Publisher: Enix America (2000, PS1)
In most RPGs, it's your job to stop the end of the world. In Valkyrie Profile, it's your job to start it. Ragnarok, the end of the world as defined in Norse mythology, is just around the corner, and the Good Guys in the heavens are in desperate need of souls to fight in the resulting war against the Bad Guys in the underworld.
There's a catch to recruiting these soldiers, dubbed Einherjar -- they need to be dead. As a valkyrie named Lenneth, you fly through the world of mortals, listening to their cries for help, and rushing to the moment of their death.
With each character, you get a short glimpse of their story -- as lives are shattered, happy couples are torn apart, and heroes become martyrs. Amidst all of this is Lenneth, who seems to have a past in the human world that she's only barely conscious of.
There are roughly two dozen characters to recruit -- some fully fleshed out, others barely touched on -- but their souls are not yet ready to fight for the gods. You need to train them by taking them into dungeons, building both their battle skills and their spiritual fortitude. All of these dungeons are side-scrolling stages, filled with puzzles, traps, and of course, numerous enemies.
The battle system is a strange beast, with actions for each of the four party members assigned to a face button. Each character has a number of attacks, each with unique speed and strength -- timing the button presses to create combos and juggle enemies is the key to executing impressive special attacks and overpowering foes.
Tri-Ace, creators of the Star Ocean series, has a knack for creating exciting, visceral battle systems that feel like action games, even though they're still heavily rooted in role playing conventions. The soundtrack, provided by prog rock virtuoso Motoi Sakuraba, is also one of his best works, delivering both pounding, intense battle themes and dreamy, melancholy ballads. In other words, it packs a punch that few RPGs can counter.
Tri-Ace also has a reputation for being a little bit too obtuse, which undoubtedly attracts the hardcore RPG fan but tends to confuse everyone else. The entire game is divided into eight chapters. In turn, each chapter is divided into a number of segments.
Every time you visit a town or a dungeon, it eats up one time segment, therefore limiting the amount of places you can visit and the events you can witness. It becomes important to budget your time, but the game is so loosely designed that it's easy to miss important things if you're not paying attention.
Similarly, at the end of each chapter, you need to send off some of your warriors to the heavens, permanently removing them from your party. You're given vague hints about the requirements, but you can never be sure that you're doing it properly -- especially when it could potentially leave you with an underpowered squad.
There are three difficulty levels to ease newcomers into the unique flow of Valkyrie Profile, but playing on easy mode robs the player of half of the playable characters, and limits access to certain areas of the game. It's meant to provide replay value, but comes off as withholding to all but the bravest of gamers.
Still, the concept alone is enough to life Valkyrie Profile to classic status. The sequel, released a whole generation later for the PlayStation 2, strangely ditches the structure in favor of a more conventional approach.
There are still 2D side scrolling areas, this time rendered with some of the most beautiful real time polygonal graphics on the system, but the Einherjar are faceless, and their recruitment now plays a distant fiddle to core narrative.
The story itself is unlikely to interest those who weren't invested in the main plot of the original -- which was somewhat obscure to begin with -- but the battle system has been greatly expanded to allow the party to move around the battlefield, providing a substantial amount of tactical depth that was missing from the original. For this reason, it's still a remarkable title, but the innovative approach of the original game makes it shine brighter.