Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume – Staff Review

Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume represents a bit of a step back in time for the series. Where Valkyrie Profile: Silmeria led the series in a more optimistic direction, Covenant of the Plume returns to the tragedy and gloom of the first game in the series, choosing the theme of sacrifice in contrast to Silmeria‘s hope. The game is designed rather well, and the plot is extremely well written, but an overall lack of consistency and an unfortunate rehashing of artistic elements from earlier in the series drags the whole thing down rather badly.

Covenant of the Plume‘s story follows a dour young man by the name of Wylfred, who is seeking revenge on the Valkyrie Lenneth. Wyl’s father was a mercenary who fell in battle and was selected as an Einherjar by the Valkyrie, a pure white feather left on his corpse as a token of the honor. Wyl’s family suffered greatly as a result of his father’s disappearance, leading Wyl into a life of combat, hoping to one day meet and exact revenge upon the Valkyrie. To this end, Wyl makes a pact with Hel, the mistress of the icy underworld known as Niefelheim. The feather left on the corpse of Wylfred’s father becomes a symbol of this covenant and a token of power; Wylfred can use the plume to sacrifice his allies in the name of his vengeance.

Managing your foe's aggressiveness is a key part of winning the most difficult battles.
Managing your foe’s aggressiveness is a key part of winning the most difficult battles.

The story as a whole focuses on themes of sacrifice and revenge, primarily on the nobility of the former and the futility of the latter. The story is very solid, and although it does lay on the medieval speech clich├ęs a bit thick at times, the writing is quite strong. The only real issue is that the vast majority of Covenant of the Plume actually concerns the War of Camille Hill, a conflict referenced in earlier Valkyrie Profile games. The game deals mostly with the political maneuvering of this war of succession, and loses focus on Wyl’s quest for revenge fairly early, choosing instead to deal with its themes through a handful of side stories and secondary characters whose tales intersect with Wyl’s own.

The combat system is primarily a combination of the turn-based tactical system that governs player movement and the real-time combo driven combat that has become a signature piece of the Valkyrie Profile series. Most of the game takes place in the TRPG half of the game, with skills (or Tactics, as Covenant of the Plume calls them) and movement being handled right on the field. When the player moves to attack an enemy, every allied unit that is within range will join in the fight, as the game switches over to the combo-intensive part of battle. The player is encouraged to string together well-timed attacks into combos, to increase a special move gauge that will allow for big, flashy, and extremely damaging Soul Crush attacks.

Now, given that the player has only four characters, it’s very common to be vastly outnumbered. In order to counteract this imbalance, the game offers the Formation mechanic. Players are encouraged to surround the foe, with special bonuses being given for certain formations; for example, placing one character in front and another behind the enemy activates the Axis Raid formation, which increases the rate at which the special move gauge increases by 10% and boosts the enemy’s chance of dropping an item. More complicated formations grant bigger bonuses to the gauge, as well as other benefits, meaning that using — some might say abusing — this mechanic is the only way to pass some of the game’s more difficult fights.

Another way of making difficult fights easier is the Sacrifice mechanic. This rather simple ability allows Wylfred to use the Destiny Plume in order to instantly grant a huge boost to the stats of an ally, to the point where they become a nigh-unstoppable engine of destruction. Using the Plume has two important side effects; first, the character that Wyl uses the Plume on will be permanently removed from your roster at the end of the battle; and secondly, Wylfred will gain an immensely powerful and useful ability. For example, the first of these abilities, which is more or less forced on the player, doubles all of Wyl’s stats for two turns and encourages every enemy on the playing field to attack him. Other abilities include paralyzing every enemy on the field for three turns, reflecting all physical damage for two turns, and granting more attacks in combat, making abilities gained through Sacrifice some of the most devastating and overpowered in the entire game. The tradeoff, however, is that the more you use the Plume, the worse your ending is going to be.

A side mechanic that ends up having a surprisingly large impact on the game as a whole is Sin. In previous Valkyrie Profile games, when a player dealt more damage than an enemy had HP, the foe simply died without issue. In Covenant of the Plume, however, dealing damage beyond the point of death, as well as sacrificing allies, will accumulate Sin points. At the start of each battle, Hel’s emissary will give a target amount of Sin points to be acquired, and afterwards, will grade Wylfred based on how much he was able to accumulate. Reach the requirements, and she’ll give out a small prize. Exceed them, and Wyl receives something a bit more powerful. If the player manages to acquire double the amount Ailyth asked for, however, the rewards will be impressive enough to turn the tide of battles for a fair whack of the game. Missing too many of the biggest prizes can significantly increase the difficulty of the game, to say nothing of failing to reach the basic requirements, which may inspire Hel to send a particularly deadly monster after Wyl as encouragement.

On the whole, the combat system is about as complicated and well-designed as you’d expect from Tri-Ace; that is to say, it’s put together quite well, but may require some head-banging before the system becomes entirely clear. The single biggest issue with the combat system, however, is the balance. Simply put, there just isn’t any consistency. Battles in the early parts of the game tend to be much more difficult than the later parts, especially if the player makes an active effort to greatly surpass Ailyth’s Sin requirements, but even then there are frequent difficulty spikes that pop up out of nowhere. Of particular note are missions where the player is required to rescue a computer-controlled ally, an exceptionally difficult task given that groups of monsters easily abuse the Formation system to get multiple attacks. It’s entirely possible to fail a mission without ever managing to get close enough to the NPC to be of any use.

The game’s control, thankfully, is very good, making it easy to string together combos. The parts of the interface that deal with character movement are a bit less strong, forcing you to cancel out of the first character in your formation at the start of each turn in order to move the character you want in the order you want, but on the whole, the only problems are minor inconveniences. Strangely, Covenant of the Plume completely forgoes any touch-screen control. It doesn’t really impact the game, but given how many games go out of their way to use the touch screen, it does come off as a bit unusual.

Perhaps the biggest issue with Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume lies in the way it handles its visuals and sound. Both elements strongly tie back into Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth, to the point where Covenant of the Plume is often directly borrowing from its predecessor. The visual style of Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth was strongly influenced by the technology of the time, stringing together realistic hand-drawn portraits with stylized sprites and polygonal field elements. Lenneth‘s visual conglomerate came off as a mish-mash of elements without anything tying it together, and so the idea of actively attempting to reproduce it is a bit mystifying. The visual style of Covenant of the Plume is a near match of that seen in Lenneth, and has pretty much exactly the same problems; it presents a lack of cohesion, poor direction, and an overall level of detail which is somewhat lacking.

Soul Crushes are as flashy and damaging as ever, but rely a lot on Formation bonuses to link them together.
Soul Crushes are as flashy and damaging as ever, but rely a lot on Formation bonuses to link them together.

Covenant‘s problems in sound are a bit deeper, however. Rather than simply mimicking the style of Lenneth, Covenant of the Plume directly copies the soundtrack, reusing tracks to the point where the vast majority of the music in this game was actually composed for Lenneth. The switch over to DS hardware was not kind to the sound, rendering down a lot of the complexity of the music, and generally reducing the overall quality of the soundtrack. On the whole, this unvarnished reiteration would be more acceptable if this game tied into Lenneth‘s story more, but since the vast majority of Covenant of the Plume has more to do with human politics and wars than the gods, the rehashing of Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth‘s soundtrack comes off as being a simple lack of creativity.

Because the story path players take through the game is determined by the number of sacrifices they have made, and therefore the number of super powered skills they possess, the difficulty of the game can vary pretty wildly depending on what branch of the story you happen to be on. This is further influenced by how Wyl has performed in completing each stage’s Sin requirements and his current standing with Hel, all of which adds up to one huge lack of consistency in difficulty from one battle to another. The game’s extremely short length — only about 15 hours total — makes it difficult to make up for a deficit in levels, too, since there are very few sidequests to do and not many opportunities to levelbuild.

In the end, Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume is a challenging, often complex game with a lot to offer both fans of the series and players looking for something a little unusual in a tactical RPG. However, with a serious lack of originality in its visual style and music, and a story that often loses sight of its goal, it doesn’t come close to living up to the high marks set by Valkyrie Profile: Silmeria.

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