I played all of Valkyria Chronicles (Review)

With the PC release of Valkyria Chronicles impending, it seems appropriate to share my thoughts based on my play through last year.

I have always enjoyed tactical RPGs. Even if the player experience is basically the same menu-based combat featured in most traditional JRPGs, the thrill of positioning several characters to execute the perfect attack on a single enemy satisfies in a way games like X-COM never could for me. Games like Shining Force, Ogre Battle, and Final Fantasy Tactics empower the player to find creative solutions to a problem with the skill sets they have created, and to build their own narratives about generically-named and non-essential characters, while progressing through the type of character-driven story traditionally found in a JRPG. Valkyria Chronicles is a beautiful tactical RPG that provides everything you want from that type of game, but does little to address some common problems in that genre.

With any tactical RPG, the player experience is lengthened significantly by two necessities: trial and error, and grinding. Though the main storyline may only take fifteen hours to complete, any player without advance knowledge of the strategic events in a story-based battle will likely attempt that encounter several times before success, increasing the time required to finish the game substantially. Precious few battles in my time with Valkyria Chronicles could be won on the first attempt, as new objectives appear or reinforcements arrive to further challenge my already-spent party. Once victory is achieved, the party returns to that same battlefield to engage in a non-story-critical version of that skirmish, as the next battle event will have a significantly higher difficulty than the last. Much of my time with Valkyria Chronicles was spent playing skirmish versions of battles my party had already won in search of experience, money, and items. That's what playing a tactical RPG is like, and Valkyria Chronicles absolutely delivers on the promise of its genre.

The art style of Valkyria Chronicles is hand animation in 2-D and 3-D with a pastel color palette that is beautiful to behold, set to an orchestra soundtrack ranging from operatic bombast to nostalgic lilting. This peaceful aesthetic creates a strange dissonance with the nature of the story, which is essentially a fantasy retelling of World War II, where half of the world is actively seeking to destroy the other half.

The story of Valkyria Chronicles is told in retrospect as excerpts from a history book, following the story of amateur biologist and military tank owner Welkin Gunther, who commands the mostly-improvised Squad 7 to repel and ultimately defeat the invading Imperial Alliance. Cities, homes and lives are destroyed in the defending nation of Gallia, and the game's presentation of this heavy material is jarringly cheerful. Just as few films are able to depict the terror of battle without making it appear exciting, Valkyria Chronicles fails to depict a horrific war without making it appear fun. This doesn't change that the game looks and plays fantastically, just that the aesthetic of the game seems at odds with the gravity of its narrative material.

In between story-advancing battles, the player will generally need to replay previous skirmishes to level up their party, in order to emerge victorious from the next story battle. Most of the player's time in battle will be spent on encounters that have already been defeated, which is part of the nature of tactical RPGs. While my experience with the game may not be reflective of the average player's time, I found the final battle initially impossible to defeat, even after multiple grind battles before and after every story mission. The enemy's health regenerated at a higher rate than my soldiers were able to damage in a single turn. With some extra skirmish sessions, I was able to unlock a single command for my troops that made the battle trivial - my next attempt was victorious after one turn. While the eventual ease of this battle was frustrating, previous battles provided a variety of satisfying challenges, and each victory felt like a hard-earned reward.

While I had some problems with the thematic consistency and some progression decisions, I found Valkyria Chronicles to be a beautiful, challenging, and emotional experience. Few game experiences satisfy like landing a cross-map low-percentage head shot with a sniper to save the life of an exposed scout, and the methodical turn-based tank combat adds tension to every soldier action. If you enjoy a tactical RPG, especially if you haven't played one in a while, Valkyria Chronicles is not to be missed.

I spent 62 hours over 42 episodes playing Valkyria Chronicles, which you can watch below.

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I played all of Persona 4. (Review)

I don't remember JRPGs being like this. When I was a kid in a family of meager means, a new Squaresoft game was the perfect companion to a long unsupervised summer while my parents were off at work. Most games would take a day or a weekend to beat, with frenetic gameplay and complex art, but it would be over soon and I would need a new game. There would be no story of note to remember, only the sequence of inputs and logical steps to achieve victory, and my only option was to play it again or hope I could find something cheap after trade-in at Funco Land. Final Fantasy 2 was the perfect solution to this problem. Instead of jamming buttons non-stop for half a dozen hours, I was on a grand adventure that lasted weeks. I met pirates and ninjas and wizards, and we all came together to save the world. I couldn't tell you today the story of Final Fantasy 2, but my experience wandering from castles to mountains to the moon with Kain Dragoon - I thought the classes were last names until the game told me otherwise - is an experience games have yet to recreate. I was hooked on JRPGs. Every summer through my high school graduation when I wasn't working or chasing girls or smoking weed, I would find a JRPG to sink a hundred hours into.

Then, I inexplicably lost the bug. It may have been dealing with limited time (although I managed to play 10 hours a day of EverQuest), a series of bad buying decisions (Hoshigami: Ruining Blue Earth?), or simply a change in my personality, but JRPGs didn't do it for me anymore. On August 2, 2013, I gathered all the equipment to run a live stream (PS2, microphone, capture hardware, webcam) and set out to play Persona 4 and document the process. I was determined to play a JRPG to completion and see if the poor fat kid sitting cross-legged on the living room carpet was still there. It was great. Persona 4 is great. But the JRPGs of my youth were never like that. They were never so local, so personal, or so serious. Sure, you were always defending the very existence of the world from a Big Evil of Prophecy, but there was always something whimsical about your journey. Your victory was always inevitable. You knew it, the population knew it, even your enemy knew it.

Persona 4 isn't like that. The fate of the world is not in your hands. In most ways, telling the story of Persona 4 sounds like reciting the plot of a bad TV movie heavily inspired by Cronenberg or Lynch, or a worse game created by a too-ambitious amateur. You're the new kid, there's a serial murderer loose in this small town, and your band of high school detectives are the only ones who can stop them. It sounds silly, but the strength of the character writing is what makes Persona 4 a great game.

All of the people you meet in Persona 4 are real. They're the same sympathetic, selfish, foolish people you know in your personal lives. They worry about their work, friends, and the future. They get excited about bad movies, vacations, and the chance to be heroes. Some of them are good people turned bad by neglect or rejection, and some are bad people turned good by affection and attention. This is what sets Persona 4 apart from other games, including other JRPGs - the characters.

The story and gameplay hooks in Persona 4 are not especially compelling. Your group shares a kind of supernatural connection and leverages that to solve a series of murders that persist throughout the game, and you do so via monster hunting and turn-based menu battles - it's all the most standard of JRPG fare. As the story progresses and characters develop, the magic of Persona 4 becomes apparent - you see your friends grow in a way that most games never approach. Yosuke discovers that adulthood is not something to be feared, and that the best way to escape the shadow of your successful father is to be your own person. Chie realizes that depending on people who care about you is not a sign of weakness, and that independence is not always the best policy. Kanji finds that others will only respect you when you're honest with yourself, and that compromise is a more effective tool than fear. Nanako learns that a parent's love is unlimited, and that family is a bond that cannot be broken. All of the characters in Persona 4 grow to learn these universal truths and apply them to their lives, and the greatest joy of the game is in seeing your friends discover that loyalty to friends and respect for others is the best measure of a person.

While I have some issues with the way the story wraps up via a standard JRPG final boss bait-and-switch, and would prefer a more dynamic gameplay loop, Persona 4 is not to be missed. The music is excessively catchy J-Pop, the art effectively conveys a remote fishing village under silent attack from the unknown, and the world is populated with an impressively large cast of carefully-written characters. I don't remember JRPGs being like this.

I spent 92 hours over 66 episodes playing Persona 4, which you can watch below.

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