Review by Lebowski1

Reviewed: 01/19/10

A Monumentally Important Landmark in Videogame History

The first thing to note about this game is the wealth of design and programming talent that created it. SEGA’s ‘Wow’ studio has a phenomenal record, and perusing their Wikipedia page will present you with titles such as Alex Kidd, Golden Axe, Altered Beast, Shinobi, House of the Dead, Phantasy Star, Sakura Wars, Skies of Arcadia and Streets of Rage. What this tells you is that a) these guys have been making games for a very long time indeed, b) many of these games have been outright classics in their genre, and c) at the very least they have been charismatic and competent works.

This information should add weight to the statement that Valkyria Chronicles (VC) is their best work to date. In fact, I’d go further than that and argue that with VC, Sega Wow have evolved videogames as a medium, but instead of just asserting this, allow me to explain why.

The first thing to note is that, just as was the case with Jet Set Radio’s cell-shading, a Sega developer has once again revolutionised visuals with a novel twist on how the game-world is drawn. Or perhaps I should say painted, as the CANVAS engine effectively recreates a watercolour style. At first it can seem underwhelming when compared with the more realistic games out there (the pinnacle of which perhaps being Uncharted 2) but with time VC’s visuals show their class.

A good way to develop an appreciation for these graphics is to look, really look, at the natural panorama of the early stages and really take in the subtle colouration details in things such as the sky and hills. As this kind of landscape is traditional for watercolour painting, it is easiest to see the CANVAS engine working here. Yet every single surface in the game has this effect.

Yes, it would be possible to argue that watercolour is a pretty tame and old-fashioned art style, but it is impossible to deny that watercolour *in motion* isn’t a breathtaking sight. Take for instance the movie What Dreams May Come starring Robin Williams. Although the movie as a whole is perhaps unimpressive, the scenes featuring Williams’ character exploring a world based on his wife’s paintings are spellbinding. Well, Sega have achieved the same effect here.

The game also deserves plaudits for avoiding many design cliches of the anime genre, especially as many of these have been re-introduced into the VC anime itself (and indeed the controversial PSP sequel). Namely: female characters are not exploited for ‘fan service’. This game is classy, with no short-skirted anime harlots around to drag down the tone (minor exception made for Alicia/Rosie crawling in the grass, and the completely unnecessary and rather goofy beach scene).

The sound is also superb, and in fact this may also break new ground too. The music is fully orchestral and the English voice acting is, on the whole, fantastic. The remarkable thing here is just how often characters speak during battle. They do so whenever key events occur, such as a unit being selected, moving, engaging in battle, or being knocked out or killed, but also during more subtle moments such as when their health is just lagging a little low, or they join in for a team-attack with a friendly unit. They also have phrases for when their personalised ‘potentials’ are activated, such as a unit with hay fever sneezing when running in long grass. Even if you disregarded the plot entirely, these little snippets of dialogue, as simple as they are (often no more than “I’m not done yet!” or “Are you jokers alright?”), are enough to bring real character and charm to your troops, and you’ll soon find your favourites. The combination of rousing music and the calls of your plucky troops lend the game some emotional weight.

And the story is, by videogame standards, very good. The game’s meta-structure is held together via direct analogy to a historical book with the various plot points and battles being chapters in the pages. This mostly works (although it is easy to miss the ‘reports’ you can buy. These are inserted into the book at points before your current page, and are therefore easy to miss on first playthrough). The world in which the game is set has life breathed into it by the many entries in the game’s Glossary and Personnel pages, so you never forget at any point exactly why you are going into battle. The twists of the story are interesting enough, but are bound to be a source of contention to some gamers. At the very least, it will provide many enthusiastic arguments about whether certain plotting ideas worked or not. I’m not convinced they all did, but it hits the mark often enough (the tense relationship between the supporting characters Rosie and Isara is perhaps better handled than that between the two mains, Alicia and Welkin).

The gameplay itself is revolutionary in many ways because of the remarkable battle engine. You begin with an overhead map for deployment, and this same 2D view of the battlefield is used to select your units during battle. Once you have selected your units, the appropriate number of ‘Command Points’ are removed from your stock (one for a ground unit, two for a tank) and then something beautiful happens: the camera zooms down to your selected unit and you move them in real time across the battlefield. Once you have used the unit's available Action Points (represented in a bar which diminishes with movement, not time, so you never feel rushed), the camera once again zooms up to and you return to the map. Similarly, once you've used all of your Command Points, your turn ends.

This would all be rather gimmicky except for one reason: if you move into the line-of-sight of any enemy units during your turn, they will automatically fire at you. This ‘interception fire’ mechanic is what truly gives the BLiTZ engine its name. At all times, during all phases, the battles take place in “Live Tactical Zones”, not just passive scenes for you to act in as if it were a table-top game. There are subtleties to interception fire, such as the fact that the two unit types with limited supply of ammunition (anti-tank ‘Lancers’ and classic snipers) do not have the ability, while the mobile scouts, powerful shocktroopers and weak-but-smart engineers do (although they must of course reload every now and then). Scouts have longer-ranged but weaker interception fire than the shocktroopers. Terrain can also effect it (by effecting line-of-sight).

This means that during your own phase you can plan ahead for the enemy phase. You will of course want to use your own turn effectively, and when you begin playing the game this will take up all of your concentration. Once you become comfortable with the basics, you can start setting up interception fire for the enemy’s turn. This is why the BLiTZ engine is a totally unique, and totally successful, combination of real-time and turn-based strategy. It enables you to control an entire army while simultaneously controlling every unit within it.

The artificial intelligence is also excellent in this game. At first it can seem very stupid because enemy units will seldom choose the very best course of action. To criticise this is to miss the point because if the enemy played the correct course of action, with its superiority in numbers and often in Command Points, in many cases the player would not stand a chance. This is not a versus game, and what’s more it is not an attempt to be a realistic war simulation, and figuring out the AI’s behaviour is part of the puzzle-like challenge of the maps. The depth comes from the fact that there is no set way enemy units act; everything is unique to the stage. So, for instance, some scouts will rush headlong at your forces no matter what they are facing, some will hold their ground regardless, while others will hold their ground to a point (perhaps having a certain number of allies killed will trigger their assault). Observing and learning how they individually act can help you shape your strategies.

Most missions are capture-the-flag in format. Viewed from one perspective, this is a problem. It is possible to rush the enemy base, taking out only the enemies within its boundaries, and capture the flag without having put in many tactical manoeuvres at all. It doesnt help that this is rewarded highly by the game’s grading system, which only takes into account the speed at which the objective is accomplished.

However, this is only half the story. You get points for destroying tanks and enemy leaders and although you do not get points for killing regular enemies, the temptation to tag as many of them as possible soon builds. The battles become an exercise in personal freedom of expression. Do you go for a minimal Command Point usage run, or do you go for a 100% kills run? Can you combine 100% kills and an A-grade into one run? Can you do it without taking any damage? What about not using a certain unit-type, or solely using it?

For instance, there is a feature in this game called ‘Orders’. These are power-ups that can be distributed to your troops directly. They use a certain number of CPs (depending on the order). The problem is that they can be game-breaking. For instance: why take your time developing an elegant tactical solution to a problem when you can just throw a defensive boost on a unit (making them essentially bullet proof) and solve the problem with brute-force? It doesn’t help that some (not all) of these orders can be stacked up and combined with personal ‘Potentials’ that the units possess (the ‘hay fever’ potential mentioned earlier is an example of a minor negative trait but some, such as ‘resist crossfire’, can bestow additional defensive bonuses).

The fact that orders can be game-breaking seems correct due to the evidence supplied from SEGA themselves in their excellent range of downloadable missions. In the ‘Expert’ level missions, you are denied orders. This suggests that expert players will not use them. Usually, the most effective solutions are order-free anyway. Orders are there if you are struggling and feel the need to buff your units, but they are entirely optional and this reviewer for one feels the game is stronger without them. Additionally, the Expert missions often require 100% kills, and this further supports my view that the best players will aim for that as a goal during any stage.

The joy of this game is to be found in the strategic and tactical variations that are possible, not in simply upping the stats of your units. If a particularly audacious run requires a unit to dodge an attack or two, why spend the extra CP on an ‘Evade’ order when you can simply choose to use a unit with a naturally-high dodge statistic (and perhaps use a little mid-battle saving)? Runs will often have competing demands on the player: “yes, I could save/load over and over and wait for my unit to get lucky and dodge these six attacks, but that would be incredibly time-consuming, but I don’t have the CP for an evasion order. Perhaps there is a tactical solution, such as a way to find better cover, or to set up some interception fire that protects them.” These are the kinds of questions VC will put to you.

I have no doubt that the BLiTZ engine will be further refined in future games to the point where versus play will be balanced enough to be possible (larger armies would be a start), but none of it would have been possible without Valkyria Chronicles laying the groundwork. Played in the right spirit, this is like the single-player equivalent to the game of Chess

Graphics: 10
Sound: 10
Story: 9
Gameplay: 10
Overall: 10.

Rating:   5.0 - Flawless

Product Release: Valkyria Chronicles (EU, 10/31/08)

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