By Katie . February 19, 2007 . 12:36pm
PSP may stand for Playstation Portable, but it’s hard to relate the sleek, black, universal media gizmo to the old grey box. It’s obviously more powerful, and capable of feats far removed from the home version that begat its name – all of which are the signs of unbelievable progress. Accompanying such progress are possibilities to radically renovate and tailor existing genres to the handheld experience (for example, my personal favorite, the topsy-turvy world of Loco Roco).
So I’m a little bemused as to why a game like Valhalla Knights doesn’t take greater advantage of these possibilities. For a semi-traditional RPG, in which dynamic environments, fancy physics and action-oriented gameplay don’t typically bait the line, the lures of choice tend toward the design of characters and spells against a backdrop of striking artwork. Playing like a PS1 game, looking like Half-Life era software run on a higher-end PC, Valhalla Knights seems only to try to meet the hardware halfway – it supplies the raw materials, and relies on all the PSP’s power perks for a performance upgrade. Having completed the first dungeon, which has got to be wrapped in more halls and like rooms than a Matryoshka doll has layers, I can say the model-makers and engine coders also should have met the level artists halfway.
Appearance-wise, textures seem stretched and blurred to fit any needy surface, which as a result colors the world a mostly granite shade; I realize this is a world in upheaval and misfortune, but a game like Valkyrie Profile (which incidentally emigrated from PS1 to the PSP) should be looked to as a glittering example of how to realize any world that claims one iota of the Norse. Dungeons don’t have to be drab and foggy, much less the towns. However, like Valkyrie, Valhalla Knights falls into a generic-story-and-character-recruiting-trap that leaves little to fuel the repetitive romp through cage-like rooms (only exacerbated by a claustrophobic, clingy camera, which will sometimes stick to the top of doorways and turn you in tiny circles.)
What does fuel it, and makes up for a few of its trespasses, is Knights’ battle system, and, through the Guilds, customizability of your party and quests. The highly individualized character models seem to be where the slack was picked up, as every race – Human, Dwarf, Halfling, Elf – boast myriad battle animations and models that reflect each change to their apparel. Even the shopkeepers have individual portraits and mannerisms (and, shall we say, dental irregularities) that keep things lively. As for the battles, enemy encounters occur frequently, and while mostly avoidable, grant the victories needed to develop any chance of survival very early on. A circular arena illuminated with a magical emblem encompasses the action, which unfolds in real-time according to the behaviors you set for your AI-controlled characters. Your current leader is at your command, and while the fighting isn’t driven by a complex combo system or a gauge system, expect a hassle from even these weakest foes if you don’t choose the ‘right’ classes.
There’s another thing – the illusory freedom of choice in the party you create. I find that, as the guide dictates, having a Fighter and a Priest will save your bacon when other classes might perish, due not necessarily to any fault of your own, but to the sheer numbers of the opposition. You get little money or gear to begin with, recruiting is costly, and two magically-challenged, Level 2 fighters against five poisonous gas clouds is hardly a matter of fight or flight. So the game is not entirely balanced and highly punishing (especially when it’s unclear that some exits can lead to more than one place, and you squander precious funds at the inn rather than heal for free in the previous area. *Grumble*)
For those who enjoy the dungeon-crawl and level-grind, however, I’m sure a bit of patience will pay dividends with this Marvelous-developed game. I’ve so enjoyed their Harvest Moon efforts that I hope patience will pay by the next time I write on Valhalla Knights.