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The Valkyrie Rides Again 

Game On

Call it culture clash. Japanese games have a reputation for idiosyncratic weirdness. Sometimes it's on purpose. For instance, "Seaman" had you raising a talking fish with a human face and bad attitude on the Dreamcast. Other times, it just feels like a Japanese import would make more sense if you'd spent 20 years growing up in the Land of the Rising Sun.

And that's where "Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth" fits.

Play this game for an hour, and you will meet about a dozen characters, go to a sushi restaurant with a princess, meet Odin, the king of the Viking gods, argue with an artist about following your bliss, and desperately try to figure out what's going on. For almost 60 minutes, all you do is click a button to make the story advance and sift through the goofball dialogue for clues about what you should be doing and whether or not you should just take the game back to the store.

Little by little, it starts to make some sense, and you find your mind subtly shifting to what must be a more Asian way of thinking. While most Western games thrive on thrill-a-minute action and intrigue, "Valkyrie" chugs along with the lumbering narrative patience of a Kurosawa film.

True to the Japanese role-playing-game genre, exploration happens against flat, painted sets that rarely allow much interaction beyond sprinting past the pretty pictures. And battles stick to turn-based attacks that politely let every warrior and monster have a round at hurting the other guy before anyone gets to go again.

And if these game mechanics seem overly simple, it is also because they bear the legacy of the title's origin as a 6-year-old PlayStation release. Shrunk down and spruced up with new animations, the game teeters right on the edge of an ambitious release for the portable platform and crusty nostalgia.

"Valkyrie" is back because its unusually complex story line and somewhat novel approach to the genre made it a hit in the first place. Rather than simply building up an adventuring party and setting out to right some wrong, the goal in "Valkyrie" consists of waiting for people on Earth to die so you can recruit them into your stable of fighters for the upcoming end-of-the-world throw-down called Ragnarok. And with three different possible endings and a myriad of slightly different paths to those endings, the game still promises more than a one-time play-through.

With more characters than a Dickens novel and a stupefying cultural mash-up of Norse mythology with cute, girly Japanese anime and style, the ultimate asset of "Valkyrie" remains its uniqueness. Whether you've come to love the unusual and exotic flavors of Japanese role-playing games or have simply grown tired of titles obsessed with big men and guns, the "Valkyrie" finally woos you with a charm far more subtle than Wagner's metal-clad, opera-bellowing Amazons.

As delicate and complex as a tea ceremony, games like "Valkyrie" teach Western gamers to slow down and smell the cherry blossoms.

Who It's For: If the letters RPG stir your soul, then this portable version of a classic PlayStation role-playing game won't disappoint.

If You Like This, Try That: Japanese role-playing games have started to trickle onto the PSP platform. "Blade Dancer" is a recent release that attempts to bottle the sweeping narrative of the RPG in a pocket-sized platform.

Best Part: Taking a princess to a sushi bar, where she complains about all the raw food and then passes out from a glass of sake is one of the first tastes of just how delightfully weird this game can get.

Scratch Guard: So you've scored that mint-condition original version of "Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth," and now you want to play it. But before you pop your $100 collectible game into a PlayStation, think about snapping on a "d-skin." This clear-plastic cover protects CD-size games both in and outside the game machine. At about a buck apiece, this a little low-cost insurance for those increasingly expensive games. Find out more at http://www.d-skin.com.

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David Thomas

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