Role-playing games ask a lot of players. Their focus on growing character stats and "grinding" experience are often rewarded with a level of long-term engagement that other games lack. But it's the style of an RPG—its visual, narrative, and gameplay design—that can make all the difference in whether players are willing to invest the required amount of time. Valhalla Knights 3 is so aesthetically off-putting that giving it as much time and mental energy as it wants is pretty difficult.
Valhalla Knights 3 is so aesthetically off-putting that giving it as much time and mental energy as it wants is pretty difficult.
The opening of the game makes it seem like an experience that might be worth sinking into. The real-time combat has enough depth to make all the monster-killing feel worthwhile. The plot isn’t much—there is a lost treasure and an evil emperor—but the game’s setting is fascinating: an enormous prison where the inmates have established an anarchic society. Then, after starting to dig into the party creation, stat allocation and quest systems, the player starts exploring the environment and chatting with their fellow prisoners. Soon enough everyone will run into a non-playable character wearing a black jumpsuit with a V-shaped neckline that plunges down past her belly button. She is helpful enough to give the protagonist a game tip: "If you hire a girl in the Light District shops and buy something, she'll let you touch her. Come to think of it, that's a really good service."
She's referring to Sexy Time, a mini-game that forces the player to engage in creepy "dating" events with the Light District's lineup of scantily clad personal shoppers. Pay the shopper her entry fee and she will let you take on quests, hire new party members, and buy better equipment than what is offered in the Lower District's self-service shops. After spending enough money and offering up presents, the Sexy Time game launches. It involves rubbing the woman displayed on the Vita's touch screen to fill up an affection gauge. Do it well and the view shifts from her face to her chest, from her chest to her stomach and legs.
It's possible, for a while, to try to forget about this kind of thing. Female warriors in the player's party can be equipped with battle-appropriate armour that hides their cheesecake design and long stretches of combat missions keep the player outside of the game's weirdly sexualised shopping segment. But then there's the system configuration screen and how it prioritizes standard settings such as camera speed, and mini-map positioning in a list next to a series of check boxes that allow the default appearance of women's panties to be customized. (Standard, low rise, string, heart, or boxer style, in case you're wondering.) Valhalla Knights 3's aesthetic can't be escaped forever, even if you try to ignore it.
Valhalla Knights 3’s blend of eroticized youth and commodified women is merely tacked on as a malignant kind of fan service.
Everyone is likely to have differing levels of tolerance for this sort of stuff. The point at which it became difficult for me to continue playing Valhalla Knights 3 came around a dozen hours in. A difficult boss made it necessary to gain some levels, earn some extra cash, and invest in better armour and weapons. Since the best swords, shields, and chainmail can only be purchased through the Light District area, there's no way to avoid interacting with the personal shoppers/pseudo-prostitutes who act as gatekeepers to powerful gear. The player is given a brothel-style selection of various women to choose from in the weapons store, but, this particular shop does not allow the player to select any helper who doesn't belong to either the game's Dwarf or Halfling races.
There's really no way to sidestep this: "women" of these races look an awful lot like thirteen or fourteen year old girls. And, considering Valhalla Knights 3's fondness for dressing female characters in little more than pasties and miniskirts, the weapon shop's vendors look very much like a stomach-churning kind of barely legal pornography.
Who is this for? There’s no reason that videogames can’t incorporate (or be focused entirely on) sexuality, but Valhalla Knights 3’s blend of eroticized youth and commodified women is merely tacked on as a malignant kind of fan service. There is no agency afforded to the game’s prostitute/shoppers. They exist only as one more type of RPG side mission where a bit of skin is used in place of more traditional rewards like equipment upgrades and experience points. Maybe, in another world, there is a version of Valhalla Knights 3 where this mechanic is part of a commentary regarding the Wild West capitalism of the cutthroat prison city. Maybe that fantasy variant would skewer the idea of earning sexual gratification by showering women with money and presents. Maybe it would approach sex as something more than a cynical exchange of goods and services between unequally gendered parties.
We don’t live in that other world. The game offers nothing more than problematic pornography to oversexed RPG fans, free of any meaningful efforts to contextualize its inclusion. It’s repellant in a literal sense, in that it overrides the quality of its various mechanics. Its insistence on promoting such a mercenary view of sexuality ends up coating the entire game with sleaze.