Valhalla Knights is a franchise that could only exist on a handheld. Forgoing high production values and complex stories in favor of simple pick-up-and-play gameplay, it's one of the forgotten sons of the PlayStation Portable. It's rather generic, with elves and orcs and fantasy at its most cliché, backed up by serviceable but unexceptional gameplay mechanics. The franchise has done well enough to get a series of sequels and even a Wii spin-off, but it's never stood out. Valhalla Knights 3 is probably the most distinctive entry in the franchise, but unfortunately, this may be a case where it would've been better to not stand out.
Legendary adventurer William Flockhart claimed to have found a mysterious item that could grant the wishes of whoever held it. Flockhart vanished into the mists of time but not before his legend spread. The location of his treasure was lost, and all that is known is that it's somewhere connected to Flockhart. Your protagonist in Valhalla Knights 3 is an agent who's been sent to prison to seek out hints about the legacy's location to help your Emperor win the war against a rival nation. Located in the ruins of a captured castle, the prison has become an insular nation ruled by rival families and filled with danger. Flockhart's treasure is hidden somewhere within.
Valhalla Knights 3 is a straightforward action-RPG. You have an attack, a special attack, and a dash, though your abilities depend on your chosen character class and weapons. You can be an archer and snipe from a distance, a magic user who can blow up enemies, or just have a sword and shield and parry and dodge attacks. Combat begins simple but grows more complex as you advance. You can easily change classes and even add a subclass, which allows you to use skills and attributes that you'd previously mastered. The game doesn't do a good job of explaining things, so if you go into VK3 blind, you're likely to be frustrated, and not in the fun Dark Souls way. Even in-game information is hard to find, and it can be frustrating to figure out if an enemy is stronger or weaker than you since the game provides so little information. Most of the time, you'll just wing it and run away if things get too bad.
The most distinctive element of combat is the party system. You can have multiple party members on your team and switch between them at will. Each party member acts according to his or her personality, so a big chunk of the gameplay is finding (or making) the best combination of characters. You can recruit special party members or create your own at the local guild. Enemies also have their own parties, so you must balance your strengths versus the enemies. Both friendly and enemy AI can be pretty awkward, so it's easy to walk into a situation and have it turn out well (or poorly) through no fault of your own.
A big problem is that the combat is clunky. It's functional and can be occasionally fun, but it's never anything more than that. In Soul Sacrifice, I can charge around, switch weapons, dodge attacks, change my blades and balance my resources, and while it has some problems, it's a fun and exciting adventure. VK3 is based on mashing the attack button and occasionally parrying or using skills. If it sounds simple, that's because it is. There are some positioning and timing elements, but they seem hopelessly simplistic, with an emphasis on numbers rather than how well you're fighting.
This also leads to frustrating situations where you lose a fight because you misjudged the enemy's strength. If I lose a fight in Monster Hunter or Dark Souls, I can figure how much of it was due to my twitch skills and how much of it had to do with my stats. In VK3, it was because my stats were too low, not because I could've played better. Compared to other action-RPGs on the Vita, it's hopelessly lacking.
The rest of the game does little to change your mind. In the opening moments, one of the female characters traveling with you is kidnapped. Shortly thereafter, you find her working in a brothel. It's "OK" because it turns out she's "good at this kind of customer service." Your pal, Carlos, then attacks the owner of the brothel while she screams for him to stop. After an off-screen transition, he pumps his fist and talks about how that was just what he needed. Absolutely nobody seems to think this is weird, and Carlos is treated as your wacky sidekick for doing this. Then you get a trophy called "One Small Step for Man."
After this, I went to check my system settings to increase the text speed or set the lock-on to toggle instead of hold. None of those basic options were available, but there were five options to customize the panties of the female NPCs. That's the kind of game VK3 is at heart. Even worse is that all of this is treated with the subtlety and grace of a Cinemax skin flick. The game tries to set up this dark and dank prison full of warring triads and an encroaching war, but the world feels like it's five seconds away from becoming pornography.
Part of this has to do with the game's — sigh — "Sexy Time" mechanic. To shop at the high-end shops, you have to hire one of the girls who work there. It's clearly a reference to the "hostess" clubs in Japan, but without any sense of irony or self-awareness. The result is that you have to pay scantily clad women to hang out with you to shop. It makes the act of purchasing equipment feel sleazy. (There are no male counterparts, so there isn't equal opportunity sleaze in VK3.)
After you've spent enough time with the women, this culminates in the "Sexy Time" mechanic, where you use the Vita's touch-screen to grope them to increase their affection meter. Then you two go to the local inn, where you receive rewards and a new party member after some implied hanky-panky. This gameplay mechanic adds nothing to the game, and you don't technically have to do it, but you lose out on party members, a lot of items, and some content, so anyone seeking to min-max their game is going to shell out a lot of cash to virtual call girls. If you choose to avoid it entirely, you'll have a much tougher time getting good items.
VK3 may be the worst-looking game on the Vita. In almost all respects, it looks like a game made for the PSP, not the Vita. The character models are ugly and simplistic and have bad animation. There's no mouth movement, little vocal dialogue, poor textures — basically every sin you could imagine. The environments look more updated, and even they pale in comparison to most other games on the system. The most effort was put into the "sexy time" girls, who appear to have been designed for something more recent than the PSP. That's not an improvement, though, because the increased realism increases the creep factor when you're forced to hire a shop assistant who looks like a 12-year-old girl in a cow-print bikini. The loading times are also awful. More complex games load in a fraction of the time, and the loading screen in VK3 are constant. The voice acting is almost nonexistent, and the soundtrack isn't memorable.
I don't know who the intended audience is for Valhalla Knights 3. You need to have a fondness for arcane and sloppy game mechanics, and you must be willing to sit through a boring and tedious story, forgive low-budget graphics, and want to grope scantily clad anime girls. Even then, it isn't a very good game. The basic combat system is serviceable but certainly not good enough to put up with everything that accompanies it. Games like Soul Sacrifice give you more engaging and exciting character customization and combat but without all the baggage. VK3 certainly stands out from the previous games, but it does so in all the wrong ways. Any improvements it made to the mechanics are overshadowed by everything else about the game.
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