Review by madSomnambulist

"A Living, Breathing, Animated Novel"

It's all about the little things in this game. Never mind the fact that the general premise and presentation is unique and memorable, but it's the small things that will keep sinking in and makes Valkyria Chronicles a delightful experience for any fan of the strategy or tactical RPG genres or just plan anyone who enjoys a rewarding character experience in general.

Just going through the installation starts to tip you off of these little things. As it progresses, the background image from the title screen slowly fills in with color from just a sketch to a full mural. It's so subtle it takes particular attention to even spot it happening. Though optional, this install makes a lot of the load times in-game practically zero and I'd highly suggest it.

Starting your game you can instantly tell you're on to something special. Instead of being shoved through any content, you're shown the game interface in the extremely unique form of a novel—one apparently being written by an author in this reality. Every cutscene and battle throughout is treated as a separate entity. Separated into Chapters, it gives a sense of meaning to your progress and lends a very unconventional third-person view over the game. Time to fight for Gallia!

The combat system itself actually lends to the story experience. You're playing the role of one squad of one regiment of one division of an army of Gallia. Not some elite group, not the pride of the army in any way. Actually quite the opposite—as part of the militia the military higher-ups in the army have little faith in you and are quite happy to send you in as cannon fodder on the front lines. This flows into the normal course game, and eventually you'll end up with more special little tasks in particular places that make the story documentation by the narrator actually justifiable. Perhaps the aspect of this I find most interesting is that your squad and characters are just comprised of just normal everyday people. You don't have special powers or magic abilities of any sort. Some are volunteers, some are drafted. Some have friends, others prefer to work alone. You can be injured and killed just like anyone else out there. If one of your members is killed, they're gone forever. This cloud overhead instantly changes the game from just some kind of war-based or simple tactics game toward a hybrid RPG to all but the entirely coldhearted. In other words, you might start out as any random group of soldiers, but because the story develops so well it's only at your final battles that you realize you're in such a special place. This is a good thing.

Moving forward, every new chapter keeps offering new little things to make you smile. You gain members and form your own specialized smaller attack squad with them. You'll end up with about 50 recruits, all of which have a very particular personality (with voice-over dialogue included), special quirks and traits, and the novel will even keep a “Personnel” section for you that will keep adding new bits of information about them as the story progresses as they're used more in combat. With so much diversity, there are more than enough different ways to fill out your squad to match your mood. When you go into a mission, you'll have your squad comprised of 20 out of all of your available recruits, and any of these 20 is able to be used if you choose.

All aspects of your squad are handled in the “Headquarters” tab of the novel, allowing you to change members at any time, upgrade weapons and armor, train your units (the process to level up), meet with a war reporter and a few other things. The first time you head here a few chapters in, you'll have the task of picking your 20 active members—this is harder than it sounds. As I mentioned, each has his or her own personality and you'll end up with an instant love/hate of some of them. It becomes harder and harder to keep in all the members you enjoy the most, as almost all of them have memorable lines of some sort. You'll most certainly feel some kind of real emotional connection to some of them after your battles together, so much so that losing them in combat will have you frantically going to load from your last same to prevent this… and some self-mental abuse for ever putting them in such a tight spot.

Beyond the personalities of all your members, as they go through battles and gain levels they'll earn new “potentials” (combat abilities, basically). Here's another place where the RPG-ness of the game kicks in nicely. Even though all units of any of the 5 job classes all gain experience levels at the same time, no two members end up the same because of these potentials. These can range from expected elements in battle such as either being stronger or weaker when caught in crossfire, to such quirky things as some characters developing such a strong love or hate of one of their comrades that it will greatly change their combat skill when around that member. For example, one of your group leaders wants to be a singer. Another member of her class has the same aspirations and gets furious when around this leader. Another member looks up to her as a role model for the future career she wants and receives bonuses instead. On top of zany quirks like this, when the abilities kick in during combat they all even have their own character dialog attached.

Combat can seem rather complicated at first, but you'll get accustomed to it fairly quickly. The first half dozen missions slowly ramp up the difficulty for you and teach you basically everything you'll need to know in terms of normal battle tactics. In short, you're playing the role of the tank commander and leader of your squad, you choose units to control with CP (command points), then move the unit in real-time. This includes moving, hiding in cover, firing, etc.. Naturally, your CP pool is limited. Fortunately, your opponents also have to follow these rules so you're theoretically fighting on the same terms. On top of the movements, you can issue “Orders” from your tank over the radio, which are mostly normal combat things like a heightened evasion, calling for a medic to heal or evacuate a wounded soldier. Just like CP, enemy generals can use these too. Moreover, all job classes are shared between you and your foes, general weapon types are the same, tanks work the same way, and so forth. The normal combat flow is to choose how to use your members to capture a particular place on the map or to eliminate a particular target—though there are some very unique types of missions and a few times you'll simply drop your jaw at what you need to do. The overall difficulty of this game can be frustrating for some people, but in almost every case there are multiple ways to complete your objectives.

There is one battle element that needs a special note attached; the enemy AI can be simply horrible at times. Even worse is when it's completely manic. You can take advantage of foes by trapping them with crossfire, while others will walk head-on into certain death without firing a shot. Reinforcements seem to have preset actions, which might look very dumb, or might surprise you and cause an instant mission failure if you're not watching your back. This is the one thing that really holds this game back from being a truly revolutionary title that could appease players of a half dozen different genres.

Between missions, you'll be going through cutscenes (defined as “episodes” within chapters of the book) which push the story forward. All have full voiceovers and have your characters moving and interacting like you'd expect of any social group. The only letdown in these scenes is that conversations that take place in closed areas such as a room are all done via character face pop-up boxes. If you feel like you need to improve your characters a bit more, you're free to engage in Skirmishes, which are basically a way to duplicate battles on some of the maps you've already fought on. All things considered, the majority of your time will be spent in storyline battles, though the percentage of time is in the 70-80% range compared to 90-95%+ like in a lot of RPGs.

The graphics are stunning, if not hard to describe in other terms. It's kind of a hodgepodge of what you might think of an animated television series mixed with the drawing style of manga, penned by a sketch artist for accents and flares and colored in with crayons. I'm sure that makes very little sense, but all your need to know is that it works incredibly. My only real complaint about the graphics is how granulated and pixel-y units get when you look at them from a distance or through a sniper rifle scope. It's almost as though you zoom in at what the original view was and it's not enhances. There are tons of graphical details to make up for this though, such as small smoke trails coming from shell casings falling out of machine guns, to the simply beautiful way large explosions and smoke clouds rest, to the awesome “action word” system of thing s in battle which continuously remind you that this is a Japanese title. It's not much, but seeing the word “rummmmble” trail out from behind your moving tank in a choppy motion is adorably wacky yet adds to the feel of combat. If you're using the Dualshock3, you also get a satisfying rumble in your hands as you move the tank, too.

The sound presentation is equally great. The soundtrack is quite expansive and particularly in combat the different tracks and stanzas flow together seamlessly. The only bits of music I really started to yawn at was what's played in headquarters and in book mode. As I've said, all your members have their own unique dialogue and all cutscenes are fully voiced. Moods can change mid-battle, and the music will match and special cutscenes will pop up at important moments with extra dialogue. Weapon sounds are all great and on par with what you'd expect in a full-blown shooter.

Depending on your style and care for the story and members, a fair guess of time to complete the storyline is 40-60 hours. This goes up more if you need to repeat missions. After clearing, you're offered the proverbial “new game plus” feature, which lets you replay any mission and adds a difficulty level to skirmishes. You'll also have a wide range of “decorations” (medals) to collect, and you could easily sink over 100 hours into this game if you wanted to. Even past that, this is the sort of game where you might want to start from the beginning at level 1 all over again, just to watch the whole story play through.

However you look at it, the game gushes personality. It took awhile, but here's a truly solid RPG for the PS3. Looking over the game objectively it barely meets the criteria of any variant of RPG, but anyone who might see 10 seconds of a cutscene would instantly recognize it as such. It takes a hell of a game to combine so many different things you do in any single title, throw it in a blender, and actually come out with a result that is greater than the sum of its parts. It may favor players of the RPG brand and hardcore followers of Japanese titles, but there's hardly a gamer out there that wouldn't enjoy playing Valkyria Chronicles. Sega did an awesome job here and this is the sort of genre-mixer that's likely to lead to a lot of copycat types of games in the future.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 12/04/08

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

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