Publisher: Square Enix
Release Date: September 26, 2006
Creating a sequel to a game that sets the quality bar incredibly high is a risk not to be taken lightly. Should you fail at doing justice to said original game, the entire world will know, and it will take a while for you to live it down.
Case in point: There are people out there who still haven't forgiven Squaresoft for Chrono Cross. I should know. I'm one of them.
In 2000, Valkyrie Profile was released for the PSX, and news of it being a must-play gradually spread amongst word of mouth. By the time everyone found out about it, though, it was out of print, and in the hands of collectors who charged an arm and a leg for their copies, if they decided to part with them at all. Fortunately, the game has recently been released on the PSP, so experiencing its greatness (questionable dub voices aside) is a far more accessible matter than it used to be.
It's been six years since that game's creation, and now, after their Star Ocean and Radiata Stories titles, Tri-Ace has decided to give their third (and oft-considered best) franchise another turn. The results, most thankfully, are not a debacle – in fact, it's one of the most enjoyable RPG experiences on the PS2.
Anyone who's beaten the original Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth knows that the story ends on a rather… decisive note. In truth, there was nowhere to go but backwards. Silmeria is indeed a prequel, going back in history to when another of the three Valkyries was in power: the beautiful and deadly eldest sister, Hrist. Hrist's assignment is to punish the city of Dipan, and its king, Barrbarrosa, for attempting to rival the power of the gods. However, the exiled princess of Dipan, Alicia – along with the soul of the Valkyrie Silmeria that resides within her – have other ideas. All of this will be like coming home to someone who witnessed these events in part in the first game, but nowhere near its entire scope. The result is a twisting adventure that will take them and the friends/rivals/cohorts that they meet around the world, and sometimes into both the heavens themselves and the deepest lairs of the undead. The cardinal rules of this adventure: Nothing is what it seems, and no one is who they appear to be.
Now, for the question you've all been waiting for: Just how good is the battle system? The original Valkyrie Profile's fights were invigorating and exciting, due to a one-button system for each character that was simple to execute, but it also had its complexities because the timing for combination and juggle attacks would vary as your party changed. I'm happy to say that Silmeria's battle system not only retains the greatness of the original's, but evolves it in the process.
In Silmeria, battles are no longer simple 2D left-to-right affairs, but mini-dungeons all on their own. Each party member is again mapped to a face button on the PS2 controller, but until you actually approach an enemy, you control all four at once. You can tell them to walk or dash a certain distance – the latter allows you to get away from the enemies' attack ranges, which can be visibly seen on the ground. This allows you to deftly sneak and dart around without getting hit. Related to dashing is dash-cancelling, which allows you a chance to go straight from a dash into an attack, regardless of whether or not the enemy is actually supposed to take an action or not. All of this movement is executed in real time via combinations of the analog stick and shoulder buttons; there's no turn-based strategy here. It's all action.
Should you wish, you can also split up your party into a red and blue team (consisting of 2-2, or 1-3 member formations). When split up, you control one party at a time, with the other standing still until you wish to command them. Need to get a mage in the perfect position for casting that powerful spell from behind? Need to keep someone away from the line of fire? Or, perhaps your party is in trouble, and you need to be able to flee without attracting attention to the entire group? That's what the split-up function is for. Remote attacks and damage-increasing behind-the-back attacks are possible with this system.
Of course, once you do get to an enemy, the game switches to a 2.5D view, and all of a sudden, those wonderful Lenneth memories come flooding back. The objective in battles is to get the biggest combo you can by combining all of your allies' rush attacks. Should you get enough hits in your combo, you may be able to activate special "Soul Crush" attacks, which are unblockable, take off tons of hit points, and just look really, really awesome. Soul Crushes can be chained as well, which is great news for when you're fighting a boss.
Want to make the battles go even faster? Each enemy party has a designated "leader" hiding around on the field. Hunt it down, kill it, and every single enemy that was in the battle is instantly defeated. You get just as much experience as if you'd defeated them all one by one, but you might not get as many bonus items for doing so. The more enemy body parts you hack away at, the more bonus items fly off for you to collect, so you'll have to make a choice as to whether or not you want goodies, or quick EXP.
It's funny, too – the game forces you to memorize every nuance of the battle system in order to progress, with a learning curve that's both incredibly fair and a series of trials by fire. True, you can get past the first dungeon by just pretending this is Lenneth all over again and ignoring movement tricks, but the next will smoke you if you try that. Another forces you to get dash-cancelling down; another, splitting up your party. Still another will teach you how to use your mages from a distance. All of this is done in such a way that you don't really know you're inside a series of tutorials; the game makes you guess the tricks to conquering the first smattering of dungeons, until you're ordering your party around like a tactical master, getting them in position to perform that all-important pincer-strike dogpile juggle combo. How sweet it is. The best part is that once you master the battle system, the dreaded act of "power-leveling" becomes more of an option rather than a requirement. With good strategy, you can take on enemies far more powerful than yourself and come out on top, albeit with a higher risk should you actually manage to get hit. Everything's about balance of risk and rewards here.
Outside of Silmeria's battles, just as in Lenneth, customization is in full effect. Equipping combinations of the goodies you find in battle can raise your stats, and each one comes in four colors: red, green, blue, and neutral. Items of the first three colors can have their effects enhanced when "linked" on a special grid shown near your character's equipment screen. Link a blue magic-increasing item with the other blue items of any type, and watch that first item's effect increase almost threefold. Equipping certain combinations of these items can open the way to familiar and all-new skills that allow characters to revive from the dead, take more turns per battle, and a host of other welcome effects.
Finally, just as in Lenneth, Silmeria Valkyrie can recruit a host of Einherjar, or the spirits of dead warriors, to fight alongside her. Sadly, unlike the first game, none of them have their own sweeping sad stories to witness. The living characters are the stars, while the Einjerjar are there to kill things, and give you items when you decide to set them free and reincarnate them. (Still, some of the character designs are quite nice. Sha-kon is the new Aelia. Trust me on this.)
Of course, it wouldn't be a Square Enix published game without dazzling visuals and special effects. Silmeria currently stands as the most beautiful game on the PS2. Period. No, stop suggesting other titles. It is. The only way I can describe is that I repeatedly have trouble telling which cut scenes were made with CG, and which were rendered with the in-game engine. They're that similar. Fighting is laden with hit-sparkles galore, and some Soul Crushes should seriously come with epilepsy warnings.
Your ears won't be left out of the party either. With a well-done English dub, clashing swords and massive explosions, the audio does not disappoint. In fact, possibly the only disappointment in this department may be the music, and that will only be to die-hard Lenneth fans who know the original's ethereal score by heart. The game supports Dolby Digital and progressive-scan, so if you've got an expensive television, feel free to put it to good use here.
It's not long now – Silmeria will be out at the end of the month, and it's a game you should not miss, especially if you're already a fan of the franchise. Oddly enough, this game is more for you than anybody else, but everybody's invited along for the chance to experience one of the most well-crafted RPGs in quite some time.