Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume - Staff Review  

Getting Legions of Fanboys to Buy a Subpar Tactics Game
by Glenn "7thCircle" Wilson

Very Easy
Less than 20 Hours
+ Multiple paths and endings.
+ Some unique gameplay concepts.
+ Background music is very good.
- The hybrid battle system is not executed well.
- A forced political story ruins the dark plot.
- Interface is missing many expected features.
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   After his father died honorably in battle, young Wylfred's life fell apart when his career housewife of a mother was not able to support the family alone. A childhood of poverty which saw his younger sister slowly die of starvation and his mother, who apparently fed herself before her offspring, lose her mind, left him bitter, angry, and desperate for revenge. Should he blame the government? Or blame society? Or his father's lack of fighting ability? No! Blame the Valkyrie! Blame the Valkyrie! It seems that everything's gone wrong since Lenneth came along. Thus, Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume, prequel to Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth, casts the player as an emo lad seeking to murder the goddess who saved his father's soul. A tactical RPG that uses Valkyrie Profile's battle system, it is an awkward hybrid of a game with loads of potential that suffers from poor execution in every way. Covenant of the Plume is nearly a mockery of the TRPG genre, from the unnecessary political storyline to the incomplete interface to the odd combat setup.

   Wylfred starts his search for Lenneth by fighting as a mercenary, hoping she appears after a battle to recruit einherjar. His quest meets an early end when a monster in a cutscene kills him in one swipe. While dead, Hel, Evil Norse Goddess of the Underworld, offers a dark pact: join as many battlefields as possible, slicing up foes after they die and sending trusted comrades to Hel, and in return she will shower him with gifts and, ultimately, the power to slay Lenneth. By using the Valkyrie's plume left on his father's grave, he can set a friend to overdrive. The boosted character will be nearly invincible in that battle, but a black gate will open afterward and suck him straight to Hel, granting Wylfred a permanent, powerful ability to use for the rest of the game.

   At this point, Covenant of the Plume sounds intriguing. Flipping Lenneth's premise upside down, Wylfred is a sort of Grim Reaper, meeting individuals, learning their sad background tales until they trust him whole-heartedly, then slaughtering them and bathing the plume in their blood until it is stained black. While Lenneth's depressing vignettes end with the einherjar potentially spending an eternity in Valhalla, Wylfred's end in premature death and unceasing torment. Unfortunately, this twisted plot setup loses focus as soon as it is established. Calling Wylfred emo earlier was generous, as his undying rage is blandly stated a few times, but never comes across in the dialogue. He is aloof to the point of being stupid, and sounds apathetic toward the horrible path he chose for himself. The game's story centers around a sleeper of a struggle for succession, eschewing Wylfred's unique tale almost completely. VP1 and 2 did not have bad political intrigue, so it would seem that this was added to Covenant of the Plume because all tactics RPGs should be about conflicts between and within governments.

   While the cool plot premise ends as quickly as it starts, it has lasting effects on the tactical combat. Using the plume on a partner makes any battle a snap. Because the fighter who benefits from the huge stat boost dies when the battle ends, there is a natural limit to how often the player can press the easy button to auto-win stages over the course of the game, but the skills Wylfred learns from these executions are always board-pounders which can be used in all future battles to help make them a cinch. Murder enough of his friends, and by the end of the game he will have an assortment of game-breaking techniques to utilize.

Live for the Swarm! Live for the Swarm!

    Also unique to Covenant of the Plume is the Sin gauge. When an enemy's health reaches zero, "Overkill" flashes on the screen. From this point on, the empty health bar becomes the Sin gauge, and all additional damage dealt to the dead foe fills it in proportion to the opponent's maximum health. When the combatants run out of hits, the player will gain Sin equal to how full the Sin gauge is. Each slain enemy, then, can potentially grant from zero to one hundred Sin, since the gauge can be from 0% to 100% full. When a map is complete, Hel rewards the party with items whose quality and quantity depend upon how much Sin was wrought. Barely reach the minimum Sin required for the map and receive next to nothing. Get a couple hundred more Sin than is necessary and expect to receive many rare toys.

   Everything else about the battle system is a mixture of two disparate concepts that were better in past games when they were separate. Up to four fighters can be brought onto the grid-based map, and the player always takes the first turn. Each friendly fighter moves, then gets an action. If Wylfred or one of his comrades attacks an enemy, the standard Valkyrie Profile battle system appears. All party members capable of reaching that enemy with their weapons are displayed on the screen with the poor opponent in the middle. Each of the fighters' attacks is mapped to a DS button, and the player presses them with the goal of creating an efficient combo chain. Characters have different attack types and get a various number of hits, which can change depending upon which weapon is equipped. A hit meter fills as attacks are unleashed. When it is full, characters can do special attacks to dish out some serious damage.

   While the different pieces sound great individually, they do not fit together well at all. Enemies always have much higher statistics than the player characters, so initiating one on one fights is a good way to get a game over. The goal is to position units so that characters get multiple attacks per round while being in counterattack range as infrequently as possible. Most player turns end with an important attack that needs to finish off an opponent lest he destroy a party member on the AI's turn. This introduces one of the game's problems. The Valkyrie Profile system operates on well-timed key presses leading to a full hit meter and a series of special attacks. Slip on the combo, and there will be no special attacks. In Lenneth and Silmeria this was rarely a big deal; the enemy gets a turn, then gets annihilated on the player's next turn. In a tactical system, slipping on a combo and leaving a foe alive when the plan was for it to die can be devastating, especially with the bad guys' inflated stats here that cause the player's normal attacks to do little damage while the enemy's are crushingly strong. The AI follows the same rules as the player, so if it has two units within range of a party member, it will get two sets of combo attacks. This will surely kill any one unit, and could possibly finish off two units if they are weak. In this way, frustrating tactical situations are caused by the VP engine.

Good positioning grants combat bonuses. Good positioning grants combat bonuses.

   Another issue arises from the Sin gauge. In tactical RPGs, enemies should be bumped off as narrowly as possible to save character turns and damage for other foes. Collecting Sin encourages the player to set up enemies so that when one is killed, the attack can continue long enough to rack up a nice amount of Sin. Try to win with a solid tactical mind, and lose out on the Sin bonus items. Aim for lots of Sin, and risk leaving enemies alive to counterattack. This is all solved with the plume, but it is a bittersweet solution. Using the plume to hulk up a unit makes the hardest battles very easy, and will certainly max out the Sin bonus, but it is in no way strategic and undermines the game's difficulty. The plume's effects on the difficulty are long-lasting; the pile of loot granted by the Sin bonus and the overpowered skill Wylfred learns will surely make future battles easier too. The end result is a poorly implemented battle system whose two sources of inspiration are always at odds with each other rather than working together, and the large line of squishy friends to sacrifice to the plume takes away any sense of challenge. Also, because AP, which is needed for magic, items, and techniques, slowly regenerates, when things get rough the best strategy is to kill all nearby enemies, wait a few rounds for AP to restore, move forward to the next enemy or two, dispatch them, and repeat. Enemies rarely charge the party and are easy to trap behind walls.

   The interface is clean and readable, but missing so many small details and conveniences, one can easily tell that this is tri-Ace's first stab at a tactical RPG. Numerous absent features like clearly displaying how a new piece of equipment affects a unit's stats and a decent tutorial for the traditional Valkyrie Profile combat system come across as more absent-minded than lazy. The 2D sprites and textures are a murky, earth-toned mess that no one would brag about, being barely adequate enough for the player to distinguish between the different classes. Speech maintains a formal, Old Englishy tone, like Shakespeare, but understandable without footnotes; however, the dialogue is surprisingly lifeless and flat considering how serious and emotional some of the situations in the story are. Wylfred, who is supposed to be so angry at Lenneth that he murders his friends without a thought, comes across as monotone and boring in the text — which is all there is to go by since cutscenes have no voice acting. The music is largely recycled from previous Valkyrie Profile games, and is the only part of the presentation that is above average. VP music is beautiful in such a simple way that even the DS cannot ruin it.

   Trying to combine peanut butter and jelly into a delicious sandwich, tri-Ace instead takes two very different battle systems and combines them into something like ice cream with poached eggs on top. The tactical parts alone are decent with lots of customizability and strategies to ponder, and the Valkyrie Profile system is about as good here as it is in the first two games in the series, but instead of meshing and working together, they pull against each other as the player is left wishing he had just one system or the other. The game is borderline impossible without using the plume, a challenge hardcore gamers will certainly lose many hours to, but mindlessly easy if the plume is used often. Knocking off his friends leads Wylfred to a bad ending, but a New Game+ option carries over the all-important techniques learned in the first run. The hope, then, is that gamers will play through Covenant of the Plume, which is between fifteen and twenty hours long on the first try, a second time while aiming for a plume-free, more satisfying ending. Again, the difficulty is mitigated, this time by the carried over endgame equipment and abilities. Covenant of the Plume is not terrible, or even bad, but it is sure to disappoint fans of both tactical RPGs and the Valkyrie Profile series, and carries a high price tag for such a short game with a subpar presentation. Valkyrie Profile fans, if mentally prepared for overall mediocrity and a lame duck story unbefitting of the series, might want to try this out, but those who enjoy tactical RPGs can find several other better, cheaper options on the DS.

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