Hello all! Last week, I talked about a vastly underrated shooter that everyone forgot about, seemingly. It’s pretty rad, and I wish it got a proper sequel.

Today brings us to a DS strategy game, part of a series of RPG’s that’s pretty solid despite flying well under the radar.

Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume is a turn-based strategy game in the vein of Final Fantasy Tactics. Set in a Norse-mythological world, you play as Wylfred, a more or less normal kid whose father Thyodor dies in battle, a valkyries’ plume resting on his body, which means his soul was taken as an einherjar of the valkyrie Lenneth, from the original PS1 Valkyrie Profile (einherjars are a sort of fighter for valkyries, and they made up your party in the original game). Wylfred is given the plume as a keepsake, yet he vows revenge on Lenneth. Years later, Wylfred, now a mercenary, takes a mortal wound in battle, whereupon he sees Queen Hel, who asks him if he’s willing to do anything for revenge. Saying yes, he awakens with the valkyrie plume in his hand, which he uses on his friend Ancel. Ancel becomes superpowered as a result of the plume imbuing him with strength; they win a battle in which they were hopelessly outnumbered, but Ancel dies afterward as a result of the plume’s powers.

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That’s a longer plot intro than I usually write, but there’s a lot going on in Covenant. There’s a lot of characters to keep track of, and a dark, bleak tone throughout. It’s a surprisingly deep game about the nature of revenge, and I don’t want to spoil any more than that.

As I said earlier, Covenant strongly resembles Final Fantasy Tactics. You select units, position them on a grid, and attack and defend against enemy units. What makes Covenant unique is the sheer importance of unit positioning, probably more so than most other tactics games I’ve played. Up to four units can support each other if an enemy is in range of all of them at once. Thus, the goal is to position allies just right to make this happen. Character attacks are mapped to the A, B, X, and Y buttons and you need to know what character does what in order to maximize combo potential. This means you need to create a team that works well together, rather than simply go with the strongest units. Positioning allies in various formations provides stat bonuses as well, so things get delightfully complex fairly quick.

There’s also Sin. Sin builds up as you damage enemies past their HP limit—the more damage you do to an enemy beyond zero HP, say, in a multi-hit combo, the more Sin you acquire. Most levels have a minimum Sin requirement; passing said requirement rewards you with items, while falling below it makes you face a group of enemies generally tougher than what you’ve already faced in the mission. It’s honestly a mechanic I dislike; it forces you to combo already-dead enemies and makes the battles drag somewhat.

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Finally, there’s the plume, as in the title. Much like what the plume does to Ancel, you can use the plume to turn any ally into what’s essentially a Hero Unit, tipping the odds dramatically in your favor. However, that unit will die permanently upon the end of the level. Simple enough.

What’s not simple is getting the true ending. As any fan of the Valkyrie Profile series knows (approx. 56 people), the “true” ending is a baffling ordeal. The original PS1 game had a complicated, nebulous series of steps to follow in order to get the elusive happy ending. Covenant isn’t nearly as labyrinthine—you need only to beat the game without using the plume to power up your allies. Never. Not once. Aside from the opening tutorial, that is.

That always struck me as odd, and maybe even a bit daring. The plume is the titular mechanic of the game—it’s right there, after the word “The.” The story is built around it. And yet, using it just once will set you on a path to the lesser ending. Using it often (read: a few times) results in the worst ending, and too many uses in one level results in a Game Over, in fact. It’s kind of like being asked to beat Pokemon without using Pokemon. It’s extremely tempting to use it, because the game is so damn hard. Final Fantasy Tactics was tough but fair; Covenant is as well, but it’s still hurl-your-DS-at-the-wall hard.

But ultimately, I like the challenge of not using the plume, dangling so enticingly in front of me. “Here’s an easy way to win,” it’s saying, and yet you won’t really win—you’ll just see the “B” or “C” endings and realize there’s a better one. I realized during my playthough for this article that creating this mechanic and dissuading you from using it is the entire freaking point of the story. Wylfred fells intense guilt for using the plume on Ancel and killing him, and the game is aiming for you to feel the same way—not just by locking endings out on you, but by permanently killing any party member you use it on. The temptation to use it is almost overwhelming, due to the high difficulty of the game. There’s no difficulty option here (which sucks), but to a point, the game’s difficulty seems...sort of meaningful, in a way. Not in the Dark Souls way, but in a much more story-focused way.

It still could be a touch easier, though. There’s challenging, and then there’s just being ridiculous. But Covenant’s true ending is attainable. Eventually.

Covenant looks great, as far as anime-styled tactics games go, (there’s a cool CGI intro I completely forgot about until last week) and it’s all set to the music of Motoi Sakuraba, who has composed the soundtrack for basically everything—even the aforementioned Dark Souls. So there’s that. Seriously, it’s an amazing soundtrack, even when piped through the tinny DS speakers (played on my DSi); pop headphones in if you can.

Seek out VP: Covenant of the Plume if you have the means; it’s brutal, but as a tactics-based game, it’s rewarding as hell.

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Thanks for reading my stuff! Yell at me on Twitter, and/or suggest other games I should cover!

Next week, a cinematic horror title, with a huge emphasis on “cinematic.” As in you watch most of this game. It has an extremely short title, hint hint.