The result of a collaboration between some of the people behind the “Tales of” series and Compile Heart, the studio behind the Neptunia games, Dark Rose Valkyrie is a title many JRPG fans had been looking forward to. Its western release is finally here, about a year after it came out in Japan.
The game takes place in an alternate version of early 20th century Japan, with a slight sci-fi twist. A meteorite has fallen on earth, and it carried a deadly virus with it that has quickly killed off 3% of the world’s population. It’s infected many more, and instead of looking for a cure it’s your job to contain the infection by killing off these infected. The virus, dubbed Chimera, turns humans into monsters – making it a little less unsettling to finish them off.
On top of the (turn based) combat dynamic that deals with the eradication of the virus, Dark Rose Valkyrie features an excellent story-driven visual novel aspect. Playing as Asahi, you frequently interact with the women recruited on your anti-Chimera squad (called Valkyrie Force) in between missions – and after a good while you start sensing that there’s a traitor in your midst. This has to do with the fact that there’s also a faction of Chimera-infected humans that has learned to control the virus and not turn into a monster. Despite this, however, they’re still keen on destroying humankind.
The traitor in your group is a part of this faction, and you have to find out who it is through a series of interviews with your team members. Finding out whose answers are inconsistent with the rest can point you in the right direction, but it takes a while before you’re able to make up your mind. When you do, you can get rid of the traitor, keep her as part of the team (essentially keeping her identity a secret from the rest), or you might even point your finger at the wrong team member.
It’s this team dynamic that breaks the cycle between combat sequences, even well before the traitor aspect comes into play. In the hours leading up to that twist, you’ll become familiar with your squad members and you’ll start caring for them – making the choices you have to take mid-game extra tough. It’s a layer of depth that’s required for a game of this length too, since Compile Heart has once again crafted a game with dozens of hours’ worth of gameplay. They’ve even taken things a tad further (and perhaps too far) by requiring multiple playthroughs for the best ending.
The structure of missions eventually became too repetitive for me to chase after that illusive ‘best ending’, but combat itself is surprisingly deep and involved compared to previous Compile Heart titles. It’s still turn-based, but there are a few aspects that make the formula feel fresh yet familiar. Turns aren’t determined by ‘action points’ in the traditional sense, but rather by your character’s portrait steadily moving along a bar until it hits the point where it can jump into action.
This isn’t a matter of a simple countdown either, as you can influence how quickly a character gets to this spot on said bar (enemies are also visible here) by either halting their progression momentarily or pushing them back to the starting point. This affects who you should be attacking and with which attack, but also who you should shield from enemy attacks. There is another risk versus reward mechanic in play as well, since you have several power levels to your attacks where stronger attacks also take longer to power up – leaving you exposed. Large monsters can often be attacked more efficiently if you only target certain body parts, and different parts of the body are also more vulnerable to certain attacks. Your basic arsenal consists of melee attacks, guns and missiles – the latter of course being your best option when targeting a body part that’s far away.
Compile Heart has never been an audiovisual powerhouse, and Dark Rose Valkyrie is no exception. The 2D artwork is excellent, but the 3D environments look more like a high end PS3 title compared to some of the other recent games in the genre. The voice acting, however, is very well done – breathing even more life into the story and premise that propels the game forward.
Dark Rose Valkyrie is a game with a lot of interesting ideas, but also a title that’s held back by its so-so visuals and overly long campaign – which leads to a feeling of repetition in otherwise engaging missions. The prospect of playing through the entire game again just to get to a better ending feels like a grind, and that’s a shame because there are a lot of elements here that make the game worth playing. The combat system alone is the best I’ve seen from the developer and the story twist is well implemented as well, so I’m curious to see what’s next.