Valkyria Chronicles – Review

Title   Valkyria Chronicles
Developer  SEGA
Publisher  SEGA
Platform  PlayStation 3, Windows PC (reviewed)
Genre  Tactical role-playing, third-person shooter
Release Date  November 11, 2014 (PC)

During the last console generation I was one of the latecomers to Sony’s PlayStation 3 love-in, and this meant I missed out on a slew of titles, one of which was Valkyria Chronicles, the pronunciation of which has been something of a talking point in my office these last few weeks. Following the incredibly curious news that this game was due a PC release of all things, I set about preparing myself for a slightly different take on a turn-based JRPG. I say prepare myself because I’ve never really dipped my little toes in the pool that is JRPGs, having never really had an interest in the genre before now – I certainly understand the ingredients that go into one, but it was the intriguing combat element and gorgeous graphics that drew me to Valkyria Chronicles in particular.

Valkyria Chronicles is certainly an odd beast from the outside looking in, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s all a bit fluffy and child-like – a good portion of the characters are teenagers or young adults – but beneath the surface lies a game high on strategy, demanding careful thought and daring action which, given that it is basically mimicking the second world war, is certainly a good thing. You shouldn’t find yourself getting hung up on how it mirrors reality, however, as it takes just enough from fiction and non-fiction to create its own identity.

The story revolves around the actions of Welkin Gunther as he finds himself caught in the middle of a world war between two superpowers, with the fighting focused in the continent of Europa. Both superpowers are fighting for control of a precious mineral called Ragnite, which serves to power everything from homes to tanks. The evil Empire fights fiercely, putting the Atlantic Federation on the back foot, and soon the Imperials are focusing on the neutral area of Gallia, home to large deposits of Ragnite, as well as Welkin Gunther and his crew. As mentioned, the story mimics our own history to a certain degree but the variety of characters and voice work allows for the story to take on a life of its own. There are also plenty of main characters who get varied amounts of face time and, without wanting to spoil any of the story, there is more going on here than just a neutral principality getting wedged between two colliding factions.

The whole game is presented in an exquisite history textbook format, and watching each page come to life is a joy to behold as even the textbook has been lovingly created to highlight the various aspects of the story and the optional frames you can select to flesh out the back story. There are also different tabs you can flick through in order to read more about your individual characters, access skirmish missions (a way to grind for experience points and try out different strategies), and access the glossary and weapon tabs. Why developers don’t think more about their menus and presentation as much as SEGA did with Valkyria Chronicles is beyond me – it just adds another layer of immersion that few games can boast. The story itself is quite character-driven; each of the main characters fill a stereotypical slot fairly easily and won’t irritate any more than they’ll impress, and that’s fine because what you’re going to be focusing on here is the combat.

The combat represents the main chunk of the game and it’s a highly clever blend of turn-based strategy and third-person shooter. Mixing genres is difficult and risky, but if you can pull it off you may create an entire sub-genre of your own. Valkyria Chronicles manages to blend two very different genres into one during its combat phases, which makes for some very entertaining gameplay. At the start of each mission you’ll be briefed as to your objective and how the mission will pan out in theory. This could involve a pincer attack on a stronghold, or trying to capture various enemy encampments as you cross an open desert. A big strength of the game is that each mission feels different – new locations, objectives, and problems – so the campaign ends up feeling varied despite marching down some familiar roads. For example, some of the objectives you are assigned may include conditions of failure should certain people die or should more than twenty rounds be played out. On one of the early missions, I actually finished the game on the last possible turn I could take – an accumulation of an hour of hard work against a well-entrenched enemy – it was touch and go for a while and made for a thrilling encounter.

Prior to the mission starting, you get to choose troop positions in the deployment areas and this is important for two reasons. First, you’ll need an even spread of classes – of which there are five (not including your tank) – these are Scout, Shocktrooper, Lancer, Sniper, and Engineer; all of these are pretty self-explanatory, except for the Lancer which is your anti-tank unit. All classes have their strengths and weakness that go beyond your initial assumptions of what their name might mean. For example, Scouts are actually half-decent fighters rather than just being cannon fodder to send out to have a nose around, whereas Snipers are deadly against infantry but have all the stamina of a fifty-a-day smoker and therefore can’t move far. Each strength and limitation means you’ll need to balance your troops well across the map rather than just stacking your army with your favourite unit type.

The other reason why it’s important to choose your fighting folk carefully is because some of them get on well together and some of them don’t, so there are bonuses to be had by sticking Freddie with Freda and not that whore Sabrina. Fuck her, she’s short and has stupid hair. Some of it makes sense and some of it doesn’t, but paying attention to who is fighting alongside whom can yield rewards.

When the combat actually kicks off you’re treated to a bird’s-eye view of the map to move your units around, and this flips into a third-person view when it actually comes to moving them around. You have a certain number of command points to move your units with (one for infantry and two for tanks) and at the end of your turn it will hand over to your opponent to make their move. Once you have moved a unit around you can open fire which will usually give you a reticle or an aiming bar in order to place your short, and a number of factors (weapon, position, class skill etc) will determine how the accuracy and damage is calculated. If you kill an enemy then super, you’re not totally useless. If you don’t manage to, though, they’ll have the opportunity to return fire. Furthermore, any static units on either side can fire at opposing units when they move around the field during their turn – think the overwatch function from XCOM: Enemy Unknown but without freezing time or stopping the turn.

This all sounds pretty simple, but things get complicated when you consider various factors such as the following – units can only move a certain distance before having to literally stop on the spot. This can leave them open to a lot of incoming fire if they’re not positioned behind some cover. You can choose to move them again with another command point but this time their action bar will be reduced so you’ll, in essence, be getting less bang for your buck second time round. Furthermore different units have different uses which can force them into different scenarios. For example, Engineers are weak and shouldn’t really be getting into many fights – their main use is as a support role for other units. That being said, they can disarm anti-personal and anti-armour mines, so you’ll need them front and centre eventually. Snipers are great against other infantry but only get one shot per turn and therefore if it’s a miss it’s a waste. Lancers are fantastic against vehicles but piss-poor against infantry. They can also take a beating from most sources, so you’ll want to kill them first in most scenarios to protect your vehicles.

Speaking of which, tanks are an entirely different beast. Although I don’t have many complaints about the excellent combat mechanics of this game, the tank is something of a pain at times. The controls have translated well from the PlayStation 3 but the tank has proven to be unruly at times. It doesn’t like the keyboard  and mouse combo, and I have on occasion found myself wasting precious movement points when trying to get this house-on-wheels in position. The enemy must wonder if I’m trying to take up a tactical position or attempting a parallel park at times. Tanks are fun to play with though, regardless of choppy controls, and will represent the backbone of your fighting force. Keeping them healthy and on the front line is the key to victory in most cases.

Your performance in the mission will determine your final rank and score. The score is split between money and experience with both being incredibly important in the aftermath of fighting, where you’ll likely return to the headquarters. Back here, you can recruit new troops if you find some of yours dying off or if you need to rebalance your squads. This may also help align some of the qualities of your troops because, as mentioned earlier, this is pretty important. Certain troopers will get on better with other individuals, certain people will only like people of a certain race, or will fight better in the desert, in the rain, next to a tank, away from a tank, with women, with men – it all gets pretty complicated. It’s an interesting method of trying to give loads of nameless background characters some personality and depth and, for the most part, it’s a workable solution to an odd problem that does plague some games.

That being said, the effort of sitting there and working around everyone’s needs and wants did start to grate at times and I got agitated thinking that I was missing out on certain bonuses because someone was allergic to metal or didn’t like paved roads. It got all the more irritating when they started getting irked by certain classes. I’m not saying the system doesn’t work, because if you’re wanting to build a decent fighting team it’s an important part, but for a lot of people it will be something they just coast over.

The headquarters is also the area where you’ll spend your experience points and money. Experience is spent on the different classes, and upgrading each one at the training school can unlock different skills for individuals that are certainly much more useful than trying to align everyone’s innate wants and needs. Basic class statistics will also get a boost, and this isn’t tied to individual players based on combat experience, meaning you won’t find yourself at the end game with a bunch of newbies if you have a bad round and everyone ends up on the chopping block. Money is spent in the research and development area improving weapons, technology, and your tank. The more you put into it, the more you’ll get out, and it’s a fairly straightforward system with exception to the tank, which requires a little creative thought. I would have preferred some more information on the various tank parts I was installing, and more depth could have been added if an improved gun barrel came at the expense of manoeuvring for example. Overall the combat and everything that is attached to it is incredibly refreshing, and despite my minor quibbles and concerns, they never stopped me enjoying the game, aside for the occasional malfunctioning tank controls.

If this game’s score was made up of an opinion based purely on its graphics it would be scoring a perfect ten. This is an utterly gorgeous game that is dripping with style and an attention to detail that I’ve missed of late. The opening cinematic should be watched by everyone just to highlight what can be done with a graphics engine if you’re creative enough. It’s like someone turned a Bob Ross painting into a moving motion picture – it’s absolutely stunning, from the smoke, dust and fires in game to the little water-coloured paintings featured in the loading screen. All of it looks amazing and borrows a few effects from comics and graphic novels where little stylised ‘rumble rumble’ words appear as a tank rumbles past your defensive lines and into the heart of your precious, vulnerable men and women. Little touches like that let you know that the developers showed the game plenty of care and attention. The sound follows suit with a beautiful blend of calm peaceful music, and thumping dangerous war sounds. Everything from the first menu screen, to the main book screen, to the cut scenes and different parts of the battle all blend together, interchanging and interacting with each other. The most impressive feature of the musical score was blending the requirements and specific sounds of a love story into the sharp, epic tones of a war setting.

If you’re anything like me, you’ll not want to stop playing Valkyria Chronicles, even after you begin to understand the systems, the story, and the people within it because, despite some of the straightforward nature of the story and the stereotypical people, you’ll fall in love with the cel-shaded graphics that refuse to ever get old. You’ll want to continue playing until the end of the campaign and then maybe go back to the Skirmishes or to unlock better scores. There is a New Game + mode that allows for Hard mode on Skirmishes and, if you’re invested, you may want to unlock hidden attributes in various characters.

Valkyria Chronicles is a game that I’ve been wanting to play for years and I haven’t been disappointed. It’s something I’m going to play time and time again and will want more of when I’m done. It’s a shame that the sequels don’t feature on consoles or on the PC, but no series is ever dead and buried in the games industry. I’m hoping the recent re-release of Valkyria Chronicles can show SEGA that there is a reason to revisit this world and the people within it. There is plenty I haven’t told you about – the love story, the racial tension, the commander actions, and the pesky war reporter to name but a few – but I want people to go and find out these things for themselves. This is a game that should be played, regardless of your feelings on JRPGs, because, as it turns out, it really isn’t much like one at all. It’s got more in common with the Advance Wars series than JRPGs, so don’t let the look put you off – you’re missing out on a classic.

  • Decent Story
  • Refreshing and engaging combat
  • Jaw-dropping graphics and sound.
  • JRPG look may put people off (it shouldn't)
  • Might lack some replay value for some
  • RPG elements can be tiresome and overcrowded.

Should you play Valkyria Chronicles? Goodness, yes; it's a fantastic turn-based third-person (nearly) JRPG and it's plenty of fun with an amazing score and graphical style. The only game I can think to compare it to is Battalion Wars on the GameCube and that wasn't half as good as this. This game has all its elements nailed down and all systems interacting perfectly. Grab your rifle and jacket because you're going to war, but it's one of the most beautiful and rewarding wars I've been involved with in quite some time, and in the world of games I do a hell of a lot of fighting.

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