Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume

I’ve had a troubled history with Japanese strategy RPGs, but I finally one that I liked. Valkyrie Profile is not the deepest game, mechanically. There’s not a lot of loot or character progression decisions. But the story was dark and fast-moving, and there are a couple of interlocking systems in it that really grabbed by attention.

The game includes a metric for judging how well the player performs in each battle, called “Sin”. Now, it’s not the most accurate metric for evaluating good play that one could devise (there’s not speed or efficiency component to how it is gained), but it does have one particularly appealing characteristic: it’s completely transparent. Current Sin accumulation, the minimum quota for good play, and how much Sin is potentially available in a level are all immediately apparent.

It’s important that the performance metric is transparent because of how it’s used. Most games I can think of with performance metrics give out rewards to players who perform well. Valkyrie Profile is no different. A player who attains double the minimum Sin quota is rewarded with high quality items and equipment, better stuff than could be purchased in shops. So players who play well get tools that will enable them to continue to succeed in the future.

But what of players who are struggling? In some games, they’d find themselves increasingly left behind. By missing out on the rewards for good play, a game that they’re already having trouble with becomes harder. But Valkyrie Profile does something different. If a player fails to meet the Sin quota, they get punished. The next battle will include extra enemies that are so strong that they likely can’t be defeated by normal means. But this punishment is also a gift. In order to win this now quite difficult battle, the player will have to use the Plume on a companion character.

Using the Plume on an ally has a number of effects. It dramatically raises that character’s stats in the present battle to such an extreme degree that victory is guaranteed, even in the hardest of battles. It fills the Sin quota for that battle (meaning that the player will receive some top-tier bonus items). It grants the main character a powerful new ability that can be used in future battles. And it permanently kills the ally the Plume was used on, and forks the story into a “worse”, darker direction.

So the actual punishment for using the Plume is mostly in a story-context. But in return for using the Plume, the struggling player is granted a leg up and some breathing room, in the form of an easy battle and new, powerful tools. And while these story-based punishments sting, they’re not all that bad. The game is quite short for a strategy RPG (less than 15 hours) and encourages New Game+ play (you don’t keep levels, but you do keep equipment and powers gained by using the Plume).

I enjoyed the story itself, as well. It’s a fruitless, almost absurd quest for revenge set against the backdrop of a looming civil war. It jumps around a bit too much, and is there’s not a whole lot of depth, and the writing is frequently awkward, but it does pretty well for what it is. It’s surprisingly bloody – there are three different story tracks, and along a track, most of the recruitable characters from the other two tracks will die. Families will be torn apart. Presumed friends will turn out to be assassins. And, in a pleasing bit of synergy, the player can, via the Plume, have an impact. As I discussed above, using the Plume grants the player power. It also, within the story, grants Wyl, the player’s avatar, the power he feels he needs to fuel his revenge plot. But of course, using the Plume sacrifices Wyl’s allies, and inflicts more suffering upon the world, driving the story down darker paths. In a typical but effective video game maneuver, if the player using the Plume enough, Wyl and his remaining party will have to fight the spirits of all the party members he’s sacrificed over the course of the game (and because of how the story is constructed, these sacrificed will likely be the friends and family of the remaining party members), only to have it revealed that in the end his quest for revenge was not merely impossible and pointless, but actively counterproductive.

Sure there are better endings, where player performs well, and doesn’t given in to the temptation of using the Plume to gain powerful abilities, and so where Wyl releases the fruitlessness of his quest for revenge, and revises his course before it’s too late. But that’s much less fun. The negative light in the story portrays Wyl’s quest for power along the “worst” path doubles as a critique of the power-gamer, the sort of player who sacrifices immersion and story in return for optimal character progression. It’s quite ingenious.

I realize I haven’t talked much the gameplay. The AI is dumb as nails, and some of the individual engagements go on for too long, but the levels themselves are all fairly short. There are a wide variety of characters some different weapon classes and some room for customizing abilities. There’s not nearly the depth of a standard SRPG, but at the same time, there’s none of the grind, so it’s a fair trade-off.

So in conclusion, it was a satisfying experience. It’s not too long, it’s got some interesting systems that reward good play while still giving struggling players some extra help to succeed (while making it seem like it’s punishing them, rather than going easy on them). It plays some fun tricks on power-gamers. And it’s got an interesting, branching story with a real incentive to try New Game+ and see the action from a different perspective.

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