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Review: Valkyrie Profile 2

Posted Aug-30 2008 by ron, created under common review policies
For PS2, optional widescreen mode, runs fine on European 60GB PS3 models

The basic idea of combat in Valkyrie Profile 2 is to cheat your way around the enemies in such a way as to never be attacked at all. Enemies are quite lethal, and character growth is painfully slow. If you don't want to be killed by the random local variety of trash enemy, you follow either of two routines: 1)to kill enemies with a short attack range, you stand in front of them and attack (without retaliation, because they can't move) until your AP run out, then you run away to recharge, then you come back; 2)to kill any other enemy you dash behind them and alternate attacking/running behind their backs to recharge AP.
Sometimes though, with a likelihood that increases as you draw out your combo longer, the enemy you've just attacked spontaneously changes its own attack plan after your attack. It's of course super-special fun when you've taken special care to position yourself in away that prevents counter-attack (such as right behind the enemy's back), only to find that it has now switched to an all-around zone vaporization blast that you will not be able to escape, and you're already standing inside of it. Uh-oh. In particular, this seems to be Tri-Ace's idea of fun boss fights.

Sometimes the hit detection in the game does magical things. With a little luck, an enemy that tries to attack you near that corner will swing at the bricks, which absorbs the entire attack. Then again sometimes the same will happen to you, and so everything may yet even out.

Regular enemies are easy enough to avoid, unless of course you're just traversing an area where you're not allowed to fire your freezing photons. If for nothing else, the rewards from combat are essential to prepare yourself for the vagaries of boss encounters, and the odd fight you may stumble into accidentally. As expected from an RPG, victory in combat yields experience points which will lead to growth of character stats. You can also gain assorted equipment by hacking off enemies' body parts, which doubles up as a round-about way to learn new skills.
In Valkyrie Profile 2, characters can learn perks by equipping certain combinations of runes which are engraved in most equipment pieces, and only a limited set of runes is available on your weapon and armor. Most runes are only available on accessories, and most accessories can only be won in combat, hence the relevance of that whole mechanic.
The rune word system is quite complex. There are dozens of individual runes forming around a hundred different rune words each usable to teach one character one perk. Characters learn a new perk by going through a certain amount of combat with the corresponding rune word equipped. Once it's in the permanent repertoire, the perk can be activated at will, but a skill point system limits the number of perks that can be active at once. It's quite similar to Final Fantasy IX's ability system, if you're familiar with that. The biggest difference is that all rune words and perks start off as being secret. You can discover the combinations by experimenting with the runes you have available, and then their record is added to the menu for you to look up later.

Asinine design

For some reason, the game does not allow casting spells outside of combat. Inside the battle arenas themselves, enemies don't chase the player very far, and magic consumes only action points. So if all you want to do is heal up, you can just sit in a corner, cast healing spells, and press R3 to wait until your spell cooldown timer has run down. Spellcasting is essentially free. Outside of combat though, you cannot heal, and you cannot fix permanent status ailments (asinine in itself) without using items.
Without random encounters there's no relying on having the next, absurdly relieving encounter anytime soon. If you march onwards with a poisoned character, and the next room just so happens to not contain enemies for you to fight, that character's health will still keep ticking down every few seconds until death.

There's something even more absurd you can do with poisoned characters: you can carry certain seal stones with a damage absorption effect. There's one that subtracts 50 points from all damage you receive in combat, and clips the result to zero. In effect, enemies with weak attacks will do no damage at all, and it also happens that the very fast, but small increments of damage a poisoned character receives will be reduced to zero by this seal stone. Your entire party becomes impervious to poison … but only in combat. Outside of combat, the same damage reduction somehow just never applies, and your party will be done for in a couple of minutes.

Ending on a high note lesson #4: at least it looks nice. After fleeing from the open-air mental asylum called "Cyrodiil", one horse tucked under each arm, this finally looks and feels like a place that's actually worth saving.

What sense does it make that the presence of enemies increases your capacity to heal yourself? Other RPGs with free spellcasting have gone all the way, and automatically heal up the entire party after combat. Valkyrie Profile 2 shuns such solutions that would only make sense, and always errs on the side of annoying the player as much as possible.

And what sense does it make to strictly tie item drops to destroyed body parts when the player has almost no control over where a swing hits? This isn't Fallout, with an actual targetting system for individual limbs. The best you can do here is pick which side of an enemy you want to stand on initially and hope for the best.
If we overlook for a second that producing a two-handed sword by cutting the tail off of a dragon is already a somewhat hysterical process, we're still left with the question why and how the same isn't possible with an entirely defeated, downed, dead dragon. The ex-foe just vanishes as your attack combo ends, and its wondrous tail and your hope for that special sword along with it. If the design goal was to make certain drops rarer, perhaps the game should just do what every sanely designed RPG does, and hand out items with a certain percentage chance per defeated enemy. But no, again, the game's designers just couldn't let an opportunity to annoy players slide past.
As it is, killing an enemy with one well-planned combo attack makes it the least likely to produce drops. It's more effective to abort and restart your combos until an enemy is near death, then back away to recharge your AP fully, and then "overkill" an enemy, hoping to rip off many body parts in a final all-out combo.
In other words, mastery of the combo system is punished. Taking risks, such as entering an enemy's attack zone knowing your combo will do enough damage to kill the enemy first, makes all your rewards smaller.

Our rating for Valkyrie Profile 2

-2, negative score

Classification (not part of the rating)

Story focus: Two ambitious princesses
Style focus: four high fantasies
Mechanics focus: four hammers
The goodThe bad
  • platforming aspect is fun
  • lush graphics, great animation
  • nice music
  • combat is always the same
  • combat is always stupid
  • rewards not correlated, or inversely correlated to player's performance
  • rewards only manifest themselves in combat
  • flamboyantly obtuse plot

I won't even touch the crafting system or the "Einherjar" thing which randomly expands your available characters, or the seal stone mechanic that rewards you with portable bonus perks for excessive grinding. Valkyrie Profile 2 all but proves that layering on more systems onto a silly core mechanic is no replacement for a sound core mechanic. All the rune words, seal stones, crystallized stepping stones, roster expansions, destructible limbs and crafted weapons in the world can never hide the fact that you're still just 1)dashing behind your enemy, 2)circling it faster than it can turn while not getting stuck on terrain yourself and 3)hoping it doesn't randomly switch to an attack that will catch you anyway. That basic flow of combat just never ceases to feel like an exploit, but it's an exploit the whole game's content is balanced around. You can't not use it. You're toast in any fair, straightforward back-and-forth encounter. It's so stupid. And it's also really easy to do, until the game throws another bout of random divine intervention your way, instead of providing a genuine strategic challenge even once.
Just the combat system itself, with its own rules and exceptions for motion and time flow, even before you consider all the systems layered on from the outside, is convoluted to begin with, for no discernable reason to boot, and from all the extra systems Tri-Ace piled onto that, three or four games could be made, and some of them might even be fun. The only benefit of it all, as far as I can see, is that it's really, really hard to explain the game with any accuracy, and thus criticism becomes more difficult to formulate, and easier to dismiss. That's of course the kind of benefit nobody outside of the revenue chain for the game should ever care about. I'm just trying to relate to what went wrong in those heads, really.

Valkyrie Profile 2 completes my perfect circle of sufficient accustomization to Tri-Ace's work, for the next decade or so. Star Ocean 3 already had a terrible plot, broken action combat, and a number of asinine design choices (foremost its crafting system). Valkyrie Profile 2 carries forth and strengthens those traditions, inherits all applicable problems (such as those stemming from the way the hit-detection works), and invents its own new, surprising, innovative idiosyncrasies. Here's another one for size: your party's attack radius is determined by the position of your current party leader. Switching leaders without moving may instantly change which enemies your entire party can and cannot attack. Is that applause I hear?
Some of the deficiencies in content design versus functionality of the combat engine might yet be explained with a simple lack of communication or play-testing, or result from a tight schedule. The basic combat mechanic itself is much harder to excuse, as are the assorted deliberate choices to slap the player in the face. So my characters wield 20kg two-handed swords repeatedly with ease, but they really can't swing a bit lower for small enemies, or when facing downhill? Yeah, that makes a lot of sense, and works in favor of the game to boot! Thanks a lot for nothing, Tri-Ace!
With the tangled mess of subsystems that have been crammed into this one game, time constraints are somewhat hard to imagine as well. At best, these people just don't care about making a good game.

Even if you're completely oblivious to all gaming aspects and play RPGs exclusively for the story and characters (which you shouldn't), Valkyrie Profile 2 would still be a poor choice. After dropping a bunch of norse buzzwords on you during the first three or four hours, which is fair enough I guess, the paint comes off and it all quickly plummets through the floor. What you learn during the initial setup is that you're on this surprising quest to find <powerful artifact> that will help turn the tides against <imminent grand threat to humanity>, which is also just about par. What's not par is the plot itself. So you're raiding a dungeon and defeat its inevitable boss. You learn that "It's not here anymore. It might be in <fire themed dungeon> now. We should go there", and that you do, and you defeat another boss, only to learn that "It's not here anymore. It was moved recently to <thunder element themed dungeon>. Let's go there now". As far as thinly veiled charades go, this stuff is really pushing the envelope.

What's left are positively gorgeous graphics, and nice music, too, wrapped around a jumbled mess of game design choices that range from half-baked to outright offensive. I've never been willing to score games highly just for presentation and I won't change my mind now. Valkyrie Profile 2 is the kind of game that makes people want to quit gaming, and its strong graphics, while I am able to recognize them, will never make the atrocious experience any more worthy of recommendation. The one redeeming aspect, buried and crushed under a load of awfulness, is the 2D platforming element. Those really are some novel and fun fifteen minutes for every ten hours of play. Not enough, not worth going through all the rest for. Stroll past. Never look back.

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