IFI rarely ever branches off from their mainstay Neptunia series features. Their battle mechanics usually adhere to similar setups as does their animation style. While "Dark Rose Valkyrie" is unique in regards to the studio's staple animations, and stories it too harbors similarities with some of IFI's previous games. I think there's a little bit of "Omega Quintet" thrown in alongside some "Hyperdimension Neptunia" influence. Dare I say it I also think some inspiration was taken from games like Koei Tecmo's, "God Eater". In fact like "God Eater" there is a protagonist within the game recruited into a certain military agency with a unique ability tied to wielding special weapons. Large over-sized experimental weapons called Valkyrie which are to be used against Chimera infected people, and animals. As far as the gameplay goes most of the game has you learning, and earning your role as a commanding officer in the "Special Force Valkyrie" unit under the leadership of ACID (Anti-Chimera Interception Division) while taking on missions in relations to the Chimera virus threat. As a commanding officer who has an ability which enables him to wield the new weaponized technology you must effectively boost troop morale, and trust while completing the objectives given to you by your own commanding officer. This is done through headquarters interactions, and through mission outings that are kind of like what the Neptunia series has set in stone. Not only that, but there is at one point an infected subordinate who must be found in order to save the world. This will require a deeper understanding of the cast of characters, and attention to detail.
As 'Asahi Shiramine', a poor country boy looking to support his family by joining the fight against the Chimera you will be tasked with leading into battle seven subordinates while doing as instructed by ACID's higher ups. ACID being a militarized Anti-Chimera Interception Division. In a headquarters that houses each of your underlings' rooms, communal living areas such as the cafeteria, and a few other areas of operation you will strive to become the captain you are supposed to be while building upon the trust and respect deserving of such a leadership position. During the first portion of the game you will engage in a lot of conversational character interactions along with some tutorials to get you ready for the missions that you'll need to take on in order to establish yourself as a proper commanding officer. This includes various forms of follow-up party management, and interactions as well.
Your subordinates themselves, each carrying a very Japanese name, come complete with their own unique personalities. Some are quirky, some flirtatious, some shy, and others ready to tell you like it is in the most straightforward manner imaginable. At the headquarters which grants you access to it's base level, third, and fourth floors you'll find the subordinates' living quarters in which conversations between them will build upon your relationships. This is often done through multiple choice questions that can either motivate the subordinate in question to believe in you, or question your ability to lead them in the ongoing fight. Another area in the military complex includes your room which allows for a changing between night, and day time cycles. In this game the day, and night cycles basically have an affect on what enemies, and items appear within the dungeons. Day, and night is essentially passed through a timer-like gauge, and further enhanced in the nighttime sense by cycles of the moon. As one might imagine the full moon is when the most dangerous Chimera appear, and when the most valuable of lost items come into view. It goes without saying that Chimera during the daylight hours are less of a threat than those you encounter at night.
The "lost items" of which I spoke of a moment ago up the ante when it comes to looting the dungeons in "Dark Rose Valkyrie". Instead of the simple hidden, and obtainable box items of Neptunia there is a color coded gem system which has you reaching a certain search level in order to be able to gather the items contained within said color coded gems. There are even hidden treasures of notable worth that appear in the form of a floating crown. All of which comes into view during certain times of day, or night. Knowing which level you are at can be done be accessing the "Status" menu in the main "TRIANGLE" menu listing.
As far as missions go you'll be taking those on in a slight Neptunia sense. At the "Command Room" you'll select to take on alphabetically assigned missions which will serve as a means to gain loot, and currency as well as a means to progress the story. Each mission will be labeled from "A-D" with the "A" level missions being story progression operations, and "D" ranked missions optional side quests. Taking on some missions requires immediate attention, and completion while others are more casual dungeon outings. Whatever the mission is though you'll need to figure out if it needs to be done in the daytime, or at night. Information which is easily accessible in the "Command Room" mission listing. Once a mission is completed simply head back to the base's "Command Room", click on the completed mission, and your rewards will be awarded. It should be noted that missions are all done in the dungeon environments, and include such tasks as collecting items, defeating a certain number of certain enemies, and defeating bosses. Much like it was done in Neptunia.
Aside from the command room you'll also find a "Development Room" in which your battle damaged heroes can be healed over time, and with currency. Resting, and healing is the key to staying alive for the long haul, especially with the new fatigue mechanic that comes into play during battles. Also in the "Development Room" is a 'Tailor" listing which acts as a means to repair, and strengthen clothing. As with "Omega Quintet" your soldiers, and yourself will lose clothing articles through damage ultimately revealing their underwear. By paying up you can repair your clothing which actually doubles as defense. Along with those options comes item crafting via "Development" for currency/marks, "Material Delivery" which creates items with raw materials, and "Remodeling" which allows you to customize your Valkyrie parts using materials you've collected during your dungeon outings. Remodeling also makes the Valkyrie more powerful. Speaking of Valkyrie parts you can equip up to four Valkyrie parts (shield, cannon, rifle, gatling gun, sniper ...) per character which will affect that characters' combo setup. The catch is that adding more Valkyrie parts increases character weight which will alter their battle readiness. Each character can hold only a certain weight's worth of weapon parts until they level up the coinciding base stat. Base stats include, but are not limited to Melee, Agility, Wisdom, Skill, and Firearms. Said stats can be leveled up with earned BP (Battle Points), and PP (Player Points). Something that is achieved through battles.
Back to HQ ...
Another room within headquarters, which is kind of an archives of sorts known as the "Reference Room" will allow you to purchase special techniques with marks, and medals. A sort of currency earned through mission completion. These items, or entries will effectively open up your team's capabilities making them more effective in battle. Things like skills, melee effectiveness, and arts are learned through this room's offerings. As far as gameplay statistics, the bestiary, and all those little extras we've come to expect from IFI goes they are found within the "TRIANGLE" menu's "Database" area.
When it comes to traversing the world map and getting to the dungeon locations outside of HQ you'll find that there's two ways to go about it. By pressing "CIRCLE" in the HQ's base level you'll gain access to a flat map with marked points of interest with which you can warp directly where you need to be. If you want to go the more scenic route though you can exit the base by clicking on the "EXIT" icon, and walk on foot to the destination via a sort of world view. Navigating through it is done through a mini-map in a fashion similar to that of a dungeon playthrough. In fact you will encounter enemy avatars just as you would in a dungeon as well as colored barriers blocking off currently inaccessible areas. There are even warp points to get you back to the HQ base quicker.
About the Battle ...
The battle in "Dark Rose Valkyrie", as it were kind of takes on a sort of Neptunia presentation in some ways, but does it's own thing in others. When it comes to dungeon battles you'll once again be attempting to do a symbol attack with your avatar's weapon by pressing "Square" when near an enemy avatar for a preemptive strike. If you aren't careful you could also end up being caught off guard when running away from an advancing enemy avatar though leaving you vulnerable to the first attacks from the included Chimera. Once in battle the game switches to a fixed position battle scenario in which a tactical gauge decides who attacks when. In the turn based sense. This gauge, or slider with four level markings, and character or chimera images cycles from bottom to top allowing the operating player to choose the team's actions when it is their turn. That turn coming into play when the character image passes a certain point before the following level indicators which tie into that characters' chosen combo and it's numerical level (up to 4, delaying action progressively).
The optional actions include customizeable combo options assigned to three of the four face buttons as well as defense options, item options, escape options, ignition options, and arts options. The "ignition", and "arts" mirror the buffs, and skills used in IFI's past JRPG franchises. These special abilities use up CP, and TP accordingly. The arts in particular feature the flashy cinematic sequences in which the attacking character releases a barrage of attacks. The "ignition" on the other hand gifts a sort of character buffer that lasts a few turns, but than can be stopped supposing your character is nearing fatigue. Fatigue in the game basically renders the character useless when said effect hits in full. Along with those special options comes the game's ultimate moves. A move known as an "Overdrive". By going into "Overdrive" mode your character's Valkyrie will reach it's full power, but at a cost. It will slowly drain meter while in use, so using it sparingly in the tougher boss battles is definitely the best way to go.
Other battle options come in the form of "Formation". This can be tweaked along with the weapon combos, stat boosts, and arts management via the "TRIANGLE" menu listing. Formation includes front, and rear options for each character. Keep in mind that there can only be four characters in your party at a time though. You'll obviously want the ranged characters with the main gun type Valkyrie in back, and the melee focused characters in front. Depending on position characters in the back can sometimes aid in battle via a side-attack. Side-attacks vary, and in a team oriented fashion come into play under specific conditions. There are even shield support assists that will occur when a character is in the ignition state, or charge state. For the most part your performance in battle will rely heavily on said formation, the equipment your characters are sporting, and the combo setup you have in place. That, and their leveled up base stats. Let me also not forget the new "Evaluation" system which replaces Neptunia's "Lily Rank". The "Evaluation" menu will give you comical, and statistical insight as to what your subordinates think of you. It comes complete with a voiced quote, and a star ranking. Each reflecting just how good, or bad of a leader you are. Ultimately the better a leader you become the more effective your team will be in the given missions. At one point, as the trusted leader you'll also have to interrogate your own subordinates through various means to figure out which one of them is hiding a world ending secret. That secret being that they are infected with the Chimera virus. A virus which distorts personalities turning people into monsters.
Beyond the formation, and evaluation you'll also find that you can assign "Tactics" via the "TRIANGLE" menu listing. This enables specific characters to approach battle options tied to 'Arts', 'Items', and 'Ignition'. The settings at base level are set to 'Adaptive', and "Do Not Use" respectively, but the focus on each area can be changed to offensive, careful, or support depending on how invested you want to be in the battles. The 'Skills' menu is also an option that comes into play in the initial playthrough. This particular menu listing has a 'Arts', 'Combo', and 'Ability' listing in which you can tweak the coinciding setups. In the combo section, specifically you'll b able to assign from a learned listing combo moves. Much like you could in the Neptunia games. Each of the three combo strings has three slots that can be changed. Combos in the game, if done right can be extended with an EX ender adding more combo damage to the fight. As always winning a battle tallies up different stats including the combo count, life left, and a few other details for character leveling sake. Upon leveling up characters will be able to apply their BP and PP points to their base stats making the more powerful, and more prepared for the future battles ahead.
The Presentation ...
Compared to previous IFI games the character designs in "Dark Rose Valkyrie" seem a bit dated, or perhaps not as anime as those early games were. Instead of the anime designs from before IFI made the flat characters somewhat jointed in a paper puppet style with slight facial animations attached. All in a light anime style. It's definitely not their best animation, in my opinion. I can kind of tell they were trying to go for a more mature look, but it didn't quite compare to the quality that games like 'Hyperdimension Neptunia' offered. Even the backgrounds, and environments seemed less impressive than what IFI's earlier games had to offer. I don't know if it had something to do with budget, or if they were trying too hard to branch off from their "Moe" direction. Whatever the reason I was fairly disappointed. For those of you concerned about the soundtrack it is good. It follows the flow of action nicely, and changes often per situation, and circumstance. It also includes optional Japanese, or English voice-overs for your choosing.
The Verdict ...
Everything from the story to the combat seemed a bit forced, and less awe inspiring than IFI's older games. Certain parts of the battle mechanics such as the ability to speed up turns made the game a visual mess. Combat itself seemed less in the gamers' control, and more automated than it was in other IFI games. I felt kind of detached from the action at times, because of the way battles were laid out. Like I was playing through an interactive movie where the only real parts I controlled were the traveling character avatars, the menu management, and choices made in character conversations. It felt lacking in a lot of ways even though the game was complex in build.
Overall "Dark Rose Valkyrie" wasn't a "Great" game, but at the same time it wasn't horribly bad. It definitely had it's moments when it came to character, and story development. I just wish the battle mechanics had been more refined, and less messy. As far as a rating goes I can't really say it's worth $59.99 as is, but perhaps at a lesser price it might be to an IFI fan. That is my opinion. For those of you still interested it is slated for release on June 6th!