During the last decade, it became somewhat common for RPG series to produce tactical spinoffs, beginning with Final Fantasy Tactics and its successors. Even non-RPG series such as Onimusha would follow suit, although late in the decade came Megami Tensei's tactical spinoff Devil Survivor and Valkyrie Profile's, entitled Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume. Whether or not these spinoffs are good is largely a matter of opinion, although Covenant, at least in this reviewer's experience, nicely translates the gameplay of its main installments to a strategy RPG.
Rather than following a hero fighting for good like most RPGs, Covenant instead follows a young warrior, Wylfred, who seeks vengeance against the gods for the death of his father, chosen by Lenneth Valkyrie to be an Einherjar. However, Queen Hel of Niflheim ultimately offers him a chance for vengeance, with the feather Wylfred found on his father's corpse after his death becoming a symbol of his covenant, and Wylfred needing to reap sin for the plume to obtain the Angel Slayer capable of slaying Lenneth.
As with most tactical RPGs, battles break up story scenes, with the player setting up a party of up to four characters, each assigned to the DS's face buttons, to battle the enemy on a grid-based field. The player and the enemy have separate turn phases, with the player able to move each character around, have them attack the enemy, stay put, use an item, use a spell if a magician, or use a special tactic. One fault is that the player cannot experiment with different positions for the entire party, since switching between characters moves the previous character back into their default position.
Once a character is close enough to an enemy, they can attack it, in which case the game goes to a separate screen with the targeted enemy and characters that can attack that enemy as well. Here, gameplay similarities to the main Valkyrie Profile games become apparent, with the player needing to press the face buttons to have the character assigned to it attack. Each character, depending upon their weapon, has up to three strikes, with successful strikes building up a blue gauge on the bottom of the screen up to a hundred points.
Completely filling the gauge allows one of the attacking characters to perform a powerful Soul Crush attack, which can also fill up the gauge back to a hundred points, in which case another character can perform their Soul Crush, with the player able to repeat the process until all characters have used their Soul Crushes. Even if the gauge fails to reach a hundred points, characters can, if they have strikes remaining, attempt to refill the gauge and perform more Soul Crushes if available. After all characters have attacked, the enemy counterattacks if able and if their attackers' strikes have not stunned them, a likelihood with strikes from behind the enemy.
After killing an enemy, all characters on the battlefield gain experience, largely resolving the common tactical RPG problem of unbalanced leveling, alongside money and occasional items, although since there are no opportunities for grinding for both money and experience aside from rare optional battles, it's best to pick a favorite party and stick with it for the whole game. Each character is of an unchangeable class, including light swordsmen, heavy swordsmen, archers, magicians, spearmen, with their weapons having a certain range.
Dictating magic (usable only by magicians), tactic, and item use is AP, with each character starting with the maximum amount of a hundred AP. Each requires a certain amount of AP to use, with AP recovering by either ten points if the character performs a command during the player's phase, or by twenty if the character does nothing, after the player's session. Tactics are special skills, which characters learn from certain items, which can give them special effects such as being able to travel an additional three squares beyond the edge of their movement range, or temporarily extend the area of effect of spells.
During each battle, moreover, the player must acquire a certain amount of Sin for the plume, which the player gains by "overkilling" enemies by dealing additional damage to them even after they lose all HP, with up to a hundred points acquirable per enemy. If the player fulfills this requirement, Queen Hel's servant Ailyth will give the player some items as rewards, with these rewards being greater if the player well exceeds the requirement. If the player falls short, however, then they will have to fight a powerful Realmstalker sent by the Queen of Niflheim in the next battle, and fight more in following battles until they finally fulfill required Sin.
An easy way to fulfill the Sin requirement is Wylfred's exclusive ability to invoke the plume and greatly increase one of his ally's stats for the rest of the battle, also providing an additional effect on either the character or all enemies, helpful for difficult battles. The catch is that the character will die permanently at the end of the battle, although in exchange, Wylfred will gain a new tactic, some of which can really help throughout the game, and be the difference between victory and defeat throughout the game. However, until the penultimate chapter, the player cannot make liberal use of the plume, as excessive use in prior chapters will result in an unwinnable battle.
Between battles, the player can equip characters with weapons, armor, accessories, and a certain number of innate skills learned from special items that can grant abilities such as increased attack damage, as well as shop in towns for new items and equipment before advancing to the next battle. Once all the player's characters have executed commands, the enemies take their turn, and can, like the player's characters, gang up on the player's party. Mercifully, the player can keep plenty of revival items, and even after reviving a character, the revived character can still execute a command during the player's phase if they didn't perform one before their death, allowing the player to get back on their feet easily even if they seem to be losing the battle.
Covenant, however, commits the typical sins of most tactical RPGs, with the potential to waste a lot of time on losing battles, since death results in a Game Over screen. Moreover, there are some occasional marathon battles with no saving in between them, odd considering the inability to grind outside story battles aside from rare optional battles. Despite these flaws, the battle system is enjoyable, with players able to get a decent grasp on the mechanisms, particularly those familiar with the main Valkyrie Profile games, and keep in mind that teamwork is essential to victory, able to breeze through the game.
The controls are pretty good for a tactical RPG, with easy character management, despite the lack of an equip-best option, a linear structure that always keeps players moving in the right direction, easy shopping, and a quicksave feature in the middle of battles. Saving in between the aforementioned marathon battles would have been nice, but otherwise, the game's control scheme doesn't leave too much room for improvement.
Covenant weaves a decently developed story of vengeance, not to mention a war between two sibling princes, with multiple paths and three different endings. There isn't much character interaction after they permanently join Wylfred's party, although they receive special scenes after a battle if Wylfred plumed them during the fight. The translation also gives the dialogue a Shakespearean flavor, despite some occasional misused medieval conjugation. Still, the story is one of the game's high points.
As with other Valkyrie Profile games, Motoi Sakuraba provides the soundtrack, mostly consisting of tracks from Lenneth, which still sound nice, although some more original music would have been nice. Battles also have voice acting, which is decent as well, in spite of some odd battle dialogue, such as enemy archers shouting "Fitting prey!" Still, a nice-sounding game.
The graphics are good for a tactical RPG, with character portraits mostly narrating story scenes, and battles having an isometric perspective, with 3-D environments and 2-D character sprites. Attack and spell effects in battle look nice as well, in spite of plenty of pixelated close-ups. There are also some rare FMVs, and ultimately, the game is easy on the eyes.
Finally, a single playthrough takes somewhere from ten to twenty hours, with a New Game+ allowing players to keep items and plume abilities for previous playthroughs, and the extra dungeon, the Seraphic Gate, potentially taking up to a hundred hours to finish. All in all, Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume is a solid spinoff RPG, nicely translating the gameplay of the franchise's main entries into a tactical RPG. Combat does definitely have its flaws, though true fans of the Valkyrie Profile series, perhaps maybe those who normally don't enjoy tactical RPGs (such as this reviewer), will likely enjoy it.
+Translates Valkyrie Profile gameplay nicely to a tactical RPG.
+Solid story with multiple branches and endings.
+Good music and graphics.
-No saving between marathon battles.
-Not much original music.
-Graphics can get a bit pixelly.
Platform: Nintendo DS
Game Mechanics: 7/10
Lasting Appeal: 10/10
Playing Time: 10-20 hours for the main game, 100+ for Seraphic Gate