I think JRPGs have a bit of an unfair reputation. They are burdened in the West as anime-tropes strung together by unintuitive combat systems where numbers slap each other until one hits 0 and falls down. Despite saying that, I believe we’ve seen JRPGs do interesting things narratively and mechanically. Persona, Valkyria Chronicles and I even believe Lost Dimension has shown JRPGs can offer something unexpected, interesting and enjoyable. So hearing Dark Rose Valkyrie has a detective/betrayer mechanic caught my attention before my attention was obliterated by everything about the game.
Dark Rose Valkyrie is a JRPG by Compile Heart set in an alternative history where Japan got hit by a meteor which unleashed the Chimera Virus. While it killed some, it ended up mutating large amounts of the wildlife and global population into wild corrupted beasts. You are the captain of the Special Force Valkyrie, who must defeat the Chimera which among their ranks includes humans corrupted by chimera trying to bring humanity to “the next stage of evolution”.
How you defeat such creatures is via the JRPG tradition of taking turns and slapping each other’s numbers down. Albeit that is a gross simplification. Out of combat, you decide on a unit formation (each with bonuses and penalties), each unit’s level 1, level 2 and level 3 basic attack via picking singular attacks to chain together and decide who’ll sit in the front seat or the reserve back-seat. In combat you have an active timeline you crawl along, where you pick an attack at one point and wait until it hits another point to unleash, with your position in this timeline being potentially delayed, sped up or any other speed manipulation for a variety of reasons.
Truth be told, the more I think on how to describe the combat the more my brain wants to thump itself. After what feels like 10+ hours in I still can’t fully comprehend the unintuitive mess. This is despite being introduced to the combat via being asked to read a manual. There are 72 manuals, 40 of which about combat, and an overwhelming majority of these you are asked to read rather than being introduced to the mechanics intuitively in-game. Even then, as someone who has been around the block a bit with JRPGs, I’m still confused. Although I suppose this isn’t helped by a combat menu that needlessly complicates simple procedures like “basic attack”s, which this menu includes an overwhelming array of skills to spend your mana on to the extent that it loses all meaning.
Of which, after all this complication, what is it worth? Outside of boss battles, battles are often easily resolved by pressing the auto button. That isn’t to say there aren’t good ideas on the table (e.g. the more fluid approach to turn order), and I’ve seen these ideas being utilised similarly to great effect (e.g. the more fluid combat approach, including rejigging order, I’ve seen been used well in Final Fantasy 10), but in implementation have only needlessly complicated than add to the experience. This waste of good ideas feels more tragic than an annoyance.
What is more of an annoyance is the dungeon-crawling system. A 3d representation of your leader character runs around a dungeon, where monsters stroll as a 3d representation of themselves. If you can slap them on the bum before they notice you get a free combat round to beat them with a rolled up newspaper. If they see you but you hit first then you do normal combat rounds, and if they hit you first then they get a free round.
A good idea I’ve seen been done well, but Dark Rose Valkyrie spoils it. The hitboxes are diabolically huge (meaning they’ll definitely hit you way before you think they will) and enemies usually will not spot you if you walk, except for when they do spot you when walking or when they do not spot you no matter what for no reason I could not see. This is heightened on the world map where you choose between enemies/you being pinpricks or having to rely on your mini-map to work out basic navigation. What could have been enjoyable pseudo-stealth mechanics are tarnished.
Although I guess what was always going to be the most distinct part of Dark Rose Valkyrie is its detective system. Every so often you must suss out the traitor in your group by interviewing team-mates to see whose account of events don’t match up with other eye-witnesses. With very limited questions (which boil down to asking them about others on the team), being able to talk to each person once only and no way of knowing who the traitor could be walking in, it turns into a game of luck. One with no noticeable payoff I noticed in the time I spent with the game. So the detective appeal is more just busy work than something that invokes the glee of solving a puzzle.
That said, detective work can be interesting in the face of unsatisfying mechanics if the cast is enjoyable to be with. Unfortunately the writing, at best, feels a product of its region. I started playing anime trope bingo, and I think I won by the time I was about 1/3ish through when soon after the “Beach Episode” we visited a nude spa bath (complete with softcore nudity, with nippleless breasts that reminded me of well-endowed Barbie dolls). That is when the cast aren’t simply two-dimensional products of archetypes than actual individuals, or acting so dense I’m surprised they didn’t create a mini-black hole. Maybe others will find the style of writing light-hearted fun? For me, hoping for drama in a game that features the investigation of personalities (and therefore drawing attention to said personalities), it became a particularly sore point as I was constantly cringing.
Another sore point is the difficulty. When presented with “easy” or “hard”, I get a bit flustered. Persona becomes a doddle for me on easy and mind-crushing on hard. So I went hard as I felt confident, assured my prior experience in completing JRPGs would pay off. That is up to the point I was expected to put down multiple bosses in a row. No, not at the end in a final boss rush, in chapter 3. So I had to drop the difficulty down to “easy” and everything became laughable.
Then there is the aesthetic style. No no no, I’m not against the anime style. If I was, it’d make playing JRPGs tricky. What I’m not a fan of is a style that looks horribly dated, perhaps even early PS3 days. A style where even on the portrait visual novel sections I’m noticing flaws like an incomplete mouth, with lip syncing even leaving a skin-coloured gap between two sides of the inner-mouth as though I was speaking to an alien. I’m even paying attention to barren bedrooms. “Barren rooms? Drawing slip-ups? Isn’t that nitpicking?” It is, and that’s how simultaneously dull and infuriating the dialogue was for me.
On an unrelated note, I want to talk about save points. I thought we agreed that save points should always be in safe zones (so we can quit if we’re feeling tired during a downtime moment or want to save a load-out) and only be in dangerous zones if it suits your fancy? So why Dark Rose Valkyrie decided you can only find save points outside the safety of the home-base is beyond me. I only mention this because I’ve honestly lost track the amount of times I stumbled into a low-level dungeon just to save.
The final score of Dark Rose Valkyrie is a 4 out of 10. On principle, when I write reviews I always try to be able to say at least one good thing and one negative thing about a game. This is to avoid turning the review into a disguised marriage proposal or searing hate mail. When I can’t think of a positive thing besides “nice ideas, shame about the implementation”, warning bells begin to flicker.
That quote is what makes Dark Rose Valkyrie tragic to me. Every good idea they have going I’ve seen been done well, Valkyrie Chronicles, Final Fantasy 10 & 9 and Persona 4 are a few of what spring to mind. Even the potential game-selling traitor system was executed at least well in Lost Dimension, with a puzzle to mull over and immediate pay-off. Here, unfortunately, everything either falls flat or works against the game’s favor.
I can only recommend this to JRPG fans desperate for the itch to be scratched, or those who particularly enjoy anime writing styles. The simple fact this is a Western perspective of a clearly Eastern game and there is a chance something just didn’t snag due to that. That said, working within a genre that has plenty of games that appeal to Western audiences (including me), I’m not sure Dark Rose Valkyrie will find much love besides Japanophiles who can look past the many many strange design decisions, programming stumbles and aesthetic botches afoot.
A PS4 Review copy of Dark Rose Valkyrie was provided by Idea Factory for the purpose of this review.