Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume - Reader Review  

Reapin' Sin with Hel
by Alex Dixon

Click here for game information
Less than 20 Hours
+ Branching story
+ Unique combat
+ Dark archaic world
- Broken mission
- Shaky premise
- AI rolls over and dies
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   In an era of remakes for the old RPG masters at Square Enix, it's always nice to see something new being done. Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume does a good job of giving DS owners something different on a system that already has plenty of SRPGs. Unfortunately, like its white-haired protagonist, it also has a few screws loose.

   Wylfred is a young man just getting started on his career as a mercenary. Bit by bit, we come to realize that his life has a higher purpose: Killing the battle angel known as the Valkyrie. From the very beginning, the story of the latest Valkyrie Profile is a mixture of good and bad.

   The game starts with a poem, which sets the stage by telling us that women and children hate the Valkyrie for whisking their fathers and husbands away to Valhalla. Next, we cut to brooding Wylfred and his friend Ancel, who are about to go into their first battle. It's not until Wylfred actually manages to die in this first battle that we get a flashback which reveals his story. It becomes clear that after his father's death, Wyl and his mother lost everything. The reverie is interrupted by the Queen of the Underworld, Hel, who offers him a second chance at life, and the power he seeks to kill the Valkyrie, if only he'll stain his father's momento, the feather the Valkyrie left behind, black with blood and sin. So far, so good. The problem is, as the story goes on, we start to wonder: Why does Wyl blame the Valkyrie, anyway? Whatever happened to just blaming the guy who actually killed your father on the battlefield? Hating the Valkyrie seems kind of like hating the garbage man for driving off with the vintage comic book collection your girlfriend threw out.

   The explanation that the game wants us to buy, but doesn't make clear, is that the Valkyrie is like fate itself. Death follows her wherever she goes, and great warriors and peasants alike all bow before her. So, in a sense, while the Valkryie doesn't fly around stabbing people's parents for kicks, she does bring death.

   If you can get past this myth-like conception of cause and effect, Covenant of the Plume has a moody but fun storyline. The plot is a huge improvement over Square Enix's Final Fantasy Tactics A2, and it has an atmosphere that is unlike anything else on the DS. In addition to the boon of a carefully crafted localization complete with pseudo archaic dialog that works pretty well, the story branches throughout the game and eventually leads to different endings depending on the player's choices.

   This is the game's defining aspect. The story is shaped not only by your dialog choices and where you choose to go, but by how you fight in battle.

   The game is meant to be just hard enough that it makes you think, "man, I wish I could just cheat and destroy these guys!" The good news is that Queen Hel has heard your pleas, and God Mode is built into the game. Unfortunately for your companions, the bad news is that it involves making them superhumanly powerful for several minutes and then feeding their blood to the seductive Queen of the Underworld via a magic feather.

Don Don't tell PETA.

   The Covenant of the Plume is built around this mechanic, even drawing its title from it. Battles are easy when you're willing to sacrifice the life of a companion, but often hard if you're not. These sacrifices also have the long term benefit of teaching Wylfred the most powerful skills in the game after his companions have been devoured, so it's easy to be evil and hard to be good.

   Whether or not you make use of this power will control the route you take through the story and the eventual ending you see. The game lasts between ten and fifteen hours, so it's not too intimidating to replay.

   Battles in Covenant of the Plume involve the usual SRPG checkerboard, but with a twist -- whenever you attack an enemy with one character, any nearby party members will also join in on the attack. After you've selected a target for the attack command, the game changes to a classic Valkyrie Profile battle screen, and each party member in the attack is mapped to one of the four face buttons, with one, two, or three attacks depending on what weapon they're using. There's a combo meter you're trying to raise up to 100 during every attack, and if you manage it, characters will get to add on finishing moves that do tons of damage. Timing is often the difference between filling up the combo meter and finishing off an enemy in a blaze of glory, or getting back more than you gave, and heading to your grave.

   It's not a perfect combat system. You only use four characters in any battle, plus the occasional lobotomized AI guest character. Keeping all your party members clustered together effectively means you get sixteen attacks per turn, which is generally agreed to be better than four attacks per turn, so most of the time you'll be figuring out how to best clump all your characters together, or how to surround one unlucky enemy. Pulling the finishing moves off is extremely satisfying, and involves a surprising amount of planning because of the different weapon ranges your characters will posses. Enemies also get to do combos, which means positioning your people badly will probably lead to them dying before they get another turn.

   Luckily, the enemy AI is so bad in the game that you will occasionally think you're dead going into the enemy turn, only to see the enemy leader walk back into a corner and practice his spell casting rather than delivering the expected deathblow. If there were better enemy AI which could force the player to improvise more often, the combat system might really shine. As it is, Covenant's hybrid battle system is a flawed but often exciting experience.

   One thing that keeps even easy moments in battle interesting is the sin gauge. By being ruthless and over-killing enemies you gain sin points. You have a sin quota the Queen of the Underworld expects you to reap every battle. Get under that amount, and watch out for the otherworldly hitmen who show up in the next fight. Double the sin quota, and you get magical weapons and items that make playing the good guy a lot more manageable.

   My main complaint regarding game balance would have to be the rescue missions. At some point in development, the designers evidently decided that just killing your characters wasn't good enough for their precious monsters, or perhaps it was too complex a task for the single-celled AI they'd imbued in their creations, and wouldn't it be better if the monsters could simply defeat you by killing one equally brain-dead victim and ignoring your characters altogether? Of course, said victim always starts smack in the middle of the enemy army, and it's your job to forget all standard tactics and sprint to their aid before they get themselves killed by walking into a meteor swarm. Normally this makes for some challenging if frustrating missions, but one point the game is simply broken.

That guy had it comin That guy had it comin'.

   During a rescue mission in which you're trying to come to the aid of a certain female cleric who shall remain nameless, you have a 30% chance of seeing a game over screen no matter what commands you choose. I tested it 10 times (read: I died more than ten times and started keeping a tally of my futility after the first couple failures) and out of those ten tries, three ended in the female cleric-in-distress dying on the first turn of combat, before I could cover half the distance between us. Any cleric that can't stand up to vampires for one turn has no business running errands around the countryside, if you ask me... and by the way, isn't this what game testers are for?

   No stylus controls were added to the game, so anyone who has played a tactics game from the past decade should know the drill. The lack of a good tutorial for the Valkyrie Profile aspects of the combat system means that people unfamiliar with the original game may feel doubly frustrated by a difficult game that doesn't explain itself.

   The graphics are done mostly in 2D, with the battle environments and world map rendered in 3D. Even the colorful graphics from last year's Final Fantasy Tactics A2 for the DS don't match up to Covenant of the Plume, which shows off some high production values as far as SRPG games go.

   The style of the game is darker and more adult than other Square Enix games for the DS, and this is very well reflected in the environments, the character sprites, and even the somewhat downtrodden looking world map, which is done in untextured DS-eriffic 3D.

   Dialog is accompanied by portraits in a style that sets itself apart from other sometimes end up watching a very sedated looking close-up of a character while they're delivering an impassioned speech.

   Music is mostly excellent, though it relies on older games in the series. The story wouldn't be the same without the score, which changes feelings frequently and adds contours to the drama.

   Characters find their voices in battle. Story segments are silent, but in battle they will grunt and announce the names of their special attacks. I usually find this anime convention really grating, but in this game it's actually pretty exciting when you manage to pull off a four-person combo attack and the characters' announce the method by which they'll be eviscerating your enemies for the evening. The best voice touches are without a doubt the zany interjections characters make in the middle of battle, often after defeating an enemy, like "for you... father..." spoken wistfully in a voice that constantly reminds you just how creepy a guy Wylfred is, or a personal favorite of mine, delivered in a debonair English accent: "I find that... DEATH, civilizes barbarians best."

   Covenant of the Plume is a game for SRPG gamers who crave something new. The combat isn't perfectly balanced, and sometimes it's even downright broken, but beyond the moments of frustration the game manages to be original and entertaining, and if you make it to the end your frustrations will be long forgotten. If a dark fantasy world with an interesting take on Norse mythology sounds intriguing, give it a try.

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