Heavy as a Feather
It should be noted I made three separate attempts to get into Covenant of the Plume. It wasn't the game's difficulty that deterred me. Heck, I've played countless playthroughs and new-game pluses of Demon's Souls, and I'm still getting my money's worth out of that game. No, it was, once again, tri-Ace's inability to aptly convey the mechanics of Covenant's gameplay that made me shy away. With the current transition from DS to 3DS, however, a drought has forced my hand. I gave it another go, and this time everything just clicked.
To be clear regarding my past reservations with the game, it's not that players aren't given any instruction on the basic gameplay, it's that fundamental elements of the flow of combat aren't clearly explained. I've never played another Valkyrie Profile game before, so I didn't fully appreciate the battle system here. Sure, the game informs you that filling the action gauge will allow you to perform Soul Crush attacks, but unless you fully wrap your head around the importance of coordinating attacks with your party members, the game seems like merely another SRPG with some unexceptional differences.
That couldn't be further from the truth, however. After perusing the forums, FAQs, and videos available on the Web, I, all of a sudden, got this overwhelming appreciation for where tri-Ace seemed to be coming from with this game. Tack on a story that is on par with the very best the DS has to offer, and you've got an underappreciated gem of a game that is in desperate need of an audience.
The story and gameplay are actually closely tied together in the sense of how you're affected as a player, something rare in a video game. The last time I recall experiencing such depth was when I was forced to sacrifice a human life in order to proceed in God of War. I didn't want to do it, but it was, nonetheless, a powerful gameplay device designed to make the player feel the self-loathing associated with such a callus act.
Covenant of the Plume also walks that same treacherous line – the entire way through, as a matter of fact. However, unlike some games where clear-cut-evil actions are easy to wade through because of simplistic dialogue and mindless gameplay mechanics, Covenant is filled with grey areas that are impossible to easily push aside. The dialogue is so well written, so believable, your actions end up carrying that much more weight. You'll be asked to sacrifice those close to you in order to complete your quest; sometimes you'll be glad to offer up the life of a particularly vicious swine, while other times the sacrifice will cut deep. The consequences are profound, not just in terms of gameplay, but in the very real feeling you'll experience in contemplating what these scenarios might be like in real life.
That's where Covenant's true heart lies, in my opinion. There are no clear sides to take in this game. All you can do is watch and absorb the deeply sad nature of its prose. The writing is almost Shakespearian, sans any convoluted and often incomprehensible garble. This is definitely not one for the kiddies. There's no cursing, no nudity; it's just a very mature game with seedy sentiments that likely won't be fully grasped by younger gamers.
One last word regarding the story…
Whereas some games let you play the bad guy – mindlessly pillaging and cutting down bystanders – Covenant gives you command over regular Joes who do very bad things. Don't be surprised if you find yourself indentifying with some (or all) of the characters in a most disturbing way. If you didn't care about Norse mythology before playing Covenant, you'll be intrigued by the end.
In terms of the flow of battle during missions, I've read at least one critic refer to the A.I. as being "dumb as a bag of rocks." Perhaps. Or perhaps tri-Ace merely dressed this RPG up in SRPG clothing. On the battlefield, rather than having the enemies always moving or acting during each turn, they must be aggroed. Anyone who's played Demon's Souls or other similar RPGs/MMOs understands how that works, and considering Covenant's reliance on group attacks, it's a system that makes perfect sense for this game.
The presentation also hasn't quite gotten a fair shake, in my opinion. Covenant appears to use the same engine from Revenant Wings (and later Blood of Bahamut), and it's a good-looking game on DS. Sure, it's darker and more melancholy, but I personally think it's a very attractive game. The maps are atmospheric and match up well with the storyline, and the overworld has some very impressive nuances. Not all of the voice blurbs are great, but the music and sound effects do a decent job sitting nicely alongside the rest of the presentation. If you're into the type of music found in most Tales games, you'll likely dig what's here.
Is it tri-Ace's fault Covenant of the Plume is misunderstood? Probably not…well, maybe a little. After playing Resonance of Fate, I can appreciate people's issues with the developer. Of course, after diving deeply into both games, I fully understand why they also roll with a legion of hardcore fans. tri-Ace think outside the box to offer gamers experiences that are often deeply satisfying, though you're usually required to do quite a bit of excavating on your own in order to fully understand what it is they're offering you. Their games can seem obtuse and artificially challenging, but in the case of Covenant, it's just a matter of revealing the meat within. Once you do that, you'll experience a DS RPG like no other.