Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume is a unique strategy role-playing game with an intriguing plot and a thrilling deviant slant. The focus is on slow, conservative play and distinctly separate combat segments, which play out much like a standard RPG's battle sequences. However, the game often feels laborious and restrictive, using a variety of cheap maneuvers and frequently coercing you into restarting battles no matter how hard-fought the victory. Though its dark twist and separate combat segments are novel concepts, their cumbersome execution makes this trip to Midgard especially tedious.
The bloodthirsty storyline is fascinating, and there are multiple plot paths to explore. It follows Wylfred, a young warrior who blames the famed valkyrie Lenneth for the destruction of his family. Swearing revenge, Wylfred joins a mercenary group and is soon enlisted by a mysterious power to slay the valkyrie. To do so, Wylfred must sacrifice beloved friends to satisfy the bloodlust of the Battle Maiden's cursed plume--the dark symbol of his covenant. Throughout the game you will have to make pivotal decisions that will determine who you befriend and where the plot takes you, and the multiple endings and 20 ally options offer good replay incentive.
Battles are turn-based and occur on a 3D battlefield relegated to the bottom screen, while unit information is displayed on the top. Your goal is to surround your foes in particular patterns to perform sieges, which grant you bonuses, such as increased attack damage. In an interesting twist, ally positioning and attack timing are at the forefront of combat, as countering enemies will keep you thinking tactically. What's most unique about the battle system is that attacking a foe initiates a separate combat sequence during which each team member is mapped to a face button. Pressing the appropriate button when prompted times attacks so they increase an attack gauge, which in turn triggers impressive-looking soul crush maneuvers that are as fun to employ as they are to watch. What's annoying is that this combat delivery method drastically slows battles because of the multiple attacks you initiate each round, the enemy attacks you're forced to watch, and the extensive countering.
One refreshing dynamic that's new to the series is the constant quest for blood to power the cursed plume, which--while pleasantly savage--usually prevents you from playing how you want. Whenever you sacrifice allies, or attack an enemy after its health points have depleted, you acquire bloodlust for the plume, which counts toward a "sin" requirement for that stage. The sin scoring mechanic intensifies battles because you permanently lose any ally you sacrifice, but it also adds tactical value as you acquire vital skills from your fallen friends. Unfortunately, meeting the sin requirement is so overemphasized that you're forced to make it your priority in every fight. Failing to achieve enough sin will earn you a visit from outrageously overpowered assassins in a subsequent fight. Reloading the game is usually preferable to endure these attacks, but that's exasperating in its own right. Furthermore, you're unable to revisit previous battles for training, which makes the game a lot less fun because it coerces you into sacrificing whenever you run into problems.
The game increases strategic play by focusing on skills and encouraging you to proceed cautiously on the battlefield. Skills, such as the ability to paralyze most foes, become the cornerstone of any tactical plan, as you're harshly restricted to bringing only four characters to a battle. Unfortunately you don't get to scout the field ahead of time, so there's no chance for you to adequately prepare by choosing the right lineup, and you can't exchange allies during fights. Instead of splitting large units into segments or traversing the battlefield with lone units to achieve victory, in Covenant of the Plume you need to play more conservatively to keep your small team together and alive. At times it feels like the focus is more on avoiding counterattacks and meeting the sin requirement than on actually winning the battle. This unusual combat focus heightens the learning curve and further extends the battle length, and while it can be aggravating it certainly poses a unique challenge.
While Covenant of the Plume shows plenty of potential, it artificially raises the difficulty level by harshly restricting or punishing you, which cheapens the experience and culminates in grueling fights. Often you're forced to fight back-to-back battles without an opportunity to save your game or stock up on supplies, so you're forced to repeat fights if you should lose a later battle or fail to meet a sin requirement, which is infuriating. A quick-save option is included, but it's not quick at all because it exits you to the title screen every time you use it. The AI, though normally intelligent, frequently throws intended rescue targets into dire situations that often result in their deaths, forcing you to reload by no fault of your own. Status effects seem a little too strong and stick frequently, which may cause you to lose a few battles from underhanded status ailments and poor luck, another needless vexation.
The 3D battlefields are nicely detailed, as are the character sprites. Spell and ability effects have plenty of graphical flash, the pinnacle being the exciting soul crush maneuvers. The music is largely reused from the original Valkyrie Profile but feels scaled-down and a little generic. Voices are absent from cutscenes, though that's perhaps no bad thing given the average quality of the characters' battle quips, and some sound effects--like laughter or monster growls--sound cheesy and fake.
The game contains five chapters and is roughly 10 to 15 hours long, which is relatively short for the genre. Losing battles, failing to gain sin, and unlocking a bonus dungeon can all extend the experience considerably, though they test your patience in the process. Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume should satisfy fans and those looking for a unique strategy RPG, but you're probably better off avoiding its harsh, punishing nature and arduous gameplay.