Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume (DS)

Here’s an old review I wrote for Play magazine about this badass little joint called Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume for the DS. I wrote this when it looked like I had the world by the tail, because I was finally a published writer with a solid decade of rejection behind me, plus I got to play video games for a living… fast forward about six months later and you’d find me unemployed, waking up in the afternoon and drinking all day long while playing Elder Scrolls: Oblivion until I finally passed out. Ha haaa!!!

You mustn’t let fear or regret have the better of you, master.

It is through sin that your desires shall be fulfilled.

- Ailyth, Servant of Hel

The story of Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume has a darkness of tone long absent from Japanese RPGs. This is not a cute fun-filled tale of “high adventure” set in green grasslands that just happen to be beset by a few evil individuals who are easily spotted and slain. There is a morally disquieting level of maturity in Covenant. The protagonists are not heroes in the modern sense of the term; they are humans beset by tragedy and driven to evil by desperation.

Odin, lord and father of the Aesir, delights in war, and his valkyries target the best warriors for recruitment after their earthly death, thus setting the stage for mortal men and women to display a great amount of bravery in war. Our protagonist Wylfred lost his father to Valkyrie Lenneth (hero of the first game, Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth), then his younger sister died without her father’s support, which caused Wylfred’s mother to have a psychotic break and see Wylfred as her lost husband. Wylfred, unable to stop her descent into madness, ends up playing along with his mother and acts as his father in a horrible game of make-believe.

But instead of giving in to despair, Wylfred swears vengeance on Valkyrie Lenneth. Hel, a goddess allied with the enemies of the Aesir, gives Wylfred a cursed feather that must be “stained black by sin” in a binding covenant that will eventually give him enough power to kill the valkyrie. That’s right, in this game you play as someone whose goal is to kill the hero you played as in an earlier Valkyrie Profile game.

So how does he stain the plume with sin and increase his power? Two ways. One: By completely slaughtering his enemies in battle. Not just overcoming them, but completely crushing them, by mutilating them even beyond the point of death and far beyond the limits of good taste. And two: By betraying those closest to him. By getting people to join him, then using them and causing their own untimely death. Shocking, yes?

It’s this dark and solid story that slam-dunked my head into the DS and kept me playing. I’m very, very tired of JRPG protagonists who are easily outraged by their empire-running enemies but who are themselves little more than boring simpletons. Finally, we have a hero in the ancient sense of the word: Someone driven by a goal, who sets himself against the gods, and is willing to walk over anyone who gets in his way. Don’t get me wrong, Wylfred is not completely amoral. He is in a morally complicated situation. He saw his family destroyed by a god that popular culture says is “good”. He wants revenge and, while he knows that what he is doing is wrong, the ghosts of his past drive him on.

This is the kind of balls that can save JRPG storytelling, which has become so hackneyed and cliched of late that I thought the genre was beyond saving. Thanks go to Miho Akabane for writing a script whose dialogue rivals the newest translation of Final Fantasy Tactics and even surpasses it in terms of darkness of tone.

Gameplay

Tactics! Covenant isn’t a platformer, it’s a tactics game! While I always appreciated the uniqueness of Lenneth, the platforming element made me more than a little uncomfortable. (And before we say that Covenant should have stuck with what worked, we should ask ourselves, how fun would platforming on the DS really be?) The change is not without its kinks, but the transition is greatly welcome. You have four characters max on the battlefield. It’s best to keep them close because lone units can get overwhelmed and slaughtered, and also the best way to “reap sin for the plume” is to surround enemy units and beat the crap out of them even after they are dead. The time-tested VP strangeness of juggling enemies in the air and such is still intact–in fact, the combat system is very nearly exactly the same as in Lenneth.

Terrain doesn’t mean quite so much as in most tactics games, and archers aren’t as effective on rooftops and high terrain as they should be, but these are small gripes. The  core elements of a good tactics game are still there: Outmaneuver the enemy, and don’t let the enemy dictate the flow of the battle.

The gameplay notion of giving up members of your party, which made Valkyrie Profile such a unique experience, is turned on its head in Covenant. In Lenneth, the gods demanded what sort of heroes they wanted. It was your job to find such heroes on the brink of death, recruit and cultivate them, then give them up to the gods. You could even check in on lost party members and see how they were doing while they were chillin’ in Valhalla. Covenant is a mirror image of this, and the mirror is definitely black. Wylfred recruits heroes who are still alive, still in their prime. Like a sexual predator he comes into their life, studies them, then draws them into his sick world. A few party members might know of his beef with the valkyrie, but none of them understand his covenant with Hel. After recruitment–and this next part is strictly up to the discretion of the player–Wylfred can invoke the cursed plume and unlock the party member’s potential. The party member will then have their abilities maxed out for that battle; jacked up on extreme HP and stats, they can devastate the enemy. But once the fight is over, that character dies and leaves the party. Wylfred will gain a new battle tactic due to the sacrifice, some of the other party members will bemoan the unfairness of fate, and Wylfred will stand in the background and lie his ass off with a few “I don’t know what happened either” comments, all the while hating himself.

It’s not heartwarming. It’s tragic… which is the stuff of great storytelling.

Covenant has no level grinding. There are optional side quests, each of which is fairly short and provides unique gear. But, thank Odin, that feeling some of you got while playing Lenneth–that feeling of “Didn’t I just do this same fight two minutes ago?” and “Have I already been to this area before? Cause it looks like the area I was just in”–are completely gone. It does make for a shorter game. But does every JRPG have to be 60+ hours padded by the same fights and repetitious areas? If you want to pad out the number of hours played, it’s easy enough (and far more satisfying) to play the game again and take a different branch (yes, there are branches in the story!), sacrifice different characters and thus unlock different powers, etc.

But there is one gameplay element commonly seen in tactics games that I could have done without in Covenant. Yes, you guessed it: Walking in place. In this game, in Final Fantasy Tactics, in a hundred other tactics games, every character standing on the battlefield has, as their “ready for action” animation, a looping display of them walking while stationary. I don’t know how this got started, but I pray that someday it will end. A long time ago there was a tactics game for the PS1 called Vandal Hearts that will live on in my memory for the simple fact that fighters on the battlefield looked like they were in a battle. The fighters swayed back and forth, held their weapons ready, and so on, in a simple animated loop. How in the world did this whole walking in place phenomenon take off and become the standard?! When you think about it, walking actually has very little to do with battle. In battle, it’s far more common to run (to build up momentum and really slam a blade into an enemy’s throat) or crouch (to avoid an arrow sliding in one eye socket, ricocheting off the back of the skull, and flying out the other eye socket). Marching–sure, sometimes, maybe. But walking? No. Never.

Covenant does a thousand things right. It gives me a lot of hope for Japanese games. I guess it’s unfair for me to expect it to overcome every cliche and destroy the tyranny of the status quo overnight.

Visuals

I’m all for the “World 1 – 1″ feel of blue skies and green fields that characterize the optimism of JRPGs. But the black tone of Covenant demands dark visuals, which is what we get. Tastefully crafted with the DS’s limited range, combat takes place on killing grounds at sunset cast in dim orange, or brown wasteland fields that skillfully avoid being bland, or in beautifully evil swamps cast in rich purples and green. There are some lush green fields complete with moving water that looks very nice for being on the DS, but even these sunny areas are drained of some of the happier hues and cast in gothic tones.

Character design is slightly more reserved than a lot of JRPG fare (though unfortunately Wylfred has two giant ponytails hanging off the back of his head, which I’m sure a lot of cosplayers will have fun with). Many of the character portraits are very, very nicely done; each has a wide range of emotion without seeming overenthusiastic.

During battle, characters are far more pixelated and squat than in the PSP’s Lenneth. Unfortunate, but not a deal breaker by any means.

Music: J-Pop and Tragedy

Motoi Sakuraba returns from previous Valkyrie Profile games for Covenant. Or at least, his music returns. There is a lot of repetition of tracks heard in older Valkyrie Profile chapters. This is not necessarily a bad thing: When the old Lenneth victory music plays after a long battle in Covenant, it’s hard not to feel a comforting wave of nostalgia along with the relief of survival.

There are plenty of somber tracks to aid in the telling of this epic tragedy. It would have been nice to hear some of these more serious tracks played during battle, because there’s a strange dichotomy of upbeat battle tunes and morose storyline music. But that’s my own Western bias, and no doubt seems idiotic in the eyes of hardcore fans of the Valkyrie Profile series.

Voice Acting: Officially and Completely Off the Hook

The voice acting that occurs in battles is ridiculous, but such voice acting is an intrinsic ingredient of the Valkyrie Profile experience. Can anyone imagine a Valkyrie Profile game in which the characters step forward, calmly swing their swords, then quietly return to their starting position? No, even a sober Western gamer like myself can see the charm when a character rushes towards the enemy, screams out some repetitive dialogue that encapsulates who they are as an individual, and then a disco lightshow turns on as they launch into the air and enthusiastically announce the name of some special attack while pounding the enemy into a pulp. If you’ve just come home from a tour of Killzone 2 or Fallout 3 or Dead Space, such a display will seem… well, crazy as hell. Wylfred and his crew may have somber discussions on the hellish nature of existence, but that won’t stop them from flying through the air Dragon Ball Z style. The only thing that can psychologically prepare the player for such a display will be prior experience with the Valkyrie Profile series; for VP newcomers, prepare to be shocked by the ridiculousness.

Fortunately the storyline cutscenes are text-only. So in your head, you can substitute the voice of James Earl Jones or the movie trailer guy for every character’s voice if you want to.

But Is It Epic?

It could be argued that Covenant is not epic. It mostly takes place in one small nation, the story spends a lot of time building up to one measly war, and you can pick up information in the taverns but you can’t necessarily talk to anyone. Why, just look at any Final Fantasy game: Constant nation-hopping and encounters with cultural diversity, you can talk to anyone in town (and even rifle through their belongings!), and every nation is constantly at war and having its strings pulled by the true “dark lord” lurking in the background.

Still, I’m going to make the claim that Covenant is more epic than many larger, longer JRPGs. I don’t believe the term epic means you can go into a town and find it clogged up with a host of lame characters ready to drop uninteresting dialogue on you. Covenant is about the tragedy of the human condition–and there’s no need to go into another nation and see people dressed in slightly different clothes when suffering is the same no matter where you go. In Covenant, the true “dark lord” pulling the strings is each individual who has ruined his own life through hatred, misunderstanding, or an inability to cope with disaster. The story does an expert job of guiding the player toward an oncoming war, and maturely reminds us that it only takes one war to ruin a life forever. The characters that drive the story are amazingly crafted, and their individual reactions to the oncoming war say a great deal about the impotent powerlessness of the human condition.

For instance, the veterans Auguste and Reinhilde dread the oncoming war. Though aged members of a venerable warrior house, they’ve had to bury too many of their own children and can no longer wave the flag and invoke the valkyrie’s name with the ignorant enthusiasm of youth. Your demonic assistant Ailyth, who reminds me of a middle management-type working in the defense industry, sees the oncoming war as a profitable opportunity to “reap sin for the plume.” Then there’s Liese. Cute as a button, this mage got swept up in a scandal and, due to her lowly upbringing, was cast out of her position in the court she’d worked so hard to achieve despite a lack of evidence against her. Branded as a villain, she roamed the countryside… then finally murdered a peer whose good reputation helped ruin her own, thus finally becoming the villain that others claimed she was in the beginning.

But two of my favorite characters are Mireille and Mischka. These two young, fresh-faced twins were born without a moral compass. Where other characters display a range of expressions, these two sociopaths stare ahead blankly and make discomforting statements like, “Why shouldn’t we murder an enemy that’s surrendered?” and “We always wanted to take part in an execution.” Palom and Porom they are not. Note that these amoral monsters are extremes. In most cases, Covenant doesn’t have any true good or evil characters, only humans driven beyond the bounds of morality for the survival of their body or their sanity.

What could be more epic than the fight for sanity in a world of darkness where the gods themselves contend against happiness?

Verdict: An amazing game. A perversion of the JRPG formula that is a must for fans of dark themes and morally complicated subject matter.

*     *     *

Hey readers! If you liked this post, you should check out some of my books. I’ve got an epic series called Demonworld, which is equal parts Mad Max and Lord of the Rings (think “science fantasy”), and a much-loved gamebook series called Heavy Metal Thunder which is currently a hyperlinked Kindle book but will be a fancy phone app any day now.

2 responses to “Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume (DS)

  1. I loved your review on a game that I loved. the memories of sacrificing nearly all my team mates on my first playthrough still haunts me but alas plot armor was tthe last thing that this game needed and the drive to do things differently is easier to do when you care enough to try and see if it was possible to change their fates.

    Keep writing and keep the love!

    • Thanks Divi! Yeah, it never ceases to amaze me that gamers can always be depended on to go nuts over the newest Mario or Zelda game, or anything that had its place but is now just a tired franchise. I want to be shocked and surprised! Not wallow in sentimentality. Covenant of the Plume was one of those games that really took me on a journey and made me look at myself and the human condition… sorry if that sounds completely pretentious.

      I’ll keep writing, and I hope you keep looking for those meaningful gems that remind you you’re on an amazing journey on PENAL COLONY: EARTH!

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