This is a column by Kat Bailey dedicated to the analysis of the once beloved Japanese RPG sub-genre. Tune in every Wednesday for thoughts on white-haired villains, giant robots, Infinity+1 swords, and everything else the wonderful world of JRPGs has to offer.
Around here, we have a bit of a tradition: If the resident JRPG columnist opts to move on, they finish their tenure by writing about their favorite role-playing game. Since this will be my last column with Joystiq, it's time to discuss how much I love Valkyrie Profile.
Valkyrie Profile has pretty much everything I'm looking for in an RPG. It has solid customization; visual flair; a strong story; great music; and a large cast. But what really takes it above and beyond for me is that little added twist; that certain je ne sais quoi that really makes it something special.
The setup is relatively simple. Ragnarok is due to start soon, so Odin recalls Lenneth Valkyrie from Midgard to start collecting the souls of great warriors for the coming battle. The story is split into chapters, most of which consist of either a dungeon to explore, or a vignette in which someone dies and joins Lenneth's army, where they are trained for an eventual transfer to Valhalla.
The battle system is a brisk, combo-based affair in which each character is assigned to one of the button faces, and hits build up to an impressive super attack. It's serviceable, but it's almost beside the point. There's a lot more to developing a warrior than simply leveling them up. Purchasing the right skills, for instance, is a huge part of ensuring that they survive and thrive in heaven. One of the joys of Valkyrie Profile is checking on the progress of your fighters and seeing all of the accolades they've earned thanks to your hard work.
I don't mean to minimize the importance of the battle system too much – it's fun, fast, and interesting to look at – it's just that I feel like there's a lot more going on in Valkyrie Profile than just the combat. For instance, my favorite part of Valkyrie Profile is that, whether she knows it or not, Lenneth is on a very personal quest of her own, and that quest frequently conflicts with her overall objectives. It's not always obvious, but a lot of Valkyrie Profile is doing just enough to appease Odin, but not so much that you ruin your opportunity to figure out the real truth behind Ragnarok and Lenneth's ability.
Lenneth's quest happens almost entirely behind the scenes. Blink a couple times, and you may end up missing it. Significant characters flit in and out of the story, and there are optional areas that seem inconsequential when you visit them, but show their true importance later in the story. It's quite possible to ignore all of this and go about your business, but it's there, and it's meant to bug you.
We talk about RPGs where you're "playing the role." In a sense, you're really Lenneth Valkyrie. You don't know anything about your identity, and you're being told to carry out a particular objective, with severe consequences if you fail. The game does everything in its power to convince you to stay the course by lavishing you with experience and weapons after transferring a warrior. But it's up to you, the player, to figure out what's going on and deliberately move away from the path set by the game, whether that means hoarding characters or visiting supposedly dangerous or forbidden locations.
I suppose it's reasonable to call this "bad game design," since the story is deliberately misleading, and it's practically impossible to get the good ending without consulting a guide, but it never bothered me. So many games are codified, market tested, safe, and above all, obvious. Forcing players to think outside of the box is practically taboo now. So as insane as Valkyrie Profile might sound, I like that it's willing to experiment with this layer of meta-design that misleads the player as much as the main character. It's kind of the antithesis of everything I find to be boring about today's game design.
That's pretty much the crux of its appeal for me – it's a game that makes me think. After thirteen years, it's held up remarkably well. I've been through Valkyrie Profile many times over the years. I've unlocked the bonus dungeon; obtained the best ending on the normal difficulty (not easy), and gone so far off the rails that Freya had to come to Midgard and put me down. One reason I find it easy to keep coming back is that the story is actually partly randomized. Different dungeons and characters will show up during different playthroughs, and the order in which they appear will shift as well. And in one of the cooler touches, the hard mode features an entirely unique set of dungeons to explore, making it a substantially different experience from the normal difficulty.
But in the end, I really come back because playing Valkyrie Profile is like putting on my favorite pair of slippers. I suppose everyone has the "comfort game" they turn to when they don't feel like indulging in the latest AAA du jour. This is my comfort game.
Of course, I'm in the minority on that front. Enix picked pretty much the worst time to release Valkyrie Profile – the eve of both Final Fantasy IX and the PlayStation 2 launch – and spent barely any money to promote it. Moreover, it was in 2D, which made it tough sell in an era in which people were still overawed by rendered cutscenes. I found Valkyrie Profile because I happened to read about it, which convinced me to buy it at launch. I'm glad I did.
Valkyrie Profile will never get the attention of Xenogears, Final Fantasy VII, or even Suikoden. It was a weird RPG that arrived right at the tail end of the PlayStation era; and by the time anyone realized it existed, individual copies were going for well more than a hundred dollars apiece. Despite that, it's a worthy part of the PS1's RPG legacy. I like its creativity, its willingness to take chances with its design, and its overall look. I haven't really seen any RPG like it before or since. Even its own sequel was a bit of a cop out – a much more traditional RPG cloaked in some of the trappings of the original game. I still feel a little letdown by that.
But if you get a chance, see if you can't dig up a copy of Valkyrie Profile on either the PS1 or the PSP – either will do. It starts a little slow, but once its get to the first dungeon, it gets moving at a nice clip. Relax, soak in all that lovely 2D art, and try and think outside of the box. Above all, enjoy it. They really don't make games like Valkyrie Profile anymore, in more ways than one.
Kat Bailey is a freelance writer based out of San Francisco, California. Her work has been featured on multiple outlets, including GamesRadar, Official Xbox Magazine, gamesTM, and GameSpot. You can follow her on Twitter at @the_katbot.
With this column, Joystiq says goodbye to Kat Bailey, who exits freelance for a new role in the industry. Thanks for the great work, Kat! –Xav