Valhalla Knights 3 is dark and seedy. Its world congested with miscreants, lowlifes, and criminals; its landscape drab, dreary, and rundown. It borrows the unforgiving brutality of Dark Souls; the backbreaking grind found in the hardest of dungeon crawls; and all the statistical management and character tweaking of a typical MMORPG wrapped in a fantastic soundtrack by famed Japanese composer Motoi Sakuraba.
It also suffers from a pedigree that is quite abysmal. Beginning on the PSP and making a brief detour on the Wii, the Valhalla Knights series has been nothing short of a disappointing. An action-RPG series full of promising ideas, but ideas slopped together haphazardly to much critical chagrin.
With Valhalla Knights 3 though, developer K2 has a chance to start fresh on a new platform. Moving to the PS Vita, a system still much in its infancy, allows the developer a better chance of carving out a niche for itself in a landscape void of staunch competition. For the most part Valhalla Knights 3 cleans up the mess of its predecessors; unfortunately it introduces a whole new bevy of embarrassing design decisions to boot.
Flockheart’s treasure, a fabled item able to grant its user any wish, is rumored to be somewhere in the vicinity of Carceron prison; a once-flourishing castle that has been retrofitted to house the decrepit fallouts of a post war-torn Beigen Empire. As a person with a clouded agenda, you enter the prison to learn the whereabouts of Flockheart’s treasure before the emperor can seize control of it and resume his conquest of the neighboring countries.
Like the Final Fantasy series, story of previous entries is irrelevant to enjoy Valhalla Knights 3. In fact story is pretty irrelevant throughout the crux of the main narrative. Spending the entirety of an RPG as a prisoner is a neat little twist on the typical “jail scenes scenario” that comprise other games of the genre, but any creativity that could of come from this is squandered with poor pacing. What is there merely serves as a justifiable reason to play in the game’s world.
Before being thrust into the shady underbelly of Carceron prison, players are treated with an adequate character creator. Four races are present from the start: Human, Elf, Halfling, and Dwarf -- each of which possesses various attribute bonuses over other races -- with more races unlocked over the course of the adventure like the Beast race. Additionally, males and females differ in attributes amongst each species. For example, female humans have less vitality than their male counterparts, but make up for it with higher skill or dexterity attributes.
Once a race is chosen, six job classes are presented initially -- ranging from the jack-of-all-trades prisoner class, to mages and priests, to the in-your-face-melee archetypes like the fighter and akatoki (sort of like the monk from Diablo III). In total 20 jobs are available, with the additional classes earned through quests or from fallen enemies. You can tailor every character’s looks to your liking, selecting from limited hair styles; eye shapes; and in the case of females, adjusting their cup sizes to embarrassing proportions. While Valhalla Knights 3 tries to embrace more mature content than your typical RPG, it unfortunately handles it with the maturity of an adolescent boy verging on puberty.
This is apparent from practically the onset of the game. As you push through the opening moments of entering Carceron prison, it doesn’t take long for the rough and detestable side of humanity lurking in the depths to rear its head. Two men approach, barking orders and demanding respect like a scene out of Oz. Showing who's boss, they quickly murder two of the inmates and kidnap a female for good measure. Carceron is a coed facility. Men fight for dominance and “most” women are subjugated to nothing more than convenient items at their disposals -- which is affirmed mere moments later when you find the kidnapped women happily working as a sort of “escort” in one of Carceron’s shops.
As you spend time shopping in the main hub of Carceron prison buying supplies, taking on side quests, and expanding your roster it’s hard not to feel the grime the world casts. Divided into two zones, the slums and light district (or rather red-light district), players will run between each to better situate themselves for the grind ahead. The slum area provides those starting out an inexpensive way to sell and purchase basic items and take on additional side quests without having to shell out any personal funds.
The light district though is where the premium items lie, but also where they come with a cost. Before you can even begin to use any of the amenities provided in this zone, an escort needs to be contracted. They range in price (the more expensive the girl, the better the goods), but along with a more robust catalog these scantily clad women can be groped and kissed in what the game calls “sexy time.” Watch the NSFW trailer for a better idea of just how “sexy time” plays out, but be warned you might feel as dirty as I did playing it by the end.
Typically I’m the last person to be offended by perverted connotations in a videogame. Bouncy boobs, lust-crazy pet dragons... you know, the typical anime-induced fan service found prevalent in more “mature” Japanese videogames usually just rolls off of me. But there is something extra degrading with Valhalla Knights' “sexy time” mini-game that, for a lack of better term, rubs me the wrong way. Maybe it’s the fact that Halfling escorts look like they are twelve or perhaps it’s just the subservient comments like “It gives me such pleasure” that they girls bashfully giggle out. I felt dirty and ashamed having to poke and try to kiss underage looking girls to potentially earn better items.
Luckily, for the most part, the poking and prodding mini-game can be avoided. It saddens me though as it just seems like aimless attempt to distract players from the tedium the main portion of the game ultimately serves up. It’s unfortunate that Valhalla Knights 3 has to add an unnecessary level of sexual situations to add to the maturity. Its world is already dark and depressing and serves as a generally interesting location for the meat of the experience: seven-on-seven real-time battles.
Venturing outside of the prison, the surrounding area of Carceron is full of monsters and other rival prison gangs to hack n’ slash to your heart’s content while you explore caves and sweeping fields. It’s weird to be able to freely roam around the surrounding landscape of a prison without a guard to obtrude one’s way, but who am I to argue with such freedom.
As you press forward with the game’s main story or look to pad your coin purse and armory from the spoils of side missions be prepared to grind. I started my trek as a fighter (they can pretty much wield any melee weapon, which is awesome) and had an easy time alongside my starting party smiting lowly rabbits and the prison’s surrounding enemies. As I ran through the first few quests with no problems (all of which had one-star difficulties assigned to them) I felt pretty confident that the game’s first two-star mission would be as easy. Boy was I wrong.
Death can come swift and without warning since enemies can spike in strength with no inclination and leave you depleted financially if you don’t save often in preparation. Upon death you are left with two options: reload your last save or return to Carceron and pay to have your fallen companions resurrected. In the early part of the game death halts much of your progression and forces you to take on certain quests ad nauseam in order to build a suitable bankroll to help pay for untimely deaths (in addition to the gear and party members you’re going to need). I have no problem with grinding -- it’s sort of a guilty pleasure of mine -- but I don’t expect to have to do it so heavily every time I want to push a little further in the story.
Combat is the game’s real highlight. Fighting is fairly straightforward, with simple timed button presses ushering out deadly combos and (depending on class) a button for parrying or blocking. It falls more along the chaos of the Dynasty Warriors series when all things are at their optimum, as you’ll most likely be lost in the middle of your companions while you avoid damage and dish out your best attacks, and similarly is a blast when all things are going your way. During hard-fought battles, a boost can be triggered that greatly increases the speed and power of your team’s attacks and creates some truly awesome spectaculars.
Building a well-balanced team is the key to success throughout. I wish the game did a better job explaining, in the beginning, the importance of filling up your roster every time you're allowed an additional member. Perhaps it was my fault, but Valhalla Knights 3 leaves much for the player to discover. For example, each party member you recruit -- either through the story, character creator, or from hiring patrons -- has their own distinct personality trait that affects their behavior when fighting. Prudent companions tend to be better healers and shy ones are best for the back lines.
What I enjoyed most about the game’s combat system is the flexibility it lends to players of all types. I began my adventure as a fighter, but thanks to the ability to directly control any teammate on the fly (as well as guide their skill-tree progression) there was never a need to change my main character’s class or start over with a different job.
With a party of seven, you’ll essentially have a wide variety of classes to play with during any battle. You’re never locked down to single archetype over the course of the game when you have the opportunity to switch to any style in your party you’re feeling at the moment. For a game that can be quite a grind at times, this little nuance can really help keep things fresh when they begin to tire. Valhalla Knights 3 also offers ad-hoc and multiplayer distractions. However, at the time of the review I have yet to be able to find a match online.
In the end, as much as I enjoy Valhalla Knights 3’s combat I wish the rest of the game was more engaging. Story plays second fiddle to everything you do -- since it is constantly put on standby to grind to a level worthy of progression -- and the “sexy time” mini-game and depictions of women are obnoxious and downright offensive. The game’s poor direction (I ran around much of the first 8-10 hours with a limited party and a character sporting nothing more than a loin cloth with gauntlets) makes it a hard pill to swallow for those who are looking for an accessible role-playing game on the go. For fans of the series or hardcore lovers of the genre though, while still rough around the edges, Valhalla Knights 3 does offer the occasional moment of bliss.