Ah yes, the good old shoot 'em up. Who could forget classics such as Galaga, Gradius, or Raiden. The challenge of trying to pilot your ship through barrages of enemy fire, collecting power ups to down ships faster, and always trying to achieve that high score. While the shoot 'em up, or shmup as some fans would call them, isn't as popular as they were back in the heyday of arcades back in the 80's to 90's , theres still a devout community of fans who can't get enough of the genre. More interesting still, theres some game companies that still produce them from time to time. These companies do realize that their fan base is relatively small, but that fan base appreciates it when such shmups like Ikaruga hits the scene. NC Soft may seem foolish to try and market a micropayment/free2play MMO based shmup since MMO's usually rely on a somewhat large player base to keep them running, but Valkyrie Sky (Valkied Saga) is sure to appeal to that fan base and, hopefully, draw in some more to keep it alive.
If you already haven't guess, Valkyrie Sky plays largely like any other shmup you may have played, but adds RPG elements such as levels, stats, and gear to the mix. The ability to play with four players at once, various trade skills, and an auction house, rounds out the “mmo-ish” features to the game. Trying to make an MMO out of a rather simple game genre and concept may seem silly, but it works. Even if you're not into partying with other people, Valkyrie Sky is a solid single player experience as well and with four classes with 3 sub-classes each available, it does have a replay value to it since each class has its own little challenges during solo play. The swordsman, for instance, does great damage but can only attack enemies a very short distance away. The upside is that the swordsman can also deflect enemy bullets with her sword swings making her a viable choice for solo play, and a godsend when partying. Wait..yes. I did say skills. What is an MMO without skills? Each class and sub-class in the game is presented with four skills to choose from. If you get bored of them, or are looking for a little more variety, you can choose to cross class to another sub-class to mix and match your selection. This is a good feature; like in most MMO's, not all skills are what some consider 'good' or 'useful'. Don't fret over losing your old classes' skills, though, you're allowed to take any four skills you've learned during your play time with you into battle, so picking the ones you like best to suit your particular play style is not only possible through the basic “pick your class”, but through which individual skills you decide to use during stages as well.
The game has a very simple, and intuitive layout, as well. You won't find yourself running from one end of a continent to the other to get quests, or find that item you need to finish a quest, or to load up on items at town. Instead, you fly. Navigating the world can be accomplished by either manually moving your character, or simply clicking the destination while autopilot takes over. There isn't a lot of detail in this world, but it's the action thats important, since you won't be spending much time actually out in the world anyways. Once at your destination, you can either wait to be picked up by a party, form one of your own, or take the challenge solo. An interesting little quirk they added to the game is the stamina system: each stage attempt requires that you spend so much of it. The game switches from day and night cycles, and tackling stages at night consumes twice as much. The only way to recover stamina is to eat food, wait around at night, or to listen to music played by other players. This Valkyrie's sky attempt at player interaction and some sort of economy, I suppose, but I think the system could be dropped without a problem. Food can only be made by catching fish, and music can only be played by people willing to spend money on a flute and consumable music sheets. I did crack a smile when I saw that you could charge money to allow people to listen in on your performance, wondering if there would be some sort of price gouging during the night cycles when the game goes live.
Then theres gear. Ah, gear. What's an MMO without gear or loot? During stages, enemies can drop various items such as crafting components or weapons and armor themselves. Gear adds points to your stats, and are usually somewhat of a rare drop. You can craft your own arms and armor, if you wish, but I found that the choices of what you could make were rather static and not very appealing compared to what you could buy at the store or find during normal game play. Don't think that the crafting components or salvage dropped during stages are entirely useless, however, they can still be used to upgrade your current equipment. The downside, however, is you might spend a considerable amount of time saving up money and components to upgrade your weapon or armor, only to find an item drop that surpasses your current upgraded item and could've used your resources to upgrade that instead. Another good feature they added was that you can break down any equip able item you find into components used for crafting so, in essence, everything you find can be used for something. It's often a better choice to break down items since the market didn't seem to give you very much cash for selling it. There's an auction house, as well, but it wasn't used very much during the beta.
As with gear, what would an MMO be without grinding? Every stage and quest you complete rewards you with experience points to get you ever so closer to that next level. Gaining a level earns you five stat points with which you are free to distribute to various stats. Each class in the game has a main stat which will increase the damage of their main shot, or attack, along with other secondary effects such as increasing your critical hit chance, how many items you can carry, and your maximum stamina. You're also rewarded with skill points, which will increase your skill's damage, along with allowing you to store more uses of that skill. Mastery points for skills can be gained simply by using them during game play, and these will decrease the cool down of your skills. To encourage cross classing, there is a skill board system where linking two skills will unlock a passive skill. Certain passives can only be obtained by linking skills from other sub-classes with each other. With only three sub-classes per main class, there's not very many passives to get, but during the beta I did notice a number of sub-classes that were locked and may be available when the game goes live.
RPG elements, gear, and all that is good, but what about the actual game play? Each area in the game is divided into five stages. At stage three you encounter a mini-boss of sorts, then the big area boss at stage five. New areas become unlocked as you progress in levels. The game play was surprisingly tight and lag free. The only lag problems you might notice is other players running into bullets, which should kill them, but they look like they just pass through them. On your end, however, running into a bullet will kill you, resulting in losing a life. You get three lives during a stage which are restocked at the end. Some traditional shmup fans may be put off by some of the classes, as the Archer is the only class in the game to most resemble your traditional ship with lasers. The mage automatically locks onto enemies and shoots them down with lightning bolts. The summoner is similar, as it's pet will hunt down enemy creatures and harass them until destroyed. The swordsman, as explained, can only hit enemies at very close range and is prone to dying a lot in unskilled or unfamiliar hands. Enemies killed not only drop loot and items, they also drop Valkyrie Points, or VP. This will charge a gage and, when full, gives you the option to go into “Valkyrie Mode”, which will temporarily increase your damage and shot speed, or unleash an ultimate attack. The ultimate attack somewhat resembles the typical 'bomb' attack in most shmups; it makes you invincible during it's duration, but won't “eat” enemy bullets. This makes the ultimate attack a double edged sword, while you're safe from enemy attacks your friends are not. This is made worse as some classes' ultimate attack, such as the mage, makes it somewhat hard to see enemy bullets. As one might think, having four players flying around may make it hard to discern who's who on the field (especially if theres more than one of the same type of class), but they tried to remedy this by having any player you get close to turn invisible. This does help a little, and after playing for a little while, you learn to pick out who you are. Controlling your character is possible via the mouse or keyboard. I began by playing with the mouse, which worked fine, but switched to keyboard controls during later areas when things got a little more hectic. You can switch to “focus fire” mode, which will slow your movement speed allowing you more precise movement to slip between enemy bullet barrages, but I thought that a visible hit box during free fire mode would've been a good idea considering that not all classes look or are shaped the same.
Overall, Valkyrie Sky is a fresh take on the MMO genre. It's easy to pick up and somewhat hard to master game play will appeal to fans and newcomers alike to the shmup genre and the combination of gaining levels, finding loot, and the option of playing with up to three friends will keep you coming back for more. The Closed Beta ended just a few weeks ago, and there's no official word when it will hit live.
More information about the game can be found at:
Trailer/gameplay can be watched at: