Friday, February 7, 2014

Valkyrie Profiles: Lenneth & Silmeria

I'm doing two games at once because they are pretty similar in many ways and it also makes it easier for me to compare them. I actually played Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth quite some time ago - like, two years or more ago. It was the first game I bought for my PSP, and one of the main reasons for buying the console in the first place. I finished it once and started another playthrough in order to get the true ending but then I bought Persona 3 Portable and couldn't resist starting it. I bought Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria also quite a while ago but given that my PS2 has mostly been gathering dust I hadn't gotten around to actually playing it. However, there's an old TV in my room at my parents' so I took my PS2 with me for Christmas holidays - and of course, Silmeria. After finishing it I felt like giving VP: Lenneth another go.

1. "It shall be engraved upon your soul..."

Both games have a Valkyrie as a central character and they take place in the same timeline (kind of, it's a bit complicated...) Silmeria as a game is more akin to traditional RPGs as it shares their basic structure: the player follows a linear plot, traveling from one dungeon to another in a world map. Lenneth is a bit different: the player is tasked with collecting souls of the dead to fight in Ragnarok. Each action the player takes brings Ragnarok a step closer. There is no real plot progression, because the premise holds throughout the game. Most dialogue in the game concerns how the recruitable souls died. It's worth notice that the player is not forced to make any choices in the game; there's enough time to do everything in each chapter. Maybe forcing the player to make some actual choices would have increased the game's replayability and made the coming of Ragnarok feel a bit more urgent but honestly the structure works just fine as it stands. The game has a hidden storyline which progresses alongside the Ragnarok plot, but we're going into that a bit later.

As the terminology suggests, both games are a bastardization of Norse mythology. I did like the setting because it's an interesting mess of standard issue JRPG stuff and respects its mythology a bit more than the average JRPG. The games also share a lot of mechanical stuff. This here is a quick overview of their similarities - I will go into detail about some of these systems in a moment. Dungeons in both games are basically sidescrolling 2D platformers and - especially certain hard mode dungeons in Lenneth - pretty puzzle-oriented. The player even has enough tools at their disposal to make some actual platformers pale in comparison. In both games souls of the dead - einherjar - are meaningful to gameplay. They differ from typical NPCs in one important way: the player is expected to release them from their service. In Lenneth, the game ends badly if the player doesn't send quality souls to Valhalla in each chapter. In Silmeria there is no pressing need to release einherjar but upon release they leave behind pretty delicious stat boost items.

Of the two games, Lenneth has a much faster pace. Battles are shorter, and the protagonist runs much faster in dungeons. There's also less dialogue, again largely because the Ragnarok plot itself has nothing to talk about. Lenneth (the character) talks very little. In most scenes she only appears at the end to claim the einherjer's soul. Like the game itself, she's pretty much the no-nonsense, all-business type of heroine. Once recruited the einherjar don't talk much either (it would be kinda tricky too because there's no telling which ones the player has in their party given that most are optional to recruit and almost any of them can be sent to Valhalla). The games are of similar length though, because there are more dungeons in Lenneth. Another big difference is the main character. Lenneth is the heroine of her own game, but Silmeria's situation is a bit different - she shares a body with Alicia, a human princess. Therefore it is Alicia the player is controlling. It was a bit of letdown honestly because instead of a badass Valkyrie we get a whiny princess.

The change in perspective does give Silmeria a more human feeling and the central characters are overall fleshed out fairly well. Still it feels like just another JRPG whereas Lenneth felt like a more unique game in its genre. Besides, the plot in Silmeria makes next to zero sense. Coming to think of it, that's something it shares with Tri-Ace's another PS2 JRPG... (Star Ocean 3). Storywriting really isn't Tri-Ace's strong suit anyway.

2. "I shall cleave into your flesh..."

Fun gameplay on the other hand is definitely Tri-Ace's strongest suit. Both games share the same attack mechanic: in combat, each of the party's four characters is assigned to a button. Each character has a sequence of one to three attacks. When their button is pressed, they release an attack from the sequence. This happens in real time, allowing two or more characters to attack at the same time. On the surface it sounds like a button mashing festival but there's a bit more depth to it. On top of regular attacks, each character has a special attack that can only be used if the energy meter reaches 100 in a combo. Each attack raises the meter but it also decreases quickly if the combo is dropped. Therefore timing attacks is essential to keep the combo going. To make matters a bit trickier, attacks can launch the enemy into the air or knock them down - and a lot of attacks only hit a certain height. The order and timing of attacks is therefore crucial to get right because poorly timed ones will just whiff. Attacks also have all kinds of delays to make things more fun.

I really like this combo system for a couple of reasons. First of all, I like figuring out combos in general. Most of the time when I'm in the practice mode of a fighting game I play around with different combos. Unfortunately my technical execution sucks so I'm really bad at the most combo-oriented fighting games like Guilty Gear. The system in Valkyrie Profile is really easy to execute because the player just presses a button. The challenge is in figuring out the combo and it's not enough to figure out one combo either because, especially in Lenneth, the party changes in every chapter. Enemies are also different. Small ones in particular are tricky to combo against because timing is much stricter. Second, the system does allow for mid-combo adaptation. Attacks are pretty fast but not too fast. Assuming the player is aware which attacks from each character have not yet been used, some correctional measures can be taken to salvage a combo that is about to fail. At least the player can clearly see which attacks did not connect and can adapt in the future.

In terms of finer details, Lenneth puts a bit more emphasis on sparing attacks - especially special attacks. Using just enough attacks to finish an enemy allows the rest to be used against another one, possibly taking more than one enemy out in a single turn. Special attacks have a varying charge time and they cannot be used while being charged. The characters also cannot use items or spells while they have CT. The dynamics are a bit different in Silmeria. While Lenneth has one battle screen where all the enemies are, Silmeria's battles are divided between two modes. In map mode, the party moves freely in a 3D view. When an attack is initiated the game moves to an attack screen that is similar to Lenneth's battle screen (which I just described). There is only one enemy at a time. In addition to the number of attacks each character has, attacking is also limited by a meter that is regained by spending time on the movement view and also through killing enemies and obtaining purple crystals from them. Special attacks can be used every time the combo allows.

A big part of battles in Silmeria is avoiding enemy attacks in the movement screen. All attacks have a visible area of effect. It becomes visible as soon as the enemy starts charging the attack, giving the player time to move away from the AoE. If any character is inside the AoE when the attack is ready, it is immediately carried out. This sounds very confusing when explained like this but it's a fairly functional system. For the record, attacks in both games *hurt*. It is often crucial to get the jump on the enemy. We've been through this time and again: it's usually better for enemies to die quickly but dish out serious hurt if given the chance. It keeps the game going. Anyway, back to the movement system in Silmeria. In addition to just moving, the player can use speed bursts to move quicker and finally divide the party in two. The game is paused whenever the player doesn't do anything so there's no rush.

Although the system in itself is fine and clearly has some tactical depth, its big downside is making battles much longer than in Lenneth. Fortunately the player doesn't need to kill all enemies - killing the leader ends the battle immediately and gives the experience rewards of any unkilled enemies. Most of the time, if the player is able to get to the leader without problems, battles are over fairly swiftly. Other times though they can take quite a while. What makes this particularly aggravating is the fact that enemies respawn whenever the player re-enters a screen in the dungeon (in Lenneth they stay dead). Party splitting is not that useful either because moving two parties spends twice as much time, allowing enemies to attack more. Small tricks can still be done, like making a one member party to run into an AoE to absord all the damage from it instead of exposing weaker members to damage.

Although the mechanics in Silmeria are more complex and even better on paper, the fact that they slow the game down so much makes me prefer Lenneth's gameplay. With another iteration it could work really well because in a way, Silmeria is a tactical RPG where enemy attacks can be entirely avoided with positioning. Almost entirely anyway, because some attacks are still very hard to avoid. Then again, some enemies can be kited forever.

3. "I shall purify you"

Boss battles tip the scales in Silmeria's favor. This is largely because Lenneth's mechanics don't work very well in prolonged battles. The combo mechanic works phenomenally in normal battles where whittling down enemy numbers quickly is a high priority because a) one enemy can be killed in a turn and b) if they stay alive, their damage output is pretty hard to stand against. Having to dedicate characters to healing is quite catastrophic in Lenneth because it's harder to build energy to 100 and gain access to special attacks when one or two characters are not attacking. Against bosses there is no way to reduce incoming damage beyond killing possible minions. More often, incoming damage increases when the boss gets low enough. Either way, the system tends to become a bit slugfesty because of its emphasis on normal attacks. Support spells and items are used very rarely because they waste precious time.

Silmeria treats things a bit differently. Support spells, items and healing use the same meter as attacks do. This means that if you heal and then immediately attack, less attacks can be made and it's harder to get a full combo. Another restriction is a stricter one: using any of these has a global cooldown. When one character heals, no one can heal until the cooldown has passed. This means that support spells and items are just as useless as in Lenneth because usually whenever they could be used, it's time to heal. The only times they are useful are battles where enemies can be kited for a long time (e.g. heal, run to the other side of the map, cast spells, run around, cast more spells etc.). This dynamic makes resurrection in particular very costly and often not worth the trouble. Healing spells are also single target. Only rather expensive items are capable of healing the entire party.

All in all, AoE damage against the player's party in Silmeria is very devastating. This causes some quirky boss strategies to emerge. I found most bosses in the game much easier when I left the entire party behind and went in only with Alicia because she did the most damage and was able to heal herself. The remaining party of three could come in and throw a resurrect or dispel if needed. Other than that, they were there to avoid damage because most boss attacks dealth huge AoE damage. When taking healing limitations into consideration, the outcome is problematic. Put simply, healing cannot keep up with incoming damage unless there is only one character taking damage. I think the menu cooldown is too strict. It's fine to limit the use of items because item spam would be truly OP, but limiting spells is not a good call (spells are still expensive to use). For instance, Star Ocean 3 uses a similar cooldown mechanic, but only for items - and it works fine.

It's not like any of the components of this equation are bad - the combination itself is. Ideally I'd prefer it if bosses dealt less AoE damage and more single target damage. Either that or the suggestion in the previous paragraph. Healing is a tricky concept in general because too powerful heals tend to polarize damage. Either damage is negligible (because it can be fully healed with a single heal) or it is deadly (exceeds target HP). In a way Silmeria's attempt is commendable but the implementation was screwed up somewhere along the line. It would be better if the game was clearer about how enemy attacks work - avoiding them seems pretty random at times. For instance, sometimes when the player attacks, the enemy can counter even if no one was in the attack's area (implying that they get certain amount of time after the attack to turn) but sometimes they can't. Agro mechanics are also opaque so using party splitting to direct damage to tanky characters seems impossible.

Nevertheless, the fact that positioning matters a lot in boss battles makes them more interesting than slugfests in Lenneth. The first form of the last boss was pretty horrible though and I was very happy I didn't have to redo it. I think the system could be fine with slight adjustments or more transparency/consistency.

4. "Behold my godlike power"

Character development is overall more complex in Silmeria than it is in Lenneth. They share the basic concept: in addition to leveling up, characters gain access to skills. Both games also limit the amount of skills that can be equipped but they do so with different methods. Lenneth allows characteres to equip four skills total in three different categories. Silmeria uses capacity points - a familiar mechanic from multiple games - with each skill having its own CP cost. The bigger difference in complexity considering skills is the way they are learned. In Lenneth, the player simply uses tomes to learn skills and spells. Silmeria uses a rune system that I need to explain in some detail. Another aspect that is way more complex in Silmeria is equipment. The two are also linked.

Each piece of equipment has a rune and a color. Equipment consists of 5 gear slots and 4 accessory slots that are laid out on a 3x3 grid. The runes on gear are fixed - each weapon type has its own rune while head piece always has a head piece rune etc. Accessories can have any rune. If a certain rune combination is linked, the skill corresponding to that combination is being learned (takes a few fights). Runes are linked as long as they are on a continuous area of one color and not just any color because each color has its own rune combinations that result in skills. There's also stat bonuses for equipping as much of one color as possible. After skills are learned they can be used freely. Basically the system is a more complex version of a common one (e.g. in Final Fantasy IX): skills are learned from equipment. It adds another dimension to choosing equipment for each character.

Furthermore, particularly due to weapon runes, it's easier for some characters to gain access to certain skills than others. All weapons are also much more available in one color than the rest which further dictates what skills can be learned. It's very confusing at first and skills are pretty hard to learn at first because many of the runes are rare. Overall it scales pretty well, allowing weaker skills to be learned early on and more powerful ones towards the end. It also means that most accessories stay useful for the purposes of learning skills even if they do nothing. There's also a certain joy in finding new accessories because you never know when a new rune becomes available in this more flexible form. It's a bit tedious however because the same accessories need to be rotated through the entire party.

The equipment system in itself is fine in Silmeria, but obtaining the more powerful pieces is obnoxious. Higher tier equipment is "crafted" from components that are obtained from killing enemies. Sounds fairly normal, but there's a but: each enemy is made up of a varying amount of body parts and each fucking body part drops different items. Drop rates can also be frustratingly low. As a result, you may be fucked over twice by rotten luck when trying to obtain small drop rate components from tiny body parts. Actually, make it thrice: you also need to find the enemy that can drop the item. The game gives no hints whatsoever. Fortunately the game can be completed without any of this bullshit but the fact it exists makes me mad. In Lenneth matters are much simpler: the player can divine (buy) items, find stuff from dungeons and transmute some items. Most of the best gear is just found in dungeons.

Lenneth does have its own quirk in character development though. The game has a couple of accessories that give bonuses on level up. Most notably there's an accessory that gives more HP on level up. This is quirky because it encourages leveling your chosen endgame characters only after receiving these accessories. It was the same way in Final Fantasy VIII and its level up bonus skills. Early in the game, it's better to use characters you don't want to end up in your final party. This is further encouraged by event experience which can be freely used to level up any character in your party. Because of this, it's highly recommended to play the game on hard because all characters start on level 1 when you get them. For the record, characters in Lenneth are imbalanced as hell so it really matters which ones you choose to use for the endgame.

"Divine assault - Nibelung Valesti"

Although Silmeria has more complex mechanics and its systems show a lot of promise, ultimately all comes down to the fact that Lenneth is just more fun to play. The game has a very powerful aesthetic (in the sense it is understood in the MDA framework), and is very pleasing to play. Silmeria stumbles mostly because it feels more like a pretty regular RPG, but even more because it feels so slow. There are a lot of additional annoyances that simply don't exist in Lenneth. Although Lenneth's combat is not massively challenging in any tactical sense, battles are fun - and they are over quickly. All in all, Lenneth is simply the better game. I would still pick up Silmeria to experience its combat system though. I feel like it could have been something amazing and could serve as inspiration for a great RPG in the future. Lenneth on the other hand definitely takes its place as one of the legendary PSX JRPGs, alongside the likes of Xenogears and Vagrant Story.

Fun fact: I fell in love with Lenneth (the character) when her chibi version kicked my ass for the first time in Star Ocean 3.

Bonus: JRPG bullshit rant part 2

This is actually not the sequel I promised earlier - that will have to wait for (quite) a while longer. The topic is somewhat similar anyway. I want to talk about the true ending of VP: Lenneth. The game has three endings, one of which is just a glorified game over really (but it drops a hint). The existence of the true ending is not kept secret at least but actually fulfilling the requirements for it is some arcane fucking lore. It's not that complex to be honest but it's nigh impossible without a guide. In principle it's mostly about staring at one number: Valkyrie's seal rating (can only be seen in her status window, the one place players don't really need to ever look in the menu). More precisely, this number needs to be 37 or lower at a certain point in the game (the game doesn't tell either of these). The game also doesn't inform the player when this number changes which makes it harder to keep track of.

The biggest problem with this number is that there are only limited events in the game that lower it and majority of these events are available to the player from the beginning. However, if the player actually does them too early, they're screwed! Sending einherjar to Valhalla raises the seal rating by quite a lot, and is almost mandatory (the player loses rewards and possibly the game by not sending einherjar). In case you're wondering, the correct timing to do everything that reduces the seal is in chapter 4... the only reason I know this is, well, I read it in a guide. On top of keeping the seal rating low, there's a couple of places that need to be visited in certain chapters and once again nothing hints towards it. It's pretty much impossible to discover how to get everything correctly by just playing the game. The player might be able to figure out the seal rating bit (but not its target value or timing) but beyond that... just, no.

Endings with obscure conditions are disturbingly common in Japanese games in general. Silent Hill as a series springs to mind for instance, or the first Shadow Hearts. The fact that the seal rating is at all visible in Lenneth is actually generous. More often than not, similar variables are entirely hidden from the player. Star Ocean 3's character endings are another good example: a lot of things in the game affect the protagonist's relationship with each of the other characters, but the outcomes are nowhere near predictable. I guess they often call these endings "hidden" for a reason. Hidden in the sense that you'd actually need to look at the game's code to figure out how all the variables work - or if you're lazy like most players, just look up a guide. There could be some joy of discovery if players were somehow able to actually discover these things. Right now there just doesn't seem to be any point beyond selling guides... which most people get from GameFAQs for free anyway.

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