Review by Crofty
An enjoyable, polished, rarity
The small fictional country of Gallia is the setting for Valkyria Chronicles; a rather small piece of land in comparison to what has already been conquered by the ruthless Imperial forces from the East. As unassuming as Gallia may appear, for some reason the Imperial army feel it necessary to use their resources and order a full scale invasion - they obviously see something useful about the nation that is not entirely clear to everyone else.
As young tank-commander and aspiring teacher Welkin Gunther you're primarily tasked with pushing Imperial forces back out of Gallia in an array of different locations. Along the way Welkin's team becomes bigger and allows for units who perform unique tasks to enter the battlefield - Shocktroopers (basic infantry), Scouts, Lancers (anti-tank), Snipers and Engineers. A handful of those who join Welkin will be heavily involved in the game's plot (such as the Scout and love-interest, Alicia), while the rest of your squad can consist of whomever you wish, and although they may not feature in the game's main canon, they each have their own back-story and quirks.
Since you can be flanking enemy tanks in a run-down city one minute, and sniping foot-soldiers in a forest the next, the different unit classes available offer the canvas of tactical and strategic gameplay. The game plays out in a turn-based manner, with the player having a set amount of unit-turns before ending the phase and allowing the enemy to do the same. When a unit is selected they will have a bar (that varies in size depending on class) which states how much movement they can make during their turn; the key is to use each turn as strategically as possible by moving into well-defended areas whilst also taking shots at the enemy. You can use the same units for more than one turn per phase, however, their movement gauge will allow for less movement upon each selection, therefore it pays to pre-meditate your every move before pressing a button.
Most Operations place you at one side of the map with the end goal requiring your team to be at the opposite end of the map possessing the enemy's base-camp. There are usually other mini-camps placed on each map, along with a few nasty surprises to add spice to each occasion (land-mines and mortar-fire being a couple of examples), so while the game can take anywhere between 30-40 hours to complete, there's never a loss of interest. In fact, the game tends to be mostly enjoyable throughout.
As for actual gameplay, once you select a unit to move on the map there is direct third-person control including taking aim, however, there's an underlying RPG system in place that dictates a certain amount of success via statistics and pure dice-rolls. So, while it can be annoying to watch your character completely miss a target from a few inches away, the experience ultimately feels more rich and enjoyable since you're relying on direct gameplay, strategic planning and unit advancement (in the form of levelling up). The game also provides plenty of obstacles to allow for varied and tactical combat, such as long grass to hide in, or sand-bags to take cover behind, though it is a bit disappointing that the only available proper cover is either sand-bags or trenches; there were definitely times where I felt places of cover could be used to better effect and in better context.
Since Valkyria Chronicles relies on its RPG roots to enrich the gameplay it's just as well that the game delivers RPG standard-features, such as equipment, gear, abilities and status effects. As mentioned above, you'll choose who joins your squad aside from main characters, and these characters each have their own likes and dislikes that can greatly help or hinder your progress. For example, someone like Martha - a Sniper unit - is a lone-wolf, and so prefers to work alone; constantly place her next to other units and she'll start to show signs of weakness and take a hit to, perhaps, her overall health or her accuracy. Alternatively, Walter - a Lancer unit - loves desert environments; placing him on a sandy map may increase his overall defence or evasion rating. It's design implementations like this that keep Valkyria Chronicles a deep, rich and rewarding experience for the most part, though, unfortunately, the linear nature of equipment building scars the overall depth to a minor extent.
From a visual stand-point Valkyria Chronicles is superb. The game uses a unique water-colour style (similar to that seen in the also superb-looking Okami) that may seem odd for an alternate-World War II setting, but actually meshes very well on the whole. The game always tends to look incredibly clean and polished, and is another example of how an artistic and unique display can better that of any technical powerhouse; give me Valkyria Chronicles over Killzone 2 anyday. SEGA have done well to ensure that the game looks as well as it does without making sacrifices, especially in a day and age where screen-tear, texture-build and pop-up are an accepted flaw in modern games.
SEGA have done a great job with the music too, with an orchestra score throughout the entire game. It goes hand-in-hand with the beautifully paced and well-acted cut-scenes that relay the events of the game to us. Certain scenes are complimented to stunning effect such as when Welkin and Alicia become closer to each other, or when they both encounter a dieing enemy soldier. The plot initially appears to be innocent and, to an extent, throwaway, but as time progresses Valkyria Chronicles manages to charm and sadden in equal measure with it's underlying messages of how war can affect people. But, unlike other war-theme games and films, Valkyria Chronicles has the grace to send such messages without patronising the player, nor ramming it down our throats.
Valkyria Chronicles is a game that offers a third-person action experience that is ultimately dictated by turn-based strategy and tactical thinking. It does these tasks rather well and allows for anyone curious of the Strategy-RPG genre the perfect opportunity to see what they've been missing; this is indeed my first Strategy-RPG, and, as such, my recommendation should be enough for the curious to go out and give the game a go. As for seasoned Strategy-RPG players - I think there's enough variation and depth in Valkyria Chronicles to make it a must-own for genre fans; it ticks in all the right boxes, and offers a plot that any gamer can truly appreciate.
Unfortunately, as polished and as enjoyable as the game is, Valkyria Chronicles does suffer in areas that could have used more work, such as laughable AI and questionable use of a cover-system, but ultimately the game can be considered one of a few exclusive titles that define the PlayStation 3 as a worthy purchase. I recommend PS3 owners give the game a look since it would be a crime to allow such a well-designed game go to waste; rare titles like this need to be supported, or else we will only ever know a world of gaming where games are developed by the lazy, and made purely for the instant satisfaction of novelty and nothing more.
So thanks SEGA, thanks for a splendid gaming experience.
Rating: 4.0 - Great
Product Release: Valkyria Chronicles (EU, 10/31/08)
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