Valhalla Knights, as a series, has not done well. Its debut
on the PSP two and a half years ago had some ambition in its design, but its lack of competent storytelling made it a chore to play. Valhalla Knights 2
, also for Sony's portable PlayStation, was similarly crippled -- it felt not so much like a sequel, but just a second attempt at the first game. And for this franchise, unfortunately, the third time's not the charm.
Valhalla Knights: Eldar Saga is the third game in the on-going series from XSEED, and marks the franchise's home console debut. Like its PSP predecessors, this is an action/RPG where you take command of an adventurer completing quests for a guild, and ultimately working toward the slow unraveling of an overarching storyline. But, also like its predecessors, any of the interesting gameplay elements you encounter along the way are always counterbalanced by frustrations, poor design decisions and even technical glitches. So, in the end, it all washes out to be somewhere around mediocre.
The issues begin from the very first moments in Eldar Saga, as you'll immediately find that you can't see anything. Seriously -- the screen in front of you will be so dark and blurry that you'll have to strain your eyes just to discern the outline of your hero. The reason for the muddied look is stylistic, as the world of Valhalla Knights is intentionally presented as drab, dreary and composed of nothing but dirty browns, greys and blacks. It's a bit of an extreme style choice, though, when a developer's made a visual decision that means their players won't actually be able to play the game.
So Valhalla Knights: Eldar Saga became the first game in my life where I've actually had to adjust the screen contrast and brightness settings on my television, to make the graphics actually viewable -- cranked up to as vivid a level as my Panasonic could go, I could finally see the town my hero was standing in. Not a good first sign, and only the first of many further troubles to follow.
Further visual problems crop up quickly after you set out into the field, where the game's overall look is left lacking -- blocky environments with low-resolution textures make changes in elevation nearly impossible to see. The camera is constantly working against you, as there's no natural AI controlling its position, so you've got to continuously adjust it yourself. And, if all that weren't enough, more effects come into play that intentionally obscure your view -- it'll start raining outside, or fog will roll in. It's insane. This game actively tries to keep you from being able to see anything. At all.
If you do manage to somehow find your way through that whole muddied mess, though, you'll only run into more problems. Basic combat is crippled thanks to poor targeting and stiff, unbreakable attack animations -- you'll strike at an enemy, miss it completely, and then be stuck completing a three-second attack animation before you can turn your guy around and try to wildly slash at the foe again. Meanwhile, the baddie is happily cutting you up from behind.
You can try to get around the troubles of close combat by equipping a ranged weapon like a bow, but good luck with that -- it's impossible to target. There's no lock-on, no icons or any other indicators to help with shot placement. And, when you crouch to fire an arrow, the crouching body of your hero will be in the way of any attempt to line up the shot yourself. So ranged combat's totally worthless.
You can choose to play with a Wii Remote and Nunchuk combo, or the Classic Controller. But either way, the control scheme takes a while to understand, and even then you'll forget what buttons do what and when -- the same button you use for "fierce" attacks also calls up a menu when held down. The same button used for accessing healing items on the fly is also used for super attacks, meaning you'll frequently unintentionally drink a potion when trying to pull off a fiery spin move. And the menu structure is so convoluted that you'll still be stumbling across new submenus and options screens after playing for hours.
And you've never heard footfalls so loud as in this game. Yes, your footfalls -- the simple, muted sounds made by the slap of your hero's feet against the ground. The sound that you never notice in any other game. Here, you're forced to notice -- because the volume level assigned to that specific effect is cranked up way, way too high. You remember the sounds of Link tromping around in the Iron Boots, in the brief sections of Ocarina of Time
when they were necessary? Imagine that, then triple the volume, and picture playing the entire game hearing that noise every second, with every step, for the entire adventure. Glorious.
A complete listing of every single one of Valhalla Knights' many different issues would take far too long to get through, as there is just so much of this design that grates on your nerves and fights against the fun factor every step of the way. But I'll give credit where its due, too -- I mentioned there are some positive, interesting gameplay elements you encounter along the way. And there are. Here are a few.
The storyline is definitely trying harder this time around. It's still not all that great, as it's a fairly basic plot of the world being under attack by monsters, and you trying to bring together all the different races (humans, elves, dwarves and halflings) to join forces and combat the increasing threat. You'll remember that story before, when you first saw it in Lord of the Rings.
What's interesting, though, is the generational split in the middle of the game. Eldar Saga is divided into two chapters -- in the first, you play as the hero working to unify the races of the world and prepare for the final conflict against the monsters. In the second, you play as that hero's descendant a generation later, when that final conflict has arrived. The choice of who you marry in Chapter 1 affects your character selection options in Chapter 2 -- and you can have access to different races, too, if you chose a non-human wife for yourself.
That character selection and customization process is also a strength of the game, as the choices you have here are vast -- the initial array of face and hairstyle options is a little limited, but once you start getting into the equipment selection your mind will be blown. There are tons and tons of different swords, armor types, helmets, shields, staffs, axes, bows, clubs -- the list goes on and on. And every different item visibly changes the look of your hero. This isn't like Final Fantasy, where you equip a Mithril Helm to Cloud on a submenu and he's still got nothing but spiky blond hair on his head when you go back to the game -- here, you'll always see an actual change.
And, last thing I'll mention, the leveling. I like the non-linear system set up here -- you choose your job from among an array of choices like Fighter, Priest and Thief, and you allocate skill points in whatever way you want. Want more strength? Put more points there. Want a guy who's really lucky? Put more points there. It's very similar to Dungeons & Dragons, where leveling up is never a hands-off, automatic event -- it is, instead, always a chance for you to dive back in and pick the particular, individual way you want your guy to grow. You can even bounce back and forth between all the different job classes, too. Very cool.
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