A Next-Gen RPG that truly delivers.
Valkyria Chronicles is an interesting fusion of genres that a great time for RPG fans; when quality RPGs are few and far between on any of the current consoles. Chronicles tells a deep engaging story set amidst a WWII-type clash of superpowers as well as challenging you with a varied and deep combat system.
Set in a fictional version of Europe, cunningly named Europa, embroiled in the Second Europan War, Valkyria Chronicles follows the events of the Empire’s invasion of a small, neutral country called Gallia. The story focuses on the progress of Lt. Welkin Gunther, the son of a national hero from the First Europan War, and his squad of militia soldiers as they take on various missions against the Empire to fight off the invasion of their homeland.
Don’t let the beginning fool you, though, once you progress into the middle and finale, there is a lot thrown at your squad; especially as you learn more about the Valkyria and their legacy. Themes of discrimination, racism, love, loss, betrayal, self-discovery, and identity run deep in Valkyria Chronicles' story. But it never feels like it’s too much and the narrative flow keeps a steady pace throughout.
The game begins with a very upbeat tone and attitude which seems a little at odds with the backdrop of a fierce conflict over your homeland but this actually works in the game’s favor. As you progress through the story events quickly become much more desperate and dark for the characters and I found myself really rooting for them as they struggle with all the terrible things going on around them, all the while trying to not let these events change them for the worse.
In terms of gameplay, Chronicles moves as an entirely linear story presented as sections of a book telling the story of the Gallian resistance during the war. As in a history textbook there are glossaries in the book providing information on important personnel, equipment, and terms that are constantly updated as the story progresses. There are also sections allowing you to, among other things, distribute your accumulated experience to level up your militia classes, spend money on equipment upgrades, and participate in skirmish battles for extra money and experience.
Each chapter in the main story is broken up into generally 5-8 parts and revolves around a battle involving Welkin’s Squad 7. The non-battle parts of the chapters provide story fragments and character development/interaction as they prepare for or clean up after the central battle.
With the exception of a few purchasable side chapters, each devoted to one of the focal squad members, there is no deviation from the main storyline. Unfortunately this kind of set-up feels awkward at first and exceptionally confining as there are no side quests and no exploration. By the end of the game I was used to the format but I can’t say it’s my preferred method of story progression in a game.
Where Chronicles really shines, though, is its combat system. I would best describe the combat as the next evolution of the turn-based strategy genre. A battle allows you to decide your own troop distribution at predetermined locations around your starting base and then allots you Command Points to take action during each round of the fight.
There are five soldier types to choose from, each with their own individual pros and cons. Varying movement range and speed, ammo capacity and type, attack strength, accuracy, and support utility make for very different units whose presence or absence can win or lose a battle. But with 9 or 10 slots available at the start of most battles, you can really tailor your strategy to focus on the units you utilize the best in combat.
The actually battles are pretty well varied and do a lot to challenge the player keep you on your toes. Between moving your units into position, minding enemy sightlines crossfire, looking for cover, stumbling across enemies hidden in high grass or around corners, anticipating enemy movements, evacuating injured allies, stopping reinforcements, and issuing group or individual buffs via Welkin’s special orders, well things can seem overwhelming. Thankfully the game starts you off slow and, as you keep progressing to new mission types, you keep learning more and getting more comfortable with the combat. The game really feels rewarding as you plan out a strategy and beat some of the maps, especially later in the game when you get into some really rough situations.
Combat isn’t without frustrations, though. I experienced a number of situations where enemies made impossible headshots to pick apart my entire strategy, or a hidden troop comes out of nowhere and completely wrecks one of my key soldiers, or my units missed seemingly guaranteed headshots or were dodged by the enemy and countered. The game does allow you to save before and after every move you make which helps alleviate some of the frustration when a battle randomly goes bad very quickly.
My only other gripe is the game’s ranking system after each battle. Taking your time and systematically removing all enemies, capturing all bases, and not losing any allies is actually punished by the rankings. All that matters is speed. Completing a map in 1 round but leaving every enemy alive and losing most of your squad to movement crossfire scores HUGE experience and money bonuses compared to a more methodical approach.
Visually, I love the presentation of Valkyria Chronicles. The cell shading is sharp and the colors are bright and vibrant. Later in the game there some polygonal cell shaded cutscenes that just looked so gorgeous that I went back to watch them a couple of times. Honestly, there are a lot of scenes that you want still frames of to hang on a wall, they look that good.
Right now we seem to be at something of a transitional period for the RPG genre. Many of the established gameplay conventions from previous generations have fallen out of favor and quality releases are few as developers work on revamping perceptions of the Role Playing Game. So, at a time like this a title like Valkyria Chronicles is exactly what fans need: a fun, challenging game that delivers a great story and a niche in a sorely under-represented genre. Anyone with a PS3 looking for a worthwhile nextgen RPG need look no further than Valkyria Chronicles.