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In 1999, Tri-Ace, the developers of the Star Ocean series of roleplaying games, unleashed upon Japan one of the most unique RPGs ever created. That game, which would come to the U.S. the following year, was entitled Valkyrie Profile and it turned nearly every single genre cliché on its head. Sadly, it went unnoticed among much of the gaming public, and seemed destined for forgotten gem status--that is, until Tri-Ace teamed with Square Enix to port the game, now known as Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth, to the Sony PSP in 2006. So what makes this game so different? Everything.
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For starters, the plot, which is inspired by Norse mythology, is unlike anything you've ever seen in an RPG. You assume the role not of a plucky, spikey-haired hero or a dark, brooding emo type, but of Lenneth, a valkyrie who assists the gods by recruiting the souls of the dead to aid them in a final apocalyptic battle, Ragnarok. Thus, the first appearance of the new party members (referred to as Einherjar in the game) is often the story of their mortal deaths.
Some of the two-dozen characters featured in the game are heroic, others are cowards or scoundrels, but it is Lenneth's duty to shape them into worthy soldiers to fight for Odin in the battles to come. Lenneth herself is a bit of a cold, calculating character, and her matter-of-factly style is definitely refreshing. There is also a subplot involving the origins of the "Death Goddess" herself, but unless you have a guide or walkthrough handy, it will be mighty difficult to unearth. The writing could've been better in spots as well.
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The premise may be somewhat unorthodox, but the gameplay is definitely like nothing else you've ever seen before. Instead of encouraging exploration like most roleplaying games, Valkyrie Profile strictly enforces time limits. There's no clock per se--at least, not in most dungeons--but the game is broken down into chapters, and each chapter is further divided into periods. There are a set number of periods remaining until the end of the world, and every place you visit will cost you a certain amount of time. To top it all off, Lenneth must first use a special power to even locate a potential Einherjar or a dungeon, and this too will cost you precious time.
Furthermore, you can forget everything you know about acquiring equipment, training party members, and combat as well. Instead of earning money, your performance nets you "Materialize Points" from Odin at the end of each chapter, and it is with these points that you need to create weapons, armor, healing items and the like. When you enter the turn-based combat, you are presented with an interface in which each of the face buttons controls one of the four active party members, and mixing up the order in which you send each character to attack the enemy can allow you to pull off special signature maneuvers. Oh, and don’t get too attached to your favorite characters, because in each chapter you need to send warriors to Valhalla. Sometimes you can choose who goes, but sometimes Odin will request a certain type of soldier, and you'll be forced to oblige if you want to maintain a high performance rating and thus continue to earn as many Materialize Points as possible.
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There are three difficulty levels in Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth. In Easy Mode, most chapters are just 16 periods long and there are few Einherjar to collect. In Normal, chapters are 24 periods long, and in Hard they are 28. There are also three endings, though the best one is only available in Normal and Hard (and even then, you'll likely need a walkthrough to meet the right criteria). In addition, you can only access every character and the special Seraphic Gate dungeon in Hard Mode. There is a steep learning curve involved here, but if you're willing to invest the time to figure things out, Valkyrie Profile is a very rewarding RPG.
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Graphics and Sound
The original Valkyrie Profile was one of the most beautiful 2D games of the PlayStation era, and Lenneth ups the ante by including new cinematic cutscenes not present in the original version. They are quite gorgeous. Likewise, the musical score is fantastic, as is usually the case with Tri-Ace developed games. The voice acting is a bit of a mixed bag. Some of the character voices aren't all that great, but Lenneth's voice actress does a phenomenal job. I still get goose bumps whenever I hear her shout battle cries like "Come to me, my noble Einherjar!" or "It shall be engraved upon your soul!" A solid effort marred only by the inconsistent quality of the character voices.
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Make no mistake--Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth is a brutal, unforgiving game. For one thing, there's a lot of new terminology to learn and new conventions to master. Powerful characters must be sacrificed in order to gain enough Materialize Points so you can create strong enough weapons to hurt the monsters in the next chapter's dungeons. Something as innocent as accidentally leaving a dungeon too early or wasting periods using Lenneth's ability to seek out dungeons or party members that just aren’t there, can spell doom later in the game. Success at this game almost requires use of a strategy guide, something that may not appeal to all types of gamers. If you played the original PSX version of the game, you already know whether or not it appeals to you. If you haven't and you consider yourself an RPG fan, you definitely owe it to yourself to try out this wonderfully original, if not occasionally soul-crushingly challenging, video game.