IGN Review of Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria
How exactly do you follow up a cult classic that's both critically acclaimed and popularly accepted as one of the most unique RPGs around? The obvious answer, especially from many companies, would be to quickly pump out a sequel that capitalized on the same experience without making a lot of overt changes to the formula. However, if you happen to be Square Enix with Valkyrie Profile on their hands, you take more than six years to develop a unique idea that does your franchise justice. Plus, for good measure, you buck the standard system and develop a "sequel" that's actually a prequel to your original title, changing just about every single feature from the original. Has Square Enix's gamble with Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria lived up to the hype of the original? For the most part, it does.
Without spoiling any twists to the story, the basic premise of Valkyrie Profile 2 takes place more than a century before the original game. It's actually the story of two characters, Silmeria and Alicia, who happen to be trapped in the same body. Silmeria is one of Odin's three valkyries tasked with collecting the souls of the courageous dead and delivering them to Valhalla. However, when she disobeys Odin, the lord of the gods strips her of her power by forcibly reincarnating her into the body of Alicia, the princess of Dipan. While Silmeria was supposed to remain dormant until Odin had a use for her again, Silmeria awakens in the body of the princess, creating two souls within one body, which makes many people think that the young girl is either possessed or insane. As a result, the king imprisons her in a distant castle and says she's dead. Making matters worse for Alicia, having the spirit of the rebellious valkyrie is an abomination for Odin, so he sends the most powerful valkyrie Hrist to force the dissenting spirit back to Valhalla. Escaping from certain death at the hands of Hrist, Alicia/Silmeria flee into the wilderness, where they try to evade capture and try to avert a catastrophe that could potentially spark a war between the gods and Midgard.
Unlike the original title, you're not saddled with trying to make extremely calculated choices within a constrained time frame; since Ragnarok is not descending upon the world, you can actually progress through the story at a much more leisurely (and somewhat linear) pace. Every now and then, you'll stumble upon optional side quests by speaking to NPCs or collecting maps that you can choose to undertake to strengthen your party and collect additional items and equipment (which plays a much larger role in this game than ever before). Fans of the original will also pick up on some connections to the first game: in particular, cities like Solde and Dipan, which were catacombs and ruined lost cities in the first title, make appearances as thriving locations and play significant roles within the game. Familiar faces will pop up for fans as well, such as Arngrim and Lezard Valeth, who will join your party and aid Alicia/Silmeria in her quest.
Einherjar also play a significant role within the game, but they're handled completely differently than the previous game, particularly based on the fact that Silmeria is a fallen valkyrie. Since she no longer has the ability to recruit the souls of the fallen, she can only materialize those spirits that she had at the time of her forced reincarnation. What's more, she can only do that by finding a possession that the spirit may have owned at that particular time. As you explore the various dungeons and foreboding areas, you'll stumble upon items like staves, swords and bows, which you can use to resurrect einherjar that will be loyal to your cause. You'll then be able to add these characters to your party, using their abilities and skills to kill monsters and clear dungeons of beasts. However, whereas Lenneth would send these warriors to Asgard to fight for the gods at any point in time (hopefully after they were powered up) in the first game, Silmeria doesn't have that option. Instead, each einherjar has a specific level that they have to be brought up to before they can be released, at which point they will be reincarnated as an actual person in Midgard. While you may not want to release these fighters (especially if they happen to be helpful to you) there is a significant bonus involved: depending on the skills, equipment and level that you release a character, they'll leave behind significant stat boosting items that you can use for your other party members. What's more, you can actually reconnect with these characters around Midgard, and they'll help you out with money, items or equipment once they've become human again.
The tweak to the einherjar system is a nice change considering the rebellious nature of Silmeria (after all, what better way to annoy Odin than to deny him extremely powerful souls by letting them return to Midgard?), but it also spawns a huge problem as far as the game is concerned: it turns these characters into "second class citizens," especially in comparison to the living characters that the game constantly focuses the plot on. The first game did an excellent job of drawing you into the story of every fallen warrior by showing you how they died, what their personal stories were, and why they happened to be the character they were. It managed to make the player somewhat invested in leveling up those fighters, magicians and archers, and when you released them you actually felt as though you'd done something. By contrast, you're only given a sentence when you collect the character and when you let them go, and their personal stories are relegated to text that you have to sit and read in the status screen. By the time you finally release them, you only care about what they will wind up giving you instead of who they were. This is particularly bad when some of the "main" characters wind up leaving or being stripped from your party at certain moments of the game, leaving you with the guys that may have been "riding the bench" throughout your game. Can you say letdown?
Another significant change in VP2 has been made to the item system. In the original game, players could materialize new equipment and items virtually out of thin air whenever you needed them (provided you had the divine points available to you). In Valkyrie Profile 2, you're not able to use that power, which means that you'll be dependent on the various items that you find during and after battle, in dungeons, or that you purchase from armories in town. One interesting facet of this new system is that you'll need to sell and combine your gear to gain access to some of the more powerful items of the game, but this will only become possible after you frequent that particular shopkeeper. Regardless of how many times you visit a shop, though, you may find that you simply won't be able to gain certain key items because monsters just won't give up the key ingredients for that gear, which may hinder just how effective your characters will be against some of the stronger monsters in the game.
You'll also discover that, unlike the first game, the skills of your characters are no longer dictated by capacity points, but by the accessories that you've managed to collect. By combining the various items that you either buy or salvage from the body parts of fallen monsters, you can unlock various skills in one of five categories: Status, Attack, Defense, Reaction and Critical. Once you've formed these skills, you'll need to keep these items equipped as you fight through a number of battles before the character actually learns the ability. If at any point you unequip one of the key items before you've gone through the requisite number of fights, the skill is destroyed, forcing you to restore the lost item connection. While it's an interesting system, it can be somewhat complicated, particularly by the same issue that hampers the equipment system -- not every monster will provide you with the items that you need to form some of the higher level skills, nor will you necessarily know what all of the skills are until you stumble blindly upon the combination that unlocks them.
That brings me to battles, which have been redesigned in a new 3D format. Players can now move or dash around the large battlefields at will, which can be used to a tactical advantage, as attacks from the side or the rear of a monster cause much more damage than a frontal assault. Even more complex is the option to splinter your party into one of two groups, giving you the option to use one group as a decoy while the other strikes from behind. Regardless of how you progress through a fight, each action that your party takes is governed by an AP (or action point) meter. If you wind up wasting all of your movement getting into position, you may find yourself open for attack while you try to recharge your AP meter by some monster that's placed your characters in their range for a specific attack.
Also new to VP2 is the concept of leader monsters, which govern all of the beasts on a board. If you manage to inflict enough damage to take down the leader, all of the other creatures flee the battlefield, which immediately gives you a victory. While that may seem like a wasted opportunity to gain additional experience, it's not the case thanks to the bonus gauge. By defeating the leader as quickly as you can, you actually gain additional experience (in the form of crystals) and money for your party members, so it's always in your best interest to dash your way across the battlefield to attack these beasts. This does potentially have the bad side effect of placing you in harm's way, and sometimes you may find that your party is accidentally split up against your will because some other creature has maneuvered in the way of some character as you sprinted from one point to the next.
Just like the first game, each member of your party is tied to the face buttons on your controller, and depending on the amount of AP you have at the start of an attack, as well as the weapon you have equipped, you can perform multiple strikes on an opponent, which fills a hit meter. If you've reach 100 hits in the same turn, you may have the opportunity to commit a Soul Crush attack, which is VP2's version of the Purify Weird Soul strikes from the first game. However, just because the title has changed doesn't mean that the impressive nature or destructive ability of the strikes has diminished in any way. Attacks now also target very specific parts of each monster, and it's possible to not only break through any possible defense these monsters have on that section of their body, but you can also shatter that area, which lets you enter Break Mode. This mode lets you unleash as many strikes against the helpless creature as possible, which can be used to not only inflict loads of damage, but easily fill your Soul Crush meter.
Veterans to the game will also notice an increased focus on puzzles in dungeons. The first game wound up using crystals to freeze monsters or build platforms. This time around, players will use what's known as the Photon Action system to actively teleport across stages. It works somewhat similar to the one found in the first game, where you can temporarily freeze a monster by hitting them once with a particle of light. However, if you follow that up with a secondary particle, you can actively switch places with that beast. What's more, you also have the ability shortly after you've teleported to make a mid-air jump, which can propel you to high ledges and outcroppings. It may seem like a minor change to the system, but there are a number of dungeons that will necessitate skilled use of the Photon Action system to gain all of the equipment or einherjar found within.
Dungeons also have new items known as sealstones that can bestow stat boosts or drains. For instance, some stones can make your party's attacks poisonous, or it cut the amount of damage that your attacks cause in half. While it may seem strange to want to actively carry an item that limits your characters, there's a strategic reason for this. By carrying these dangerous items through the dungeon and placing them on a dais or an altar scattered around the maps, you can spread their harmful effects to any of the monsters in that dungeon instead of your party members. This turns part of the sealstone feature into part of a puzzle as you try to discover the best item to use against the creatures, attempting to exploit their weaknesses with the most powerful stones. However, you do have a major condition to beware of -- each stone is immediately restored to the dungeon that it comes from unless you restore these items to springs that are scattered around each level. Depending on the power of each stone, you may need to spend an extreme amount of experience crystals to seal these items away so you can access them in another ruin or crypt.
When you step away from all of the gameplay elements, however, there is one thing that will definitely stand out: the visuals of Valkyrie Profile 2 are incredible. While many people are singing the swan song of the PS2, Square Enix has managed to pull out what seems like every single polygon that the system can muster, and the game is amazing because of it. Character models are large and detailed, and you'll notice fine details such as cloth physics or character's hair that will move due to wind or actual movement. What's also nice is to see the game support 16:9 and progressive scan, which just makes the game stand out even more if your TV can handle it. While the music is excellent as well, you may find that the voice acting is perhaps the weakest element to the technical elements of the game. This isn't to say that it's horrible; it's actually decent, but there are some moments where you'll wonder just what the actor was thinking when they decided to use a certain amount of inflection, stammer or lengthy pause before they deliver their next line.
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