Ah, Compile Heart. Few Japanese developers seem to be quite as polarising, although it's perhaps not hard to see why. The folks behind the likes of Hyperdimension Neptunia, Omega Quintet and Fairy Fencer F seem to have one constant side-quest when it comes to making a game, and that's to cram as many glimpses of the predominantly female cast's underthings into the game as possible. Of course, it's hard to make a serious game whilst flaunting so much lingerie, and so your average Compile Heart role-playing game has tended to have a silly, happy-go-lucky vibe to go with the oodles of fan service, netting them a legion of fans. It's unusual, then, that their latest foray tries to tread a slightly more serious tone, telling a story of deadly viruses, traitorous companions, and underground rebel organisations - albeit all still wrapped up in a game about fighting monsters until your clothes fall off, because well, why not?
Set in an alternate history take on 1920s Japan, Dark Rose Valkyrie tells the story of a mysterious virus that's been turning humans into murderous beasts known as Chimera. With men, as the sex who are more susceptible to infection being forced to take a back seat, scores of women have taken to the front lines to keep the Chimera check. However, not all men are happy to sit idly by, and you step into the shoes of Asahi Shiramine, a guy who's recently been enlisted as the commander to a new division of the National Chimera Defence Force, the elite Special Force Valkyrie. In charge of a group of four young ladies, one girl-who-pretends-she's-a-guy and a couple of other dudes - including one whose love of laundry borders on sociopathic - it falls to you to be the country's front-line defence in the fight against the Chimera, and other nefarious forces that come to light along the way.
Out of everything though, it's the combat system that seems to have had received the most attention in Dark Rose Valkyrie - although, sadly, it's a case of too many cooks spoiling the battle system. Throwing way, way too many different mechanics into the mix, with buzzwords like 'ignition', 'damage modifiers' and 'damage compensation' peppering almost every fight, even the game seems to have got confused about what it is, with the box describing itself as being a 'real-time combat RPG', while the battles themselves are very much turn-based affairs. Each move you make has a certain 'charge' time associated with it - so a 'Level 1' attack is generally weaker, but activates faster than a 'Level 3' attack, which in turn takes more time to charge, but does more damage. Theoretically, balancing faster and weaker with stronger and slower attacks is part of the strategy, but we mostly just got by by spamming the same generic 'Level 2' mid-speed, mid-damage attack and praying, before throwing the odd elemental special attack in for good measure when against some of the more powerful enemies.
The problem is, there's a whole lot more to the battle system bubbling underneath the surface, but the game doesn't really do much to help you wade through the mass of different interlocking mechanics. Everyone has way too many identikit special skills that don't really have much of a use, nowhere has it really explained the difference between the Charge and Ignition options, which both seem to give you a brief boost in damage-dealing stats, and neither do we know what the point of fitting various moves together into your own custom combos is. And don't even get us started on your weapon, which is simultaneously referred to as the Tactical Combat System or Valkyrie System depending on who's talking - a giant swiss army knife of sword blades, sniper rifles and rocket launchers, you can switch it out and swap around the four different components to get different effects as you wish - but if you go too crazy, you'll make it too heavy to lift or unbalance your character in battle, making them slower or more likely to miss or something like that. To be honest, by that point we were mostly suffering from information overload
Mechanics overload aside, the battle system itself has a few more fundamental issues - including that old chestnut of totally unbalanced enemy encounters. All of a few paces into a dungeon, you'll go from facing a couple of weak enemies you can wipe out before they can get a move in, to a huge group of hulking great monsters who take out two thirds of your team in the first two turns. The latter is compounded by the fact that, at least to begin with, your healing spells are pitifully weak compared to the damage a decent level enemy can do in one go - as are your healing characters, who all too often get one kit KO-ed by a powerful enemy without getting a move in. And, despite the sheer number of special moves your team mates have between them, the overwhelming majority only hit a single enemy at once, giving you no choice but to slowly and steadily chip away at one enemy at a time, while the rest are largely free to decimate the rest of your team.
On top of everything, Dark Rose Valkyrie also has an inane destructible clothing system - essentially, as your characters take damage, so too do their uniforms, transitioning between 100% fine, to somewhat raggedy, to tearing off completely as you take hits, cutting your defensive capabilities as they crumble. It wouldn't be so bad if the average uniform given to the Special Force Valkyrie squad wasn't made out of tissue paper, and if it didn't cost an arm and a leg to fix up the damn things between missions, to the point where you'll spend your time battling monsters in nothing but your lingerie for the first half of the game because you can't afford a new uniform. In theory, you can pay to strengthen your outfits, but considering the scant funds you'll have, its a luxury you can't really afford - and one heck of an annoying drain on your funds, which you'll likely need for copious amounts of health potions and revival brews to counteract the wonky enemy difficulties.
In fairness to Dark Rose Valkyrie, its visual novel-style story segments, kooky conversations with your team mates and other plot related stuff is pretty well done - while most of the characters do fall into a few tried and tested stereotypes, they're all fairly fun, and building relationships with the various heroines is one of the game's high points. Back at base, you can visit your team mates in their rooms and get to know them a little better, and depending on the conversation options you chose during your chat, you may find yourself growing closer with the character in question, with each of the five females having their own unique endings.
Another interesting twist is that someone in your little group is a traitor - part of an underground organisation who've learnt to control the Chimera virus and use it for their own nefarious needs - and it falls to you to try and figure out who through some serious interrogation. However, as both a side effect of the weapons the Special Force Valkyrie wield, and an early sign of Chimera virus infection, your team mates will soon start to show a bit of a split personality, perhaps getting a bit more foul mouthed, anxious or violent whilst in its grip, making figuring out who is the traitor and who is simply struggling with their split personality a bit trickier. Only by interviewing and interrogating your team members, and looking for inconsistencies in each testimony will you figure out who the turncoat is - but be careful. Get it wrong, and you might be in for a bit of a shock later on down the line...
We wanted to like Dark Rose Valkyrie - but while most Idea Factory/Compile Heart role-playing games can be a little unbalanced, it really takes the biscuit this time, combining an overly complicated and convoluted battle system with some wildly unbalanced enemy encounters. It's a shame really, seeing as the likes of Hyperdimension Neptunia, Fairy Fencer F and such have proved to be some fairly fun and light-hearted adventures, while their romantic 'otome' visual novels (Hakuoki, Code: Realize, Amnesia: Memories to name but a few) are among the best of the bunch. We kind of hoped that Dark Rose Valkyrie would end up being the best of both worlds, but in the end it ended up being neither.