I see the same words again and again in conjunction with Exist Archive, the tri-Ace RPG released a little more than two weeks ago on the Vita and PlayStation 4: "It's a spiritual successor to Valkyrie Profile!"
As an avowed Valkyrie Profile fan, these words should make my heart soar. After all, next to Persona 4, Valkyrie Profile is my favorite RPG of all time. But if Exist Archive shows anything, it's that there will never be another RPG quite like Valkyrie Profile.
Granted, there are plenty of commonalities between the two, including (somewhat) similar themes, dungeons and combat. In creating Exist Archive, tri-Ace has clearly set out to create what amounts to an off-brand Valkyrie Profile. But while they've managed to capture many of its superficial qualities, they haven't quite captured its soul.
Exist Archive begins in the wake of a terrible accident in Tokyo that kills 12 bystanders, who are subsequently whisked away to a fantasy world dominated by a conflict between two gods. They soon learn that one god has been using them to weaken the other, and that they are effectively chess pieces in this war—a fairly common theme in Japanese RPGs. What this actually amounts to is a lot of dungeon crawling, with glimpses of the individual pasts of the main characters scattered throughout.
Structurally, Exist Archive is relatively straightforward. There are no towns to explore, and quests are accessed through a main menu. Dungeon exploration resembles 2D platforming, with shimmering anomalies being used to reach higher platforms. Most of Exist Archive's appeal is in its battle system, and lack of diverse enemies aside, it doesn't disappoint. Exist Archive takes the framework of Valkyrie Profile's battle system—a combo system in which each character is mapped to a face button—and builds on it by featuring enemies in different formations, similar to Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel. That forces you to think about how you want to launch your attacks, with the ultimate goal being to hit every enemy and kill them in one or two rounds.
There are other changes as well. A greed system is in place, allowing you to stack additional battles for experience, and a new class system offers more flexibility by allowing you to swap in a variety of weapons. In the meantime, most of what worked from the original Valkyrie Profile returns intact, including the big, attractive super attacks that are earned by landing enough hits in a row. Taken in total, I actually think that Exist Archive's battle system is better than Valkyrie Profile's.
Then again, while Valkyrie Profile is often remembered for its battle system, it was hardly its greatest strength. The problem with Valkyrie Profile's battle system is that it relies heavily on its super attacks, even during normal battles, which makes it repetitive. And even during boss battles, you will find yourself using those same attacks again and again. Fun as it is to unleash super attack after super attack, even Lenneth's signature Nibelung Valesti starts to lose its luster after the hundredth battle or so. The battle system is ultimately saved by its fun soundtrack, fast pace, and excellent visuals, but I wouldn't necessarily call it a selling point.
No, Valkyrie Profile's selling points are its world and the way it puts you in the shoes of Lenneth Valkyrie—Odin's weapon of war. When the story begins, you are told to collect as many souls of fallens warriors as possible and send them up to Valhalla so that they can fight in the war against Jotunheim. The process for doing this is fairly simple: watch them die in a non-interactive scene, then train them up in a subsequent dungeon, and finally transfer them to Valhalla. You will be thanked for your service and sent on your way.
But pretty early on, it becomes apparent that this is not the entire story. After defeating a vampire, you come across some useful loot and are given the option to either send it to Odin or keep it for your own purposes. Obviously, keeping such nice gear is tempting, but you are warned that doing it too much will make him angry. What's the price of making Odin angry, you ask? Well that's an interesting question.
If you're willing to stray a little further from the beaten path, the plot will continue to thicken. The vampire lord Brahms will mock you as a pawn of Odin. A field of flowers will bring back flickering memories of the past. You have to find several of these locations, while being willing to risk Odin's wrath, to finally unravel the real story of Lenneth's identity and unlock the best ending.
Tri-Ace occasionally gets criticized for this approach, not the least because the mechanics behind it are so opaque, but I personally like it a lot. I like that it forces you to think outside of the box and not just the follow the golden path to victory, and I like that it puts you so firmly in the role of Lenneth. It adds an extra layer of depth that elevates an already excellent game; and along with its randomized dungeons, it provides great impetus to play through the main quest again.
Suffice it to say, there's nothing even approaching that kind of depth in Exist Archive. In trying to build a pseudo-sequel to Valkyrie Profile, trie-Ace was clearly working on an extremely limited budget, and its shows in its narrow focus and cheap-looking art. It's not completely awful, but I find myself bristling whenever it's mentioned in the same breath as Valkyrie Profile. Dungeon crawling and battling may have made up the bulk of its actual gameplay, but it was ultimately much more than that.
Just consider Valkyrie Profile's world. Those with even rudimentary knowledge will likely roll their eyes at the way tri-Ace appropriates Norse religion for their own purposes, but the world they weave is complex and often tragic. One of my favorite subplots follows a band of adventurers as they perish one by one until just one remains, fated to wander alone in a bleak world. Another hints at the devastation wrought by a war between two distant nations and the lasting effect it's had on those who fought it. You see another valkyrie imprisoned in a crystal in Brahms' castle, but you only get the barest hint of what's going on before the story continues briskly onward.
Exist Archive reuses some of the core themes from Valkyrie Profile—particularly the one of being an unwitting pawn in a battle between larger forces—but it's hurt by its more generic setting. The main characters in Exist Archive all hail from modern day Tokyo, and they mostly fit into well-worn anime archetypes. That's not to say that Valkyrie Profile is immune to anime cliches, but its subject matter is ultimately more interesting because it does such a great job of world building, which is much less apparent in Exist Archive. It helps that the forces animating the story's central mystery aren't faceless gods, but the leaders who lay out Valkyrie Profile's main premise, effectively subverting traditional design by leading you, the player, down the wrong path.
All of these elements captured my imagination back when Valkyrie Profile first came out in 2000, and my appreciation for them has only grown in the years since. Detractors call it opaque and obtuse, but I like that there's much more to Valkyrie Profile than meets the eye. Sadly, Exist Archive is exactly what it looks like at first glance: a budget RPG with a good battle system and a middling story. It's about as straightforward as you can get.
If I sound overly harsh and critical of tri-Ace's good faith attempt to revitalize Valkyrie Profile, it's probably just because it makes me realize that there will probably never be another RPG quite like it. Even Valkyrie Profile's own official sequels feel like pale imitators.
When Valkyrie Profile: Silmeria landed on the PlayStation 2 back in 2006, I was excited that it built on the lore of the original game, but disappointed by its more conservative approach. It exchanged the mighty Lenneth for the much more timid Alicia, and was generally much more restrained than the exuberant original. The difference could be felt in the way Lenneth and Alicia each greeted a fight: Lenneth would say "Come to me dark warriors, battle awaits!" while Alicia would squeak, "Must we fight this battle?"
As with Exist Archive, the bulk of tri-Ace's efforts ultimately went into the battle system, which they made into a hybrid 2D/3D system in which you clumsily targeted and broke individual enemy armor pieces for items. The story in general was much more straightforward, though not without some interesting twists toward the end. I was satisfied with its conclusion, which tied more closely into the original game than I would have guessed, but nevertheless felt letdown by its willingness to abandon the original's more daring design.
Silmeria was eventually followed by Covenant of the Plume for the Nintendo DS, which felt like a miracle in light of how poorly the original and Silmeria had sold in the U.S. Unlike Silmeria, Covenant of the Plume was more faithful to the premise of the original, though it is seldom remembered. It follows a warrior out for revenge against Lenneth Valkyrie who is granted a feather capable of imparting vast power, but at the cost of the user's death. At the outset, it seems like a very useful weapon as long as it is used sparingly on your party; but the secret, of course, is that you're not supposed to use it at all. If you use it just twice, you will get the story's bad ending. Ouch.
Covenant of the Plume was in some ways as subversive as the original game, but it was hampered by the fact that it was a low-budget tactics RPG, inviting unflattering comparisons to Final Fantasy Tactics and Fire Emblem. Ultimately, it deserved better than it got, poor AI notwithstanding, but it hinted at tri-Ace's decline in the wake of its poor showing on the Xbox 360. Outside of a rather surprising mobile release earlier this year, Valkyrie Profile hasn't been seen since.
But even if Square Enix decides to go ahead and finally make another proper sequel after all these years, I'm skeptical that they can recapture the magic of the original. For one, they seem bound and determined to use middling 3D graphics, which is disappointing in light of the original game's terrific spritework. For another, it's hard to imagine any potential sequel pushing the bounds of the genre as thoroughly as the original Valkyrie Profile. Exist Archive certainly doesn't.
Weirdly enough, the closest we've come to an actual spiritual successor to Valkyrie Profile is Lightning Returns: a peculiar and inventive release that Jeremy and I have praised many times in this space. As Jeremy wrote a couple years ago, "Yeah, it's Final Fantasy, and it was produced by Square Enix... but tri-Ace did a lot of the behind-the-scenes work here, and it really shows. This is a weird-ass RPG, and it's not afraid to be very "Japanese" (for lack of a better term) when it comes to tone. That is to say, it's all over the place. One minute it's super serious, the next sentimental, the next just plain wacky. And it's packed with systems and mechanics begging to be explored and exploited — like the countdown system, which seems ominous and stressful, but which you can break over your knee if you want."
Flawed as it was, I'm a little sad that Lightning Returns was married to Final Fantasy XIII, if only because it had so many clever ideas. No, it wasn't nearly as polished or interesting as Valkyrie Profile, and its story was a hot mess by any measure, but I always thought it was written off far too quickly.
In any case, given that there are games like Lightning Returns in this world, I probably shouldn't be so down on the odds of there being another game that lives up to the legacy of Valkyrie Profile. But looking back, I think tri-Ace accomplished something really special with the original game, and I've never played anything quite like it since. With triple-A development having become rigid and commodified, and mid-tier games quietly fading away, any true spiritual successor will probably have to come from an indie developer.
As for the series itself, I don't expect much more than hollow retreads going forward, if that. Square Enix has shown where their priorities lie by turning it into a mobile game, and tri-Ace has thrown the bulk of their resources toward Star Ocean. In the meantime, those hoping that Exist Archive will even marginally fill the gap are apt to be disappointed. It's a decent enough little game, and it certainly deserves to be judged on its own merits, but it is in no way a successor, spiritual or otherwise, to my favorite RPG ever. Valkyrie Profile deserves better.