The first Valkyrie Profile game was an oddity amidst the JRPG scene. In keeping with its use of Norse mythology, it often felt like something out of classic tragic literature rather than the modern world of Nipponese Animu.

It was popular enough to merit a few follow-ups, and this was the third of them (the second was for PlayStation 2). Both this and the second game are prequels, taking place in a slice of the world during the time Lenneth was toodling about collecting recently dead soldiers for RagnaRawk, the ultimate metal fest in Valhalla.

This also came out during a period during the GBA and DS years where there was this weird mania for SRPG side stories on handhelds for franchises that weren't even necessarily RPGs to begin with ... hell even Pokemon got one of them. So that's where we are with Covenant of the Plume, an RPG side-story that stars a gloomy little freak named Wyl on his quest for revenge. As seems to happen often in this crapsack Valkyrie Profile world, Wyl's father died at war and then his mom died from poverty trying to support the kids. Since Lenneth took Wyl's dad after he died, Wyl blames her for killing both of his parents (even though that's clearly not what happened) and devotes his life to becoming a mercenary and seeking a way to kill her.

Wyl's total shit at being a mercenary, though, getting killed by a relatively low-level monster almost right away. While dead, he's approached by goddess of the underworld Hel with a bargain to return him to life - stain some magic plume with enough "sin" inside of a year and she'll give him some ultimate dark sword capable of killing Lenneth. The deal with the magic pen is that it puts one of your allies into near-invincible bath salts mode for the remainder of the current battle, but then kills them afterward. Thus le covenant of le plume.

So you're playing as this gothy little psycho who is basically going around tricking people into joining him to bond with them strongly enough for the covenant, then sneaking behind them and putting them into fatal Hulk mode. Of course, there ends up being more to the story than that, but it really is not worth putting up with the tedious game mechanics and style of design.

The game is nominally an SRPG, but it's one of those that's really more like a puzzle game in that there's one fairly fixed, rigid party composition and strategy to actually make it through each of the extremely tough battles. There is absolutely no way to know this in advance, however - it's all tedious try-and-die all the way through.

The battle system revolves around gangbangs. If an ally is within range when you attack, they automatically join in and add extra attacks (even if they've already moved that turn). You also get big bonuses for surrounding enemies, especially for circling them completely. However, this is also true for the enemies, who can easily wipe out a full-health character in one attack if three or four get together.

Then there's the extra layer of complication of the "sin" system. In each battle, Hel requires you to rack up an ever-increasing total of sin points. Sin points are earned by "overkilling" enemies, basically having the first one or two attacks kill them and then the other characters spend the rest of the battle teabagging their corpse and doing the floss over it. Hel finds this endlessly amusing, apparently. Fail to rack up enough sin, though, and she sends some super-powered monsters as a punishment that will probably kill you. For even more added complication, you want to get double the sin requirement as much as possible because that nets you really good equipment that ends up being a virtual necessity to survive.

So a central problem is that surrounding enemies is effectively mandatory to make it through the long run of the game, even when it's strategically not a sound move. So what we have here is basically Devil May Cry: The SRPG, where racking up "style points" is more important that doing things that are efficient and make sense.

It even has the juggling focus of a Devil May Cry game. When you attack an enemy, the game goes to a sub-screen where all the eligible characters can get in their licks simultaneously (somewhat similar to the battle system of the original game). You're encouraged to juggle for attack bonuses, but while enemies are in the air you can also whiff attacks which can really screw you. The timing of all this can be very obnoxious and not at all intuitive.

Style over efficiency makes the game irritating to play, but even if you ignore that part (and take the sin consequences) it's still ridiculously hard thanks to waves of strong enemies that just bull-rush you en masse with no regard for their own health.

And that brings us to the next layer of problems with the game - the plume. There was actually space for an interesting moral choice situation here, confronting you with hard battles that the plume can skip you through at a price. The problem is, so many of these battles aren't just "hard" - they're fecking impossible. You get a group of like six mages bum-rushing your position with no way to disrupt them, guaranteeing three or four will bunch up and start one-shotting multiple characters. As if that wasn't enough, sometimes you have to protect derpy AI that is trapped behind enemy lines and usually rushes right into the middle of a mob to get themselves killed. Oh, and I almost forgot the near-impossible pumped bosses you get blindsided with sometimes, if you even make it to one. Oh, and once in a while you hit multiple battles in a row with no chance to save.

The game thus essentially forces you to use the plume, and this reveals yet ANOTHER layer of terrible. It's meant to be played through three times with a "new game+" mode that lets you carry over learned skills between games, but there's absolutely no indication of this at the outset. The game expects you to spam the plume as much as possible and just get Bad End the first time out, then eventually build up to getting Good End. That could be a clever structure if you had any idea that that was the purpose, or if there was an invisible hand sort of steering you in that direction. There is neither of those things. Instead, the game is packed with ways to back yourself into no-win situations unwittingly. You can't grind at all, so leveling and spending on the wrong characters can screw you. There are branching paths at points, some of which are MUCH harder than others - but there's zero indication as to which is which, so you could pick a nigh-impossible path and not realize it until two or three battles in when you're getting wrecked with no recourse. Oh, and you can't spam the plume TOO much, or Freya comes down and kills you in an unwinnable battle (a la the first game). But you're given no idea how much is too much.

It isn't even just the game mechanics. The story is fundamentally dumb. Everyone in the game world knows how valkyries work, except Wyl who takes his irrational hate for Lenneth to a completely insane level. So why are we helping this little douche again? I also have no idea why your characters stick with you once you've used Murder Plume on one of them.

It's a shame as it's hardly all bad. There's a nice score by Motoi Sakuraba (though a fair chunk is recycled straight from the first game). Aside from the dumb central conceits I just mentioned, it's actually pretty well-written at points. And tonally it's in keeping with the first game, a nice change of pace from most of the samey JRPG world. But good ol' JAPANESE HARDCORE FIGHTING THE CHALLENGE #1 masochist design style just drags it all into the gutter. The things that are good about it are nowhere near worth all the player-hostile nonsense it asks you to go through.

Videos :

* Gameplay video