Final Fantasy XII isn't the only RPG in town. And though it kicks ass, there's room in our hearts for more than one fantasy. Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria is the rare pleasure that blends traditionalism with its own personality. The results are engaging.
Graphically, Silmeria outclasses just about every game on the PlayStation 2. It's not just about raw horsepower, although this game will make your PS2 cry - it's always running smoothly, with hugely detailed characters on screen. But it's also in the artistry. One reason we love RPGs is because they transport us to another world. Silmeria captures that expansive feeling of a fantasy realm, in the biggest details and in the smallest. Each character has his or her own look; each house is filled with objects; each area has its own feel. This world has life.
Gamers who thirst for more activity in their RPGs will be at home here. The game's action-packed battles are unusual and richly enjoyable. When you encounter an enemy - no random battles here - you're launched into an arena filled with foes. You can dash between them, avoiding their attacks. When you get close, launch your assault; your party of four characters fights together, as you tap the four face buttons - say, hit square to launch a sword thrust from Alicia and then follow with a volley of Rufus' arrows by hitting X.
The more efficient your attacks, the more likely you'll be able to pound valuable treasures out of your foes' corpses... so pay attention. Most enemies have multiple limbs, each with its own bounty to reap. Each element of the battles reinforces another: how you approach enemies determines what angle you attack from, which affects which limb you'll hit and which treasures you might uncover. It's addictive, to say the least.
But that's hardly all. Underpinning it is a system of skills (unlocked by futzing about with your equipment - this could be more interesting) and the unusual fact that you recruit and dismiss tons of characters throughout the game. So you might find yourself with a largely different party every couple of hours. You don't have to go crazy to succeed at this game, but it sure does help.
Story is one place the game is less than amazing. Though the characters look stunning and the world is believable, the weak lead (a naive girl named Alicia) is a problem. Even though the other characters are cool, the fantasy yarn veers too frequently into the generic, and the title character, Silmeria, doesn't have the determination in her voice to make things believable. She sounds more like a Starbucks assistant manager chewing out an employee over a screwed up order than a goddess commanding warriors. Fortunately, the cutscenes don't drag. It's faint praise, but it counts for a lot.
Even if the story takes too long to get off the ground, this is a satisfying game with real playability. Fight monsters, get items, turn them in for better equipment and then move that equipment around fiendishly to unlock skills... meanwhile collecting characters, exploring dungeons (which have surprisingly complicated puzzles). This is a real gamer's game, but the excellent graphics and the action-packed battles should draw anyone in. And once you're hooked, you'll find yourself forced to dig deeper. That's how they get you. If you pick up Valkyrie Profile 2, you may discover you like RPGs more than you ever expected.