Review by milkcan
"Fresh, fun, challenging, and ultimately a rewarding experience"
From what I understand, this game was released a long time ago in Japan and last November in the United States. On my winter vacation break from college with nothing to do (a luxury I will miss sorely), I perused the vast array of video game knowledge on the internet and happened upon a widely lauded game named Valkyria Chronicles. I became quite a fan of strategy RPGs from only playing Final Fantasy Tactics Advance but I had a knack it would be ten times cooler than the traditional checker board affair. Fortunately, almost to my disbelief, it surpassed all my expectations despite all the hype I like to build up for such things as well as a brief, positive stint with the demo.
Valkyria Chronicles is immensely fun and more importantly, gratifying to play. It has an interesting concept of being told through a storybook divided into chapters and within each chapter are little scenes you select that are either story-telling segments or awesome, intense battles.
There are roughly 25 battles strewn throughout the game and where you'll be spending the majority of the time scheming plans to capture the flag, kill some boss, or get to some point in the map with your cohort of soldiers. Each battle, at least for me without a guide, took between 30 minutes to 3-4 hours. The beauty is there are so many ways to play the game and when you can figure out how to beat it yourself, you feel like king of the world, which more than makes up for the multitude of game-overs and controllers almost being smashed into the TV. Fortunately, each map can be beaten in much less time but I for one am not exactly a video game virtuoso / brilliant war strategist.
When you start a battle, you get an objective and you jump right in and select your placement of troops. Your soldiers are separated by classes like a scout, shocktrooper, sniper, tank (awesome) etc. and each one has advantages and disadvantages so that it becomes a necessity and joy to put thought in how to use all of them in your epic fights.
Emphasis on epic. Each map is very different and usually incorporates a very unique challenge or forces you to use a new aspect of the game, like when you first learn how to use a tank, when you have to get your beloved commander to the other end of the map with stealth (and style), or you have to cross a desert terrain that likes to make you angry with the occasional desert storm. I'd say most levels have a good, steady learning curve as well as general tactics that you always have to keep in mind which you learn as you progress through the game. There is absolutely no sense of repetition.
Even if you were to replay a map, there are so many ways to play a battle because of the nature of how you move and attack with your troops. When you select a troop it zooms into the map and you suddenly control your player ala third person shooter and you freely move your character up to a point where your action gauge runs out, in the meantime able to perform one action like shooting your gun or grenading the heck out of someone or even to heal yourself. This is an incredibly unique design and the farthest departure from the strategy RPG mold but perhaps one of my favorite aspects of the gameplay because your positioning, distance from the enemy, visibility, etc. play such a huge impact in the varied environments. Also, you simply feel more immersed in the world of battle when you're actually controlling the troop instead of telling it where to go. So brilliant!
This game also puts a lot of emphasis on your team - you have a large group of soldiers to choose from but you are limited to a certain number to put in your squad that is deployable in battle. Each soldier has his or her own personality, strengths, weaknesses, and other soldiers they work well with in battle which leads to bonuses. I thought the detail they put into each soldier really made a difference in better immersion because you come to prefer certain characters and even care if they die. Note: if a character dies in battle, they are seriously dead and are unusable forever! Very cool.
I would say leveling up is at the core of all RPGs. I love how I can say so many good things about this game because they really put good thought into this aspect as well. Basically, individual characters do not level up but you can put experience points into entire classes. This way, if a specific character dies all is not lost and you can just replace that position with someone who is at the same level. A class' level affects its HP and what abilities the class learns but to upgrade your attack, defense, weapons etc. you have to spend the money you've earned in battle to upgrade your equipment. A good system and slightly more realistic (not that the game is very realistic).
Alas, however much I want to call this a perfect game, I can only call it one sliver away from perfect because of some nitpicky gripes, because I am nitpicky. The first is that the AI isn't exactly the smartest which helps with easing the difficulty of the game but sometimes you feel like you get lucky when the enemy starts running in circles and wastes turns. I stress this happens very occasionally so it is probably trivial to most. The second is that there is a certain class that seriously gets overpowered in the later stages of the game and I get so tempted to abuse it (and often I did) which may be a minus to some. Third, I found myself saving very often during battles in fear of screwing up (which I also often did) which saved me a lot of time but took away from enjoying the flow of the game - this is purely a personal problem and I don't really see an alternative besides manning up and deciding to be risky yourself.
Finally, my biggest gripe would be the way the game scores a battle. It is entirely based on how many turns it took you to achieve your objective and not how awesome or strategic your fight was. For example, they could have scored it based on if you kept your party alive, how much damage you took, how many enemies you killed, along with how many turns it took. Because the score makes a huge difference in how much XP and money you get, it may incentivize some to use questionable tactics using a certain overpowered class.
Again, small gripes. Awesome game. I didn't cover everything, and what I did not in exact detail. However, just know that the strange part of your brain that absolutely loves micro-managing will be overjoyed with the amount of little things to keep track of in a way that is not repetitive or boring. Valkyria Chronicles is such a fresh take on a traditional genre and it always keeps you on your feet with varied missions and battle environments. It is a difficult game which makes it all the more satisfying when you really get involved and learn the ins and outs of the system.
I won't say much about the story except that what seems like a light-hearted game for the first few minutes quickly takes a turn for the better to fit a theme of war with all the good stuff like sacrifice and loss as well as hope and courage. It's set in an alternative universe where war is centered around guns and tanks with no real mention of airplanes or anything else advanced past that, although a fantastical element eventually introduces itself. You won't find something overwhelmingly original but overall the story is quite enjoyable, if you like a bit of melodramatic intertwined with your blowing up bad guys.
One thing I really appreciated about the story is that the entire thing is centered around a small country trapped in between a fight between two great nations. Locale and events never really leave that small country, so it had really good focus with a sense of something larger happening in the background. This is definitely a breath of fresh air from something like the fate of the world resting in your 3-person party RPG standard.
I really liked all the characters in this game. This was probably largely a factor of the great graphics but the design of the characters, their animated movements, and background stories and character development were well done in my opinion. Main story events really only focus on five or six of your troops and a slew of non-playables but what really impressed me was the detail they put into each character that you can deploy in battle. Each has a very distinct appearance and personality, even different accents! They also thoughtfully put the backstory of each playable character in one of the index chapters of the "storybook" format of the game. I think this lead me to actually enjoy using every character and eventually pick out a team I preferred to use for reasons mostly that they were the coolest.
Alongside gameplay, I think the graphics of this game are among its strongest points. I've never seen something like it before so I can only describe it as a kind of water-color-cell-shading that looks absolutely fantastic. The characters look no different than how a typical Japanese animation character is animated but taking into the fact that it manages to make it look so natural (like facial expressions, body movement, etc.) in a 3-d game environment is something to be acknowledged. I imagine that the PS3 makes this level of graphic technology entirely possible.
The battles would definitely not be as impressive or epic were the graphics not up to par. Each locale is heavily detailed but with a great artistic shine that I can, again, only describe as water-color-esque. I think a psychological link between water color being a traditional medium and the fact that the game world heavily mirrors early twentieth century Europe makes a very natural connection in the graphic style choice.
The last time I was this impressed with graphical and artistic quality of a game was Final Fantasy XII and that is definitely the de facto standard to live up to, in my opinion.
I hardly think it is a coincidence that many of the greatest games in my mind (I am an RPG sort of guy) happen to have Hitoshi Sakimoto as its composer. I know that music has a huge effect on the story as well as your emotions during gameplay and I'm positive the game would be much less exciting were there no pump-you-up music during battles, especially during the parts where the game world doesn't move like when you are positioning your troops/deciding your next turn. And fortunately for Valkyria Chronicles, this is my new favorite soundtrack from Mr. Sakimoto. From when you first start up the game to watch the intro movie to the majestic title screen theme to any number of the pivotal cut scenes in the game, the music does not disappoint. Of course this is a subjective point so the only positive thing I can recommend is that if you enjoyed his other works, than you will like this one.
As for the sound effects, they are as good as sound effects go, like the explosion of a grenade, the firing of your machine gun, the engine of the tank rumbling, the sound of the grass blades rustling as you stealthily sneak through - I'm not an expert but it sounded like what it was supposed to sound like and I didn't notice anything missing. Kudos for that!
Many people differ on views with voice acting in terms of choosing the English or Japanese track. First of all, I think it's awesome they even included a Japanese track, as I considered it a luxury after almost playing exclusively Square-Enix games. Second, I didn't know there was a Japanese track until hours into the game so I switched to it just for a change of pace and I never happened to change it back for the rest of the game. I enjoyed the English but I'd say it definitely isn't up to the level of production as say, Final Fantasy XII. I also thought the Japanese was more natural and professional. An interesting experience was listening to the Japanese and reading how the translation took some liberties, which I imagine was to make the lip sync more acceptable as well as trying to translate the untranslatable relating to cultural differences.
Overall, fantastic music and inclusion of Japanese voice acting means VC gets a perfect score in this department!
I finished this game in 30 hours my first run through. However, I predict I had an extra 8-10 hours from restarting after failing miserably on several (many) missions. I thought the playtime was perfect as each battle was really intense and later very drawn out for me but the number of battles was not overwhelming.
I particularly like the New Game+ option where you can start the game over with all your stats from a previously beaten game as well as being able to replay any map multiple times. I imagine this encourages people to really think through a strategy and have fun the first play though and then think of cool, cheap tactics to finish each battle as fast as possible the next run. There's also a new feature in the the New Game+ mode where you can see your stats in each battle which strangely gives me the urge to get an A rank in every map. You also enable a harder mode for skirmishes (a feature I did not talk about in gameplay).
From what I understand in the Japanese version there is sweet downloadable content that have an extra hard mode for skirmishes as well as whole new mini-campaigns focusing on other characters in the game (one of them you control the bad guy which sounds very sexy). I'm not sure on the status for American gamers, but fingers are crossed across the nation, I'd like to think.
I think they put a lot of good thought into extending the gameplay and for perfectionists there can be hundreds of hours in this game for them, but the nature of RPGs having finality for me slightly dampens my score for this category.
I think every PS3 owner who enjoys RPGs should play this game. Although this game is not flawless, I gave it a 10 because I thought the entire experience from beginning to end couldn't be any better. I felt every minute was worth it, unlike some games where you find yourself lost in some stupid maze or level grinding for hours. I thought the perfect combination of fresh, challenging gameplay along with amazing graphics and great music made this practically the perfect game for me. It is difficult but with patience reaps great satisfaction. With that said as well as the potential replay value, I'd definitely buy this game. I know I did (and I don't buy very many games)! Even better, I'd download the demo which I know will whet your appetite for something really great on the PS3.
Reviewer's Rating: 5.0 - Flawless
Originally Posted: 02/03/09
Game Release: Valkyria Chronicles (US, 11/04/08)
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