For most people, the words role-playing game conjure images of sweaty Dungeons & Dragons-obsessed weirdos, wearing cloaks and screaming "Lightning bolt!" at each other.
But even non-RPG players gave the genre a try when Final Fantasy VII debuted back in 1997. The beautiful graphics and heart-tugging story made it an instant classic and helped launched a tiny new system known as PlayStation. Final Fantasy has been selling millions with each new installment ever since.
Now the company behind the Final Fantasy juggernaut is sharpening its creative sword with Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth, a re-release of its hard-to-find PS1 title from 2000. The game gets a visual overhaul and updated cut-scenes, but it can't hide its age lines. The result is a promising adventure, crippled by dense and inaccessible gameplay.
On story alone, Valkyrie Profile easily outpaces every RPG on the market. As Lenneth, a buxom Norse goddess, your job is to find brave, recently deceased mortals on Earth and train them for the impending final battle between Heaven and Hell. Consider Lenneth a Marine recruiter for the afterlife: She's looking for a few good souls.
The goal of most games is to prevent the end of the world, but here you're looking forward to the apocalypse. As you train your recruits by fighting demons, vampires, and other monsters, a ticking doomsday clock constantly reminds you there are "80 days until the end of the world ... 79 days ... 78," et cetera. So much for kicking back with the townspeople and quaffing potions.
Ultimate victory means forging hardened soldiers out of a diverse group of recruits -- from magic experts to swordsmen -- as quickly as possible. Waste too much time, and your team will be slaughtered during the game's final battle. That's more than 25 hours of gameplay down the drain, so don't screw around.
The game's attention to detail is exhaustive, but it's also exhausting. Each new recruit has a tragic backstory, and you're forced to bear witness to unskippable melodramatic cut-scenes. These maudlin vignettes have no bearing on the larger story and always bring the action to a grinding halt. The world is ending here, folks. Let's skip the soliloquies and get down to some ass-kicking.
Yep, the action is the real appeal of Valkyrie Profile. Rather than roam the countryside looking for a fight, swordswoman Lenneth slashes her way through gorgeous, side-scrolling stages. It's a fun, unlikely decision for an RPG.
But preparing for battle is a drag. You'll waste precious time struggling to distribute experience points on the game's muddled menu screen. Even experienced RPG players will be left in the dark, for some crucial concepts are glossed over completely.
The decision to release this epic quest for the hand-held PlayStation Portable is baffling: The time a player must devote to each session goes against the PSP's "pick-up-and-go" appeal. Your battery is likely to run out before you finish a quest.
Still, Valkyrie Profile lends itself to heavy replay value, thanks to the nonlinear gameplay and multiple endings. Besides, you might not understand everything the first time through.
Later this year, Lenneth's followup, Valkyrie Profile: Silmeria, will be released for the PS2. If it conquers the user-unfriendliness of its hand-held counterpart, Silmeria could be one of the last great PS2 role-playing games. Otherwise this series will be remembered for screwing up a good idea. Though it's the end of the world as we know it, Valkyrie Profile doesn't make me feel fine. And, by the gods, that's a shame.
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