Nobody can say that Compile Heart doesn't know how their bread is buttered. The developer of games like Record of Agarest War, Monster Monpiece, Hyperdimension Neptunia and Fairy Fencer F have found a formula for their games that seems to work for them, and their newest Western release, Dark Rose Valkyrie, doesn't do a whole lot of deviating from the norm. The game is decently put together, with enjoyable albeit stereotypical characters, but you might find yourself growing bored with the repetitive nature of the game after a few dozen hours.
The story is another generic variation of "the world is being overrun by evil monsters, and you are part of a special group tasked with destroying them", and it even starts out with the standard EAGIE (Every Anime Game Intro Ever). In this case, the Black Garnet meteorite is spreading a virus that turns people into monsters known as Chimera, and you are the leader of the Special Force Valkyrie that is sent out to destroy these Chimera. Along the way, you'll encounter not only villains from the outside world, but traitors within your own party that you need to find out through careful questioning. Why a highly capable group of girls is so eager to have an inexperienced man as their leader is anyone's guess (cough harem fantasy cough), and it's not as annoying as how painfully generic and uninteresting the setting is.
If you played their previous games, or read my review of Fairy Fencer F, you have a good general idea of the structure of the game. You and your team will be continually sent out into the game world in order to find and explore bland, featureless dungeons with boring and flat designs. Both the world and the dungeons are populated with enemies for you to beat up and level up with, though if you're out at night when the enemies are far more powerful, you might be the one getting beat up instead. On top of the normal story missions, you can head back to your home base and pick up additional missions, which have you collecting resources or killing specific enemies; the fact that you're often forced to do these, however, makes it feel less like additional content and more like padding. You also have weapon crafting, upgrading, and all of that good standard RPG stuff to ensure that you're able to stop your enemies in their tracks, literally (but more on that later).
Combat isn't too bad, overall. It's standard turn-based combat, and the main concept is that different attacks will take different amounts of time to execute. Short and quick attacks happen immediately, while more elaborate and powerful ones require you to wait a bit longer before execution, during which time the enemy can attack you or even prevent you from attacking. Similarly, though, you can attack enemies and stop them from attacking, which messes with the turn order and lets your other team members skip ahead if you attack right. It's all represented by a turn gauge on the left, which is a great way of visually representing how the turn order works and when it's changing and why. Something that helps is getting access to your entire team at the start of the game, so you can get a feel for everyone, knowing where they belong best. Characters also gain experience even if they didn't participate in battle, which is a great system that more games need to adopt.
The combat engine is based on combos, to some degree. If melee attacks between two characters end up happening at the same time, there's a higher chance of breaking the enemy's guard, which leads to more powerful attacks, long combos, and a chance of all the Rear Guard characters (who aren't actively attacking, but play more passive roles) joining in for one super powerful attack. If you can get a pre-emptive strike on weaker enemies, it's practically inevitable that you'll be able to chain all your melee attacks together, have a massive minute-long attack combo, and decimate your enemies in no time. Though if you don't have the patience for such long combos, you can hold down a button and skip through it. Don't skip around too much, though - there will be certain button prompts that come up for additional attacks, or defense maneuvers, and if you miss them you'll regret it. If you do get everything and have this excessive combo throughout, you'll get substantially more experience at the other end of the battle.
For most of the game, my characters were powerful enough that I was able to walk all over the enemies I encountered, even at night when they were more powerful. I spammed and chained melee attacks together, and the resulting combos generally wiped out everybody, so long as I was able to get the pre-emptive strike. I had a lot of confidence going up against the game's first major boss, who promptly beat me into the ground without a second thought. I wasn't underleveled, but during the major boss fights you need to be vastly more strategic. Certain attacks and characters will have much greater effect than others, and attacking some of the bosses' separate parts will disable their attacks and make your life easier. It's nice to see that combat isn't a totally brain-dead exercise, and you actually need to know what you're doing.
Also, I remembered why your team is mostly girls - as you gradually take damage over several battles, your clothes also take damage. Once they've taken 50% damage, they'll start falling apart, and at 100% damage they'll completely shred themselves to pieces, leaving your sometimes-voluptuous characters in their underwear. It's pretty obvious cheesecake, but that's sort of par for the course with Compile Heart, so I'm not particularly bothered by it; it is, however, pretty silly. And, counterintuitively, you want to avoid your boys and girls stripping down, because they take far more damage when they do. Unfortunately, repairing clothes is so expensive that I ended up spending nearly all my money on keeping my troops in uniform, which was frustrating. I didn't get much opportunity to get additional weapons or upgrades.
While Fairy Fencer F had lots of cool elements thrown on top of the normal game, like World Shaping, Dark Rose Valkyrie is lacking substantially in this department. The main layer of icing on top of the core gameplay is more or less a social interaction system. Whenever you go back to your home base to receive more missions or repair your clothes, you can have conversations with your team members to build up your relationships with them. At some point in each conversation you'll have a choice to make, which will affect how the conversation goes, and presumably your relationship with the character as well.
This system comes somewhat into its own when traitors start coming into play. One of the risks of fighting Chimera is developing a split personality, and eventually the game will task you with sussing out a traitor in your ranks. This requires you to ask questions of your troops, and compare their answers with reality to determine who is lying, such as in Ace Attorney or L.A. Noire. Unfortunately, your ability to acquire information here is limited and arbitrary, as the game determines what questions you are allowed to ask, and apparently it's random.
Interacting with the people under your command is surprisingly enjoyable. All of the characters are anime stereotypes, which is par for the course, but they're fun stereotypes to talk to, and the writing is pretty good. The voice acting is really very good on top of that, making conversations even more fun; I made sure to take every single opportunity to talk to my troops, as it was one of the best parts of the game, in all honesty. Unfortunately, it's one of the only extra elements on top of the game, making it feel a bit repetitive and a bit threadbare. There's nothing as creative as World Shaping from Fairy Fencer F present here.
Presentation-wise, it's hit and miss. The characters are very well designed, and the graphical style and fidelity are good enough to enjoy. Cutscenes, however, are the same boring conversations that they always are in these games; 3D character models appear on a flat 2D background to talk, with no real movement to speak of. On top of that, the dungeons are extremely boring visually; they're repetitive and uninteresting to look at, and I don't particularly enjoy being in them. They don't even have dimension to them; it's just a flat map. The sound, overall, is fine. The music doesn't really stand out for any good or bad reasons, which probably means it's doing its job. Some of the sound effects are a bit unsatisfying, especially in combat, but it's made up for by some rather great voice acting.
If you enjoy the combat, which I thought was pretty good but ultimately repetitive, then you'll probably enjoy yourself for the few dozen hours that this game lasts. If you're looking for more substantial to sink your teeth into, then unfortunately you won't find it here. The characters are all well designed and enjoyable, so interacting with them is a joy, but most of the game is spent doing other things. You'll have to go through a lot of fluff to enjoy the fairly straightforward story through to the end.
Ultimately, my review of Dark Rose Valkyrie boils down to "it's fine, but you have better options available, even from the same developer." The combat is fine but gets tiring, and while socializing with your teammates is really enjoyable, it's the only thing layered on top of the main gameplay. If you love JRPGs, especially those from Compile Heart, this will probably suit you just fine; if you're trying to get into the genre, though, there are better places to start than this. If you really like getting to know other characters in a game, this might be your thing; if you're looking for solid gameplay, though, Fairy Fencer F is a better bet.
Final Score: 7 out of 10
A copy of this game was provided for review by the publisher.