With its story rooted in Norse mythology, and gameplay differing from the most successful RPGs of its day, Valkyrie Profile was heralded as a landmark RPG when it was released in 2000. Unfortunately, the furor over next-gen hardware combined with a low print run of just 75,000 copies turned what should have been a smash hit into a sleeper, leading many (like myself) to pass up a soon-to-be forgotten classic. Fortunately, the release of Valkyrie Profile 2 (in actuality, a prequel to the first), ushered in a PSP re-release of the original - affording many who missed it the opportunity to play it without being gouged by eBay auctioneers.
While the first focused on the story of Lenneth Valkyrie (the heavenly reincarnation of a tormented young girl named Platina) preventing the end of Midgard (the human world), VP 2 focuses on Alicia, the human form of Silmera, who has been banished to the human world, and sets up the events of the original game. As the story unfolds, you'll meet and have to pay attention to dozens of characters - which can be incredibly confusing, but also rewarding when you're able to piece everything together. In a stark contrast to the first game, you're now mainly playing with a mortal and not a god. Throughout the adventure, Alicia is guided or at times, completely taken over by her heavenly counterpart - giving her abilities that she would otherwise lack.
In the original, battle position would correspond to character placement (the left-most character would be assigned to Square, right-most character to Circle, bottom character to X, and the top to Triangle). This system allowed you to attack with all of the available characters at one time, or chain attacks together to weaken or disarm a foe. With VP 2, tri-Ace has expanded that system to allow far more strategic and complex battle styles. You can now split your party into multiple teams and have one side attack either one foe or attack from behind while the other team attacks from the front - giving you the chance to completely destroy a foe in a single turn if you time everything correctly.
If you don't, the new dodge feature allows you to evade an attack, making it theoretically possible to never take major in the game - and offering players an excellent reason to brush up on their evasion timing. There is another big incentive to defeating foes either in one turn or very few - if you can focus your energy on the team leader and beat him (or everyone) while still having four crystal showing on the right-hand side of the screen, you'll gain whatever the leader was carrying - giving you access to otherwise rare or impossible-to-find items. By holding down the L3 stick, you'll be able to constantly charge your attack meter - allowing you to further chain attacks, and win battles faster. This is one of the few RPGs that really takes advantage of the PS2's controller setup, and I commend tri-Ace for that.
Unfortunately, this new battle system isn't flawless, as the camera has a tendency to just fly all over the place when things get hectic, leading to some needless damage and errant attacks. It also makes getting to the escape areas during a battle harder than it should be, which can lead to some needless deaths if your party is low on health. You do have some control over the camera with the L1 button and can manually control it with the right analog stick, but these techniques don't work well during a battle when you try to find your next foe. The camera swings around too quickly, making everything appear as a giant blur. If it wasn't for the red attack range grid that appears before enemies, it would be easy to completely missing seeing opponents just due to the camera.
Fortunately, the platforming-heavy navigation of the first has made a return here. Unlike far too many RPGs on the market, you won't be forced into random battles in VP 2. This lack of forced combat allows you to explore the world around you, absorb the atmosphere of the game, and gives you more freedom to plan out potential battle strategies and just roam aimlessly if you so desire. It feels great to play an RPG that lets the player actually feel like part of the world, instead of thrusting them into it without letting people enjoy the atmosphere. This setup does make the pace more leisurely than many RPGs, but it goes by quickly, and if you find yourself getting bored, you can always just initiate a battle and get right back to the action.
While the first game's visuals were heavy in anime and 2D sprites , VP 2's are rooted in reality, with rich 3D worlds and characters used to make up the game's world. It's easy to tell from the second the game starts up that great care was taken in making it feel like an actual world, with real people inhabiting it. You'll see people go about their daily routines while the streets are lined with people and other passers by with nothing to do but soak in the scenery. Every environment is meticulously-detailed - some feature bright lighting that catches your eye, while others are bathed in shadows and force you to make use of what little light you have to get from point A to B. This is a highly visual game, and much of its immersion in the game's world comes from the incredible graphics on display. The characters are also highly-detailed, with everyone having a distinct look - no matter how minor their role in the story. Given that VP 2 has a cast of hundreds, that's an impressive feat. The character animation could have used some work though - while it's fine for walking, it sometimes feels stiff during battle. This problem doesn't hurt the overall look of the game much, it just minorly dampens the intensity of battles.
Much like the first, VP 2 features a diverse assortment of music with heavy, intense use of stringed instruments like violins that add just the right emotion to the scene. Whether you're doing battle with a massive boss or simply strolling down a street, you'll be treated to beautiful music that to my surprise was stuck in my head after playing. Many games have great music, but few have memorable music - and this is one of them. Also unlike many games, VP 2 features good voice acting. The cast seems to know the characters and did a fairly good job at making you care about what they said, and their performances added to the characters' personalities - no matter how minor the character was. Unfortunately, there's a kink in the armor here as the lip synching is terrible. It never matches up with what's being said unless a very small word, and even then it's not perfect.
When it's all over, Valkyrie Profile 2 takes players on a massive journey spanning the heavens and Earth - and does it with gusto. Even with the voice work and camera problems dragging it down, this is still the most enjoyable traditional RPG I've played all year, and one that will be hard for even Final Fantasy XII to top. The addition of a bonus dungeon, along with a secret playable character in it, and multiple difficulty levels makes this a rewarding RPG to play through again. If you missed the first game and are worried about this one being hard to follow - don't. You might miss out on some of the smaller story and setting points in the adventure, but VP 2 works just fine as a stand-alone game. Players seeking out a beautiful RPG with a massive cast of characters, unique battle system, and a deep story should find a lot to enjoy here.