Late to the Party: Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume

Games get released, games get reviewed. It’s the circle of life that keeps gaming journalism breathing. When it comes to reviews, timeliness is usually everything. You want to get your opinion out before anyone else because really, promptness alone will earn you some readers. That said, when the dust of the review storm clears there’s often still plenty of relevant commentary to be shared. In short, it’s better late than never.

This week: Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume

I originally intended this to be my first foray into a regular video series. That said, after fiddling with the idea for a bit I opted to stick with the good ol’ written word. It might not be as flashy as a well edited video, but then again you’d hard pressed to edit my Porky Pig stuttering into something comprehensive. But I digress; let’s talk about Covenant of the Plume. The third of the Valkyrie Profile games, Covenant of the Plume takes place in the world of Midgard. As far as game worlds go it’s probably one of the cooler ones out there. It’s messy, gritty and filled to the brim with political backstabbing and Viking religion. What more could you ask?

What differentiates this entry is that unlike the first two games, you no longer control one of the titular battle maidens. Rather you play Wylfred, a mortal mercenary who loathes the Valkyrie to the point of murder. Wylfred’s father you see was chosen by Lenneth, the heroine of the first game, to be summoned to Asgard. The result of this is that he is killed on the mortal world, leaving his family, including Wylfred, to fend for themselves. It doesn’t go too well; Wylfred’s sister starves to death and his mother goes insane with grief. Wylfred grows up and swears to revenge. Looking to exploit his anger, the evil goddess Hel strikes a bargain with him. She will grant him the power to kill Lenneth if he can spread sin across the land and sacrifice enough souls in a year’s time. It goes a bit deeper than this, there are numerous subplots and an overarching civil war that serves as the backdrop, but overall that is bulk of it.

It actually surprised me to read a number of reviews criticizing the story. While it certainly isn’t as whacked out complex as many JRPGs, it has a simple power to it that emotes more easily than many of its more convoluted cousins. Not to mention it’s one of the darkest RPGs I’ve played, ever. Much of this comes from one of the best integrations of plot into gameplay I’ve seen since the support system in Fire Emblem.

Once a party member officially joins you, you are given the option of sacrificing them to Hel. Doing this yields a number of tangible gameplay benefits; the character in question receives and immediate stat boost and subsequently Wylfred is made permanently more powerful. That said, it comes at a cost. Sacrificing a character is exactly what it sounds like, after whatever battle you’re fighting wraps up they’ll be permanently killed. Making this more than just a strategic consideration, the game makes you watch as said character dies. They don’t know what’s going on, they’re scared and as the life drains out of them you watch knowing that you’re the one that killed them. And the game will tempt you like mad to do this. The difficulty can spike pretty high, and after trying and losing the same level half a dozen times the easy way out may seem like the only way out.

This mechanic complements gameplay that is for the most part fairly solid. The combat is almost identical to the previous Valkyrie Profile games. Each character in your party is mapped to one of the four face buttons. Pushing their corresponding button will coax them to attack. Victory in turn, requires stringing your party’s attacks together into combos that maximize damage. Score enough hits and you’ll be able to launch a flashy style special attack that will further wipe the floor with your foes.

This both works and fails. At its core the basic combat is a lot of fun and does a good job of keeping you engaged. You can’t button mash as you might in other RPGs. That said, Covenant of the Plume is also a strategy RPG and on that level it isn’t all too successful. Victory often requires little more then ganging up on each enemy unit one by one until they’re defeated. With a little patience most battles can be won with ease and when it does get hard, it’s usually just because you’re impossibly outnumbered.

These flaws can be irritating, but never really reach a breaking point because Covenant of the Plume is on the short side. My first playthrough only lasted me about fifteen hours. It has three potential endings giving it some replay value, but with a New Game+ option you’ll likely breeze through these as well. In other games this might be a downside, but it’s kind of nice to play the occasional RPG that can be fully digested over the course of a few weekends. Not every game should be Final Fantasy.

As far as DS RPGs go, there are better ones than Covenant of the Plume. That said, it possesses the advantage of originality. The story is a rarity in that it truly feels unique when compared to most other JRPGs. The gameplay is imperfect but it’s competent enough to be fun and if you’re an RPG fan without the time to devote to the usual fifty hour epic, Covenant of the Plume is a great choice.

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