Review by discoinferno84

"Venice gets a queen..."

Gallia is screwed. The tiny country lies in the middle of the continent, and its strategic position and energy resources make it a tempting target. Everyone wants a piece of it, and it's been made especially vulnerable by the start of the Second Europan War. The Atlantic Federation and the Imperial Alliance (the plot is a thinly veiled allusion to World War II, if the name of conflict wasn‘t a big enough hint) have pooled all their resources into conquering the nation. Neither side is really interested in the future of the country or the welfare of its citizens; regardless of the victor, Gallia will still be crushed and subjugated. Oh, the Federation seems nice…until they gain enough political clout to demolish the monarchy and leave the Gallians broken and starving. On the other hand, the Empire is armed with killing machines and forces innocent people into concentration camps. It's kind of hard to choose between manipulative, opportunistic bastards and sadistic overlords. Needless to say, there are no saviors here.

The only thing keeping Gallia alive is Welkin Gunther, the main character/commander of Squad 7 in the country's rag-tag militia. He doesn't look or act like a typical war hero. Before his hometown was conquered, he was university student. Despite being a brilliant tactician, Welkin has no interest in a military career, and he seems too inexperienced for some of his subordinates to take him seriously. Alicia, the trigger-happy-yet-sweet heroine, dreams of opening her own bakery. Such insights are what make Valkyria Chronicles' character-driven story so interesting. Though it takes place in the middle of a war (a woefully overused setting these days), the game tackles far more personal issues. Racism, compassion, loyalty, purpose, vulnerability, the corruption of power, strength to overcome tragedy, and yes, even romance all find their way into the game's lengthy narrative and multiple cutscenes. It's occasionally cliched, but Squad 7's story is surprisingly well-crafted.

Surviving long enough to see any of it is something else entirely. Welkin's crew has to overcome seemingly impossible odds and objectives; they're constantly outgunned, outclassed, and out-just about everything else. The only thing they've got is a small assortment of soldier classes and your tactical wits. Unlike actual warfare, however, the combat is a unique blend of turn-based and real-time gameplay. During your turn, you'll be granted a limited amount of commands you can give to your soldiers. Once you've chosen someone, you can have them charge headlong onto the 3D battlefield and into whatever position you deem fit. Their movements are based on the amount of energy in a meter displayed at the bottom of the screen; once it runs out, your unit stops dead in their tracks - regardless if they're in danger - and forces you to have them shoot, heal themselves, or end the command.

Oddly enough, the unit-on-unit gunfighting is the dullest aspect of the combat. Once you've got your weapon pointed at an enemy, you'll be able to see how many hits it'll take to slaughter it. Since the number changes depending on where you hit the body, you'll inevitably go for a headshot. You'll slowly, carefully pinpoint your victim's skull and pull the trigger. It can be really tedious, especially when you're getting blitzed by several enemies and getting your health whittled away to nothing. It's risky, too; depending on your character's accuracy stats, you might miss the target completely and leave yourself wide open. It's not fun when you let your entire mission hinge on one-shotting someone, failing miserably, and having to start all over again.

Success in Valkyria Chronicles relies more on unit placement than on firepower. You can choose the same character repeatedly and reposition them into somewhere safer or attack again, but they'll have less movement energy each time you pick them. Getting someone behind the cover of a sandbag or on a high vantage point can make a huge difference in the progression of a battle. If you get a bunch of soldiers together and aim them in the same direction, they might assist your unit in taking down oncoming foes. The trick is learning how to balance your playing style with the limitations of your forces. For example, you could be tasked with taking over a supply outpost. You could send Scouts ahead to get a better idea of the terrain…except that they could be plastered enemy sentries. Your Shocktroopers have machine guns, but that won't help if they stumble over proximity mines. What if there's a tank? You could send your bazooka-toting Lancers ahead, but they're too slow and their aim is pathetic. You could get a Sniper onto a nearby ridge to pick off the defenses, but their low health and exposed positioning make them easy targets. Understanding all of your soldiers' strengths and weaknesses might take a few failed missions, but it's well worth the effort.

Crafting your team requires more than just the unit classes, however. Aside from the small group of main characters, you can recruit several more people to fill out the squad. One of the most impressive aspects of Valkyria Chronicles is its massive and diverse cast. Every soldier, right down to the lowliest grunt, has a face, personality, voice acting, and backstory. While this might seem like just another load of additional content for you to shuffle through, it serves as the basis for the game's most unique mechanic: your characters' potential abilities. They're basically minor powers that are only activated when certain conditions are met. Take Jann, for example. He's a walking stereotype of homosexuality (and hilariously badass, thanks to a superb performance from John DiMaggio), and he gets a temporary stat boost when he's positioned near men. Especially with Largo, on whom he has a one-sided crush. Then there's Herbert, who is so apathetic that he occasionally refuses to follow orders. Characters will also get powers that augment their respective skills; by the end of the game, you'll have soldiers than can shrug off enemy fire, shoot undodgeable bullets, and provide a seemingly endless supply of ammunition. Your characters' personalities are just as important a factor as conventional tactics to your success.

Working the squad into perfection requires considerable effort. When you're not busy with the main story, you can play through unlockable skirmish challenges. Completing these alongside the regular missions nets you experience points and funds that can be used to develop the team. Unlike most RPGs, the characters don't level individually. Instead, all of the experience is pooled and designated to each soldier class as a whole. It's the only way to unlock your characters' full potentials; the higher the level of the class, the more powers and abilities they'll have. That goes for weapons, too. All of your victory money goes towards more weapon upgrades. Not just more powerful versions, either; you'll unlock guns with better range and accuracy stats, stuff that can inflict status ailments, and a slew of spare parts for your personal tank. It's a great incentive for you to keep coming back; the more time you spend playing, the better the game becomes.

It's a shame that your victories won't necessarily stem from just the growth of the squad. Valkyria Chronicles has only one major flaw: the AI. It's tough most of the time - some of the missions will leave you tempted to fling your controller out the nearest window - but it makes its share of blunders. When you aim at an enemy, it's like you turn invisible; they don't shoot, but calmly wait for you to pull the trigger. Maybe that's just the game attempting to simulate bullet time, but it seems unusual. They only resume attacking once you've left the aiming stance, which basically trains you to mash the “End Turn” command as soon as you lower your weapon. Even when the AI is on the offensive, it still screws up. A tank might rumble back and forth across a given space, wasting its turns doing absolutely nothing to attack you. If one of your units gets knocked out, they can be permanently killed if an enemy unit touches them. Despite this, your foes regularly pass up the opportunity. The sheer numbers and firepower make up for it, but it's still disappointing. Had the AI been tightened up a bit, the game would have been truly challenging.

The most annoying part is that you have to watch the animations of the enemy unit's movements. The pacing would have been sped up considerably had there been an option to skip them. It's especially awkward when your character's vantage point doesn't provide a good view of your target; you might have to endure a few seconds of staring at a wall before your foe decides to stop. It's pretty to look at, though. The entire game is presented with cel-shaded graphics, right down to the onomatopoeic hum of the tank's engines. The style borrows heavily from Japanese anime; the colors are bright, the faces are large and expressive, and the animation remains fluid in both regular gameplay and cutscenes. Everyone gets their own little victory poses and quotes (Jann's “DIE FOR ME, SWEETIE!“ is especially memorable) which add plenty to the already strong personalities. The battlefields are equally impressive; though you start off defending small towns, you'll eventually fight through desert wastelands, city streets, and several other large and fully-fleshed out levels. It might not be as gritty or realistic as Call of Duty or other warfare games, but it's got a style all its own.

That could be said for Valkyria Chronicles as a whole. It's such strange take on an overused plot, but it works it masterfully. Though the setting might seem generic, it's the story of the soldiers that will keep you hooked. It's a character-driven tale from start to finish, and its themes go far beyond what you might expect. It's the little details and personality quirks that make the difference; by learning your units' abilities, you'll be able to create an incredibly powerful squad. There are tons of potential ways to craft your team and approach the game. The tactical gameplay is superbly crafted and complex; all of the little nuances force you to think your way around a battle as opposed to simply powering through it. It's a shame that the AI isn't quite up to par; the game is still challenging, but a few tweaks would have made it perfect. Regardless, Valkyria Chronicles is one of the best and most satisfying RPGs in recent memory. War may be Hell, but it's still fun.


Reviewer's Score: 9/10 | Originally Posted: 12/23/09, Updated 01/04/10

Game Release: Valkyria Chronicles (US, 11/04/08)


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