An RPG, DOA
If you’ve ever wondered what The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion would look like if you threw everything completely out of balance, nixed any semblance of artistic competence, and coated your television screen with a thin layer of muddy water, then boy, are you in luck. Valhalla Knights: Eldar Saga provides all of that in addition to a countless array of downright baffling design decisions, all of which coalesce to produce one of the most painfully unpleasant action/RPG experiences in a long while.
On paper, Eldar Saga is practically everything you’d expect from your typical action/RPG/dungeon-crawler title. All of the core elements are in place, from the complicated stat growth and item customization systems to the sprawling dungeons and associated guild/quest selection system. You also get selectable classes with portable abilities and stat gains, a class-specific skills system that allots you four active and four passive assignable skills, as well as mercenaries for hire who will follow you around throughout your quests and provide “help”. Sounds like just what the Wii’s missing, right?
Eldar Saga begins with a selection of which chapter you wish to play: the first or the second (events in the first directly correlate and even alter those in the second—a pretty cool concept—so it makes sense to play chapter one first). The game then allows you to customize your character’s gender, face, hair, voice, and other such attributes (albeit in rather limited fashion). You also are able to allocate a cache of starting stat points to tailor your attributes to your liking.
From there, you’re dropped into a small town where your character lives. After some poking around, you’ll meet a young mage who requests a favor of you. Upon granting that favor (which consists of a short hike through a tutorial dungeon), he reveals to you his true concern: the rampant turmoil brewing in the Eldar region thanks to these strange rocks called Star Fragments (the result of a meteor shower eons ago). He informs you that by sealing these rocks, his ancestors have long staved off the monsters they generate. However, as the lineage of mages has begun to dwindle, he requires your help to prevent the chaos from spreading.
And so your journey begins, taking you to the places of residence of various other races—Dwarves, Elves, and Halflings—and through perilous dungeons whose evil is powered by said magical (alien) stones. Along the way you will encounter the usual range of NPCs and plot twists which enumerate an ultimately solid yet mundane and predictable storyline.
The downward spiral
But that isn’t the problem with Eldar Saga. The game’s issues stem from, well, everything else. For starters, the presentation is positively abysmal. Generally, it’s possible to overlook minor (and even moderate) aesthetic issues in favor of a game’s stronger points. However, there comes a point where deficiencies in graphics and sound become a serious obstacle—and Eldar Saga seems to do everything in its power to impede the player’s enjoyment. Graphically—apart from the surprisingly decent character models—it’s undoubtedly among the ugliest games on the Wii, sporting muddy, recycled textures comparable to the worst Nintendo 64 games. Worse yet, however, is the fact that you often can’t even see where you’re going. The palette is drab and faded, severely lacking in contrast and brightness and oftentimes almost agonizing to behold. There are situations in the game, such as when darkness falls, that it’s actually almost impossible to makes heads or tails of what’s on screen; it’s as if someone is running a dry ice machine right between you and the television.
The other half of the technical presentation is equally unbearable; this review would not be complete without mention of the dreadful sound effects. In Eldar Saga, the effects are actually so distracting that you’ll almost certainly end up turning them off entirely (or seriously reducing their volume). Leading the pack are the infernal footsteps, outrageously and unrealistically loud in almost all situations and altogether brutally annoying (if you don’t have kids, this game will do well to prepare you for the affiliated experience of constant, rhythmic banging). Close behind are the laughably bad voices, invoked every time you interact with an NPC or attack an enemy. But seriously, nothing comes close to the footsteps; it’s so terribly irritating that it bears repeating.
The horrors of the presentation don’t stop there, however. Cut scenes feature your character lip-synching to nonexistent dialogue to provide the common effect of the voiceless protagonist—but it just comes off as awkward this way. Menus are plain and ugly and sometimes even confusing (such as the blank tabs decorating the item lists in shops or your inventory, which actually represent pages of items). Truly, the only redeeming aspects of the entire cosmetic package are the opening FMV and the soundtrack, which, composed by Motoi Sakuraba (Tales, Golden Sun, Mario Sports, et al), is admittedly run-of-the-mill, but ultimately fitting and comparatively unoffensive.
And then there’s the gameplay. Sweet Jesus, the gameplay. It isn’t just the puzzling lack of balance that afflicts the experience, but the mere fact that the battle interactions are so repulsive makes Eldar Saga impossible to appreciate. You’ll encounter droves of endlessly-respawning enemies throughout your journeys, and should you be so bold as to attempt close combat with them, you’ll find yourself immersed in a sea of button mashes (A/B attack, Z locks on), periodically healing, and waiting for the battle to reach completion. There is no way to block or avoid attacks apart from that of pure statistical luck—should your stats provide, you might eventually be able to dodge an attack here and there. Enemies, on the contrary, avoid at a rate which seems unattainable, sometimes provoking battles which last considerably longer than they ought to (especially when you’re attacked by groups).
Nevermind the fact that you’re supposed to be paying attention to how you actually melee attack, alternating A and B, as the manual suggests, to provide an effective attack combo string with which to dispense your adversaries. Perhaps this would be more alluring if your character wasn’t given to continuing his/her string of attacks two button-presses deep. The first press of the attack button results in a delayed swipe, but the second consecutive press invariably translates to an additional swipe—equally delayed—thereafter. Thus, whether locked on or not, you’re often locked into your combo for a full second or longer with no choice of direction or cancellation whatsoever. It’s terribly frustrating and altogether repellent.
You might choose, then, to attempt other forms of attack, such as spells or archery, for instance. That’s all well and good, but alleviating the nuisance of the melee combat only provides for momentary relief from the game’s other shortcomings. Even playing as those classes, combat is clunky, boring, and derivative. Spellcasting is too slow and costly to rely upon entirely, so you’ll be forced to switch back to regular combat frequently, a task which is confusing enough as it is. And should you wish to change your equipment on the fly, you’re out of luck; the only place this is permitted is within the game’s town environments. The game’s documentation boasts a “refined and improved” system, but in light of these issues, it’s truly difficult to imagine how such phrasing applies.
Navigation isn’t much better. While it’s possible to run nearly all of the time by holding down the C button (a function which becomes all but irresistible once the combat wears out its brief welcome), there is a disturbing number of ledges and cliffs scattered throughout the environments that, in conjunction with the finicky camera, makes travel irritating. It would be one thing if it were obvious where these elevation changes are, but in the middle of dark caves and nighttime environments, running from enemies or even trying to get from A to B can be a wearisome task. Plus, for some unfathomable reason, it’s not possible to climb up or down at all while the submenu is open on the right side of the screen—so if you happen to forget to close it, you’ll sometimes find yourself thinking you can’t take a path which you actually can.
But in spite of all of its unforgivable flaws, the game seems perfectly proud of its design. So proud, in fact, that it advertises these problems over and over throughout the course of the entire experience, featuring a shocking number of bland, dark environments and an excessive incidence of aggravating enemies. The pacing’s not any better; early on in the first chapter, you venture to the fourth basement level of a dark, labyrinthine system of dwarven mines, only to encounter a dead-end, get robbed, and then left to figure out that you’re supposed to trek all the way back out again. No kidding.
Depth… of what?
If there’s one thing Eldar Saga’s got on its side, it’s the depth of the formula, as partially articulated above. You’ll find four different character races, twelve different job classes, ten skills per job class, and customizable weaponry and equipment that can be forged and fitted with attributes as you please. And you’ll even find an option to play online via Nintendo WFC with a friend—if you have their friend code, which is required. But the real question is, does any of this matter? The game is so disjointed and offensive on a basic level that it’s practically irrelevant what degree of depth is offered. The sheer obviousness of the most glaring issues—those related to basic visibility and the inescapable footsteps—bespeaks a project which must have received no degree of testing or quality control whatsoever.
Length-wise, it’s nothing to write home about anyhow; the two chapters are something around 5—8 hours in length apiece, and that includes doing most of the guild quests and all the optional content. Of course, you can always play again to max your character out and customize him as you wish; likewise, if you elect to slam your head in your refrigerator door enough times, you can eventually work out precisely how to best deliver the blow.