Valkyria Chronicles: The Strategy RPG for You and Me
It's easy to make a compelling argument that like fighting games up until the late 2000s, SRPGs have suffered from a case of increasing obscurity outside of Japan. A dwindling fanbase coupled with a slew of games made to cater only to that existing market makes it tough for someone new to the genre to break in and enjoy it today. Sega's PlayStation 3-exclusive Valkyria Chronicles, thankfully, avoids repeating those trends. A visually striking game with an engaging storyline and nuanced, yet intuitive gameplay that borrows from outside its own genre, Valkyria Chronicles is a distinctive game on a lot of fronts that's worth giving attention to. It has faulty execution in some areas, but all told, the game makes for a great start to a new brand of SRPG in an age where the genre could use some revitalization.
To accomplish the self-liberation, Valkyria Chronicles' gameplay lets you wage war through means that are both familiar and inventive. A lot of the main gameplay mechanics are fundamental aspects of your standard SRPG. Each opposing side still takes their turns separately and moves their units in one fell swoop. Individual unit and position orientation can and does affect the damage they both take and give out. The combat is dictated by math based on stats on equipment and, of course, you can give orders beforehand that can lead to special attacks, stat boosts, and other things to make conditions more favorable. When described in individual terms, it sounds as though Valkyria Chronicles' gameplay is what one would come to expect from a game of its type. The crux of the experience, however, is that the execution of those standards flies in the face of those genre norms.
The combat and maneuvering themselves don't take place on gridded levels with abstract variables dictating who wins and loses, but rather on actual battlefields with uniquely distinct layouts and geography. In addition, Squad 7 comes teeming with a bunch of different recruitable characters, ten of whom can be on the battlefield at any given time and another ten in reserves as backup. These characters are categorized into different classes whose functions and abilities are all distinct and important for achieving success, which becomes especially important when the game goes into its real time mode.
Indeed, when you actually select a unit to play as on the battlefield, you control them and move them in real time on the battlefield. Each time someone is picked, they can be used to perform one specific action in tandem with a limited budget for movement. Different classes have different sets of actions, attacks, and movement budgets, which means everyone in the entire squad has to support each other if they're to make it out alive. This is particularly true when noting what can actually happen during the real time portions. While you're moving around from point A to point B, the enemy will often attempt to subdue you with suppressing fire and will not relent until you either reach cover or perform your unit's one allotted action or attack, temporarily halting the real time portion. This gives the proceedings an air of urgency; while you're given all the time in the world to plan things out every time you're at the unit selection screen, once you're actually playing as someone, it's typically do or die time for them. How that turns out is dependent as much on how the enemy reacts to you as it is on how well you've prepared everyone else to enact your plan ahead of time, too.
While the actual combat and unit action phases halt time until their conclusion, they still play out much like other action games with RPG underpinnings. When attacking the enemy, the amount of damage you do changes depending on where your hits land. This can greatly affect the outcome of fights depending on what type of unit you use, as well as how you've equipped them. Headshots may naturally do the most damage, but if a character's accuracy isn't up to snuff, it can be a better idea to aim for the body, where the majority of their bullets will most likely hit instead. This can also lead to situations of setting up team-up attacks, where your current unit will automatically prompt others to join the fray if they're in close enough proximity to do that much more damage in one turn.
Additionally, although the characters already play pretty differently from each other based on their class, members of the same class also further differentiate themselves based on intrinsic traits they have as people. Dubbed "potentials," these are abilities that can activate based on a number of different conditions in each battle and they can affect performance for both better and for worse. A sniper, for example, might do a better job if she's isolated from the rest of the team so she can properly do her work, whereas others will start worrying if they're made to separate from the rest of the team. Some people may have allergies or aversions to different environment types that lower their accuracy. Although each character has a set amount of potentials they can ultimately have, the amount of types that are available throughout the entire game, as well as the variety of conditions under which they can activate is astounding. Some are tailor-made specifically for individual characters as ways to define them and give them stories, too.
While potentials by themselves usually won't completely decide the outcome of a battle one way or another, they can help ensure that the way it ends is more of a sure thing than it was previously. Even beyond potentials, the characters also have specific preferences for who they like to work with out on the battlefield, which can further influence how combat pans out. This makes selecting who joins you on the field or is kept in reserves an important matter, since not only do you have to factor the conditions of the battle itself, you also have to keep in mind how well the units themselves will work in tandem with others based on their personalities. Everyone you can work with in Valkyria Chronicles acts and operates in their own ways, which makes the game one that is very much so about team dynamics on a fundamental level.
Like Valkyria Chronicles' forebears, there are a lot of different gameplay mechanics you have to work with, both on and off the battlefield. The difference is that the presentation of those mechanics helps to make them very intuitive after getting real practice with them over the course of the early missions. Most everything you do in the game, from the upgrades and additional training you can give your squad during downtime to the ebb and flow of navigating and fighting itself has a tangible feel to it all. The fact that you get to affect how things go down a lot more directly compared to a lot of other SRPGs makes it so you grasp the gameplay in meaningfully natural ways. This is, by far, Valkyria Chronicle's greatest strength, as it allows it to adhere to a lot of genre standbys without letting their standard implementation bog it down. It makes the game accessible, visceral, and really enjoyable without being condescending, either, a very difficult balance for most games to strike to begin with.
That's not to say the gameplay is without its flaws, however. While it's all indeed very fun to play, there are a few areas that could use touching up. The difficulty, for example, while normally fair, can be somewhat too quick to be punishing at times, especially on missions that are already rather dire to begin with. While this is somewhat abated by the ability to save and load your progress at any time during your turn, it's not a complete fail-safe and can lead to instances of trial and error at even the starting turns of the battles. The game also has a habit of being repetitive with its objectives over the course of different maps, although usually the contextual circumstances of the battles themselves do enough to prevent that from being overly noticeable. Furthermore, there's no menu option in combat to merely surrender and go back to the main menu without outright losing, an odd oversight considering the team behind Valkyria Chronicles has an extensive history with SRPGs.
A few of the Valkyria Chronicles' mechanics are also either explained either too little or almost not at all, forcing you to potentially do unnecessary experimentation for the sake of gaining knowledge. This is particularly true with regards to leveling up characters and upgrading or changing their equipment; while the game tells you in understandable terms how to do it, you're ultimately left to figure out what the actual implications of doing such things are and how to take advantage of them. All of these issues are further compounded by the game's all around bad habit of having uncomfortably long load times outside of the main menus. Even when the game is optionally installed to the hard drive, it can take a while for it to load save data and bring you to where you left off. This is frustratingly true even when trying to load data of a previous point in time on the same map you're currently playing. Thankfully, the game's many good and great points make up for a lot of the faults, but the presence of these problems nonetheless drag down a game that is otherwise executed remarkably and addictingly well.
Like the gameplay, there's also more meat to the story than what initially meets the eye. While the plot may not sound overly ambitious at first glance, it's the character dynamics and their relationships that hold it all together and keep things interesting up until the very end. Unlike more prominent war-themed games such as Metal Gear Solid, where the main focus is on the morality and implications of fighting, Valkyria Chronicles instead opts to focus more on the inherent humanity still to be found within a war. People have conflicting motivations for being involved in the war, even sometimes contrary to those of their comrades, and while many of the people are still young enough to have some cheer during their downtime, they are all mature enough to recognize the ambiguities that lie in fighting and in their purpose as soldiers. It's through the predicaments that come about a result of those things that the people of Squad 7 bond and, in turn, make watching their development enjoyable. It's all very fitting and works very well to Valkyria Chronicle's advantage, as it reinforces the already heavily individualistic nature of the gameplay all the more.
There are a few ironic pitfalls to be had amidst it all, however. In particular, Valkyria Chronicles doesn't quite give enough time for the characters themselves to be completely fleshed out by the end. While Squad 7's members hardly feel half-baked, the game's somewhat concise manner in wrapping its story up means that you ultimately don't get to know and connect with the characters quite as well as you would in, say, a Persona game. An additional few hours or so to help elaborate motivations and backstories could have greatly helped. The tone of the story can also be a bit off-putting at times. Although the amount of youthful characters fighting for Gallia means that the game should naturally have some optimism, that sort of setup backfires when the game starts making very direct references to the actual horrors of WWII. While it tries to pay reverence to the history that inspires the game's world, the actual execution is more often than not somewhat clumsy and therefore difficult to take seriously. Had Sega taken a few extra steps to resolve that, as well as some plot holes that crop up with enough scrutiny, Valkyria Chronicles' story would have possibly been bar-none. As it is, it's still an engaging and very entertaining tale, but one that nevertheless has some unfulfilled potential.
On a presentation level, Valkyria Chronicles shows itself off well most of the time. This is thanks mostly to its graphics technology, the appropriately named "CANVAS engine." It allows the game to take on a unique version of the now common cel-shaded style. Instead of having the visuals just consist of flat-looking planes and bright colors, Valkyria Chronicles also employs textures and shaders that give the game an appearance not unlike what one would find in a watercolored or penciled artistic piece. It makes the game look consistently beautiful and fun to look at it, even when the proceedings are at their tamest. The music is likewise well-composed, although there is an unfortunate lack of variety in the battle themes that is made apparent after a while. The sound design and voice acting are also competently done, but neither the sounds nor the actors' performances are typically outstanding, save for brief moments here and there. They both work as intended, but are definitely not Valkyria Chronicles' strongest points, either.
Taken as a whole, Valkyria Chronicles is a good, inventive, and fun start to what will hopefully be expanded and refined as a future Sega franchise. It's not without its problems on both the gameplay and story fronts, but as a first attempt at breathing new life in the often tired staples that make up the SRPG genre today, Valkyria Chronicles does a valiant job at it. A beautiful game with fun, intelligent mechanics to back up those looks, it's definitely worth the $20 asking price it commands for anybody interested in one of the PlayStation 3's more unusual exclusive titles.