Collaboration can often lead to some of the most interesting and successful projects in the game industry. The famed JRPG classic Chrono Trigger was a collaborative effort between the creators or Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and Dragon Ball, for example, while it was a joining of visionary Yoko Taro and Platinum Games led to the chart-topping release of Nier: Automata. Bringing together different minds, especially when their expertise lie in different fields or genres, is a great way to bring about a dream game that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.
With two notable talents from the Tales series, character designer Kosuke Fujishima and script-writer Takuma Miyajima, teaming up with niche JRPG factory Compile Heart, Dark Rose Valkyrie has the promise to be something truly special. Unfortunately, the fruits born from this collaboration prove to be more sour than succulent.
Dark Rose Valkyrie presents you with an alternate history where virus spreading meteorites crashed into the Earth, turning humans and animals alike into mangled beasts called Chimera. Luckily, Japan managed to wall itself off and escape the effects of the meteorites. Years later, protagonist Asahi Shiramine joins a military group fighting off encroaching Chimera, tasked with leading a squad of anime tropes into battle, with everyone utilizing bleeding-edge combat technology that comes at the risk of inducing a split-personality effect within the user.
The story, like many parts of this game, has a lot of promise, but falls short in a lot of ways. It’s perhaps the most padded out story I’ve seen in a JRPG. Many chapters revolve around you tracking down a pair of antagonists, and upon encountering them, having waves of bosses forced onto you as they escape. The first few times it happened were fine, but it’s a repetition that persists for well over half of the game. Add to this mandatory side-missions that give you mindless busywork to complete before and after story missions, and it left me wanting to just stop playing altogether.
Thankfully, while the overarching plot and it’s progression are lacking, the smaller moments of writing really shine through. Between story events, you can trigger conversations and bonus events with the members of your squad. These moments help flesh the characters out and while the entire cast have pretty derivative personality traits, they still end up being really endearing and entertaining. These scenes help you to form a bond with them, which is only amplified by the beautiful art and character designs.
That bond helps to make the hunt for a traitor within your squad hit even harder, with the traitor’s identity randomised for each playthrough. This part of the story involves interviewing your entire squad, investigating their habits and whereabouts, and carefully choosing the questions you ask to get the right information out of them and expose the liar. It’s a really interesting mechanic, and it seems like the traitor has a large chance of being the character you’ve gotten the most attraction points with, which can make the reveal hit even harder if it’s true.
These simple yet effective story elements contrast with the grand-yet-unsuccessful gameplay elements, of which there are many. For starters, leaving the base greets you with a big, blurry, open city area for you to navigate, devoid of NPCs and only populated with random enemies, hidden items, and dungeon entrances. City streets are winding and confusing, and blocked off by seemingly random invisible walls, while large grassy plains shift the camera angle uncomfortably far away from you, and slows the frame rate down to a slideshow.
It’s an ugly overworld, and it clashes with the story on multiple occasions. I went to the mall with one of my squadmates to hang out, for example, but despite the serene grassy park in the story event, when I enter this world, the streets are empty and the cities are filled with monsters, as if there is no life here whatsoever.
Dungeons are handled slightly better, with more coherent designs, and unique movement mechanics like walls to climb or cracks to crawl under. While the visuals of these environments aren’t stellar, I found myself far more engaged with them than the overworld. Part of that engagement, though, came from my constant fear of enemy encounters. Wandering enemies can spot you from a mile away, and move much faster than you, making the act of dodging battles nearly impossible.
Combat is a beefy and complicated that, despite heaps of promise, falls over itself almost immediately. It’s perhaps most comparable to Grandia or some of the Active Time Battle style Final Fantasy entries. It’s turn-based, but characters actions count down on a bar to the left of the main battle, with each action happening on one of four levels of the bar depending on their strength. Actions can take place simultaneously, so you get a lot of moments of seeing multiple characters pummel an enemy together, and it’s a neat visual spectacle. Attacks can also delay or push back enemy actions, and if you deal enough damage to an enemies defense gauge, you can break their defence before performing chained attacks and big group attacks.
The defense bar is a also an example of how the game fails to properly implement its ideas. In my time with the game, I would either empty an enemy’s defence bar together with their HP, or I would kill an enemy far before depleting their defense guage, making the bonus attack systems useless. Another huge problem is that you cant hit enemies in the backline with many attacks until you clear out the frontline mobs, and while using some sort of AOE attack would the the best way to do that, you don’t get any AOE skills until well beyond the halfway point of the game. All of this is on top of poor gameplay balance that makes difficulties higher than easy a chore in the late-game.
Despite the promising names behind the title, Dark Rose Valkyrie stumbles over its own ambitions. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the parts of the game that were the responsibility of the Tales series veterans, the art and the writing, were the most successful, but where other collaborations have been able to balance each party’s strengths an diminish their weaknesses, that’s not the case here. Rather than find collaborators who could help balance Compile’s consistently lukewarm gameplay design, this joint effort substitutes Helvetica for Times New Roman instead of fixing 10 pages of typos.