The more I think about Valkyrie no Densetsu, the more I realize how little I’m interested in the game itself. That doesn’t mean I disliked the time I spent with the game. In all honesty, I thought it was a very average game: competently built, but very bare and inoffensive with its design. I want to move past surface reactions like that, though, which is why I found myself more engaged analyzing the game than I did playing it. What about the game’s design caused me to feel so mellow about playing it? How does the game’s historical context inform its design? And what happens when the effects of the game’s design meet the context the game was designed in? While these questions don’t change what the game is, their answers reveal more purpose behind the game’s construction than simply playing it ever would.
That might have something do with how straightforward the game looks. If I were to describe Valkyrie no Densetsu based on what it most frequently asks of you, I’d say it’s a game where you lob spells at magical creatures in your quest to collect the golden seed and restore peace to the land. However, I have some reservations about using those features to characterize the game, since they imply a level of challenge the game doesn’t meet. Yes, the game presents you with challenges, but none of them are as demanding as something like Ikari Warriors, and they’re adjacent to what the game actually does. In fact, when you stop to take in your surroundings, you find Valkyrie no Densetsu to be a pretty sparse game. The environments are void of detail, and any detail they do have is usually very simple. A small handful of objects on screen to interact with, or wide open areas that you can easily navigate. You get the sense that the game is actively stifling any opportunity it has to confuse the player.
As easy as it might be to read this as the result of technical limitations, I see something else going on here. What I see the game doing is creating a minimalist atmosphere that serves to distance the player from their actions. While I can’t tease out any overt thematic reason behind that decision, the resulting mood is too prominent for me to call it an accident. For example, the sparse detail serves to take away anything that could put any undue mental burden on the player. And the slow go-at-your-own-pace speed of the game only reinforces that, sometimes to an extreme. Playing this game felt like a ritual: I consciously knew that I was playing the game, even when mentally, I felt removed from my own actions. That’s not to say my actions happened automatically; I still had to will them into existence. Nevertheless, there was a definite divorce between body and mind as I played. I hesitate to call such an experience relaxing, but it’s definitely a more carefree game than its mechanics would lead you to believe.
Indeed, the game appears completely averse to challenging the player in any meaningful way. That doesn’t mean it’s given up on actively involving you in its experience; just that its strategies for doing so eschew challenge. Novelty’s the more salient factor for Valkyrie no Densetsu. The designers introduce features like quizzes and sliding puzzles and a dance scene only when the regular gameplay has continued for too long, and they’re careful never to repeat the same thing twice. In one way, I see all this as informing Valkyrie’s toy-like nature. It wants to present itself as a game of discovery; one where you interact with it only for the sake of interacting with it, and play with it only in your leisure time (rather than centering your leisure time around it). The sliding puzzles demonstrate that well enough: they stop when they become too challenging for you.
And in another way, I see all this as speaking to the game’s limitations. Whether it wants to be a game or a toy, Valkyrie requires a certain level of engagement between itself and the player. Too much engagement, and the game risks compromising its minimalist design. Too little engagement, and it stops being a game. (I don’t mean to dredge up old arguments about what constitutes a game or the role interactivity plays in them. For our purposes, though, the interactivity that books and movies provide wouldn’t meet Valkyrie’s needs.) In light of that, the game’s fascination with novelty comes across as a compromise: the player can choose their level of involvement with the game, and the game doesn’t have to raise its own profile to do so.
At this point, some of you may feel like I’m speaking around the game rather than about it; that I’m using it as a conduit to discuss larger issues instead of treating it as a singular object. Although I can understand these concerns, the only way I could have done the game justice was by writing about it the way I did. The critic’s job is, in part, to illuminate whatever inherent value a given work has. That doesn’t mean the critic can only praise what they evaluate, but that they should do right by it and show what makes this work unique among all others. It just so happens that in this case, a roundabout approach really was the best way to achieve that. If I’d treated Valkyrie no Densetsu only for what it was, I’d limit myself to a competent but unimpressive arcade game. I want to give the game more credit than that, though, and if that means looking outside the game to accomplish my goals, then so be it.