Strokes of Brilliance, with but a Few Spots on the Canvas
Simply put, Valkyria Chronicles is a great game, and a refreshing example of innovation in a largely static genre, namely the strategy RPG. However, its solid mechanics and excellent presentation are marred slightly by minor oversights and snags that serve to keep the tactical experience from being as smooth as it could be.
The story is set in the Principality of Gallia, a small nation located roughly where Denmark would be on a real-world map of western Europe (though the game's own map fails to include the entire Finnish/Norweigan peninsula or Baltic Sea). Gallia is sandwiched between rival superpowers, the Atlantic Federation and the East Europan Imperial Alliance. As might be expected of a nation with "Imperial" in its name, the Empire invades Gallia as a first step towards direct confrontation with the Federation.
Key to the story is Welkin Gunther, an aspiring natural sciences teacher caught during the imperial assault on his hometown of Bruhl. Teaming up with Alicia Melchiott, leader of the town watch, he takes his father's old tank, the Edelweiss, and joins with the national militia, coming to command the plucky soldiers of Squad 7, leading them to defend the homeland.
The game's narrative is strong and engrossing, if not particularly complex. The ensemble cast is also distinctive and easy to like, though drawn from fairly familiar anime archetypes. Planescape: Torment this definitely is not, though it definitely stands well and does not disappoint.
The game's greatest strength is in its fantastic visual design. In a striking twist on traditional cel-shading, all the textures and effect and colored and detailed with sketching lines, giving the image of an artistic canvas in motion. Characters and machines are hyper-detailed, giving stark contrast to the "rough" coloration. Comic book-style onomatopeic sound effect text and anime-style emotion bubbles complete the spectacle. The story is mostly told through in-game animated cutscenes and the odd "talking head" conversation.
The talking heads are slightly disappointing as the individual panels are mostly focused on the face, not utilizing the excellent character design to its fullest. Then again, compared to most any other strategy RPG excepting perhaps Final Fantasy Tactics, Valkyria Chronicles goes above and beyond to make the call of duty one worth responding to.
The game's battle mechanics are nothing to sneeze at, either. Called "BLiTZ" for "Battle of Live Tactical Zones", combat works out as an amalgam of real-time and turn-based systems. Players and enemies each act in turn, every character on each side moving and attack during a given phase. During a phase commanders can spend "Command Points" (CP) to activate individual units. When activated, units act in real time, moving and attacking freely about the battlefield, according to a given level of "Action Points" (AP) determined by a gauge at the bottom of the screen. Commanders can spend multiple CP on the same unit, allowing a given soldier to act multiple times in the same turn (though their AP does not regenerate until the next phase). Different units cost different amounts of CP to activate. Infantry cost one, tanks cost two or three, and so on, making management of CP critical.
A key point in this is while units are acting, enemies within range can continually fire on them, in the manner of "interrupts" present in other turn-based strategy games. This factor gives a strong sense of urgency to every movement, as vacillating too long in the middle of combat can lead to heavy damage or incapacitation. Units can crouch behind cover, fire mortars or grenades to destroy enemy cover, and use flanking tactics to set up opponents to run through deadly crossfires.
Units also have their own unique "potentials", distinct traits which affect their performance in certain situations. A sniper with a pollen allergy might find her accuracy diminished when operating in rural areas, while a lone-wolf stormtrooper might work best when standing apart from his comrades. Potentials also activate special combination attacks or ablities.
Between battles you can research and upgrade equipment and class abilities using acquired experience points. As every unit in a given class levels up simultaneously when upgraded, there's no chance of the "level-lag" common in other tactical RPGs, encouraging you to use your many soldiers according to whom is most appropriate to a given situation.
There are a few issues with the system however. It's a little strict regarding what exactly constitutes cover. Why are sandbags cover, but not a thick tree or a nearby rock? The game also sticks a bit too closely to some of its rock-paper-scissors relationships. A rocket that destroys a tank in two shots might do very little damage to an infantryman in spite of a direct hit. The real-time crossfire can also lead to problems, especially beginning a unit's turn when out of cover. A unit with low health might be hit by a lucky shot within seconds of being activated, resulting in a KO and wasted CP. It's realistic and encourages careful behavior and tactics ("stop-and-pop" vs. "run-and-gun"), but will inevitably result in some damage that could otherwise be avoided had you been given a scant second to get your bearings. All in all though, the tactical experience is fundamentally strong and gives a good deal of excitement.
The small flaws in Valkyria Chronicles don't detract from that fact that it is excellently constructed, and is a must-get for any fan of strategy RPGs, anime, or worthwhile PS3 exclusives.