gameplay 90 / story 70 / graphics 90 / sound 90
Valkyria Chronicles is a unique game which is hard to nail down to a specific genre. To paint it in broad strokes, I would say Valkyria Chronicles is a turn based strategy game with real-time movement, backed up by an RPG progression system. If that sounds a little… different, you’d be right, but don’t let that prevent you from enjoying what is an extremely rewarding experience.
Valkyria Chronicles is a rare breed indeed, especially in the console market which has a reputation of shunning unique games in favour of tried and tested genres. Perhaps this is why it sold poorly upon its PS3 release in 2008, despite it getting unanimous praise by gaming publications. In the years after, two sequels were silently released on PSP only, with the third game never getting an English translation, which unfortunately served to limit its audience further. However, with the 2014 PC release of Valkyria Chronicles, and the 2016 PS4 remaster, players now have more chance than ever to enjoy this excellent game. This review is based upon the original 2008 PS3 release.
In 1935 CE, the Second Europan War breaks out between the East Europan Imperial Alliance and the Atlantic Federation, brought about by conflict over a resource called Ragnite which has spurred a technological revolution. Wedged between the great powers lies the neutral state of Gallia, which is invaded by the Imperials for its Ragnite reserves at the beginning of the game. The main character is Welkin Gunther, a bright optimistic guy with dreams of being a teacher, who commands Squad 7 in defence of his homeland against the Imperial threat.
The visuals in Valkyria Chronicles are immediately striking, with lines having a hand sketched appearance, painted with colour that stops short near the edge of the frame. Onomatopoeia helps set a comic book style, as we see the “RATTA-RATTA-RATTA” of gun fire, the “CLICK” of a mine when you make a wrong move followed by the inevitable “BOOM”, and the “SHUFFLE-SHUFFLE” of enemy footsteps just outside of view. This visual style is not just an afterthought, but ties in with the overall appearance of the game, which is structured inside the pages of a book chronicling the war Gallia faces. From here you’ll access story scenes and battles as they’re unlocked, and your headquarters where you’ll outfit your squad. You’ll be spending the majority of your time immersed in battles, and this is where the game really shines. Battles in Valkyria Chronicles are an engrossing tactical affair, employing a unique mix of turn based strategy with real time movement.
At first, you’ll be presented with an overhead view of the area, which looks like a hand drawn map with markers on top, with blue markers representing your units, and red markers representing your enemies. This view makes you feel like a general, looking at your small squad of up to ten soldiers like pieces on a chess board, only without the artificial grid that defines most turn based strategy games. During each turn you are given a set amount of command points, represented by stars on the top of the screen, which can be used to move your soldiers around the battlefield.
Upon choosing a unit, the screen is painted with colour as you swoop down to a third person view of the soldier, whom you control in real time. During this time, you can move the unit into a new position and perform a single attack, but you must be careful of wandering into the field of fire of enemy units, most of whom will attack anything that enters their range. To get within striking distance, you may have to rush to some nearby cover under the hail of gunfire, or better yet, flank your enemies by circling around to their blind side and then taking them out from behind.
Don’t get caught up over-extending an offensive push though, as it is just as important to focus on defensive positioning before using up all of your command points and ending your turn. When it is your opponent’s turn you will be unable to act directly, and must rely upon the positioning of your units who will fire upon enemies entering their immediate field of view. Leaving all your soldiers facing in one direction is a bad idea, and could allow your enemy to sneak up on your blind side attacking with impunity, or even capturing your base camp which means game over. It is best to leave your soldiers covering each other’s backs, and guarding critical chokepoints of the map. This will help to protect you from enemy advancement and attack, and can even result in your enemies being taken out if they run into the defensive cross fire you have set up.
You have a choice of 5 different types units. Scouts can move the greatest distance, and are equipped with semi-automatic rifles and grenades. Shocktroopers can’t move as far, but carry heavier fire power in the form of machine guns. Lancers carry anti-tank weaponry and are invaluable in most missions, but are near useless by themselves due to their inability to fire defensively. Snipers have limited movement and the least amount of health, but their range and power allows for one shot kills of most enemy soldiers. Engineers can remove mines, resupply ammo to soldiers, and also repair fortifications and your tank. Oh, did I mention the tank?
As Lt. Welkin Gunther, you command Squad 7 from the confines of a tank, which is armed with anti-tank rounds, anti-personnel mortar shells, a mounted machine gun, and later on some really valuable smoke grenades. Welkin can also use command points to give special orders in battle, such as ordering his squad to concentrate, raising their accuracy, or ordering a mortar strike on a certain area. Despite tanks being basically immune to small arms fire, allowing them to be used as cover for your advancing troops, the exposed generator on the rear presents a vulnerable weak spot. This is great if you manage to flank an enemy tank with a shocktrooper on a Demolition Boost order and blow them up from behind, but if Welkin’s tank is taken out, it’s game over man.
Victory in each of the missions rests on completing specific objectives. More often than not this involves capturing enemy bases, but occasionally you must take out a high-level unit in a boss fight against one of the story’s villains. Winning battles progresses the story, unlocking the next mission and earning cash and experience points necessary for improving your squad.
Cash can be used upgrade your weapons, equipment and tanks, and even purchase some bonus story scenes and missions (visit the reporter Ellet at Castlefront St for these). Experience points can be used to raise the level of your soldiers, improving their stats and earning them new abilities, and to unlock special orders of great benefit to you (be sure to visit the old man in the War Cemetery and learn these when available). To do all this, you will have to access headquarters, and it is recommended you do this after each mission to refine your squad.
Headquarters is where all of your squad customization takes place. You can choose which members will be in your squad from a long list of 50 characters. Each has their own unique stats for things like health, attack, defense, and evasion, but more importantly each has unique abilities called potentials which can be activated under certain battlefield conditions.
Potentials can be good, like Camp Defender, which raises a unit’s evasion when protecting their camp, or First Aid Boost, which can increase a unit’s healing powers. However, some potentials can be bad, like Indecisive, which reduces a unit’s accuracy when they are surrounded by enemies, and Bad Back, which reduces defence when the unit is crouched behind cover. Some potentials are dependent on the location of the battle, which can take place in deserts, forests, fields, and urban locations, and this can affect your decision to take members on certain missions. If a soldier is standing on a paved road, City Kid will raise their defences, whereas Child Of Nature will lower them. Some soldiers even have a Pollen Allergy, which can lower their HP when surrounded by nature.
On top of all of this, each member of your squad has other members whom they like or dislike, which adds another layer of strategy that can further complicate matters. Having the potential of Good Buddy while being near a close friend can boost a unit’s attack power, but if they have the potential to be a Chatty Cathy, they could have reduced accuracy from talking so much, so it would be best to keep them apart. Trying to find the right synergy between the potentials of your squad mates and balancing that with the environment and the enemies they are up against is a rewarding exercise.
If all this sounds like a lot to take in, that’s because it is, but don’t let this put you off. Most of these systems can be safely ignored as you progress through the game and get to grips with the basics of positioning and attack. I didn’t even pick up the usefulness of Welkin’s special orders until several missions in. The great thing about Valkyria Chronicles is that it is like chess: anyone can play it and have fun, but taking the time to properly understand all the systems in play will reward you with deeper layers of strategy you can employ and a greater appreciation of the game as a whole.
One strength of the game is how these gameplay systems not only affect the flow of battle, but also how you relate to the members of your squad, whose character traits are often expressed through the potentials they carry into battle. I like the shocktrooper Vyse because he’s a show off, and it’s not just his laugh and cocky voice over that tells me this. It’s because when I order him into enemy fire, his Challenge Lover potential activates and raises his attack power, and sometimes he fires off an Undodgable Shot. Karl was my trusted engineer through most of the game. Sure, he had the potential to be Lonely when allies weren’t around, and a Head-Lit Deer when being counter attacked, both of which lowered his evasion. But despite his fear, Karl did everything I ordered him to until he was shot down in the second last mission. When a unit’s HP reaches zero, they will be injured, and if you are unable to get to them in three turns, or if an enemy gets there first, the squad member dies. The fact that characters can die on the battlefield, never to return again, can create for some emotional decisions when you are at risk of losing that character you became attached to. Although I had other engineers to help me on the final mission, I actually felt like I lost a war buddy, especially when Karl’s name came up in the end credits as one of the soldiers who did not survive the war.
There are 19 Chapters in the game, with one or two missions in each chapter, and as you progress through the story you will unlock a bunch of extra battles in skirmish mode. Ellet, the reporter in Castlefront St will also sell you bonus missions, so be sure to buy these. Completing missions allows you to earn more cash and experience points to further improve your squad. There are rankings to achieve, medals to be awarded, and special weapons to earn. After you finish the lengthy campaign, you can take your characters through the story missions again with a new game plus option, which resurrects any fallen members while letting you keep the levels and potentials of your squad.
One frustrating aspect of this game is the trial and error nature in approaching new missions. Often, you are forced to set up your squad in positions on the map with very little detail on the threat you face and the environment around you. It is common to realize in a turn or two that you have come ill-prepared to tackle the mission, like realizing your snipers are useless in the cramped location, or that you didn’t bring enough lancers for the tanks you find yourself facing. I found myself doing dry runs of missions, getting a feel for what I was up against, and then quitting the mission back to the deployment phase so I could set up my squad appropriately. A little more detail in the mission briefings would have helped to alleviate this.
As too would a proper explanation of the circumstances for unlocking certain elements. A little bit of advice: after every mission go straight to the War Cemetery and if the old man offers to teach you an order, say “YES”. Do not say no, and make sure you always have enough experience points to learn this order, as he may not offer it to you next time, or for quite a few missions after that. I learnt this the hard way, playing through half of the game without the ability to order a unit to Retreat because I spent my experience points levelling up before visiting him. Furthermore, Ellet the newspaper reporter at Castlefront St will sell you extra stories, but will not tell you that some of these stories are bonus missions. After feeling as though I wasted my money on a useless non-interactive story scene, I didn’t purchase the rest of these until I’d almost finished the game. The missions themselves are only accessible by flicking back several pages in the book to find the page they are on.
The story shows a lot of promise early on, with a convincing and compelling setup, however the realism is eroded by ridiculousness with the introduction of superhuman powers unlocked through ancient lances, a strange mix that doesn’t quite gel. In this aspect, Valkyria Chronicles reveals its Japanese roots, evident in its manga styling. Even so, the presentation can also come off as stale. Most story scenes are conveyed through a talking head format, and although this is common in a lot of Japanese RPGs, it just feels cheap and inconsistent considering that there are some great looking scenes with fully fleshed out cinematics. Most of the time, the game fails to ground its characters in relation to each other and their environment, and this ruins any sense of place, hampering the immersion. Your headquarters never feels like an actual location, and is merely a list of options on the screen leading to characters who offer another list of options. However, the likability of the characters helps to carry the burden, and they are at least well voiced. The music too is quite good, with the battle themes being particularly stirring.
There is an interesting element of racism running through the story, where the dark haired people known as the Darcsens are racially vilified due to their perceived actions in the previous war. Even one of the major characters Rosie, whose parents were killed by Darcsens, is racist towards the dark haired Isara, Welkin’s adopted sister. These prejudices can even appear as potentials in your squad members, affecting how they perform together. There are also some surprises along the way, so the story is not altogether terrible. One particularly memorable scene involved enemy soldiers sparing the lives of the main characters upon realizing the humane treatment they gave to their dying comrade.
The AI is a weak point in an otherwise immaculate battle system. Like chess computers, sometimes it is obvious that the AI is just wasting a move or two, pushing a piece meaninglessly around the board. Watching an enemy soldier move out in the open and right into the defensive fire of your squad can take the excitement out of tackling a tough mission. The absence of a multiplayer mode is a missed opportunity, as this game would be well suited for both synchronous and asynchronous play, like those online chess games which can go on for weeks.
However, these nitpicks should not undermine what is truly a remarkable game. The battles are unique and fun, offering a rewarding amount of depth and strategy, and the connections you form with members of your squad will cause you to weigh decisions carefully when making your move. Overall, Valkyria Chronicles is an outstanding game and should not be missed.
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