Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume - Staff Review  

Die Another Day
by Mike "JuMeSyn" Moehnke

Click here for game information
Less than 20 Hours
+ Ample replay incentives
+ Intriguing concept
- Ineffectual execution of said concept
- Terrible AI
- Overpowered enemies
- Interface is clunkier than most tactical games
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   Instead of taking the Valkyrie Profile series to the logical destination of a game focused on Hrist, tri-Ace made something focused entirely on a mortal. Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume manages the nifty feat of successfully adapting the combat methods of its predecessors into a tactical RPG. Its other facets are considerably less successful, showing that tri-Ace's best writers were doing something else while this title was in development, and showcasing battles even more unbalanced than those in Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria.

   The setup for Covenant of the Plume is fraught with potential. A young man named Wylfred has grown up cursing the Valkyrie at every step, blaming her for his father's death, as well as the subsequent death of his sister when his mother proved unable to provide for the family. Wylfred's singleminded hatred for the Valkyrie attracts the interest of Hel, who offers the eponymous agreement. The plume serves as a means for Wylfred to send Sin, which the game seems to equate solely with blood, to Hel, in exchange for the ability to sacrifice his comrades for power. To this end Wylfred must befriend people in order to kill them, and seek combat in order to send Sin from the slain Hel's way.

   The theme of vengeance has served many stories well in many forms of media, but tri-Ace dropped the ball in Covenant of the Plume's case. As an avenger, Wylfred is one-note to the point of being very boring, since the things he does never seem to alter his standard emo mood. The things he does should have some sort of impact, but Wylfred blithely ignores the friends he sacrifices and the people he kills, making his character repetitively dull to observe.

   The people who join Wylfred are also written poorly. Their introductions are generally fine, but every character ceases to have any plot significance after joining permanently, unless Wylfred sacrifices him or her. After a short scene featuring the character's final moments, however, it is never referenced again. Writing a plot in which dialogue is dependent upon the characters currently alive would have been a time-consuming endeavor for tri-Ace, but the lazy route it took instead consigns every character to the role of a mute after joining. Since Wylfred's thoughts are shallow and few, understanding the motivations of those who join him would have been another means of fleshing out this chunk of Asgard, but that is not the course tri-Ace chose.

Four against one may not seem fair, but when the other choice is to die quickly, equal odds are forgotten. Four against one may not seem fair, but when the other choice is to die quickly, equal odds are forgotten.

   Many tactical RPGs have less than stellar plots, however, and redeem themselves with interesting gameplay. Covenant of the Plume has a novel twist to the standard tactical template, which is that all four of the player-controlled characters on the battlefield can join in attacking enemies. Each of the four characters is mapped to one of the DS face buttons, and all characters in range of the targeted adversary will participate in an attack selected by just one of them. This system, complete with bashing gems out of the enemy and charging a gauge to use special moves on the adversary, feels remarkably similar to the combat seen in earlier Valkyrie Profile games. The ability to keep attacking an enemy after it is already dead has also been incorporated as a means of reaping Sin for Hel's benefit, and doing so is actually mandatory.

   Linking the attacks of neighboring units is not limited to the player, unfortunately. Enemies will do it too, and since their attributes are always superior to those of the protagonists, preventing this painful occurrence is the player's top priority. In most battles the game's wretched AI makes killing enemies individually a fairly simple task, since they tend not to move until a character has come within attack range, and breaking out of this conservative playstyle is extremely unwise when any individual enemy is more than a match for a single protagonist. Atrocious enemy AI combines with their overpowered nature to make for a methodically slow style of battle, with defeat being the penalty for attempting something different.

   There is a caveat to this rule in the form of Wylfred's Plume. Sacrificing an ally to the Plume will result in an unstoppable behemoth for one battle, after which the compatriot will drop dead. Using the Plume turns individual battles into a joke, since the doomed character gains enough power to singlehandedly triumph. Sacrificial characters also grant Wylfred new abilities, and using these is usually the key to keeping enemies manageable. Granting new abilities does not alter the fundamental problem of relying upon wretched AI to vanquish overpowered opposition, however. Bosses, which can often kill more than one character in a single counterattack, are particularly egregious offenders in the game's gallery of overpowered antagonists.

   Several peculiar interface issues make it clear that tri-Ace had no experience with tactical games prior to this offering. Very few tactical games lack an option to observe the battlefield prior to starting a fight, but Covenant of the Plume does. It also lacks a means to stop attacking an enemy once the player has begun a strike chain, which would have been very useful to maximize the amount of Sin captured from each foe. Most tactical titles also provide a means to refresh the player's memory of what each battle's objective is, but Covenant of the Plume expects instant recall of this based on something displayed for a few seconds at the encounter's beginning. These annoyances become more bothersome as the game proceeds.

Precisely what makes Cheripha want to accompany Wylfred is a mystery for the ages. Precisely what makes Cheripha want to accompany Wylfred is a mystery for the ages.

   Covenant of the Plume's visuals are perfectly adequate for the DS, but that seems symptomatic of tri-Ace's inexperience with the platform. Valkyrie Profile and Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria showed off top-notch graphical prowess for two generations of the PlayStation, while Covenant of the Plume doesn't stand out from a horde of other DS games. Thus the visuals, while not bad in any objective sense, are a severe disappointment with respect to the rest of the series.

   The audio of the game is even more of a disappointment, since it consists almost entirely of recycled compositions, most of them from the original Valkyrie Profile. These tracks still sound good, but the lack of new material makes this soundtrack akin to a greatest hits compilation of Motoi Sakuraba's work on the series. The Japanese version of the game also had quite a bit of voice acting, which was unceremoniously removed by Square Enix when localizing the title. This decision may have been for the best when the short lines heard in battle manage to be quite annoying, however.

   There is quite a bit of replay value in Covenant of the Plume, with multiple paths through the game and multiple endings. The New Game + method allows Wylfred to carry all the techniques learned from his sacrifices, and a variety of other things, to make the game considerably easier. Even though playing through each path takes around twelve hours, the balance issues with the difficulty never go away, condemning all New Game + playthroughs to the same aggravation as the first.

   Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume could have worked with some more finesse. Rewriting the story to make Wylfred into a three-dimensional character with feelings about the actions he takes would have been a terrific start, and revamping the clunky gameplay mechanics would have been even better. As it stands, Covenant of the Plume is a missed opportunity to do something different with the Valkyrie Profile series. It is easy to admire the concept of this game, far harder to like what resulted.

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