Dark Rose Valkyrie review: Great visual novel, not so great RPG

Compile Heart is best known for its comedic, fanservice-heavy games like Hyperdimension Neptunia and Omega Quintet, but it’s known to wander down a slighter more serious paths from time to time. Dark Rose Valkyrie the latest attempt to do so, and it might be the studio’s darkest tale yet – though a dark game by Compile Heart standards is still a lot more upbeat than many others.

In an alternate history 1929, Japan is struggling with the aftermath of a meteorite known as “Black Garnet”. The meteorite carried a virus called “Chimera” that turns people into monsters, slowly wiping out the world’s population. To combat the spread of the infection, the military established Special Force Valkyrie, an elite squad armed with high-tech weapons that few can wield.

Those weapons – nicknamed “Valkyries” – come with a side-effect, though: they put a lot of strain on the brain, making their wielders susceptible to developing split personalities, or even turning into Chimera themselves. This premise sets up Dark Rose Valkyrie’s main hook: as the new captain of Special Force Valkyrie, you have to manage your squad and prevent their “Chimerazation” through good leadership. Your management style comes through in what you say and due during the game’s narrative sequences, and the members of your squad respond differently depending on your approach. Yue is a stoic soldier who simply wants to be given orders by a boss, for example, while Ai responds best to a kind, friendly approach.

Dark Rose Valkyrie review

To complicate matters further, there’s a spy among the group, and over the course of the game you have to figure out who it is. The identity of the spy isn’t set; it’s determined by choices you make throughout the game, adding a touch of authenticity to the whole process. You’re not just driving towards a pre-determined ending and making some character-defining choices along the way, but investigating a genuine mystery where little is set in stone.

This has an intriguing impact on the characterisation of the cast. It’s common to have one or two untrustworthy anti-heroes in a JRPG; Dark Rose Valkyrie doesn’t really have anyone that firmly fits that mold, but everyone is always under at least some suspicion due to the mechanics of the game. They tend to fall into anime archetypes – the friendly girl-next-door heroine, the stoic soldier, the impossibly shy girl, the cringeworthy womaniser – but that element of suspicion adds a new dimension to even these well-worn character types.

Ai comes across as the “default” heroine, akin to an Aerith or a Yuna, but the setup makes it easy to see a sinister side to her – even at her most saccharine, even if she couldn’t be more innocent. Dark Rose Valkyrie doesn’t do much to push its characters beyond the usual tropes, but the suspicion sowed through the game’s spy premise and investigation mechanics create a new light for looking at those tropes in interesting, unusual ways.

Dark Rose Valkyrie review

This goes a step further when characters inevitably start developing “split personalities” – though I must criticise the use of that term, because “split personality” refers to dissociative identity disorder, which the game doesn’t really cover. In Dark Rose Valkyrie, “”split personalities” are more akin to characters acting out their “true” selves more – think Persona and characters confronting and embracing their Shadows. What you first see of each member of Special Force Valkyrie is a mask of sorts that they wear around their colleagues, as people tend to do. But as their Chimerazation increases, they struggle to maintain that persona, and you see more of what they’re like deep down. For most characters, this works well; you get to see the anger and frustration that Ai is bottling up underneath her friendly exterior, and a softer side to Yue that puts her no-nonsense attitude into perspective. For other characters, it falls flat – especially with Amal, a trans boy whose entire arc revolves around you trying to find out whether he’s “really” a girl.

Amal notwithstanding, this all adds up to a game that takes a fairly tired sci-fi premise and cliche characters, and builds them up into something genuinely fascinating. Wrapping it all up are some stunning character portraits and CGs, bringing all these characters to life like words alone never could. Were this the extent of the game, it’d be a great one.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot more to Dark Rose Valkyrie, and it’s not good. It’s a JRPG, so you can expect a lot of dungeon crawling and combat in between the visual novel-style narrative moments, and these are – to put it bluntly – dull, frustrating, and just get in the way of what the game does best. Battles use a pretty standard active time battle system, but there are a whole lot of other systems layered on top of that that aren’t really explained, take hours to wrap your head around, and don’t really seem to contribute much to the game when you do. Ultimately, battles come down to spamming low-damage regular attacks, and using Arts only very sparingly because their AP costs are high and recovery doesn’t come cheap.

Dark Rose Valkyrie review

Worse, battles take a long, long time. Every regular attack is a lengthy combo that can take anywhere from 10 to 30 seconds to execute, the cumulative effect being that even a simple battle takes minutes to run through, even with a button that speeds up animations. Worse still, dungeons are overflowing with enemies, making this dull, tedious combat far more frequent than it should be. Even playing on Easy, some of the bosses can be tricky and demand a lot of grinding, if only so that you can buy AP-restoring items to help you slug through their massive health bars.

That’s my big gripe with Dark Rose Valkyrie: there’s a very good visual novel here, that does some innovative, fascinating things and tells a story that’s well worth hearing, but it spends most of its running time being a mediocre RPG instead.

Dark Rose Valkyrie is developed by Compile Heart and published by Idea Factory. It’s available now for PlayStation 4.

A press copy was supplied by the publisher for this review.

Matthew Codd

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.