Valkyrie Anatomia: A Post-Mortem

Valkyrie Profile sequels have terrible luck. Consider Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria, an inventive RPG promptly overshadowed by bigger RPG names when it poked its head up back in 2006. Consider Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume, a beautifully depressing strategy-RPG that appeared on the Nintendo DS precisely when the platform had strategy-RPGs to spare. And in this age of rampant cheap and short-lived games for phones and tablets, Valkyrie Profile’s only real presence is a cheap and short-lived game for…well, you get the idea.

Not that Valkyrie Anatomia: The Origin did badly for itself. Launched in 2016, it lasted some four years, and the English language release from Wonder Planet endured for over a year before Square Enix announced the worldwide shutdown of the game, effective August 31. For a mobile title based on an RPG series with a strictly cult following, that’s a firm success.

But how did Anatomia rank beside other Valkyrie Profiles? It makes no secret that it’s a prequel, with a confused and reserved (and unsatisfactorily armored) Lenneth Valkyrie called into the service of an Odin decidedly young and still sporting both of his eyes. Flanked by shapeshifting raven-kids Huginn and Muginn, Lenneth stalks the mortal realm in search of brave and gifted warriors to join Odin’s Einherjar ranks upon death. At least that final bit is easy to understand; it’s what valkyries do, you know.

Valkyrie Profile 2 messed around with alternate dimensions and secret identities, and Anatomia supercharges the whole concept. The overlying tale flits from one mysterious character and hidden agenda to another, mixing Norse myth with its own concepts and even bringing out the Rhinemaidens that Wagner possibly invented. Old worlds die, new ones are born, and it all vaguely connects to the Valkyrie Profile games we’ve seen before.

The central storyline rings the familiar chime of a war between gods and humans, though the RPG clich├ęs is inverted: here the gods are sympathetic and distant while the humans who challenge them are corrupt and petty. It all leads to a climax with a few novel twists among the predictable ones, but the first chapter trails off to make room for a second arc—one that the writers scrambled to finish in the game's final month. The dialogue also does the story few favors; it’s adequate most of the time, but the typos and bland turns of phrase hardly suit a game about Norse mythology and celestial apocalypse.

At least the game delivers on the valkyrie front. Lenneth alone has several alternate forms, and she and her sisters are joined by new celestial warriors with each story arc. By the end I almost expected every character, human or otherwise, to have some valkyrie variant, each available only through a random pull with a .0005 percent chance of giving you anything good. This is a mobile game, after all.

It's fortunate that Valkyrie Anatomia returns to the greatest strength of the series: the individual tales of the Einherjar. As in the original Valkyrie Profile, Lenneth watches as mortals tread toward deaths of varying noble or tragic tones, taking in their mistakes, their sins, their vanities, their joys, and, most of all, their reasons for dying. At their finest, Valkyrie Profile games chronicle gods struggling to understand humans one sad story at a time, and Anatomia is replete with those.

It’s also familiar ground. The Einherjar span all sorts of motivations, and they’re stock fantasy angles. Yet they’re often effective even when we know where things are headed, and it helps that none of these vignettes aims for a happy ending. A girl seeks a legendary swordsman in her quest for headstrong revenge. A homunculus learns that he’s human enough for his soul to join Valhalla. An actress plots an assassination as she plays a valkyrie. A sorceress disintegrating from her own dark magic finds a love so trite it nearly loops back to touchingly sweet. And an archer who’s never seen a second of battle still finds his soul worthy of Lenneth’s higher callings.

The Einherjar remain Anatomia’s lifeblood in both the narrative and battle. The game uses the familiar Valkyrie Profile system where four party members each launch attacks at the tap of a particular button, setting up combos and overkill moves if your timing is right. And it’s the cycle of new meat that keeps it from getting old. There’s always an archer or swordswoman or sorcerer dying somewhere and joining up with Lenneth. In fact, Valkyrie Anatomia might have the largest cast of Einherjar in the series.

If the battles capture the vital core of Valkyrie Profile, the so-called dungeons really don’t. They’re merely connected platforms holding enemies or treasure, and they’re a poor excuse for a cave or castle or insidious laboratory filled with traps and puzzles. Anatomia’s levels vary only in backgrounds, and they grow tedious after a few sessions of searching each platform or hacking through shadow figures.

So much about Valkyrie Anatomia feels like a perfectly good Vita or 3DS game crammed into a mobile nook. Everything looks nice in battles, right down to the varied mannerisms of the characters, and the soundtrack has the same thunderous choirs and elegiac bombast as prior Valkyrie Profiles. If only the actual stages were replaced by something more substantial, Square Enix might have ported it to home consoles.

Instead, Valkyrie Anatomia was a mobile game through and through. The gacha pulls were actually worse that comparable titles, with some marginally successful character lotteries requiring sixty bucks just to enter. I’m not immune to the appeal of catching my favorite characters, but even by the exploitive habits of mobile games, Valkyrie Anatomia asked too much.

At least such extras weren’t necessary to enjoy the game. Players could see the bonus storylines for free, digesting such marvelous tales as Silmeria making drug-laced cakes or Ailyth pining for Wylfred even more extravagantly than she did in the Covenant of the Plume bonus crypt. But if you wanted to actually acquire the all-new valkyrie Hakurei or the wedding versions of Lucian and Lenneth or the pandering bikini outfits for anyone, you were at the mercy of the gacha grabber. Of course.

Even so, I'll miss Anatomia terribly. Perhaps I was starved for any Valkyrie Profile supply this past decade, but Anatomia had enough of the morbid vignettes and button-flailing combat that I remember and still enjoy. For all of the times the dungeons bored me, I returned to it again and again. Too bad it’ll soon come to the same end awaiting any game that can’t escape the mobile market.

Fitting, isn’t it? Valkyrie Profile is all about mortality. The games find humans snared by their tragedies, while gods like Lenneth merely watch in confused solemnity at these poor creatures making the most of whatever scraps of time remain to them. Each little story always comes back to death and how mortals face it, knowing that very soon they’ll be gone.

If any game should have a compelling, brief, and unjustly curtailed existence, it should be a Valkyrie Profile. Enjoy it all right now, because fate and profits and disinterested publishers will sweep it away just as easily as life's manifold cruelties will sweep away each and every one of us.

Valkyrie Anatomia might survive. There’s a brisk and illegal trade in the APK files for mobile games, and I hope the fan base is strong enough to somehow preserve Anatomia, shortcomings and all. That might rob the game of its ephemeral symbolism, but it’s equally appropriate. In a Valkyrie Profile game, death is never the end of anything.

It’s also appropriate that I posted this just days before Valkyrie Anatomia shuts down. No, it isn’t lazy on my part. It’s meaningful.

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