When it comes to JRPGs on the go there’s no better machine than the Vita, the only problem being the lack of JRPGs actually available for the system. While the 3DS has the incomparable Fire Emblem: Awakening as well as more niche fare in Etrian Odyssey, the Vita hasn’t seen the same amount of quality RPG goodness. It’s strange considering the PlayStation 3 – the Vita’s older brother – has a glut of JRPGs ranging from the good (Ni No Kuni) to the abysmal (Time and Eternity) with everything in between. It’s a pleasure, then, to see the Valhalla Knights series return to Sony’s handheld after debuting on the PSP. It’s unfortunate, however, that it isn’t quite up there with Vita JRPG stablemate Persona.
Set within Carceron Prison, a disused castle-turned-jail so overrun with inmates that it feels more like a town than a penitentiary, your character begins their quest for treasure, recognition and that staple of RPGs – XP. Proceedings begin well with a polished attract video, full of drama and style as is the trend with most JRPGs. An in-depth character creation tool is welcome, albeit limited to a set of races and classes we’ve all seen hundreds of times before – humans, elves, warriors, mages. Rinse, repeat. Still, having the option to stick a number of terrible looking haircuts on a stern looking warrior is amusing, even despite the fact that the first NPC encountered in the game looked almost identical to my hastily-constructed hero, save for some Orlando Bloom facial hair.
As stories go, a quest for a legendary treasure ranks as only slightly more original than a white knight versus an evil wizard. Journeying into Carceron Prison, your ultimate goal remains this treasure, complete with a rumoured power bestowed to its owner, but most of your time will be spent at the service of others completing side-quests. Filler isn’t a dirty word in JRPGs, neither is grinding, but this game takes things to a whole new sublevel of boredom. There’s plenty of both in Valhalla Knights 3, thankfully made more bearable thanks to a mildly entertaining combat system. Combat occurs in realtime and initially felt clunky as button-presses felt lumbered and unresponsive. After a few battles, however, you soon realise that there is a rhythmic element to each strike – attacking with the optimal timing racks up combos and increases the damage dealt. It’s all down to a brief yellow flash when each blow hits – each weapon having different timings and varying combos to master. Rather than memorising elaborate button formations, Valhalla Knights twists the concept of dexterity into timing, resulting in a combat system that feels different and even rewarding in equal measure.
As with any JRPG, combat doles out XP allowing you to level both your character and any member of your clan – members of which can be acquired throughout the game. Each team member can have their weapons, skills and abilities tweaked and can be switched to at any point during a fight. While the purest elements of one person clonking the other with a massive sword work well, the use of medical potions and resuscitation aids is nowhere near as simple. Potions must be assigned to hotkeys, applicable to one member of the party, meaning that should that member die there’s little chance of the remaining fighters using the tonic. This is especially frustrating when the one person holding a resuscitation vial dies, taking any chance of success with it.
Even considering the item management, the combat is the most refined part of the game but is undermined by a dearth of imagination and a positively damaging attitude towards women that permeates the rest of the title. Graphically, Valhalla Knights is sub-par, recalling original PSP graphics with its flat, uninspired textures and boxy models. Animations are terrible, with characters moonwalking about the place. When dialogue is consigned to poorly written dialogue boxes and a few voiced exclamations you’d expect the physical movement of characters to make up for the lack of subtlety. In Valhalla Knights’ case it does not. Nobody expects a jail to look amazing but the lack of any visual identity makes Carceron Prison a chore to walk through at best, especially as a useless map and cut-and-paste design conspire to disorientate your aimless wanderings through the many halls and empty arenas. Considering it’s the focal point of the game, Carceron pales in comparison to other videogame prisons – even the dated-graphics of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion look better than this (and have 100% more Patrick Stewart, always a bonus).
But perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Valhalla Knights 3 are the numerous, pervasive mistreatments of women. These moments don’t seem to be there to shock; instead they feel deeply misogynistic. Upon entering the prison in a small cabal of new inmates, a diminutive female of your group is literally picked up by an inmate and dragged away, with nothing to insinuate it’s for anything but rape. You are then introduced to the commerce section of the prison, complete with clinic, armourer, inn and the usual JRPG staples. Only… they all look like Japanese love hotels or brothels, decked out in gaudy neon and the occasional tawdry outline of a naked woman. Then you discover the inn is actually a love hotel – you can take partners there to sleep with (and to unlock a trophy!) and that each shop has a side-line as a hostess bar, of sorts. Soon you’ll discover that the poor girl dragged off at the beginning has been forced to work at one of these places – a velvet red club that reeks of sex – essentially now as a prostitute in all but name. It’s not played for sympathy or shock – it’s just something that happens in this place. Your character even takes a shine to her and can chat her up, leading to the most inappropriate mini-game in memory (more on that later). Essentially, she’s now in indentured servitude and it’s a prevalent undercurrent throughout the game. Women are either there for sex, in positions of power and therefore ‘bitches’ or adhere to the innocent, coy stereotype which still puts them within the sphere of objectification. Each shop has a sales assistant – dressed in skimpy, revealing attire – whose attention can be bought with gifts leading to the biggest misstep in the game… ‘Sexy Time’.
Designed with the Vita’s touch screen in mind – and ignoring the fact most people play the Vita on the go, in public places – Sexy Time gives you one-on-one contact with a successfully bought girl, asking you to touch her in the right places while hitting exclamation mark bubbles to avoid attracting more attention. This is punctuated with moaning, squeaks of arousal and speech-bubbles that would fit comfortably in any porn video. There’s fan service and then there’s this unashamed mini-game that it would be great to say was shoehorned in but, given the attitude towards women elsewhere, is probably just a culmination of affairs. Even the customisation of your character is seeped in smut, allowing you to change your avatar’s underwear. Yeah, it applies to blokes too, but you don’t see them moaning in pleasure as you jab halfheartedly at the screen. The inclusion of Sexy Time and the terrible attitude towards women sours what would have been a solid if uninspired game.
Adding to these inherent problems are the decidedly last-gen loading times – often upwards of twenty or thirty seconds – that occur with every cutscene, at every door between areas and after every death. This frustration is compounded by nasty spikes in difficulty that hit you within the first half-hour of play. An area filled with easy-to-defeat rabbits and unchallenging bandits acts as the intro to a low-level boss who decimates your squad without preparation. Yes, you are prompted the next area might be difficult but, given the lack of opportunity to grind save for these few rabbits, you’d be expecting something a little less punishing. This jump in difficulty happens throughout, encouraging you to grind even if it can be interminably dull.
Valhalla Knights’ online mode is the one other diminutive highpoint amidst the mediocre, offering battles against other players in a team vs. team showdown. That’s it however, so while it may distract from the monotonous tedium of single-player it does so only for a limited time.
There are signs of a solid JRPG in Valhalla Knights 3 but it all crumbles to inconsequence given the slog through dull, uninspired locations and cookie-cutter quests. The combat system in any other game would be perfectly serviceable but here it’s the best of a bad game. Enveloping the basic mechanics with a better story, improved animations and the removal of the tawdry Sexy Time would begin to solve Valhalla Knights’ problems but in the shadow of so many better JRPGs would do little to allay the bigger issues. JRPG fans – hold your horses for the time being, it isn’t long until Ys hits the platform. Everyone else, you’d be wise to skip this drudgery. And to the die-hards – there’s no small amount of fan service here, to be sure. Whether a land of beige makes up for a few seconds of awkward satisfaction is up to you.