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EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is a discussion of Valkyrie Profile, and thus contains SPOILERS for the game. Please read with that in mind.
When it came time to decide on what game to pick for my Oprainfall Origins piece, there were a lot of games that I could have picked from. I was initially introduced to JRPGs, the genre that would define my gaming habits for a large portion of my life, through Dragon Warrior, which my brother and I received as part of the Nintendo Power promotion. From there, I moved on to Crystalis, the Final Fantasy series, Secret of Mana, and Chrono Trigger. With the help of a local video rental, I also dabbled a bit in lesser known titles like Ys III and Ogre Battle: March of the Black Queen.
These were the sorts of games that defined my adolescence. I had even initially thought about focusing this article on Chrono Trigger. But on second thought, that wouldn’t have been the right choice. No, the game I consider my “origin,” isn’t something I played in my childhood or my teen years. It’s not even something I played when I was a college student, though it was new at the time. It wasn’t until years later, after I had graduated and was lost somewhere in the haze between life as a student and life as a responsible adult, that I finally had the opportunity. I had told a friend about this game that I had seen before and wanted to try for myself, and it turned out that she had actually received a copy of the game as a gift but never even had the interest to unseal it. So she gave it to me.
That game was Valkyrie Profile.
How Do I Play It?
A hybrid of turn-based RPG and 2D platformer, I had never played anything like it before and very few like it since. The battle system, which tasks the player more with learning powerful button combinations than selecting commands from a list, is at once easy to pick up and mash, but required actual practice to understand and master. Each party member is linked to a face button on the controller, and simply pressing a button causes the assigned character to attack. With the right party, it’s possible to, say, launch an enemy in the air, stick him with arrows while airborne, and then continue the assault as he falls to the ground.
The dungeons, multi-layered 2D environments filled with enemies, traps, and puzzles, are diverse, interesting, and in the later portions of the game, inventive and occasionally truly perplexing. Doors in the foreground and background lead to different layers, creating large, complex labyrinths. And the game’s later dungeons can be downright devious in the way they’re laid out. They’re unlike any RPG dungeon I had seen before.
But while the gameplay is certainly an important part of why I enjoy the game, it’s not the most important. Not by a long shot. More than anything, when all was said and done and the credits had rolled, what I came away with was an appreciation for the game’s world and its numerous characters.
Lenneth, the game’s protagonist, is a valkyrie of Asgard, who at the start of the game is informed by Odin, lord of the Aesir, that Ragnarok, the end of the world, is on its way. It is Lenneth’s job as valkyrie to travel to the human world of Midgard and recruit einherjar, the souls of deceased warriors, so that they may fight for Odin in the final battle against Surt, ruler of the Vanir and the frost giants of Jotunheim. It is also a task that Lenneth only has a set amount of time to complete. Unlike other games that state that the end of the world is coming, but still grant the player infinite time to prepare for the final battle, Valkyrie Profile has a time limit; each chapter lasts a set number of turns, and each time the player visits a town, dungeon, or similar location, precious time is used up.
Further complicating Lenneth’s job are the requests Odin and Freya make of her for souls with specific skills at the start of each chapter to be delivered before the end. Lenneth must properly train her einherjar by taking them into battle, making sure that they’re well equipped and that they have the skills required, and then send them to Asgard so that they may begin their work. Succeeding in her job grants her extra rewards from Odin for a job well done.
Each of the game’s einherjar is introduced in the waning moments of their lives. Whether it be a cowardly young archer that meets death on the battlefield, a group of mercenaries that gradually lose their numbers with one tragedy after another, or a petty thief who simply runs out of what little luck he had, each has their own story to tell, often filled with tragedy, sometimes mixed with hope. But the one thing that none could avoid regardless of their status and upbringing, is mortality. They are all humans with their own dreams and desires, some who have had the fortune to live longer than others, but in the end find themselves in the same place. Facing a valkyrie that puzzles over their very nature while asking that they come with her to Valhalla.
The True Story
That is, if Lenneth chooses to do her job. If the player so wishes, she can slack and avoid sending any einherjar at all, though failing to do her job will eventually result in Odin and Freya deeming Lenneth to be too much trouble, resulting in the worst of the game’s multiple endings. To get to the end, that is, a proper end, Lenneth must do her job, and do it well, so that she can take part in the final battle against Surt.
For me, there is only one true way to play Valkyrie Profile. And that way doesn’t involve fighting Surt at all. It is also the only way to experience the true story of the game, and to understand Lenneth for who and what she actually is. While defeating Surt and winning the day for Odin may be all well and good, for Lenneth, there is always something missing.
In order to understand what that something is, one must go back to the start of the game; to the prologue set in Midgard. This little bit of story tells the tale of Platina, a beautiful young girl forced to live a wretched life with her abusive parents, naïve to the danger that she faces. Late at night, she’s drawn to her window by Lucian, her only friend in the village, who informs her that her parents have agreed to sell her into slavery. She agrees to run away with him, but as they dash off into the wilderness, far from their village, they stumble upon a meadow of weeping lilies; flowers with a pollen so toxic that breathing in even a little means a quick death. And it is there that Platina dies in Lucian’s arms, the victim of a short, tragic life.
Platina is but the first of numerous humans we meet over the course of the game as they meet their demises, or prepare for the inevitable. Yet Platina isn’t an einherjar; her death comes years before Lenneth is asked to take on her assignment. But Lucian, the boy that tried to save her, only to unwittingly lead her to her death, is one such person. As an adult, he lives the life of a poor mercenary, ultimately dying an ignominious death like so many others. And it is in death he meets Lenneth, but he also sees something more; something strangely familiar. Lenneth eventually parts ways with Lucian, allowing him the unusual honor of a long good-bye, and then sends him to Valhalla.
Eventually, Lucian, who misses Lenneth (and also suspects a certain connection that you may be suspecting yourself at this point), is offered by Loki the chance to contact her via the water mirror; one of Odin’s prized artifacts. Lenneth is upset that Lucian would sneak behind Odin’s back to do such a thing, but still takes his gift; a single earring. Lucian also tells her that she should know where to find its match. But as the communication ends, Loki turns on and kills him. The trickster god had merely set Lucian up as a scapegoat for the theft he had intended to commit all along.
This is a lot of story recap. It’s also very truncated. I’m sorry for that, but this background is necessary to really understand the story as I came to understand it. To see the whole story and to understand Lenneth requires the player to complete a labyrinthine series of requirements. It’s an incredible amount of work that in all honesty most people would need a guide in order to accomplish. (Disclosure: I used one.)
But the long story short is that at the end of chapter eight, the final chapter before the endgame, the player can visit the Weeping Lily Meadow; the very same meadow from the prologue. And if all of the requirements have been met, Lenneth will find a grave, and on that grave, an earring. And when she puts it on, her world comes crashing down around her. Lost memories are found. Memories of before she had awakened, when she had been temporarily reborn as the human girl Platina.
For Odin and Freya, this was merely to serve the purpose of Lenneth growing closer to humans so that she would be more adept at collecting einherjar. They had never intended for Lenneth to remember anything of her human life, and they try to stop her. They force her soul from the valkyrie body and replace her with her more devoted, malevolent sister, but the einherjar fight back, and through the efforts of an otherwise evil, perverse necromancer that temporarily keeps Lenneth soul in the husk of an elven child, her body is returned and she’s made whole once more.
Lenneth returns to Asgard, which is now a total wreck; Loki has used the power of the artifact he stole, the Dragon Orb, to kill Odin, and stands poised to bring the world to an end himself. But at this point, Lenneth can’t bring herself to care for Odin, or for Freya as she weeps over him. To them, she was nothing more than a puppet. What she wants more than anything is Loki’s head, knowing that she can never forgive herself for allowing what happened to Lucian; the only being in the entire universe that truly cared for her in any form.
The game’s finale, in which Lenneth is rewarded with all she could ever really want, is short, but poignant. In the end, all of the turmoil that she endured, both as the valkyrie and as the young girl, is worth it. And the moment her desires are fully realized just before the credits begin to roll stands among my favorite moments in video games. So much is said with so little, and nothing more need be said.
Actually, my words, for as many as I’ve wasted here, simply can’t do the ending justice. But someone out there was good enough to post a ninety-minute Youtube video, starting from the moment Lenneth finds the earring:
There’s so much about it that I didn’t even touch upon that I could go on about, but that could probably fill an entirely separate article on its own. You should watch this if you have the time.
Tying It All Together
Playing Valkyrie Profile was part of my introduction to what some might qualify as “true” adulthood. It’s one thing to struggle with Dragon Warrior at age nine. It’s another to have my creativity and imagination shaped by games like Final Fantasy VI or Chrono Trigger in my early and mid-teens. Or to get emotional over Aerith’s death while on the cusp of graduating high school and starting college.
In terms of gaming, these are all important moments, though some have had a greater impact on my life than others. But Valkyrie Profile was the first game to really hit me in such a way as an adult; as someone with responsibilities that go beyond doing homework and studying for exams. It was the time of my life in which I seriously started to ponder the morbid concepts of death and its finality.
Death is a constant in Valkyrie Profile. The often violent ways that the einherjar meet their ends and the way that Platina dies before she’s given any reason to enjoy life are but some of the ways in which it rears its head. It is a game that in a way says that the time we have is time to be treasured. They were sobering concepts in my early twenties, a time when I was still at least somewhat ignorant of the fact that I’m not immortal. I’m in my early thirties now, and those realizations only become reinforced with age. I’m still not what most people would call old, but I’m not getting any younger, either.
However, it’s not just the game’s pondering of death that I found so potent. It’s Lenneth herself; the way that she experiences the human world with seemingly little sympathy for their mortal plights and grows to become someone that cares for all of Midgard’s mortals. The way that she experiences and recovers from her ultimate betrayal, and the way that she makes up for her biggest mistakes, makes for a compelling character arc; one that requires the player’s effort in order to hunt out and experience. She starts her journey as Odin’s loyal soldier, but her connection to humanity eventually allows her to be her own person and to pursue her own goals; goals that ultimately benefit everyone but those that toyed with her.
It’s in these ways that I found Valkyrie Profile so affecting. Life comes in all shapes and sizes, and sometimes it doesn’t last as long as we’d like. But there are those triumphs that we can strive for, hopes and dreams that make life worth living, even when we aren’t always able to have what we desire. These are ideas that are easy to lose touch with as years go by, which is why this game serves as such a great reminder. And maybe, just maybe, when all is said and done, there’s a valkyrie at the end of the road, ready to grant us our rewards.