Review: Valkyrie Drive: Bhikkhuni
[Note: Due to the fanservice-heavy nature of this game, some of the images in this review may be considered NSFW.]
To this day, the use of sexual themes in video games remains a controversial topic. There are still plenty of people that have the “games are for children” mentality, and stand against the idea of adult themes being “marketed to kids.” There are others that take issue with the way the topic is actually handled, in many cases presented in an immature fashion or pandering to stereotypes.
Most realize that video games are not a kids-only market. After all, those that were children during the real birth of the medium back in the 80s (when that argument may have held more clout) are now adults themselves. These people, while still the consumers, are also now the creators of the games we play.
Sexuality is a major part of the human experience, so it’s inevitable that it will turn up in our entertainment media. Many games handle other mature themes such as death, mortality, war, PTSD, and so on, and receive critical acclaim when they do it well. Yet, when sexual themes are added to that list, that’s when complaints begin to arise.
I will agree that games can handle this in a very juvenile manner. However, the same is true in other mediums, including works that are loved by many. Movies such as American Pie, Eurotrip, and Superbad are very driven by immature sexual humor, and while they definitely aren’t amongst the greatest films of all time, they remain seen as classics by many. This is despite, or perhaps even because of, the way these themes are handled.
I make mention of this debate as the game we are looking at today is driven heavily by sexual themes. We’ve looked at some titles in the past that use sexual humor in standout ways, such as Gal*Gun and Senran Kagura Shinovi Versus. Actually, today’s game was produced by the man behind the Senran Kagura series. Unlike those titles, though, the themes in this game are presented front-and-center, and do feel like they’re intended to provide titillation to the audience.
Developed by Meteorise and published in the west by PQube, Valkyrie Drive: Bhikkhuni was released on October 11th, 2016. The game is a Vita exclusive.
Bit of a Tease
Valkyrie Drive follows the story of sisters Rinka and Ranka, who have recently arrived to the utterly unpronounceable island of Bhikkhuni. A new kind of virus, known as the V-Virus, has run rampant on the world infecting young women…letting them transform into weapons.
The infected are known as Valkyries, and numerous islands around the world have been turned into quarantine area and research posts for eliminating the virus, of which Bhikkhuni is one. This island has become well known for managing to successfully treat many patients, so Rinka and Ranka have arrived in search of treatment.
As it turns out, the course of treatment is battle. Lots and lots of battle. Our main characters, along with other women on the island, pair up to fight each other, with one member of each team wielding the other in her weapon form. There is one final sidenote – for a Valkyrie to change into a weapon, their partner must sexually arouse them.
The premise of the story is complete nonsense. Yet, despite the amount of crazy entertainment I thought this setup could create, the plot of Valkyrie Drive is one of the dullest I’ve played through recently. Heaps of dialog that goes absolutely nowhere, a cast of characters that are more annoying than likeable, and much of the story driven by repetitive battles against the same teams over and over.
The plot does manage to throw in some intriguing moments late in the game, but by then its too little too late. I don’t care about these characters or their situations, and I could really couldn’t care less about what happens to them. I’m not exaggerating when I say that fell asleep with my Vita in hand once while reading through the dialog.
One Button Wonder
As mentioned earlier, Valkyrie Drive‘s producer is the same man behind the Senran Kagura series, Kenichirou Takaki. As such, the general gameplay and aesthetic between this game and his previous series are extremely similar.
The game is divided up into just over 50 story mission, each revolving around beating up enemy hordes, fighting against another pair of Valkyries, or a combination of both. Gameplay is handled in a 3D beat-em-up style. The first time you play a mission, you are required to play as the pair of characters relevant to the mission’s story. After completing it, though, you can return to it at anytime and replay using your own choice of characters.
During missions, you only control one of your chosen character pair, known as the “Liberator” – the one who can wield their teammate’s weapon form, known as an “Extar”. As a Liberator, each girl has their own attack sytle and combo tree. For a beat-em-up game of this style, though, the combo trees are rather small and linear, leaving your attack options limited. You do have some other moves available, such as launching enemies into the air and rushing at them, but basic movesets for the characters are relatively boring.
Battle options open up when you activate your “Drive” mode, though. As you fight, you’ll fill up an energy bar in the corner of the screen. Each time it fills, it adds a notch to another bar, up to four. By pressing the L and R triggers when you have at least one notch in the second bar, you’ll go into Drive mode, where your Extar character will turn into a weapon and add her power to your Liberator. Once in this mode, your available combo tree expands greatly (depending on the level of your Extar character) and give you access to much more interesting combos.
Valkyrie Drive really likes to showcase its sexual themes, and it does so using the same method I hated back in Senran Kagura Shinovi Versus – mid-battle cutscenes. Much like that game, when you’re fighting another Liberator in Valkyrie Drive, doing enough damage to a character causes her clothes to rip off, shown off in a cutscene that takes you out of the flow of battle. Going into Drive mode does the same thing, showing your Liberator interacting with her Extar in increasingly sexual manners to activate her weapon form.
Oh, if you haven’t gleaned it from the article so far – every character in this game is female, and every female in this game happens to be lesbian. So there’s that.
Unfortunately, I found the battle system just as dull as the plot. Enemy AI is nearly braindead, and boss battles are just excruciatingly long damage-sponge fights. In many cases, you can easily clear a mission through simple button mashing. I rarely ever had to use the game’s dodging function against generic enemies, as they’re more than happy to just stand and stare at my character without attacking. Fights against other Liberators are pretty much the opposite, just laying on the dodge button since all they seem to do is rush and attack you repeatedly.
I also have to mention – this game crashed on me multiple times, booting me out to the Vita’s main menu. I can’t say I’ve ever had a Vita game crash on me in the past, and I honestly didn’t think it was possible.
All the Right Curves
All of the in-your-face sexiness may be the reason you’d play this, or the reason you light it on fire while screaming at all of the shameless sinners around you. Beyond this, though, Valkyrie Drive is an excellent looking Vita game.
The environments look great and are decently detailed. The characters, while oversexualized to the point of caricature, are nevertheless designed well and in ways that bring more characterization to them than the plot does. Animations are smooth and detailed (although I don’t think breasts are supposed to move like they do here…), and even with the wild amounts of action and effects that can be on screen at once, there was very little slowdown to be noticed.
It really does feel like this game was well optimized for the Vita. I can’t understand why so many other games on the system with less action going on can suffer from framerate drops so often. At the very least, despite the dull plot and gameplay, Valkyrie Drive shows that the Vita can still hold its own in the handheld graphics department.
Roll With the Ridiculousness
I never see it as a good sign when I have to pull up a game’s OST on YouTube to remind myself of what it even was. The soundtrack of Valkyrie Drive is mostly string orchestral, with some eastern influence in a few of the tracks. Synth is occasionally incorporated as well. Unfortunately, the music doesn’t do anything interesting – this is video game music at its most generic. Even the tracks that try to be more adrenaline-fueled still come across as uninspired.
The voice overs for the game are an interesting beast. Upon installing the game, physically or digitally, you can also download a high-quality sound pack for free from the PSN store. I didn’t notice it having much effect on the soundtrack, but the fidelity of the voices is quite high and very clear.
The voices are only available in Japanese, and although I don’t speak the language, the actresses behind the characters seem like they knew how ridiculous of a game they were performing in. The performances are very over the top, and lend a bit of charm to the drab dialog. Even the performer behind the cutesy childish character (an anime trope that I can’t stand) manages to pull off a typically annoying role excellently.
Great visuals, entertaining voice acting, and a startling amount of fanservice aren’t quite enough to save Valkyrie Drive: Bhikkhuni from terribly drab and dull gameplay and plot. The marketing for the game in the west put full emphasis on how much more erotic this game was compared to the Senran Kagura series. It seems like the team behind it put all of its effort into sculpting perfect breasts rather than making a game that’s actually fun to play.
The worst part is the game doesn’t seem to demand any kind of skill. I managed to clear a number of the bosses by just bashing the square button over and over and over. The movesets and abilities of this game’s characters are dull and lacking diversity. Senran Kagura Shinovi Versus managed to put more variety and uniqueness into its twenty characters than Valkyrie Drive does for its scant seven.
This isn’t a game that I can really recommend. Even for fans of the Senran Kagura, or Kenichirou Takaki’s works in general, Valkyrie Drive is just a massive step back in gameplay. Graphical presentation is really the only thing the title has going for it…and the only thing saving it from getting a lower score.
~ Final Score: 5/10 ~
Review copy provided by PQube on Vita. Screenshots taken by reviewer.