Bitrate: Exploring both ends of the “mature gaming” spectrum

I confess that I’m a sucker for any JRPG with an affinity for middle English (if you’re reading this, Square, a new Vagrant Story would be swell—I don’t care what system it’s on) but it isn’t often you see the word “tragedy” associated with role-playing games.

Valkryie Profile: Covenant of the Plume
“Destiny by sinner sought, tragedy by power wrought.” So goes the tagline for Square-Enix’s Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume, one of the most unexpected surprises I’ve seen come out of Japan’s all-too-often moldy, overly cliché market in some time.

I confess that I’m a sucker for any JRPG with an affinity for middle English (if you’re reading this, Square, a new Vagrant Story would be swell—I don’t care what system it’s on) but it isn’t often you see the word “tragedy” associated with role-playing games.

Granted, the Valkyrie Profile series has always been worthy of praise for its Norse conceit alone. In times leading up to Ragnorok, Lenneth, a valkyrie, rounds up souls of dead warriors from the battlefield, sending them to Odin’s army in preparation for the war of the gods.

?Covenant assumes a different perspective from past VPs. Instead of assuming command of Lenneth, you play Wylfred, a young mercenary whose father was taken by the Lenneth. Evidently people in the mortal world view the valkyrie as a kind of angel of death, cursing her name for taking their sons and husbands and generally leaving tragedy in her wake.

After losing his father, Wyl takes up arms, swearing vengeance against Lenneth. After himself falling in battle, Wyl makes a pact with a Norse devil, Hel, promising to “sin” in her name, in exchange for being granted another chance to live and claim his vengeance.

Here’s where things get interesting. In order to sin you can either “overkill” enemies in the game’s strat-RPG isometric battles (essentially beating a dead corpse) or invoke the destiny plume, which Hel requires to be “stained black with sin, ” on a trusted friend and ally.

Invoking the plume on someone grants them near-unlimited power for the duration of the battle, and gives Wyl new abilities. However, the plume claims the life of those whose power it awakens. Covenant‘s tale, then, isn’t just another of redemption, but also of crushing moral choice. Wyl is racked with guilt when he first invokes the plume on his childhood friend, and things only get darker from there.

From a technical standpoint, Covenant plays like most any other strategy RPG, looking like Final Fantasy Tactics, with each enemy encounter breaking away to a small skirmish between players (a la Front Mission) rather than just attacking on the main battle screen.

In each of these battles, up to four party members are assigned a button on the DS, and each party member has a limited number of moves per skirmish, executed by tapping their mapped button.

In battle, players are given a quota of sin to meet, and will either be punished with tougher monsters or rewarded with items depending on how close they come to meeting it. Sneakily, the game also alters itself depending on how many times you invoke the plume, adding to the game’s replay value.

But I can’t stress enough why you should play this game—the story is smart, wonderfully translated and adult in the best possible way. Need proof the DS isn’t just for kids? It’s right here.

Ah, Madworld. This is the kind of game that up-in-arms parents and media watchdog groups go nuts over. I mean, Jack, the protagonist, has a retractable chainsaw on his arm, for god’s sake. Yet Madworld has somehow managed to squeak by with “only” an M-rating.

Why? Because the game doesn’t take itself seriously. Frequent comparisons are made to The Running Man, but Madworld is really all fun and games. That, and innumberable buckets of gore.

One look at Madworld‘s cartoony visual style and you can tell it’s not a game like … well, anything out there, really. At its core, it’s a brawler. As a contestant on the “Death Watch,” Jack lands on the island of Varrigan City and wiimote/nunchuck brawling commences.

Since Death Watch is a game show (complete with John Dimaggio and Greg Proops lending their voices as a pair of asinine and often-funny commentators) Jack gets points for killing whatever enemies the game throws at him, whether they’re street punks, cyborgs, ninjas, werewolves, zombies or what have you.

But given that this is a game show about murder, simply, say, slicing someone in two with a chainsaw isn’t going to cut it. First, you’ve gotta soften ’em up. Y’know, ram a signpost through their face. Cut off their arms. Dump them in a flaming barrel.

?Then you can, say, repeatedly ram them into a “rosebush” of walled spikes, or some other environmental trap (tank full of piranhas, anyone?). Your choice.

Needless to say, Madworld‘s almost fetishistic (but tongue-in-cheek) violence is integral in the game. The more exotic the kill, the more cash you get. Cash unlocks challenges within levels, like the obligatory boss battles as well as the game’s great “bloodbath challenges.”

Bloodbath challenges are mini-games that task Jack with games like “man golf,” where our hero tees off by whacking the heads of prostrate zombies, and “hanabi,” which involves stuffing ninjas into oversized fireworks cases and watching their guts explode in blazes of light.

It’s all funny stuff, particularly since the challenges are hosted by the Black Baron, a ridiculous pimp whose continual deaths are a running gag. And while Madworld is often very juvenile, the game’s story is actually much more interesting than you’d expect from a brawler.

That’s probably because the narrative was penned by Yasumi Matsuno, the once-director of Final Fantasy XII who’s been AWOL since he had a nervous breakdown during that game’s production. It’s nice to see a usually brain-dead genre get some back-story, for once.

There’s few things wrong with Madworld, actually. The camera can be tricky, the commentators repeat themselves a bit and the hip-hop soundtrack is a questionable choice. But for this much bloody, bloody goodness—on the Wii, no less—that’s a small price to pay.?