“That a game can aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience, I accept. But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.”
Film critic Roger Ebert says that videogames aren't artistic in the same way that movies or books are, and he's right. All three structure their stories in different ways: the plot of a novel—William Thackeray's Vanity Fair, for instance—won't fit neatly into a three-act film without some cuts, rearrangements, and reimaginings. But I don't agree that one kind of storytelling is inferior to the others. Making a videogame audience “empathetic” requires more technical skill (and money) than doing the same for a film audience, but it can be done. For proof, one need look no further than tri-Ace's Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria.
Like the developer's previous Radiata Stories, Valkyrie Profile 2 is an extremely pretty action role-playing game (RPG). Its story and universe are inspired by Norse mythology. Silmeria is a valkyrie, a female diety who serves the chief god Odin by gathering soldiers for his army which will do battle at the end of the world. Now she's rebelling against her master so as punishment, he's put her in the body of a princess called Alicia. But the valkyrie's soul didn't stay dormant like it was supposed to and now she and Alicia share one body. Silmeria is still angry, and wants to turn Odin's own einherjar against him. The very soldiers he sent her to collect will bring him down.
Combat in the game may take a little while to get used to, but it's still fun. Alicia fights alongside up to three other characters, each one mapped to a face button on the PlayStation 2 controller. The player moves everyone with the left analog stick and makes each person attack with the Square, Circle, Triangle and X buttons, respectively. I spent a lot of time pushing all the buttons at once, but I could also dash out of an enemy's line of fire, split my party up to keep people safe from enemies' special moves or to attack from different angles (essential strategy: the party gets items by breaking off parts of their foes' bodies). Hammering at monsters also fills the Special Attack gauge. If a party member is using a weapon that allows for special attacks, he or she can unleash massive damage when the gauge is full. When I first encountered this game mechanic in Radiata Stories, it was boring: filling my attack gauge took forever and only one character could use it—usually one the computer controlled, stealing my thunder without permission. Here, the gauge fills up in no time at all and several characters unleash their special moves at once.
I had a little trouble with the camera during the battles. It didn't let me see everything I wanted to, and monsters frequently snuck up on me. And while leveling up isn't as important in this game as it is in many other RPGs, fighting can get repetitive. But the battle system has plenty of variables to consider, so it doesn't feel empty at all.
As much as I liked Valkyrie Profile 2's mix of strategy and frenetic action, I loved the game's treatment of its characters—thanks in large part to what Ebert would call its “artistic importance as a visual experience.” Valkyrie Profile 2, as I said, is very pretty. A lot of work went into crafting the shine in people's hair, the flow of their clothes as they move, the complexity of their facial expressions. Watching Alicia and her friends is the closest I've ever come to watching a movie within a videogame without veering into Masahiro Mori's uncanny valley. (Well, almost. Though the characters' faces convey their emotions more fluidly than I thought possible, especially on a PlayStation 2, their lips sync poorly with their dialogue). Alicia can look at a guy with such a mixture of shyness, joy, concern for his safety and relief that he's with her that I don't know if she's in love with him or not.
Our CGI heroine's ability to portray emotions even makes it clear who she is at any given time. There's a softness in Alicia's eyes that drops out as soon as the valkyrie Silmeria takes over. Growing up with such a powerful alter-ego has certainly had an effect on Princess Alicia, and through the game's subtle characterization, we see just how profound that effect is. The princess's father locked her in a tower out of shame, telling everybody she'd died. And even though Alicia has escaped, it seems like she's still hidden away somewhere. Silmeria handles all problems and confrontations; she talks to people when Alicia is feeling shy and makes major decisions. Other people even ask for the valkyrie when she's not in control of the body. In essence, Alicia is almost determined not to exist—an unusual quality for an RPG hero whose brethren often want to be the best and most famous fighter in the land.
The frenzied battles in Valkyrie Profile 2 belie the flowerlike way its characters unfold, one petal at a time. The story it tells may not look like the stories a film critic like Roger Ebert is used to, but it's still a story—and a good one—nonetheless.