Review by KWang

Reviewed: 03/29/10

Even if you're not a fan of strategy games, this is still the best game on the PlayStation 3

Fans have been disappointed by this generation of video games for a number of reasons. The latest HD next-gen installments in some of the most popular series have been less than stellar: Final Fantasy, Grand Theft Auto, Devil May Cry, Star Ocean, Resident Evil, the list goes on and on. When it seems that all hope is lost, leave it to a completely original title to restore faith in the decaying state of current video games. Valkyria Chronicles is innovative, fun, and possibly the best game to have come out within the past few years.

While the title may be new for most people, the name Sega is probably quite familiar from the Genesis days. The company has retired to making exclusively software now, but Valkyria Chronicles shows that Sega does not need to use its own system to make an amazing game. It's really hard to classify the genre of this game, most notably because it seems to blend several of the most entertaining genres seamlessly into one modest game. Above all else, Valkyria Chronicles is a turn-based strategy game played not unlike Advance Wars. Delve deeper than that, and real-time third-person shooting elements will ensure the fans of action games will not be disappointed. Even mild RPG elements find themselves here, so no matter what kind of taste you have in video games, there's probably a bit of something here for everyone.

The plot of the game involves the continent of Europa, a fantasy version of our familiar Europe set during an era reminiscent of World War II. To the east of the continent is the Empire, marked on maps in red. To the west is the Federation, shown in blue. While these two sides are fighting, a small neutral country called Gallia is caught in the middle. Although peaceful, Gallia holds vast amounts of a precious substance called Ragnite. Since this material is so valuable, the Empire sees an advantage to seizing it, and so begins attacking Gallia for it. Players watch the game unfold from the Gallian point of view, taking control of the Gallian militia as they try to defend their homeland from the invading Empire.

Your characters, while sometimes falling into typical protagonist cliches, are all very likable and experience notable character development throughout the game. I won't spoil much more than that. They are not the ever-happy group that always gets along well. The relationships between the characters are complex, yet at the same time quite believable. NPCs are also present, and they are friendly and fun to talk to outside of battle. Villains are some of the most interesting characters; they have decent motivations for their actions, varied personalities, and original character designs.

The real fun of the game comes from the battles, which take on several views. They begin with a top-down perspective of the field map, with your troops marked in blue and enemy troops marked in red on their respective locations. The fighting is turn-based in two senses. It is turn-based in that you issue commands to all your troops until your turn ends, whereupon the enemies are taken over by the CPU and use up all their commands until their turn ends. It is also turn-based in that only one unit can be controlled at a time; multiple units may not be selected. Issuing a command to one troop uses up one "Command Point" or CP, of which either side has up to twenty per turn.

While taking control of a unit, the view then switches to a third-person, behind-the-back camera with a focus on the character. From this perspective, the map is displayed in three dimensions and the player has the option of moving around freely in any direction, but movement for each character is limited. Battles in this state are now conducted in real-time, meaning the character becomes liable for getting shot while wandering about, so actions must be planned carefully. Up to one action may be performed per CP for each character, and this generally consists of firing a gun on an enemy or healing oneself or allies.

By pressing R1, the character enters into an aiming mode in which time freezes, and the player has all the time in the world to make an accurate shot. Aiming is controlled with the right analog stick, but may be fine-tuned with the directional pad. Shots will typically be aimed at the head, since these do more damage. My only complaint here is that it seems silly to give the player infinite time to make an aim when the enemy is just as ready to fire. After aiming, the player presses the X button to fire, and the enemy is sometimes given a chance to return fire. After this round, the unit is still controlled, and can be moved to a safer location to hide before the player manually ends the turn. CP may be used on the same character more than once per player phase, and the character may perform the same action over again, but mobility generally decreases with subsequent selections per turn.

If it's realism you're looking for, you won't find it here. While the game is essentially a fictional retelling of World War II with some fantasy elements, the fighting is also not the most accurate, since all the enemies on the field will focus their fire at only the character the unit has controlled. They cannot move from their locations; they just stand from their spot and try to gun the character down if he or she is in range. But arguably, this break from realism is what really makes the game fun, since there don't seem to be many other games that follow gameplay like this.

For the sake of gameplay, each character falls into one of five different classes for both the player and the enemy. There are scouts, who have the best mobility but somewhat weak firepower. Shocktroopers are most effective against killing footsoldiers, but can move relatively little in their turn. Lancers are also unable to move far, but they are almost a necessity for taking down tanks. Engineers restock troops and are also capable of traveling far. Snipers have limited mobility, but it often isn't necessary because they typically attack from a huge distance. The player has the option to assemble the squad using any proportion of these different classes, although the system is somewhat unbalanced because scouts, shocktroopers, and lancers are generally the most useful. At the beginning, shocktroopers seem to be the most powerful, but are quickly replaced by scouts who become overpowered due to their ability to stride across huge maps in just a few turns.

A battle is usually won by killing the enemy leader or by capturing the enemy base camp. The same applies in reverse; you are brought to the game over screen if the main character dies or the home base camp is captured. While the main character's death means the end of the game, the lesser characters only lie on the field if they are defeated, but they do not permanently die until their bodies have been picked up and claimed by enemy soldiers, or three turns pass. If you do not want to lose them permanently, it is essential to hurry up and try to get a medic to them (by walking to them with another character), which allows them to retreat from the battlefield and be deployed from a camp on the next round.

Another reason that saving your troops can be so expedient is that they each have their own unique personalities. There are several dozen different characters that you can control, each with their own names, appearances, voices, backgrounds, and quirks. While the enemy soldiers are generic, the ones you control are all distinguished from one another. You may grow to like one character more than the others, and it's really up to you if you want to use that character more than the others. You won't have to worry about that particular character being overleveled while the others are struggling behind, becauses characters are leveled up by their classes, not individually.

Outside of battle, the player can upgrade weapons by spending the money won after each battle. Experience is also used to level up the characters, who learn new abilities upon reaching higher levels. It is also possible to fight in skirmishes, which take place on previously visited maps. Here, there is not much story behind the battles. The players just take out the enemy because they happened to be in the area. These battles are more for the sake of grinding than for advancing the plot. The money and experience earned here can be used for purchasing new weapons or leveling up the characters if you really feel like that's necessary. But unless you're really behind, chances are that it never will be, since grinding appropriately takes a backseat to strategy in a game like this.

Everything the player can do outside of battle is presented in a storybook format. In fact, the story is really the narrator telling about what happened, and you are experiencing it for yourself first-hand. The menu for visiting the locations for leveling up and so on are all within the storybook. After winning every battle, the page turns to display the next one. This was quite a creative way to tell a story, and I appreciate how literally the idea of telling one was taken. Complementing the storybook feel are illustrations that look hand-drawn; in fact the graphics of the game all look like watercolor paintings. You will not see anything as magnificent as those from Okami, but the sights really are some of the most beautiful you will see on the PlayStation 3. My only complaint here is that some cutscenes are shown in full 3D similar to a movie, but others simply consist of character portraits talking to each other. Much work could have been done to animate these cutscenes.

The sound quality of this game is also unrivaled on the PS3. Hitoshi Sakimoto, the composer for Final Fantasy Tactics and XII, is here to work on the music for this game. I'm not entirely sure how Sega was able to hire this guy, but I'm very glad they did, because the compositions are varied but still manage to be appropriate given the times at which they play. They not only match the mood, but sometimes they create it by making an already close battle seem even more intense. Audiophiles will be not disappointed by the sound this game has to offer.

Replay value for this game is unsurpassed by most of the good games on the PS3. A new game plus option after finishing the game allows players to start over with their stats from the old file. If players want, they can also retry every battle and attempt to find new strategies for finishing them quickly enough for getting an A-rank on each of them. Although trophies are absent from this game, the game presents medals for accomplishing certain tasks, so it basically is the trophy system except without the online bragging rights. Multiplayer isn't a part of this game either, but it wouldn't work out anyway, considering that the game is fundamentally turn-based. Nevertheless, always finding new things to do with this game will cause you to log easily over 100 hours into this game.

If you want to play it just once and get it over with, a single playthrough should last you 20 to 30 hours. But you will not want to put it down once you are done with it, since there is so much to be offered on multiple playthroughs. A scarcity of original games or quality RPGs on the PS3 also make Valkyria Chronicles the most appealing option for fans ranging from those just looking for a good game to those with the pickiest tastes. There is a demo available for download on PSN, but it just allows you to play a skirmish and fails to do the real game any justice. If you are hesitant about picking up this game, I suggest you buy it new now before it becomes rare. The $20 price tag for the game on Amazon may be the best $20 you'll ever spend.

Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

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

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