Review by Actionrat
Fresh Graphics and Gameplay- Valkyria Chronicles innovates on two fronts
You are Welkin Gunther, a young militia lieutenant forced into service by a continent-wide war in the fictional land of Gallia, located on the continent of Europa. The setting can best be described as a mash-up of WW1 and WW2 themes... the waning aristocracy and power struggles of the first war along with the weapons of mass destruction and persecution of a historically derided people of the second. The world of Gallia/Europa and the themes incorporated into the story are perhaps the strongest point of Sega's PS3 exclusive gem, at least if your as interested in history and dueling moralities as I am. If you aren't, there's still plenty that Valkyria has to offer- unique strategic gameplay that combines traditional turn based strategy with real time third/first person action and shooting elements, a strong cast of characters, outstanding visuals, and a score that will ring familiar to fans of console strategy and RPG games.
Valkyria Chronicles really stands out in terms of gameplay. The integration of 3rd person action and first person/over the shoulder shooting into what would otherwise be a fairly typical strategy game results in a very engrossing experience. While many games in the console strategy genre have incorporated terrain conditions, line of sight, and interactive elements to maps, Valkyria Chronicles paves some ground by doing it in real-time. To briefly sum up the battles: you have a standard deploying phase at the beginning of the battle, then you and the enemy exchange rounds, where you can expend command points to move and act with your units. When you act with a unit, you step into their shoes, in real-time. Anytime you are moving, you are subject to enemy interception fire. This means you need some skill and quick thinking at times to quickly navigate into a position to fire or take cover- no dawdling on the battlefield. When it's time to fire, things freeze, allowing you to choose your target and aim your shot. After you fire, you may continue to move, so you need to be prepared! Quickly finding cover, taking aim, or ending your turn can make the difference between life and a medical evacuation. This effectively combines the fun of both traditional command-only strategy game and 3rd person action.
There are only a few unit types in Valkyria Chronicles: scouts, troopers, snipers, lancers, engineers, and tanks. Enemies make use of special fixed artillery/bunkers as well, along with a couple of unique characters that don't really fit into a mold. As you earn experience, you can distribute it to general classes at your discretion. Raising the level of a class will unlock new Perks, special abilities that can proc during combat. If a class reaches level 11, they become elites, earning stat boosts and unlocking new or upgraded weapons. One critique of the unit types in Valkyria is that the balance gets skewed towards the end of the game. Early on, your scouts are solid defenders, runners (useful for capturing bases), and general purpose soldiers. Shocktroopers are most efficient at dealing with enemy infantry. Lancers were very valuable at taking out enemy tanks and fortifications. That all starts to change as your units progress- Shocktroopers get machine guns powerful enough to blow up a tank's engine in one or two turns and earn access to flamethrowers which wreak havoc on bunkers and infantry behind sandbags. And that's not even considering Orders, special abilities of Tank Commanders like Welkin and enemy Generals, which further increase tank-destroying power. Those Orders even allow Scouts to effectively take out a tank, and Scouts maintain their superior movement advantage and excellent defensive radius. Basically, due to a lack of counter-attacking, interception fire, and low movement along with their forte being co-opted by Scouts and Shocktroopers, Lancers fall to the wayside for general use, aside from some battle/map specific uses, such as taking out large mega-tanks or canons. While Scouts and Shocktroopers become a bit overpowered in some ways and Lancers fall off, the remaining units (Sniper, Engineer, and Tanks) all feel pretty steady in effectiveness and maintaining their roles throughout the game.
Aside from a great combat system with interesting missions and fairly solid unit classes, Valkyria Chronicles provides even more. You can choose from a large pool of soldiers to make your squad, engage in extra skirmish battles, and upgrade your outfit's weapons, even customizing your tanks' equipment to suit your needs in each battle. Special weapons can be earned from defeating enemy Ace units and from the Gallian Royalty for exceptional performance in battle. And by spending some extra cash, you can pursue fun side-missions which usually result in special abilities for the main characters.
Although I found the combat and strategy in Valkyria Chronicles to be really quite good, I think the story and presentation manage to steal the show. On the surface, VC's narrative is ridden with cliches- a small country facing domination at the hands of an Empire, a reluctant hero leading a band of ragtags against great odds, and, of course, a happy (enough) ending where the little country that could survives. What is particularly interesting, though, is how these surface cliches are handled. The basic premise of independent Gallia getting caught up in the greater struggle between the Europa Federation and the Empire immediately brings to mind what-ifs regarding Switzerland during the World Wars. You also have obvious Holocaust symbolism with the treatment of the Darcsens (a race of dark-haired people, including Welkin's adopted sister Isara) by the Empire, and racism among Gallian troops- some fairly heartbreaking (and heavy, for an anime-stylized videogame) scenes really address the issue and push some solid character development. The authorship of history even plays a role in the Darcsen problem- again, very relevant to real-world events and perspectives. How the Gallian Army treats the Militia brings up class conflict, calling to mind the decaying aristocracy of WWI. The predominant theme in the story ends up being the pursuit of power, questioning if great destructive power is really effective or necessary for peace- obviously questioning real-world nuclear development and military supremacy.
Complementing the bevy of real-world themes in the story are the characters. Again, on the surface, do-gooder Welkin Gunther, son of a great general from the first war, is a cliche- as is his sweetheart good-girl Sergeant Alicia Melchiott. As are many of the other characters... but they almost all have enough quirks, enough fleshing out, and enough development in the story to really create some strong connections to them. Perhaps the weakest character is the Empire's Maximillian... he's just a very flat character, and the attempt at adding some depth to his personal narrative at the end doesn't compare to what the other characters went through, and feels too forced. It's pretty bad and does hurt the overall quality of the story- I would've preferred for him to remain cardboard and a simple representation of ambition, but the other enemy characters do make up for it a bit.
Graphics, sound, and music nicely round out Valkyria Chronicles' package. Sega really achieved something beautiful and unique with their "Canvas" graphic engine/style. It combines solid cell-shading, which other PS3 titles such as the visually excellent Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Storm have mastered, with textures that evoke illustration and watercolor. The result is stunning in it's own right and refreshing in respect to the rest of the crop- it strays away from the hyperrealism attempts that dominates so much of gaming. In a lot of ways, Valkyria Chronicles does for videogames what the new Appleseed films have done for CGI movies/anime. Sound-wise, the game features solid effects and rather good voice acting. I never felt annoyed by any of the characters and nothing stuck out as plain bad, and in particular I feel like Welkin's VA really helped sell the character. The musical score was done by Hitoshi Sakimoto, veteran composer of strategy-RPG classic Final Fantasy Tactics... he's really got a knack for marches and his work has a historic feel- both qualities make for a perfect fit in Valkyria Chronicles.
One major concern with Valkyria Chronicles is replayability. The game does offer a nice New Game+ mode, in which you keep your stats and unlock new hard mode skirmishes, but frankly I feel little incentive to run through basically the same battles again (except this time, it would be easier...). Skirmishes are fun the first couple times, but you quickly lose incentive for doing them and just want some more story to push you along into some new battles with new challenges. To that end, Sega also offers downloadable content, which does contain some fun missions, but at a somewhat steep price for what you get. If price doesn't concern you, definitely go for the DLC; you should enjoy it. I suppose some props are due for Sega taking the high road and not selling Alicia and Rosie bathing suit outfits for 10 dollars and offering real gameplay, and as of this writing Sega has announced further DLC to be released for Valkyria Chronicles.
In closing, Valkyria Chronicles does an overwhelming majority of things right. Varied and engaging gameplay, great story and characters, pretty visuals and music, solid sound and voice work- it's all there. Aside from a couple of weak areas in unit classes and being a bit weak on the replay side, Valkyria Chronicles stands out as a great game and a refreshing change of pace. It's pleasing that it has become somewhat of a sleeper hit, and on that note, I endorse a purchase of this game: it's worth owning in it's own right, and it's worth telling Sega you want more innovative new IPs made by quality teams.
Rating: 4.0 - Great
Product Release: Valkyria Chronicles (US, 11/04/08)
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