Oooh, you gorgeous game, Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria, you. Despite your in-your-face attitude, what with all that old-school 2D side-scrolling walkiness, and your 'special friends', you are lovely.
It has to be admitted that the first signs weren't promising. We thought we had a right one when lead character Alicia had a full on barney with herself in the middle of the street. And look at those clothes: ragged Robin Hood chic with a dash of Conan's gauntlet fetishism. Ha, we scoffed, you can keep your plit-personalities and your funny-walking gameplay because we've seen it all before. You're gonna be shit.
Except Valkyrie Profile 2 blatantly isn't shit. Not even a little. It's another top RPG for PS2, the best since Final Fantasy XII. Strangely, considering the two are from completely different developers and publishers, it shares a lot in common with Odin Sphere (reviewed last issue, 8/10) in that it takes its inspiration from the stories of Valkyries and gods that dominate Norse mythology and looks incredibly handsome. Plus, of course, the two games share their side-scrolling sensibilities. However, where Odin Sphere is a lovingly rendered beat-'em-up with RPG elements, Silmeria is a much more complex, subtle game.
LABOUR OF LOVE
This is classic Square. You've got the beautiful arty cutscenes and the minutely detailed towns, villages and dungeons - this being a traditional RPG, there are plenty of dungeons - all framed perfectly in the fixed camera angle. Most breathtaking at first is the seaport you begin the story in. While playing as Alicia, who can only move from side to side, occasionally hitting Up to travel further into the town, the rest of the town quietly bustles about its business around you. Market stallholders hawk their wares to customers who move around in full 3D. It almost seems a little unfair that they're granted full movement while you are only given a set path to move along. Animals mooch past you and residents stand and gossip in the street. At no point does the environment ever feel removed from your character; it's a joy to explore the houses, inns, taverns and shops for new information and supplies while drinking in every last tiny detail.
The titular Silmeria is one of three Valkyries in the service of Odin, the ruler of the gods - only the king turfed her out, bodiless, so she finds shelter in the curves of saucer-eyed princess Alicia. Both personalities share her body on their journey to exact revenge over Odin, calling on the services of souls enlisted to serve the Valkyries as they go. The story takes the travelling party (after the game gets going, there'll be around ten members of your group at any one time) around a large world map dotted with kingdoms, wildernesses and areas of interest to investigate. You simply pick where you'd like to go and are then transported there instantly.
The story and environments blend to form an intoxicating background to the meat of the game, which is its excellent battle system. You'll control four characters when you enter a dungeon (all of which are as atmospheric as the open world) via the face buttons, one for each. This cuts out the need for navigating complicated menus in the heat of battle. It seems simple, and bashing all four buttons simultaneously works, but if attacks are triggered in a different order, new ever-more-powerful combos are performed and creatures are dispatched explosively.
The emphasis is on downing enemies as quickly as possible, yet with as much extravagance as you can muster. Combos help here, allowing you to rack up the hits over a scrap, then you're rewarded with bonus items. Going directly for an enemy leader and beating him quickly not only ends the battle immediately, but gives you cool stuff.