06 December 2009

Valhalla Knights: Eldar Saga

Valhalla Knights: Eldar Saga Review

As Valhalla Knights moves to the Wii, any potential for fun is buried under tons of repetitive busywork and technical gaffes.
The Good

    * Lots of jobs and skills to choose from.

The Bad

    * So ugly it's hard to see the gameplay 
    * Mind-numbing repetition 
    * Interface ignores years of design evolution 
    * All the grind of an MMO game but none of the camaraderie 
    * Crippled multiplayer.

The previous entries in the Valhalla Knights series were monotonous, unrewarding PSP games that poorly aped the Monster Hunter series. Monster Hunter will be making the leap to the Wii in North America next year, and while Valhalla Knights has beaten it to the punch on this occasion, it hasn't so much leapt onto the console as it has limply flopped onto it. Valhalla Knights: Eldar Saga is ugly, repetitive, and boring, and it's one of the worst action role-playing games since Valhalla Knights 2.

Eldar Saga hangs its storytelling hat on having two related gameplay sections, joined by a family bloodline. The first chapter casts you as an uninteresting young man. He goes where non-player characters tell him to go and he shrugs during cutscenes, but that's about the full measure of his emotional depth. You spend much of your time early on reuniting the four races of the world: elves, dwarves, halflings, and humans. Monsters are scattered across the land, and an evil spirit is returning to unite them. The backdrop is meaningless and has no impact on the game other than providing a convenient excuse to kill things and level up. Drama certainly takes a backseat when your enemies include such fiends as moths and immobile fungi. Demons and monsters do appear, but the first chapter's real purpose is to set you up with a swooning woman from one of the four races. Conveniently, each of the four races has a woman so dunderheaded as to be attracted to your character. Your child is the character you'll play in the second chapter.

Set 16 years later, the second chapter covers the war between the alliance of the four races and the monster armies. Your race options for the second chapter will be human or half-human/half-girlfriend's race. Want to play as a half-elf but decided on the halfling girl in the first chapter? Too bad. You're just as out of luck if you want to play a whole-blooded anything-but-human. Your choice of race affects your stats, but there's no way to find that out during the first chapter, when you make your irrevocable decision. You could easily find yourself locked into playing the greater part of the game as a race that doesn't suit your character's build or that you just don't like. In the first chapter you take on one of the basic jobs--thief, mage, priest, bard, and soldier. The second chapter opens up advanced jobs, such as knight, ninja, samurai, and anchor. Each job comes with its own set of active and passive skills you can advance, and each job demands a focus on a different set of stats and equipment bonuses. So, while you can switch jobs in-game, Eldar Saga rewards single-minded focus with the bonuses and powers you'll need to survive.

You could pick your battles if you could actually spot enemies, but low-resolution visuals make it hard to spot them. One smudgy blur in a field of smudgy blurs isn't an easy target. You're better off hiring a computer-controlled mercenary and letting him engage the enemy for you--and in fact, Eldar Saga even recommends hiring mercenaries for their "sharp eyes." Once the aggressive computer-controlled enemies spot and attack you, combat begins, and you have a chance to test out a variety of attack types and special skills. Unfortunately, the poor graphics and a number of equally troublesome camera modes make it hard to see where your enemies are in relation to you. As a result, you need to rely on camera lock-on, which heavily restricts your mobility. It's unfortunate that in order to use one key mechanic, you are forced to give up another.

You spend most of combat sticking close to your mercenary, locking on to any enemies that come near, and pounding the attack buttons mindlessly. Any thoughts of careful maneuvers or plans will wilt under the reality of always-aggressive opponents, the necessity of locking on, and the superior results that boneheaded button-mashing defensive fighting will deliver. You can still expect to be on the receiving end of plenty of cheap deaths, though. Sharp spikes in enemy difficulty arise without warning. To access any items or skills requires going into your item menu in real time. That's a difficult task with an action game's limited inventory, let alone with this RPG's massive collection of gear. You'll frequently find yourself forced to choose between dying from an inflicted condition and dying as you try to get the cure from your backpack while enemies tear you apart. You can set a few items for quick access, but it's simply not enough.

Bizarrely, in order to heal without using precious items or magic, you have to stand stock-still and not take any action. Since standing still costs nothing and heals you, a core gameplay technique is to stand still, doing nothing. There's no justification for encouraging you to disengage like this, other than to arbitrarily run up the gameplay clock. Death is punished by the removal of half of your money and the theft of most of your items. You can store spare items and extra money in your house. Well, it's called a house, but it's really just a menu where you can drop stuff off and change your character's haircut. Also, it's accessible only in the main city. You'll find yourself making frequent trips back to the city to stash money and items, followed by frequent trips to pick up money and items when you need them.

Repetitive trips are one of the most defining features of the game. Storyline quests will send you from a hub city to a dungeon, either to kill something or to find a spot where a cutscene happens. Then you'll return to the hub city, only to be sent right back to the same dungeon. The second time you dive into an identical set of monsters and challenges in the Castle of Ruins level, it will feel old. The third, fourth, and fifth trips will feel downright antediluvian. Clever reveals of secrets and rewards could alleviate this, but each trip just feels more tired than the last.

Between storyline quests, you can take on guild quests. These are smaller missions that send you to kill a certain number of a certain type of monster, escort an NPC to a particular location, or go talk to an NPC and come back. They are no relief from the storyline's drudgery, sending you right back to storyline areas you've finished. And there's no way to knock out a few guild quests all at once, since you can take on only one at a time.

If you save up enough money, you can go shopping for weapons, armor, and items. While you shop, there's no way to compare what you're buying to what you've got. If you haven't memorized your character's gear and all of the two-dozen-plus stat changes each piece has, you'll have to exit out from the shop and take some notes. Extensive notes, since there's no rhyme or reason to the gear modifications. You can easily buy a weapon that costs 10 times your current weapon's price and find yourself with lowered stats. Don't save only before you go into a big fight; save before you go shopping.

You can also hire and equip mercenaries in town, and sadly, there's no way to change out your sole mercenary companion in the field without a return trip. Buying gear for your mercenaries is integral to their success, but there's no way to compare their current gear to what you're shopping for. You'll have to take notes on their current gear, leave the mercenary hiring shop, go to the item store, buy what you want, bring it back over to the mercenary hiring shop, and then distribute what you've bought. They can also take items you don't need, as long as you're willing to compare each piece on each mercenary, one item and one mercenary at a time.

Visual effects are limited to blasts and healing energy, without any spectacular summons or flashy magic. But you can still expect the frame rate to stagger when you've got more than a handful of enemies on the field. The field itself is often so dark and the graphics so muddy that you won't be able to see where you're going without watching the minimap and crossing your fingers. Audio problems start with your character's first step, which you'll mistake initially for the pealing of massive bells or the fall of a blacksmith's hammer. Your character's awful-sounding footfalls set the mood for dull music and inoffensive sound effects. There's no reason to play Eldar Saga, but if you're determined to, there's no reason to leave the sound on. Put on an album you enjoy and set the TV's volume to zero.

You can choose to play co-op with another player using the Wii's Wi-Fi. There's no local co-op, although with the frame rate issues in single-player, that's no surprise. Once you're connected, your co-op buddy takes the place of your mercenary companion. Predictably, there's also no voice chat available--there are only preprogrammed emotes.

Constantly repeating the same dungeon, crisscrossing the same areas over and over again, standing still and doing nothing to survive: Eldar Saga's gameplay more closely resembles that of a lackluster massively multiplayer online game than of a compelling console RPG. In an MMO you'd at least be able to play with friends. You do not want to make a friend play Eldar Saga.
By Patrick Joynt


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