Review by Matt S.
Dark Rose Valkyrie was meant to be a relatively serious take on Compile Heart’s usual modus operandi. The house that built Hyperdimension Neptunia, Omega Quintet and Fairy Fencer has always been polarising, and that’s for a simple reason; this studio loves showing off the panties of its predominantly female casts. In all its games, I mean. What you get in a Compile Heart JRPG is usually something super happy, super positive in tone, and ultra-fanservicey in execution.
Dark Rose Valkyrie, meanwhile, has been positioned as a game about a traitor, and that’s not quite the same happy theme that you see in Hyperdimension Neptunia. In this game, you’re in control of an elite unit of monster fighters in an apocalyptic world, and one of them is in fact an enemy. Your primary goal through the entire game is to figure out who that traitor is. Other games from Japan that handle similar themes, like Lost Dimension or even Danganronpa, might have plenty of humour and fanservicey elements, but ultimately they tell a fairly serious story.
About an hour into Dark Rose Valkyrie I discovered this game would be different. A boss monster hit one of the women on the team one too many times; a short cutscene of ripping clothes later and there she was, battling on wearing nothing but the frilliest of pink lingerie. What’s more, I soon found out (after beating that boss) that repairing clothes is pretty expensive, and though characters were more vulnerable fighting in their underthings, I was better off leaving them almost naked. At least, until the next boss came along and repair became necessary. It was a real waste to allow weaker enemies to slowly degrade those precious military uniforms.
So, Dark Rose Valkyrie is actually a game about some very hot young things fighting to save the world while also trying out for a job as a Victoria’s Secret model… and one of them is also very, very bad.
On traitors in sexy outfits
“You may plainly perceive the traitor through his mask; he is well-known everywhere in his true colors; his rolling eyes and his honeyed tones impose only on those who do not know him.”
Molière, The Misanthrope
Dark Rose Valkyrie might just be the ultimate Compile Heart game. It features all the hallmarks of the type of games that the developer builds; simple, small environments and enemies, cutscenes told visual novel-style with character portraits popping up on top of line after line of dialogue, and a near complete focus on those characters, particularly their incredible bodies and underwear. At the same time it does have that maturity in narrative and theme that help to give the game a greater depth and purpose; the Hyperdimension Neptunia series is easy to play and then forget, because those games are pure play satire, and thus meant for the here-and-now. Dark Rose Valkyrie tackles some far more timeless issues.
We (obviously) don’t know which character in the game’s large cast is a traitor. We quickly learn that one of the team’s main characters, Ai, is the sister of a character who is quite clearly a villain. But is she the problem? Can she be trusted? Opinions are certainly divided within the team, and tensions start to flare. But is she the traitor? The only way to figure that out is for you, in control of the military unit leader, to spend time with each and every character and really get to know them. As per the quote from Molière above, the only way to really unearth a traitor is to get to know them first, so that their deceptions can become noticeable. This theme plays right into Compile Hearts’ strengths, because if there’s anything that this team of developers knows how to do, it’s how to get players intimately familiar with each of the characters.
Compile Heart JRPGs tend to be wordy, but this one takes things much further and does far more with its words. I’ve always had fun with Compile Heart JRPG characters, but I came to genuinely like the bulk of Dark Rose’s cast, both for their idiosyncrasies and for the more tender moments as their fears and weaknesses are brought to the fore at some point or another in the story. There’s plenty of replay value in this game for people that do fall in love with the characters, too; the traitor is determined by your actions through the game, so you’ll need to play it through a couple of different times to see the different paths the narrative can take.
Is the story told with the same earnestness as something like Lost Dimension? No, not really. Compile Heart never loses sight of the fact that this is a Compile Heart game, so it characters running around in lingerie wasn’t enough to lighten the mood, there’s plenty of puns and satirical humour thrown in there. It’s an odd mixture of themes, to say the least, but somehow it all comes together to be both intriguing and entertaining, and this is one of the best stories that has come out of Compile Heart as a consequence.
A delightful grind
Dark Rose Valkyrie has a really enjoyable combat system, once you work out the ins and outs. You can have up to four heroes on the battlefield at one time, and the other four will operate as support. The combat system is an active turn-based system in that each character will have their turn to attack and then wait for their next turn to come around as the other characters take their turns. The faster characters get to act more quickly. The more powerful characters might be good at range, or melee. They’re at their most effective when you’re able to bring them together as a unit, despite the differing speeds that they operate under, so you need to carefully manage the actions of the whole unit, especially against bosses, which tend to have an obscene amount of health and present a lot of work to take down.
Compile Heart isn’t often given much credit for the thought that goes into making its battle systems reflective of the theme of the game, but it’s a genuine strength by the studio. Omega Quintet is a game about idols and music, and the combat system was an abstraction of a musical stave, with allies and enemies alike arrayed around it like notes on a music score. Hyperdimension Neptunia’s humour is reflected in the enemies themselves, which include actual game screenshots and the pipes from the Super Mario series.
Dark Rose Valkyrie’s key theme spins around the ability for a group of people to come together and fight together as a unit, so it’s hardly surprising that the combat system would reward cohesion and careful planning on the part of the player. You’ve got a lot of control over the development of each character, too, and I spent a great deal of time carefully balancing out my forces so that I’d be equipped to take on just about any challenge I came across.
What does grate after a while is the mission structure. There is an awful lot of repetition in the way Dark Rose doles out the “to dos,” and for the most part they involve going somewhere and killing something, or somethings. Compounding this is that the information provided to you is often inadequate. For example, early on I was given a mission to explore a certain area, but I couldn’t reach it, and ended up running around in circles for a good half hour trying to figure it out. In frustration I went back to base and accepted a different mission, and discovered that in completing that mission, a pathway to the area I needed to visit for the previous mission was opened. At no point does the game say that I needed to tackle the missions in that particular order. Compile Heart has never been great with the mission structure, and it’s something that I’ve learned to expect going into these games, but if anything this one felt like a step backwards for the developer.
As with all Compile Heart games, the environments themselves are quite basic; they’re really just empty spaces with some enemies wandering around them. There are a couple a moments where an environment will hide secrets in plain sight, and figuring out how to reach them takes some exploration; but those are infrequent, and generally don’t involve doing much more than climbing a vine hanging on a wall, or crawling through a gap to reach a hidden room (which, naturally, results in an awesome crotch shot). I know the purely functional environments come across as bland to a lot of players, but given the limited budgets that Compile Heart games operate on, these are a concession I’m happy to make. Basic as they are, the environments in Dark Rose Valkyrie are dressed up nicely with solid art direction, and navigating through them is never frustrating; I never got lost.
One aspect that does consistently frustrate with Compile Heart RPGs is their tutorials. I appreciate that these games often surprise in their complexity, but the developer does itself no favours by throwing dense walls of text at players to try and explain all the systems. It delivers them rapid-fire, too, with so much of the first hour or so working through tutorial after tutorial for critical systems. Even I – a JRPG and Compile Heart veteran – struggle to keep up. It’s not until the third or fourth hour of play that I’m generally comfortable that I’m doing things right.
The issues I have with the game are minor, though, and not things that the game itself wants people to focus on. In that context, I can’t stress enough how much I’ve enjoyed Dark Rose Valkyrie, and it’s not just because of Ai’s pink and lacy bra and panties (I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that she’s right up there with my favourite Compile Heart girls though). This game manages to mix some quite serious themes in with its plentiful fanservice and Compile Heart trademark sense of the ridiculous. That it manages to do both successfully makes this a really special game. Yes, this is a game that was produced on a budget, but then, if it hadn’t been, it would have been deemed far to “odd” and “risky” to have been greenlit.
– Matt S.
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