The game can be rather daunting at first. There are three difficulty settings: Easy, Normal and Hard. Apart from the obvious impact on combat, it affects the game in several other ways. On Easy, you have access to fewer dungeons (some important storyline ones, like Lezard’s Tower or Brahms’ Castle, are missing), can obtain fewer characters and items and, most importantly, won’t be able to trigger Ending A. On the other hand, you get more EXP, and characters will be a set level when they join the party, but this is small potatoes compared to everything you forgo. Paradoxically, the fact that you get less loot might even make the game more difficult. Things are better on Normal: characters will still be a set level when they join, you can obtain most of them, more dungeons and loot are available, and you can see all three Endings. You still miss out on some characters, but at least it’s a better-rounded experience. Hard…really, the only thing that’s ‘hard’ about it is that there are more dungeons (barring some of the ones from Easy and Normal) and that all characters join at level 1. This can be easily remedied by the Event EXP system, and combat is made easier by extra loot. And while Lyseria is not a memorable addition to the cast, the Seraphic Gate characters are. Just one warning: there’s a difficulty spike on both Normal and Hard in Chapter 4, specifically in Lezard’s Tower.
The game has three different endings: A, B and C. C is just a glorified Game Over, which can happen at any point if you let Lenneth’s Evaluation (the stat which measures how well she meets Freya’s requests) hit 0, but it honestly takes more work to achieve than to avoid. If you simply play the game normally, you’ll wind up with Ending B and probably the nagging feeling that something is missing. Ending A, which hinges on Lenneth remembering her experiences as Platina, is the only canonical one, but, as mentioned previously, it takes some work to obtain. It requires manipulating Lenneth’s Seal Value, which you’ll find in her menu instead of the Hero Value. Certain actions, like sending Einherjar to Valhalla, will raise it, while others, such as recruiting new Einherjar or witnessing certain events, will lower it. It must hit 37 or less by Chapter 7, and you must meet several other requirements, which will trigger additional scenes. I strongly encourage you to find a guide to check the finer points of the process.
Another element to take into account is the randomisation factor. Upon beginning a new game, the system picks between three ‘patterns’. Not only does this affect Einherjar recruitment, but also the distribution of the Caves of Oblivion, a series of short optional dungeons. A new Cave of Oblivion will appear in each Chapter and will only disappear once you’ve visited it (so you can wait until the end of the game for all to appear). There are four possible layouts for a Cave, depending on its location. The other specificity of the Caves is that they contain enemies from the entire game: easy critters from Chapter 1 and harder fellas from Chapter 8, so you need to be very careful in combat. On the other hand, three out of the four layouts may contain interesting treasure.
If you trigger Ending A or B, you can face Bloodbane, a dragon that has swallowed the Levantine sword (the artefact which maintains the stability of Niflheim), as an optional boss. However, the main optional dungeon is the Seraphic Gate, which unlocks after the end of the game and contains the strongest enemies and best loot. It’s unrelated to the main plot, however, as the game itself informs you, and includes intentionally silly dialogue.
There’s only one save point at the entrance, and you get back all the Einherjar Lenneth sent up to Valhalla over the course of the game (except Lyseria, because of a bug), with the slight drawback that they’ll be the same level as when they left. Other than that, the Gate also contains restricted areas, which can only be unlocked by collecting Flame Jewels (available in certain dungeons on Hard difficulty only) and which lead, among other things, to the three special characters. Upon defeating the Gate’s final boss, you can reset the dungeon and clear it again, if you so desire. In fact, doing that ten (!!) times nets you the Angel Slayer. It’s the most powerful sword in the game, but not only is there nothing left to kill once you obtain it, it’s also wildly inaccurate. Every weapon has a stat called “Attack Trust”, which basically indicates how likely it is to deal full damage. The Angel Slayer’s Attack Trust is 1. You do the math.
Another peculiarity concerning weapons is that some have a chance of breaking. This usually occurs if the blow fails to kill the enemy and can be mighty annoying, especially with some wands. This property also applies to the ‘slayer’ weapons, like the Dragon Slayer sword or the Raven Slayer bow. Since these deal exorbitant damage against certain types of enemies (e.g. the Dragon Slayer can kill a dragon in one or two hits), they’re very valuable. So only equip them when facing the requisite enemy type (you can even do this during combat), which is the only way to prevent breakage.
The game is subdivided into nine Chapters, including Chapter 0, during which you recruit Jelanda and Arngrim. Each Chapter is further subdivided into ‘Periods’, which are indicated at the bottom left of the screen. Once a Chapter ends, the Sacred Phase kicks in. This is a ‘sum-up’ stage, where Freya informs Lenneth of the course of the war and the performance of the Einherjar she has sent to Valhalla. Some of the entries on their list of achievements trigger short scenes describing the events in question. Freya will also give Lenneth Materialise Points, or MP, and gifts from Odin if she has met his requirements (this usually includes very good loot). Other than what you find in dungeons, MP are the only source of items and equipment in the game. They act as a form of currency and allow Lenneth to literally create stuff out of thin air when at a Save Point or on the World Map. Conversely, she can also dismantle items to regain MP, and, with the right accessories (the Creation Gem and the more powerful Creation Jewel), transmute some items into others.
The last thing Freya does during a Sacred Phase is outline the Einherjar requirements for the next Chapter: their Hero Value, class and personality traits. Positive traits can be raised and negative ones lowered with CP. This is the most effective way of increasing a character’s Hero Value (although teaching them new Skills also helps), so it’s crucial for transfer candidates. Failure to meet the required Hero Value will result in the character dying during Ragnarok. Failure to meet other requirements will yield lesser-quality loot. In both cases, Lenneth’s Evaluation will also suffer. Finally, if certain pairs of characters find themselves in Valhalla together during a given Sacred Phase, they will have a short additional scene. The pairs in question are Lawfer and Kashell in Chapter 3, Jelanda and Badrach in Chapter 7, and Shiho and Suo, also in Chapter 7. Although, if you’re aiming for Ending A, you won’t be able to see the latter two.
The first order of business in any Chapter is to have Lenneth perform some Spiritual Concentrations. This costs two Periods a pop and allows her to locate new dungeons and potential Einherjar. Just keep going until nothing new appears (if there’s nothing left to uncover, the Period count won’t change). Next comes visiting towns where Einherjar have appeared to recruit them. Each visit to a town costs one Period. Finally, it’s dungeon exploration time–because you gotta train those Einherjar somehow–which also costs two Periods a pop. Once you’re done, you can use the remaining Periods to either revisit some dungeons (all enemies except bosses will respawn), explore towns or rest for one, two or three Periods, to recover the party’s DME. All in all, this is a restrictive system, but as long as you deal with the important stuff ASAP, you shouldn’t be in danger of running out of time. One thing to take into account, however, is death in combat: if an Einherjar dies, they can be brought back with a Union Plume at any point. If Lenneth dies, however, you have three turns to revive her, otherwise, the party will get booted back to the World Map. And that means wasting two more Periods to return to where you were.
Each character gains EXP individually in combat, but there’s also a feature called the Experience Orb. Upon defeating a boss, claiming the treasure it was guarding or performing certain actions, the entire party is awarded Event EXP, which are pooled in the Experience Orb. You can then distribute them between characters as you see fit, which is an extremely handy feature, particularly on Hard difficulty, because it allows you to circumvent the issue of characters joining at level 1. It’s also helpful for working on a character’s Hero Value, since that requires CP, which are gained upon level-up.
I’ve mentioned treasure, which ties into another aspect of gameplay. Usually, treasure is found in purple chests. They can be picked up, moved and even thrown, although this will usually destroy their contents. More importantly, they also tend to be trapped. Equipping the Trap Search accessory on Lenneth will make trapped chests flash red. Different types of traps can be dealt with differently: jumping or running away for explosions, crouching for gas, jumping or sliding for arrows. In every dungeon, one of the chests contains an Eye of Heaven, which allows you to consult the dungeon’s map.
Aside from purple chests, you’ll also find blue chests after defeating a dungeon’s boss. These contain special items called artifacts (sic). Upon opening such a chest, Lenneth is given a warning and asked whether she wants to keep the artifact or give it to Odin. Keeping it will lower her Evaluation by five points, but some of these items are particularly useful, which puts you in a bit of a bind. You should be able to keep them all, as long as you meet the Einherjar requirements for each Chapter, but do keep an eye on that Evaluation, otherwise you risk triggering Freya’s wrath (and Ending C).
Dungeon exploration involves customary platforming elements: Lenneth can run, jump, crouch, slide on the ground, push/pull/pick up objects, hang from ropes, climb ladders and slash things with her sword. She also has the less customary ability to fire a beam by pressing Square, which creates a crystal on any solid surface. Firing again will make the crystal larger; firing a third time will shatter it into small particles, which slowly drift down and can be briefly stepped on. Jumping on a small crystal once will make it crack; a second time will break it. Large crystals can be jumped on thrice before they break. Or Lenneth can break them with her sword. Once broken, crystal pieces can be carried or stacked. However, you can only have three crystals ‘active’ at any one time: creating a fourth makes the first crystal disappear, even if it was previously broken into pieces. Finally, firing a beam at an enemy freezes it for a short time. If the enemy in question is flying, it will drop to the ground.
To end on an ironic note, I’ll mention the Voice Collection feature, accessible via the Sound Mode option of the main menu, alongside the game’s soundtrack. Each character has a set number of voice samples they use in combat, and the Voice Collection allows you to keep track of the ones you’ve heard. Once you’ve heard all of a character’s samples, a piece of artwork unlocks. Once you’ve heard 95% of all the samples in the game, the rest fill out automatically. It’s an interesting feature in theory. The problem is that drawing this much attention to the voice acting in a game where it’s so mediocre (and I’m being generous here) is a completely misguided initiative. Oh well, at least you can chuckle at “BICYCLE DISASTERRR” whenever you like.