Review by neonreaper
"Despite the poor battle rank system, Valkyria Chronicles is one of the best RPGs of this generation."
Valkyria Chronicles is a strategy based RPG game, bringing new life to the SRPG genre with some action based gameplay elements. Some themes may seem familiar to fans of the genre, but Valkyria Chronicles never comes across as being derivative in the slightest - a testament to it's style and execution. If you've ever enjoyed games like Final Fantasy Tactics, Shining Force, Fire Emblem, Advance Wars, etc. you will probably be really happy with Valkyria Chronicles. It's a wonderful game with only one glaring flaw: the rank system for battles. Valkyria Chronicles really stands out with it's unique art style and exceptional gameplay.
The game starts out with a message about the game auto-saving, but it never does. While this is no real excuse for not saving, it is a poor start and has induced some people into feeling free to simply shut off the PS3 after a battle. This is honestly more of a nitpick than anything, but it should be mentioned.
The game proper is presented as some sort of graphic novel. Each opened pair of pages contains faux wording and pictures, each picture corresponding to a cutscene or battle. Players move from scene to scene until a battle is selected. It makes for a neat little way to progress through the game.
The actual battles are done in two parts. The first is the top down overview of the battle, in which you see a rough drawing of the area. Your units, as well as visible enemy units, are shown as icons displaying their class. There are a half-dozen or so unit types, each with their own skills and weaknesses. Other games might try to use units types in battle design, but typically speaking you won't be stuck in weapon triangles or trying to limit the amount of weaknesses that your units will face. You typically get an idea of what units you will need to accomplish a mission, and typically you won't be pushing units into areas where they are in danger due to their unit type. Personally I find that type of arbitrary management tiresome, so I'm glad you really don't have much of it in this game.
The player and computer enemy take turns moving troops. Selecting a unit pushes the view down into a third person view, and you move your unit in real time, and then select actions using a menu, which mostly halts the real time action while you select what you want to do. Units have counterattacks and sometimes will be able to outright dodge incoming attacks, as you might expect from the genre. There is also crossfire, as you (or the enemy) moves through the battlefield, any opposing small gun fire that can reach that unit will take shots at the unit. This adds an element of stealth/cover for both sides.
Most battles are won when the enemy base is captured. This means that no enemies can be in the area, and the flag must be occupied. You can accomplish this by wiping out the enemy flat-out, or by sneaking a scout into the base and using a grenade to remove the enemy from the vicinity (by death or impact). Some missions require you to destroy specific bosses, usually tanks. Finishing a battle will give the player experience and money. You can also save at any point that you have control, including your turn in battle. Characters that die can be revived if another character reaches them before an enemy tags the downed character, or a few turns expire.
To this point, Valkyria Chronicles allows for some creativity in battle, some ability to recover from mistakes. It also gives the player the ability to decide how to take on each battle. The problem is that the rank system rates the player based on speed, and doles out experience and money based on the rank. Why is this a problem? Well, "A" rank is really only obtained through much time and effort with a battle, or a guide. You pretty much have to find a way to slip a unit to the back of the enemy. A total and utter wipeout of enemy forces will likely get you a D rank and much less experience and money. It's a bit counter-intuitive to say the least, and rewards subversive play and exploits. One mission spawns two enemies that must be defeated, and the only way to get an A rank is to move your forces to positions behind those enemies before they spawn. I feel like it's inexcuseable to require players to have knowledge of a battle to complete it at the highest ranking, whereas good strategy and the ability to recover and react will probably reward the player less. The ranking system should include wiping out the entire enemy force in an effective manner.
Being ranked on speed makes for fun replay value, as it gives players a goal of trying to figure out how to win a map as quick as possible. It's just that I don't feel like players should be expected to know the maps ahead of time to achieve good ranks, and it takes a lot of focus away from the variety of tactics you can use. No game should offer the player variety in strategy and then punish all but one type.
For each individual battle, you can really enjoy them however you please. If you want to slowly maul through the enemy, that's fine and you'll enjoy the battle and for the most part, be able to find success. You'll be punished in terms of money and experience, but luckily the game offers skirmishes.
Skirmishes are side battles that model storyline battles and allow you to replay them as much as you want to build experience and money, or simply enjoy battling the enemy. It helps make up for the rank system, though it can add a bit of unwanted grinding for many people. The game is a blast to play and the battles are well thought out, and I've possibly spent more time on the issue than is warranted, as with some progress in the game you'll be good enough to hammer the enemy and manage B and C ranks and get enough experience to move on without skirmishing over and over.
Each unit is an individual character with a specific personality, little sayings and expressions, and some inherent bonuses and weaknesses specific to the character, called "potentials". These can play big parts in the game from time to time so they are worth paying attention to. Instead of earning individual experience, the player allocates battle experience towards each class, and all the characters in that class level up. While this takes away from the connection you might feel towards a character, you still have no desire to lose anyone in battle and the character traits everyone has makes up for the way experience is handled. It's not really a negative, but it's definitely something different.
Equipment is handled much the same way - each unit receives upgrades, though you can assign special weapons to specific units if you want.
Overall, the gameplay and presentation is amazing aside from the rank system. The game is a blast to play.
The story starts off with a large empire invading an otherwise neutral country, and a militia is formed to assist the main army in defending the country. Of course the player will be controlling a section of the militia, led by Welkin Gunther, a nature-loving son of a famous general. A few other units and characters and enemies become important as well. The story keeps these specific characters as the focus, while other aspects of the presentation also provide the feeling of importance of everyone else involved.
The dialog in this game and expressions are some of the best and more natural I've experience in a video game. The characters at times toe the line between generic anime garbage and truly remarkable video game quality. For example, one character may spout out bland, hopeful cliches, and say a lot of cute things with a big smile while closing her giant eyes, but then she also undergoes major events and has mature and realistic reactions to them. The romance portions are nice but at the same time I feel like a children's book author did most of the work. Any other interaction involves good reactions from the characters and interesting discussion. Some of it is lighthearted and well played, and some is heavy and may affect you for the rest of the day.
The story certainly moves beyond warring countries and the political issues that arise from conflict. It's a pretty good story and some events will leave you smiling, and some are shocking and leave you feeling an honest emotional reaction. I think this is attributed to how great the characters usually are. The story is certainly game's own, but outside of the characters and specifics involved, it's probably nothing new. But the strength of the characters and the clever battle situations really push the way the story is handled and overall it's top notch.
Some themes include racism, family, love, nature, the human cost of war, the struggle for power and resources, and ancient mystic power turning women into army destroying blue fire battle maidens.
Valkyria Chronicles uses what appears to be water colors with some penned line-work. The initial cinematic starts with an outline, followed with a fill of the colors and shades, and we're off, watching a tank rumble down a dirt road. The character designs are really good, and while there's certainly aspects of "lonely male game designer" with the female designs, the outfits look good and appear functional, for the most part. Characters don't lose any sense of individuality even in uniforms, which is impressive. So everyone wears a more or less standard outfit, but if you pulled the characters out of the game, they don't look bland. At the same time, the outfits aren't completely ridiculous. It's a good balance. Vehicles and environments look good without really popping out. In this regard, the graphics can be more effective than amazing, which suits this game perfectly. The styles and usage of water colors gives the game a bit less of a wacky anime feel and impress on the game player a sense of realism without crossing into the land of browns and grays other gritty and realistic attempts tend to be stuck in.
The music covers the range of emotions that the game handles, and does so quite well. There are no songs that I can think of that were truly magical pieces, but there are a few that are somewhat memorable if nothing else.
Voice acting is top grade, from covering emotional range during cutscenes, to the little character specific sayings and screams during battle. I can't imagine it being any better.
Battle noises are roughly in the same league - everything sounds as it should, and the way battle sounds and feels helps take any comic value away from the "RAT A TAT TAT" text displayed when firing a gun. There is also a bit of ambient battle noise, from gunfire to radio traffic that pulls each battle into a perfectly wrapped package.
The game itself takes a good chunk of time to complete, especially when you toss in bonus chapters, bonus text, skirmishes and the game proper. A full playthrough that doesn't rely on walkthroughs to blow past everything should take somewhere around 40 hours, with more time left on the floor from failed attempts. It's worth the $60 for a single playthrough, easily.
For those that can't get enough, skirmishes can be replayed over and over, and it's fun to find ways to complete them as quick as possible in order to get the A Rank. Even further, after beating the game, the player can play through again and even play expert level skirmishes. Most of the replay value is based on trying to find the quickest way through each battle, which isn't bad but it's a bit limited if you want to blow everything up and reap rewards. There are also extra characters and weapons you can find, as well as medals to collect in game.
No trophy support exist at this time, which isn't a big deal but would have been nice to add specific and measured goals. At the very least it would be nice if they'd give you a trophy for beating the game so it can be added to your gamer profile, or have something to use with Home. This paragraph has no bearing on my rating.
Valkyria Chronicles is one of the best games of 2008 and a definite treat for any PS3 owner. I'd say it probably beats out any current generation RPG. And you get to use flamethrowers. And tanks. And tanks with flamethrowers!
Reviewer's Score: 9/10 | Originally Posted: 01/20/09, Updated 02/19/09
Game Release: Valkyria Chronicles (US, 11/04/08)
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