After over 90 hours, I'm still uncomfortable with Valhalla Knights 3. "What is Valhalla Knights 3?"you ask. Valhalla Knights 3 is an RPG for the PS Vita. The basic gameplay is very much similar to an MMORPG, except without the Massively Multiplayer Online part.
You have a central base of operations in a large map sparsely filled with enemies. At your base — or in the case of Valhalla Knights 3, prison — you buy and sell equipment and loot, manage your party, and get quests to gather X number of item Y from enemy type Z for varying rewards. Altogether, it's a very standard RPG.
It's similar to an MMO in that the plot is very flimsy and comes second to the level grinding. You have a number of different character classes you can switch your characters between, each with their own set level. The combat, while there is a bit of a learning curve, is little more than rhythmically pushing the attack button to execute combos and pray you haven't misjudged the enemy's strength.
If it all sounds boring, it probably is, except the game does a superb job of rewarding the player just enough to get them to keep playing. The levelling system is highly addictive and is probably why I've been grinding away for over 90 hours.
So why am I uncomfortable? For that, here's a (very NSFW) trailer showing off one of the game's distinctive features, the Red Light District (seriously, you don't want to watch this while you're at work):
Now, for those who don't understand Japanese, allow me to clarify: Your main base of operations in the game has an upper and lower level. The upper level is the Red Light District, and the lower level is the slums. Each level has shops that allow you to buy/sell items and equipment, guilds to obtain quests, switch around your party members and individual classes, and a "clinic" where you can change your characters' gender and appearance.
The difference between the levels is mostly intuitive; the upper level has better items and more quests, but also costs more. Also, as the name "Red Light District" implies, there are some other "goodies" in store.
Each facility in the Red Light District has multiple vendors, all of whom are female. To conduct a transaction with a vendor, you must pay a cover charge, much like a Japanese hostess club. While there is no difference in the items sold or quests offered by each vendor in the Red Light District, the cover charge will vary. If you spend a certain amount of money at a vendor, you get to partake in what is called "Sexy Time" where according to the game, you can grope the vendor while the facility owner's "back is turned". Touch them in the right places, and sometimes they'll give you a unique item, as well as increase their relationship status with your character.
Repeat this enough times and they'll offer you a quest. Once you clear this quest, they will take you to the local hotel where it is heavily implied that you have sex (no graphics, but I'm pretty sure I know what moaning dialog and the screen shaking up and down before flashing pink means). After that, you can then select that vendor to join your party.
My initial reaction to this game system was immediate revulsion. I've never really found any appeal to Japanese host/hostess clubs, and the way in which female characters are objectified in the Red Light District system felt the sort of thing that Fox News would immediately be jumping on as proof as why games are destroying civilisation as we know it.
Nevertheless, use of the Red Light District is not mandatory and it is possible to clear the game without ever having to utilise those facilities at all. That, added with the fact that the combat/levelling was so addictive, is why I continued to play the game.
Playing the game, but avoiding the portions of the system I found distasteful got me thinking. While it does have a somewhat restrictive rating ("contains materials that may be unsuitable for audiences 16 or younger"), the very fact that games like Valhalla Knights 3 are released to the mainstream is something of a reflection of how deeply the host/hostess club nightlife is ingrained into Japanese culture.
Valhalla Knights 3 isn't the only game out of Japan that contains this sort of pay-to-enjoy-the-company-of-women-in-an-almost-but-explicitly-sexual-manner system. The Yakuza series has had several depictions and side quests in its exploration of the Japanese night life. The Dream Club series is almost specifically about hostess clubs. Heck, Girl's RPG: Cinderellife is a game aimed at Japanese children.
Perhaps this almost silent acceptance of host/hostess clubs as a part of Japanese culture is why when I went looking for reviews of Valhalla Knights 3 written by women, of the few I could find, not only were they generally positive, but none mentioned the Red Light District system at all.
In order to get an outside perspective, I reached across the pond and managed to talk with Harris O'Malley, AKA Dr Nerdlove — a long-standing advocate of equal gender treatment in games — to get his opinion. Upon describing the game, (and after he took his face out of his hands) he remarked, "It's another case, to me, of treating women like a reward for players." Harris continued by pointing out, "These people, sure, they eventually become your party members, but the main reason why they do that is because they're a consumable object for you: They exist solely for your pleasure rather than being actual characters in and of themselves."
Looking for a female perspective, I managed to talk with Allison Murphy, a regular contributor to Rage Select, for her opinion. "I just wish that one person would figure out that teenage boys aren't the only ones who want to look at sexy content." Allison said with a sigh. She went on to state that while the treatment of women in video games is very much a legitimate issue, even more so to her is the fact that a game would rely on what amounts to digital prostitution as a selling point. "The thing that creeps me out more than the gender bias is the sex worker thing."
One thing both Harris and Allison agreed on was that Valhalla Knights 3 did not need the Red Light District system in order to sell. The fact that the game is the 3rd in a series alone is proof of that. While it is not a triple-A franchise like your Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest, the games have sold relatively well and are supported by their fans. Neither of the game's predecessors on the PSP incorporated a system like this at all. Perhaps it was an experiment in using the touch screen as part of the game, but in my opinion, there were better ways to do it.
Currently, I've run out the game timer at a hundred hours (they're releasing an update to count up to 999 hours) and the combat and levelling systems continue to keep me hooked. I guess I'll just continue to use the slums for my transactions.
Valhalla Knights 3 is currently available in Japan and is scheduled for a western release some time this year. Whether the western version will include the Red Light District system or not has not been announced.
Note: Kotaku has reached out to the publisher marvellous AQL for comment and we will update this post when we hear back.