequate, though at times a bit overwrought.

What sets this game apart from other JRPGs is its gameplay. Some of the differences are good, and others are mistakes. I'll start with the mistakes.

The single biggest mistake in the game is its doomsday clock. There are a finite number of "periods" before Ragnarok, the war that ends the world and the game. Every entry into a town or dungeon consumes one or more of these periods. This increases the player's sense of urgency, but at the cost of other problems. The first of these is inherent in any game with a time-limit: painting yourself into a corner. It's not hard to mess up badly at the beginning of the game and then run out of time before completing all the necessary missions. There's no way out of such a situation except to start over. Not fun.

Next, there's levelling. Those of us unfamiliar with the nuances of combat, equipment, party balance and so on are denied the opportunity to make up for it by grinding. The doomsday clock means that grinding costs precious time before Ragnarok comes. Not that I like grinding; quite the opposite. But I like studying the arcane details of overly-complicated battle, inventory and crafting systems even less. It's supposed to be a game, not a course in advanced mathematics.

Enjoyment of the story also suffers. Visiting a town before and after it plays a part in the plot affords the opportunity to talk with the townsfolk and get some background. Again comes the clock to put a wet blanket on. Extra visits? More periods consumed.

And finally the doomsday clock damages one of the more innovative game features: an open world. It is in theory possible to visit the various towns and dungeons in any order you like, but the time limit encourages the player to visit them in the order suggested by Lenneth's visions.

Besides the doomsday clock, another game design mistake is dumping explanation of the finer points of the various game systems (combat, equipment, party makeup, etc) into text files whose translation from Japanese is mediocre. And there's little or no explanation of the crafting system. All of this would have been far better explained either in the tutorial portion of the game, or in small increments through the game as they become necessary.

The last mistake I'll describe here is treasure. All of the phattest loot must be offered up to the god Odin or one's evaluation will drop - which makes winning the final battle less likely. One of the things that keeps people playing these games is the prospect of finding new and powerful items that one can use to smack down ever more dangerous enemies. Not here.

On the plus side, many aspects of Lenneth's gameplay truly are innovative. The battle system is turn-based, but also relies on timing to deliver combo attacks (fortunately, timing isn't that critical there). The crafting system lets you create items out of thin air and magic, and conversely turn items into magic power.

One innovation that gives the series its name is that non-combat gameplay more closely resembles a platformer than the usual 2D or 2.5D adventure game. The Valkyrie is typically seen in profile from left or right, hence the game name.

Enemy encounters are not random; one can see the opposing party before choosing whether to fight it, and can gain initiative in the battle by choosing the fight rather than letting the monster attack. Many of these encounters are unavoidable. You have to do them anyway in order to reach parts of the dungeon and in order to to level your party. But it's nice to have at least the illusion of choice.

The game world is open from the start, as far as I can tell. The player can visit any of the towns or dungeons at any time. However, the game's time limit discourages it and visiting a town out of order means nothing plot-advancing can be done there.

All in all, Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth is an enjoyable JRPG with a good story, reasonable presentation, and generally good gameplay with some flaws. It will appeal more to fans of the genre willing to overlook its shortcomings than it will to more mainstream gamers.

Grade: B-

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