The Valhalla Knights series hasn’t had a very successful existence thus far. Usually selling OK but failing to generate much praise from the critics. The franchise that began life on Sony’s PSP has always been slightly disappointing to all but staunch fans. Now finding its way onto the Vita, the series’ third instalment presents a handful of interesting ideas and then promptly muddies them with lacklustre execution, tedious design and a genuinely creepy mini-game.
Right off the bat, Valhalla Knights 3 takes a different approach to its world and storyline. Discarding the usual fantasy RPG conventions of a kingdom in trouble or an ancient evil reawakened, XSEED’s adventure instead deposits you within the dark and dingy walls of the sprawling Carceron Prison, a complex fortress built to house the most dangerous criminals in the world. It’s a setting that is both ingenious (in that it gives a great deal of context to all the back-and-forth fetch quests and the repeated need to “prove” yourself to NPCs) and stupid (this many characters formed in the RPG crucible – mages, fighters, warrior priests – would make mincemeat of any security system imaginable), that slowly grows as you unlock new areas to adventure in.
You’re there along with two companions named Carlos and Paul (really) looking for a lost treasure known as W. Flockhart’s Legacy in order to please a kleptomaniacal ruler. Not only have you been sent in to one of the deadliest places in the world, but you’re also beholden to your charge by the Mark of Death, a magical tattoo that inflicts horrendous pain when you go against orders.
There are occasional flashbacks that flesh out your character’s history, many of which take place during a recent civil war, but the overall plot is fairly dull. It’s not helped by immature writing and a hell of a lot of dialogue text to trawl through during cutscenes. Characters are universally irritating, and it’s incredibly hard to become invested in anything they do or say. It’s much easier to just skip through the dialogue, find out where you need to go, and get it done in the pursuit of XP and loot.
The character creation process is fairly decent, however. There are 7 races to choose from, although only Human, Elf, Dwarf and Halfling are initially available. The use of western, Tolkien-esque races is a little misleading, as each starting race has a kind of strange Japanese pixie-ness to its overall appearance. It’s immediately telling that all female characters – even the adolescent-looking Halflings – have a slider to increase their bust to ridiculous proportions (it doesn’t get better when the starting outfit for females is a grey jumpsuit open all the way to the naval and bursting with cleavage). You can choose from a decent selection of classes, some common (Fighter, Mage, Thief) and some not so common (Prison, Akatoshi). The class dictates your starting stats and skills – although you can alter your class later, either to change it completely or merge it with other classes.
Combat is taken care of in real time and, despite a selection of moves and buffs for each class, is pretty dull. Button mashing will see you through most fights and you’ll only have to bust out the special moves during boss encounters, which, annoyingly, can be incredibly hard even early on in the game. In fact, Valhalla Knights 3 loves grinding – and it wants you to love grinding, too. The first boss you fight is a prisoner wandering in the grounds who your Sovereign wants you to assassinate – unfortunately, if you go to him directly after you’re given the quest, he’ll likely hand you your own ass in a handkerchief. Spend an hour grinding and gearing up (by killing rabbits, mostly) and you’ll find the fight more even. This is how Valhalla Knights 3 approaches almost every boss, and it’s bloody infuriating.
Increasing your party size and variety is one way to even the field, and it’s not long before you’ve reached a seemingly random milestone that allows you to suddenly recruit a full party of seven adventurers. Mixing up your party is not only great tactically, but practically, too, as you can switch between them all with a push of the select button at any time, even during combat, so you can keep moving around without getting bored of one play-style. You can also create the other party members yourself, which makes you care just that little bit more about their advancement. Hitting stuff to initiate combat is easy with a melee weapon, but substantially harder with a bow, so you may find it easier running around with a fighter or priest than an archer.
Oddly, you can go outside and explore the grounds around the prison, or investigate the subterranean catacombs, and you don’t see many guards. Instead, menacing, path-blocking duties are mostly handled by enforcers for the three major families who run Carceron. You’d expect them to have more of an impact on the storyline, but they’re mostly there to give the early hours some colour and provide a means for various tutorial missions.
You recruit party members in several places, most notably the local brothel. The game never actually says “brothel”, but it’s run by a scantily clad madame and her lingerie-wearing “girls”, and part of the service (be it recruitment, collecting quests or trading items) includes “Sexy Time”, ironically the most un-sexy element of any video game, ever. In it, you tap and stroke the Vita’s screen to “stimulate” the girl until she reaches some kind of “oohing, aahing” peak, before frantically tapping exclamation marks in bubbles and waiting to see if she approves. It’s weird, creepy, totally out-of-place and horribly shoe-horned for reasons I genuinely cannot fathom. The fact that some of the characters look worryingly under-age is outright abhorrent.
Graphically speaking, it’s all a little poor. The angular, fuzzy character models wouldn’t look out of place left on the PSP, and really don’t make effective use of the Vita, and the sound is awful. Besides the adequate soundtrack, the ambient effects and sparse voice work are sub-par and incredibly basic. Given that the environments are so bland and the audio/visual work, on the whole, is a bit phoned-in, the interminably long load times are unforgivable. Thanks to the tedious fetch-or kill-quest nature of most of your assignments, you’ll spend an inordinate amount of time staring at the loading screen tips and wondering if you’re awake or asleep.
VERDICT: Ultimately, Valhalla Knights 3 is a looting, levelling dungeon-crawler and nothing more, and it’s not a great example of the genre. The Sexy Time idea is hideously out of kilter with the rest of the game, despite the immature, boob-joke nature of the script, and the quests are universally dull and listless – and yet, it is oddly playable in short bursts. The customisation is decent, and the combat can be quite fun as you jump between characters to make the most of your party set-up, but as a whole it’s all incredibly “meh”.
Despite some effort to do things a little differently (the competitive multiplayer component is enjoyable for a spell), Valhalla Knights 3 is a disappointing, misguided adventure made all the worse by terrible writing and mind-numbing questing. It’s hard to recommend this to any but the most stalwart fans of the genre or the franchise.
POOR. Games tagged 4/10 will be playable, perhaps even enjoyable, but will be let down by a slew of negative elements that undermine their quality and value. Best avoided by any but hardcore genre fans.