If you are ever in Los Angeles, I highly suggest sitting outside of a theater that is playing the latest installment of the Wayans Brothers’ “Movie” franchise. You will no doubt see at least one pair of writers who have ventured from their natural habitat of Starbucks to relent that these abominations somehow keep getting made while their Magnum Opus remains forgotten on their MacBooks. That is the feeling that many aspiring gamers have associated with the Valhalla Knights series: one can’t help but wonder how the how a fourth game in the series was approved, given their previous track record. Nevertheless, I took up my pen and PSP when Valhalla Knights 2: Battle Stance arrived at my digital doorstep, and while I wouldn’t necessarily equate it to Scary Movie 4, I could hardly mention it in the same statement as Goodfellas either.
As the name would suggest, Battle Stance is a refinement of Valhalla Knights 2, which was released on the PSP in 2008. The story and world carry over from the original title, however new quests and items have been added, and the battle system has been fine-tuned. The real-time encounters have remained largely unchanged, but your party has been sheared down to 4 members instead of the previous 6, which makes it easier to manage your teammates in the midst of frantic attacks. Aside from the minor adjustments and the fact that Battle Stance is available on the PlayStation Network, this iteration largely stays true to its predecessor.
Comparisons to Monster Hunter are largely misleading. Dungeon exploration in Valhalla Knights is largely similar to crawlers of the late 32-bit era, featuring blocky dungeons which you uncover bit-by-bit in search for treasure. Battles are conducted by attacking or being attacked by an enemy, which sends the player to a separate battle field and initiates a real-time hack-n-slash battle with your teammates. As you successfully slay enemies or find treasure chests, you will find generic items with name slike “sword” or “flask” which you cannot equip or you unless you identify them using a special item, which you can purchase at the store in town. This is the single most frustrating mechanic I have ever come across in a video game. One might assume that if I find a “hat” lying around that I would have enough common sense to know that it belongs on my “head.” I might not know that it gives me +4 to my magical defenses, but I understand that it looks nice, keeps my head warm and probably does more to protect my head then my hair does on its own. Instead, I have to refer to a one-use-only card to tell me that this hat is made of leather and it belongs on my head, unless I am a wizard because their heads are apparently shaped differently than monks and fighters.
One feature that was not updated, despite its obvious oversight in the original title, is the character creator, which still only allows players to choose from a handful of hairstyles and a small list of nearly identical facial textures. Even when compared to its portable contemporaries, the character creator feels bare-bones, to be kind. However, new races and classes have been added, so it’s not to say that there is no variety, as long as you don’t mind your dwarf looking exactly like your friend’s dwarf.
Don’t expect to be blown away by the visuals in Battle Stance; Valhalla Knights 2 has not aged gracefully, and as a result, its offspring looks like a renegade N64 game. The stretched out, brown-and-grey textures are an eyesore at parts, but the world feels cohesive, regardless. The characters all have mitten-cube meatball fists and feature a small variety of canned animation, but the wide variety of items that can be equipped are detailed enough to obscure your character and let you ignore the fact that he is essentially made out of left over pieces from a K’Nex rollercoaster set.
Valhalla Knights 2: Battle Stance is fun despite itself. The game is ugly, dated and derivative, but the core mechanics have finally been ironed out to the point where I can honestly say I enjoyed playing it. It’s no Monster Hunter, but it isn’t Eldar Saga either. If you already own Valhalla Knights 2, the upgrade might be worth it just for the new quests and the ability to play as a dog. I believe the series could have a lot of promise if they continue to refine what they have, but please, no more analysis cards.