Platform: PS Vita (PSN, £23.99)
Developer: Marvelous AQL
Publisher: XSEED Games
There's a great JRPG in here.
I can see it, it's so tantalisingly close. Halfway between Monster Hunter and the Tales series, Valhalla Knights 3 delivers a fantastic foundation for dozens of hours of questing: superb real-time combat for multiple characters, a wonderfully flexible customisation system and an enormity of content to explore, all wrapped up in a brave morally-bankrupt setting where you play as an absolute cad rather than a knight in shining armour. This localised roleplayer may have taken an age to reach European Vitas, but the potential is so clear I can practically taste it.
So I'm genuinely depressed to report that Valhalla Knights 3 buries most of its potential beneath a veritable mountain of awkward design decisions, grind and filth. In any sense of the word.
Thrown into the world's most lenient prison in search of a powerful artefact, set in the backdrop of a desperate war, players are quickly forced to scrape by and form a gang of criminals in a thoroughly depraved environment. The prison has become a thriving town in its own right, run by powerful crime families, cutthroats and murderers, so in an effort to blend in with the locals you'll quickly take on missions to improve your reputation and influence - both within the labyrinthine fortress and the dangerous outlying lands. It's slightly odd that the front door of the prison is open, mind.
Never mind though, because the prison soon becomes a hub for hours of adventuring. Your seven-strong party is uniquely yours, consisting of characters created from scratch out of a wealth of cosmetic options, classes, skills and fully-modelled equipment. As you gain experience, your party evolves with entirely new sub-classes and prestige professions to explore, while new races and even an epic machine compatriot unlock throughout the campaign. It's a joy to watch your team grow from useless peons to feared and respected murderers-for-hire, and to lead them out on increasingly tough quests in the hazardous wilds.
Combat makes the most of the seven-character framework, allowing you to switch between adventurers on-the-fly while battling beasties and bandits for experience and saleables. As you're dishing out the pain with an oversized sword one moment and healing up your frontline fighters the next, all before queuing up a couple of devastating spells courtesy of your mage, battling overcomes a slightly clunky feel with welcome depth and moment-to-moment stimulation. It could and should have been the cornerstone of something rather wonderful.
Sadly Valhalla Knights 3 quickly mires you in grind, great big buckets of it, thick gloopy globs of pure triple-filtered repetition. Staggeringly uninspired missions, expensive items (and escort shopkeepers - we'll get to that later) and steep resurrection costs force you to plod through a morass of repetitive content to get anywhere, fighting the same old enemies and experiencing the same filthy locales all the while. To put this in perspective: I genuinely love grinding and find it very therapeutic, but still occasionally had to reach for Netflix just to stop my brain from shutting down.
Beyond some major difficulty spikes, Valhalla Knights 3 is fairly forgiving, but comes across as very challenging indeed since it does a hopeless job of teaching you the basics. It's all too easy to spend hours beating your head against the early game without knowing that you can expand your party by speaking to a specific slum-dweller, and round out your team with an interplay of skills. It's worth doing a bit of homework before starting the game proper.
This could have all been water under the bridge if the world and characters had been worth a damn, but sadly, the morally dubious setting and its denizens haven't been realised particularly well. Utilitarian dialogue lacks anything resembling flair and personality, leading to even the most important cast members coming across as humdrum and uninteresting, while the forgettable storyline glumly rattles along and doesn't pick up the pace for dozens of hours. The filthy, dusty, muddy environments also look dreary and monotonous rather than gritty; depressingly boring instead of dark and soulful.
Valhalla Knights 3's primitive presentation doesn't help matters. Sporting hilariously clumsy animations, blocky character models, crude textures and load times that would have embarrassed the PSP, it's far too filthy for its own good. There's nothing in the way of eye candy for you here.
Depending on your point of view, that is.
I'm compelled to call out Valhalla Knights 3 for its shocking treatment of female characters and women in general. With one notable exception, every woman you meet is either a hateful harridan, manipulative harpy or - most often - a prostitute inexplicably hired by shopkeepers to let clients touch them up in awful embarrassing touchscreen minigames when you spend a certain amount of money. Women are things in Valhalla Knights 3, scantily-clad dolls who are thrilled to exist solely to titillate the player; devoid of personality, opinions or power even when it makes absolutely no sense in context or canon.
You can avoid most of the worst examples (and that nasty optional "Sexy Time" minigame) by sticking to slum shopkeepers who just sell you stuff without forcing you to hire an escort for the privilege, and you can cry "cultural differences" until you're blue in the face, but from my perspective the sheer level of unnecessary objectification and ecchi fan service pandering frequently borders on the disgusting.
The aforementioned "notable exception" being the player character, who isn't treated any differently regardless of gender or appearance. That's actually rather wonderful. I'm not going to praise the developers for being too lazy to include gender-specific dialogue, though. Let's not mistake sloth for progressive design, especially when the 'bust size' slider starts at big and ends at spine-deformingly ridiculous. A stronger game could have shrugged this off, perhaps, but it's a poor and cynical substitute for real personality and memorable characters.
- Staggeringly versatile character customisation, party classes and upgrades
- Enjoyable real-time combat
- Masses of content
- Staggeringly repetitious and grind-heavy throughout
- Dreary and dull, both in terms of storyline, art design, dialogue and characterisation
- Primitive visuals and presentation; excessive loading times
- Despicable borderline-misogynistic treatment of female characters
The Short Version: Oh-so-patient and forgiving players will discover an enormous amount of content, robust combat and versatile customisation systems lurking beneath Valhalla Knights 3's filth and grind, but for most, this Vita exclusive will ask you to turn one blind eye too many.
Shame, because there's a genuinely great game in here somewhere. You can hear it screaming.