Guest Review: Valkyria Chronicles
Released in 2008 this fusion of RPG, TPS, and RTS also features a unique and colorful art style made possible by the CANVAS engine, after two years it has spanned an anime and manga series, as well as many different series of figures by different manufacturers, and of course, it´s sequel Valkyria Chronicles 2 which was recently released for the PSP but, is it really that awesome?
Set in an alternate universe where WWII has been replaced by The Second Europan War, Valkyria Chronicles follows the story of Squad 7 of the Gallian militia as they try to fight to restore peace and freedom to a country that has been invaded by a vastly superior military force. The story is presented in both animated cut scenes and “Visual Novel” style, both generated using the CANVAS engine which gives the game such a distinctive art style. The story is somewhat typical, with certain plot twists that can be spoiled relatively easily. But it does have the good point of presenting a war game in which the playable characters aren’t some sort of super soldiers or part of an elite force, instead these are just average men and women who are forced to fight in order to preserve the lives they once knew.
During the course of the game extra missions and stories called “Reports” can be purchased, this will flesh out more details about the main members of Squad 7 with a look into their past and their personal reasons for fighting. The dialogue is really good, with some low points here and there, but nothing that dulls the overall experience. The game mixes a certain supernatural element in the form of the Valkyrur, an ancient race of people who are believed to have saved Europa and are worshiped as Gods by some. However one thing this game makes clear is that things aren’t black and white, and there’s always a shade of grey here and there. One example of this is the story behind Maximilian heir to the throne of the Empire and leader of the invasion of Gallia, at first glance he seems like a ruthless and cruel individual who seeks power at all costs, but it is later revealed that he wishes to control Europa as revenge for multiple assassination attempts by his own relatives in the imperial court, due to his mother not sharing the same bloodline as the rest of the imperial family, in one of such attempts her mother was killed in a fire, which led Maximilian to become the man he is now.
There’s also the history behind the Valkyrur, common knowledge says they were the liberators of Europa, but the truth is far from that and due to the Valkyrurs position of power they were able to hide it for a very long time.
The rest of the story is a roller coaster of emotions, some missions will present you with themes of racism and violence, then you’ll have themes of friendship, family and the bonds between soldiers, one of the reports shows Squad 7 during their vacation, having fun and leaving behind their worries, and suddenly you’re faced with death again, there’s also a mission which concepts and setting are reminiscent of Nazi concentration camps which may be too much for some people. While some elements are indeed cliché, the way they are presented and the pacing makes them feel fresh. Be careful though, that this is not a game you want to play if you want to feel happy, the overall tone is somber and some parts are downright depressing, it does have a happy ending, but the way there is paved with some really, really sad moments.
The gameplay is a nice mix of different genres using a special system known as the BLiTZ (Battle of Live Tactical Zone) system, that handles fights in turn based combat and divides each turn in “Phases” ( one enemy and one player turn form one) during player phase the main view is called Command Mode which is an overhead view of the battlefield represented as a map with markings denoting enemy units which have been spotted and allied unit positions, from this view, the player can choose the unit he wishes to move, which will consume 1 Command Point, Command Points are used for moving units and giving Orders to units, which will increase certain attributes, for example, one order may cause units to cause much more damage to tanks, others will serve as support, for example an order that allows a downed unit to be evacuated. Of course, this means that abusing certain orders makes clearing every mission an easy task which somewhat breaks the balance of the game. Once a unit is selected, the view is changed to Action Mode, which changes the perspective to that of a TPS, here you move the unit you selected, paying close attention to its Action Points, a bar at the bottom of the screen which shows how far will your unit be able to move, when a unit is out of AP it can no longer move, though you can select the same unit multiple times, each time it will begin with less AP than before. Attacking is done by pressing R1 and then using the right stick to move the aim or the D-Pad to aim more carefully, one can also switch between targets faster by pressing R1 or L1. If or not a target will get hit is determined by a reticule, different weapons have different reticules which vary in size depending on the accuracy of the weapon, potentials (which are special abilities units have) and type of unit.
Units are divided in classes depending on their combat roles, you have the Scouts, which are highly mobile, have good sight, and are capable of spotting targets over far distances, though they are weak against automatic weapons. Next are the Shock Troopers, which use automatic weapons, can take more damage than scouts and are good against the majority of enemies. Following them are Lancers which are your anti-tank units, though at the beginning of the game their aim is so bad, they can miss a shot point blank with no apparent reason. Engineers which can resupply units, repair tanks and remove mines, and lastly the Snipers, who are the weakest units in the game, but are quite useful in certain missions.
The game also gives you control of tanks, the main one being the Edelweiss, which you can also upgrade, later on you’ll get access to the Shamrock, a lighter tank with more mobility.
As for upgrading and levelling up, the game uses a rank system that grades your performance in missions based on speed (the less turns the better), enemy leaders defeated (special units that give the enemy more CPs) Aces killed (Aces are elite units that basically require you to strike them from behind, otherwise they will dodge your shots), and tanks eliminated. Based on your rank you will get a set amount of experience and funds, experience is used to level up units, which level up as a class, so if you get your Scout class to level 10 every scout will be at level 10. While funds are used to develop new weapons, suits, and tank parts.
Levelling up your units grants them access to new weapons, and increases their health and AP, damage a unit can deal is determined by the weapon they have, not by their level.
The system works well, though there are many loopholes that can be exploited, breaking the balance of the game, this applies specially to Scouts, who are able to finish most missions by themselves with the help of a few orders.
While it may seem complicated, the tutorial (which also serves as prologue to the story) does a really good job of explaining the basic concepts of combat and movement, while further missions will give tips and explanations of more advanced tactics. It’s not hard to just pick up and play, so everyone can win battles easily, but mastering every little concept, as well as the class system and effective use of orders will take a while, the control scheme should be familiar to everyone who has played a TPS on consoles before. Combat is fluid, easy to play, hard to master.
On the music side, the soundtrack is really good, with orchestral pieces that help accentuate the cutscenes and that vary from a relaxed piece for events with lighthearted humor to fast paced pieces for scenes with drama or combat, there’s also a singed piece that is interpreted by one of the characters during a specially emotive scene, it fits really well and the melody will stick with you long after you’ve finished the game.
Graphically, the game is beautiful, the use of the CANVAS engine gives it a unique look, handled in what could be called “Hand-drawn” art style, this doesn’t reduce the attention to details though, and everything, from the different environments, to the smallest detail in a gun is presented with astounding quality and is something that surely many people will appreciate. Though of course it has its limitations (the game was released in 2008 after all) and people looking for the most realistic game will want to look somewhere else. Still, the art style makes it one of those games you can pick up years later and it will still look beautiful.
On the presentation side of things, the menus are easy to navigate, and aren’t intrusive, the interface for command mode looks good, and isn’t intrusive, while the HUD during action mode is really similar to that of most TPS today, though there is an option to remove the mini-map during action mode some people will still find the HUD a bit cluttered with too much stuff. As with everything else, the menus are presented using the CANVAS engine.
There’s a New Game + option once you have finished the game, which allows you to restart the campaign keeping the levels of your units, finishing the game also unlocks a new difficulty for the extra missions known as skirmishes, this adds a high level of replayability if you want to go for all upgrades and all levels, there’s also a Medal system that rewards you with specific medals after completing certain conditions, unfortunately there is no trophy compatibility which is a missed opportunity.
Sega has also released some pieces of DLC which should add a couple of hours more into the already long experience, it took me 43 hours to complete my first run of the game, even though I mostly rushed through some missions. Trying to go for A rank in all missions also adds a lot of time to that and it’s something most people will want to try since A rank gives the most points and experience and also serves to unlock some medals.
Valkyria Chronicles is an awesome RPG packed with content, due to its art style it still holds up graphically, it’s fun to play, has some really lovable characters, and the extras add a lot of replayability, that said, certain exploits in the combat system ruin the balance giving an unfair advantage for the player. I say, if you have the chance, look for it, and buy it, definitively worth it.
Genre: Turn based strategy RPG
Time: Completed story mode in 43 hours counting extra missions and skirmishes.
Gripes: Certain orders break the balance of the game, Scouts are overpowered.
Get it for the: Amazing art style, cool combat system, interesting and gripping story.