Written by Richard Brown
As I had already got the high profile sequels during the summer, I wasn’t really planning to get a PS3 game over Xmas 2008. The January sales changed that, as I sighted this game cheap at HMV. I had read about it before, and the buzz was good, so I took a chance. Did I make the right choice? Read on to find out.
The Basic Plot
Two massive superpowers are at war across the continent of Europa, the mildly democratic Federation, and the monarchist Empire. In the small, neutral nation of Gallia, Welkin Gunther, the son of a famous General, returns to his hometown just in time for it to be attacked by Imperial forces. Joining with the local watch captain Alicia Melchiott, Welkin aids in the evacuation, something helped hugely by his adopted sister Isara, who has fuelled and armed their father’s tank. The trio are conscripted into the Militia, Squad 7, and resolve to drive the Imperial forces from their country. However, the power of the Valkyria, the mythical people from which Europa’s royalty claim descent, is about to be revealed.
Tanks in Watercolours
Valkyria Chronicles is an interesting mix between turn based and real time elements. You’re allowed to issue a varying number of commands per turn, and selecting a unit allows you to move it a set distance and attack once in real time. The clever bit is that opposing soldiers will automatically fire if you move one of your own into their line of sight, and will continue to do so for as long as you are in real time mode. This means you have to be both cautious and decisive, as running around in front of the enemy has fatal consequences, but if you position your soldiers right, they’ll catch the Imperial forces in a killzone without needing direct instruction from you. The trick to doing this is judging the terrain, and how your various forces actually work. Scouts are both fast and nimble, and have a talent for exploiting opportunities, but tend to bite off more than they can chew. Stormtroopers move slower, but are tougher and have machineguns, making them better at close range. Snipers do exactly what you would expect, but move very slowly, have limited ammunition, and can only fire on their own turn. Engineers can keep pace with Scouts, but are best used to perform repairs, hand out ammo and clear mines. Tanks are slow moving, but are largely immune to infantry, acting as a shield for your own troops and a really big gun. Lancers are the only form of infantry that tanks worry about, and are in some respects better at killing tanks than actual tanks, but have similar weaknesses to snipers. Unit selection is more involved than some strategy games, and there’s a good variety in the missions, meaning that you can’t rely on the same tactics every time. Some ploys are curiously absent, such as running people over, and there is the odd way the game will handle soldiers being knocked off buildings or into rivers. Nevertheless, there’s real depth here, as the battles are won not through Infinity + 1 Swords or the Tank Rush, but with brains.
Aside from its accomplished combat system, Valkyria Chronicles does two things that really endeared it to me. The first is that it more or less eliminates level grinding, while still keeping a solid difficulty level. Given that the missions are strategy driven, you don’t usually need to aggressively replay missions to improve your troops, but when you do, the process is greatly streamlined, as characters are improved as a group, rather than individuals. Experience is spent like cash on the different character classes, meaning that you can swap soldiers without having to train up the newbies, and you can dictate which classes’ level up first. This is important as it allows you to take advantage of the second thing the game does that I liked; the way it characterises each soldier; every member of squad 7 has their own character model, voice, and personality. The Militia takes universal conscription very seriously, and as a result you can choose from the young, the old, male, female, sadists, humanitarians, idealists, cynics, veterans, rookies, straights, homosexuals, waifs and muscle men. In game play terms, this is represented by the “potential” system, personality traits that can be triggered on the battlefield, varying between good, bad and humorous. A soldier may announce that he has a spare lance round, for example, which is handy when a tank is bearing down on you. Less useful is when a character develops pacifism or an allergy. Having a character proclaim love for a squad mate, is however both useful and fricking hilarious. Managing the troops, so their skills complement each other, is another interesting layer of strategy in the game, and because they level up as a group, you aren’t penalised for experimenting.
The fact that the game spends so much effort characterising what are in other games mere cannon fodder, is just one aspect of an almost flawlessly presented game. Sitting somewhere between World War 2, Full Metal Alchemist, and a watercolour painting, Valkyria Chronicles is possibly the most unique looking game on the PS3 format. The cell shaded anime style meshes with a European setting, the detail fading out in the corners of the screen so it gives the impression of an incomplete painting. The game’s menu system is modelled after a novel, and the battlemap looks hand drawn. Then there is the wealth of background in text form. All this adds to the experience, buts the game is still something of a marmite. The menus, talking head cutscenes, slow pace, and very linear gameplay is of a style that hasn’t really changed in decades. Valkyria Chronicles is a very good and innovative Strategic Role Playing Game (SRPG), but is some ways it feels basic, in comparison to the current crop of sandbox games for example. That is admittedly an apples and oranges comparison, but given the wonderful setting created for the game, I really wanted to explore it. Also, I found the story to be more competent than compelling, which is not ideal given the number of gameplay hours you spend watching cutscenes. All that having been said, Sega has truly gone the extra mile with this game, and I’ve found it hard to find flaw.
If was I working for Nippon Ichi when this came out, I’d be worried about my job. Simply the best and most original SRPG I’ve seen in a long time, Valkyria Chronicles matches novel gameplay with novel presentation, although the game just misses being classic. If you fancy something a little different, or a little involved, check it out, it really was a pleasant surprise.