Among the many game genres the Nintendo Wii has amassed by now, the RPG is one of the least represented. Despite the relative ease of development for the system, many publishers have simply not bothered to release any for Nintendo's latest console. When a publisher does decide to release one, odds are that it isn't very good. With a few exceptions, RPG fans who own the Wii have had to turn to older titles on the Virtual Console to get their fix. Still, each new RPG release is eyed with the tentative hope that it'll be as good as Tales of Symphonia. Xseed Games, a publisher starting to gain fame for importing some obscure Japanese titles, has decided to publish another RPG for the Wii, Valhalla Knights: Eldar Saga.Theseries started on the PSP, and it's now available for Wii gamers who are starving for their RPG fix. Unfortunately, the quality of the title is more in line with Baroque than Super Paper Mario.
The game consists of two separate story lines that are thinly connected. The first major chapter talks about a meteorite that broke into several pieces and plagued the world with monsters. With the world's humans, elves, dwarves and other races constantly at odds with each other, the chances of them teaming up to fight the monsters is small indeed. With your created character, you're charged with retrieving the meteorite fragments to stop the monster horde from spreading. The second part of the story takes place 100 years later, when the monsters have organized and are close to world domination. As a descendant of the hero of the first chapter, you join up with a human army that's dedicated to destroying the monster hordes once and for all.
You start off the game in character creation mode and have a number of options open to you, depending on the episode you've chosen. The first episode has you starting out as a human male. Cosmetically, there are only a few things you can change, such as hairstyle, face type and skin color. Each option has a limited number of variations, so being able to fully customize the look of your player is out of the question, though you can get a good number of combinations out of what you have. Aside from the look, you can choose what job you want in the world before starting out your quest. The second episode opens up the ability to be a female character, but not much else. You'll still get a limited number of options to choose from and a limited number of choices within each option. If you choose to continue from the first episode and not jump directly into the second episode, you'll have a few more options open up, depending on who you married in episode one. Your character can then choose a few more races, but that's about it. No more new jobs open up because of the choice in race.
Your combat system is similar to that of the later games in the Phantasy Star series in that all combat and movement occur in real time. Monsters seen on-screen represent an actual number of creatures to fight, as opposed to one on-screen creature representing a larger monster party. Users can lock onto creatures, and each press of the button will correspond to an attack with a given weapon or spell. It all sounds good on paper, but there are a few things that hinder the experience. For one, it's difficult to hit creatures and defend yourself at the same time. Early on in the game, you'll be facing what amounts to dangerous feral rabbits. They can be killed, but most of the weapon swings will simply go over them and count as misses. If that doesn't happen, you might get caught in an attack combo animation instead of stopping to re-orient yourself to prepare for another attack. Meanwhile, the timing for a block has to be precise, or else you'll always get hit. In most situations, running away ends up being better for combat than blocking, making most combat situations a hit-and-run affair instead of something more strategic.
One of the best things Eldar Saga has going for it is the leveling system. From the beginning, when you choose your job, you are given a set number of points and are free to distribute them as you wish. Each job might give you a higher boost in a particular stat but, for the most part, your strengths and weaknesses are yours to command. Leveling up in the game doesn't boost all of the stats uniformly, either. You're given a set number of points at this time, and you can still distribute them as you wish. It's a more traditional, Western way of handling leveling as opposed to the automatic distribution of point levels from most Eastern RPGs, and it's very welcome here since you can make up a very strong thief or a magic-heavy warrior in the process. In a nice little twist, you can switch jobs and still retain the bonuses from leveling that you've done in previous jobs. This move is great, as it ends up lessening frustration in having to start grinding from scratch anytime you switch jobs to suit a particular quest.
Multiplayer is a nice addition to any RPG, especially this one. Here, you can go on any available quest with a partner of any class. The option is accessible anytime, and progress made here is also saved in the main single-player game. There are two items to note here that do dampen the experience. For starters, multiplayer quests can only be done with anyone you deem a friend. The Wii still uses the dreaded Friend Code system, so you can expect multiplayer to play an insignificant part of your experience unless you always set up a time for someone to go questing with. When you get this to happen, your communication is limited to set phrases, which you must set up prior to a multiplayer match taking place. The given phrases end up being too simple but are practical enough to figure out what the player is really trying to say. With some of the quests getting complicated, it would have been nice if this supported the rarely used Wii Speak accessory.
The control scheme fits the game just fine, and that's mostly because of the lack of tacked-on motion controls. In fact, the only time you move the Wii Remote is when you execute your special attack. You can choose to use the standard Wii Remote and Nunchuk combination, or you could use the Classic Controller instead, with the option to use buttons or the Wiimote waggles for the special attack. While all of this sounds fine, the only knock against the controls would be the camera system. The system isn't automatic, which is fine, but the flipside is that you have to constantly adjust the system to get a better view of your environment. It's a personal preference, but some who don't care much for camera management will find it problematic.
Graphically, the game shows what happens when a developer underestimates the power of the console for which they're developing. The environments all share a similar palette of gray and dark colors, which is fine when conveying a world in conflict, but a bit of variety would have been nice. The architecture of the environments is simple and doesn't bother the player too much until you take a closer look and see that the textures are either too simple or very blurry. In some instances, some textures seemed like they were one simple color instead of multi-colored. Character models share a simple structure for their faces, but at least their clothing is textured well enough to give them some detail. What's really surprising is that the player model is worse than any non-player character, with the exception of the mercenaries since they are simply computer-controlled versions of created characters. The limb models are disproportionate to their bodies, and their hands simply consist of blocks with fingers painted on them in a closed fist fashion. No one has seen character models like this since the PSOne/N64 era, and it is not something that needs to make a comeback. While the series may have had its origins in the PSP, the Wii version should be able to sport some improvements in graphics instead of none at all.
By far, the sound is one area that will annoy most players. The music really isn't the issue here, as it is rather good. It may not be up to the level of a Square Enix or Atlus production, but it isn't completely forgettable either. It's just too bad that it doesn't play all that often. Aside from a few cut scenes, music is absent for a large chunk of the game. Voices aren't the reason for the poor sound, since there really aren't any voices aside from battle grunts. Whether you talk to villagers, shopkeepers or have a pivotal cut scene, no one ever utters a word. What really drags down the sound quality are the sound effects. Sword slashes may be fine and magic spells may be pleasant to hear, but unless you're standing still, it all gets drowned out by the sounds of your footsteps. Each step pierces through your ears because they're the loudest sound in the game. Even if you're wearing simple leather boots when you start your quest, the steps all sound like you're wearing iron boots on a marble church floor. It gets worse as you change into real iron boots, and the sound becomes even more deafening. With no way to drown out individual sound effects, this one sound effect can deter people from playing the game with any sound enabled at all.
Valhalla Knights: Eldar Saga certainly has some good ideas. In particular, the leveling system and job swap present something fresh and welcome to the genre. While the story isn't exactly new and exciting, it does a better job than one would think in getting the player involved in performing quests. Despite this, there isn't much good that can be said for everything else that the game offers. Controls are decent, but the graphics and sound are definitely culprits in making the package unappealing to all but the most die-hard fans. In short, skip out on this game or rent it if you really have to play it. No matter how starved you are for some serious RPG action on a system ruled by mini-game compilations, you can do better than this.
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