Valkyria Chronicles Review
First of all, we really must apologize for the delay in delivering this review. It’s not much of an excuse to say we were completely swamped during the hectic release period between October and November last year, but that’s our only defense. However, it’s good to know that many people have rewarded Sega for producing a high-quality strategy/RPG title that is both original and entertaining. We all have to agree that Sega’s glory days are well behind them (we’re currently scheduling Sonic’s funeral), but every once in a while, they really surprise us. In the case of Valkyria Chronicles, they managed to develop a game that will undoubtedly appeal to a certain core demographic, but should also intrigue those who are looking for something new. After finally spending enough time with this one, we’ve come to the conclusion that not only is it the most overlooked title of 2008, but it’s also one of the more impressive strategy-based productions to be released in the past few years. Let’s just put it this way- unless it has the traditional grid-based format (FFT, for example), I’m really not that interested in this genre. And yet, I could very easily spend a great deal of time playing Chronicles.
The graphics are an interesting artistic blend of light pastel colors and a good amount of environmental prettiness. Due to its obvious Japanese roots, there isn’t much variety when it comes to the characters (really nothing unique about the designs), but it won’t be much of a drawback for the target audience. You’ve really never seen anything like this before, and although there’s some repetition in the backdrops, we never got tired of the visual presentation. The gameplay and cut-scenes look very similar so it’s not like Sega gives you wonderfully polished CGI breaks sprinkled amidst unrefined, ho-hum gameplay graphics. No, the visuals here are almost entirely consistent throughout, so if you enjoy what you see in the introduction, you’ll probably be satisfied with the full extent of the graphical depiction. The visual effects, in our opinion, were hit and miss, as some explosions and certain forms of attack just didn’t seem to fit the situation, but again, they were most original. When’s the last time you played a game that showed the words, “Rata-tat-tat” when you fire a gun?
The sound drags a little due to a merely average music selection, but almost shockingly, gets a boost thanks to solid voice acting. Typically, these Japanese-oriented niche titles have horrendous voiceovers that sound as if they would fit better into the previous generation, but there’s no such shortcoming here. The voice acting really is very good (despite a few characters we could’ve done without), and there isn’t anything necessarily wrong with the soundtrack. It takes too much of a backseat to the action and isn’t brought to the forefront during especially dramatic scenes, but it’s still well-orchestrated and nicely implemented. Much like the visual effects, the music fits the atmosphere perfectly, so we certainly won’t complain about that. The sound effects stay steady almost regardless of the action in question – the intense “boom” of an Anti-Armor Shell from your tank is just as satisfying as the crack of a Sniper Rifle – and overall, there’s really no reason to nitpick. The sound is fitting and well done, so why should we bother to get all anal?
The gameplay is by far the most appealing aspect of Valkyria Chronicles, as well it should be. At first, you don’t quite understand this game’s capacity for depth, customization and general freedom, but within a few hours, it will begin to dawn on you. In the early-goings, you’re introduced to the basics, and although you haven’t yet grasped this production’s full potential, you will immediately recognize its original approach to the strategy/RPG genre. It makes perfect sense to say the graphics are quite unique, because as far as gameplay goes, this is a first. Although most any title these days takes its foundation from previous efforts, this game seems to have a base all its own, and it’s most intriguing. And again, although you think you might have a firm handle on the proceedings in the first hour, you’ll get a first-class education as soon as Welkin and Alicia officially sign up to be part of the Gallian militia. It’s at this point where the game opens up and shines forth brightly, but before we explain further, let’s talk about the storyline premise. It’s important, because as you might’ve anticipated, it’s a major focal point of Chronicles.
Two sides of the world are at war in order to control the majority of available Ragnite. Ragnite is a material that’s widely used; from powering what we would call electrical devices on this plane of existence to healing humans, it’s an extremely valuable substance that’s in massive demand. Unfortunately for the neutral country of Gallia, they’re sitting on a pile of the stuff, which means the Imperials are gonna get their hands on it, even if it means leaving a trail of fire, rubble, and death in their wake. Right off the bat, the quiet town of Bruhl – home to our two protagonists, Welkin and Alicia – is attacked, and everyone must flee in the face of definite annihilation. This is when you’ll learn the basics of combat as you attempt to defend the town for a time; at least long enough to allow the citizens to safely retreat. After you’re forced out of your hometown, everything ramps up to full-blown war, and there’s no turning back. Prepare for an onslaught of options!
When you first enter battle, you are provided with the necessary objectives for the mission, a chance to deploy your squad in certain fixed positions on the map, and time to consider the situation from above. When you’re done, the game enters its turn-based mode, where you can pick whichever unit you wish to move during the Player Phase. To do so spends CP (Command Points) and you have a certain number to use for each Phase. However, it’s not quite as straightforward and predictable as the veterans may want to believe; for example, you can move any unit you wish whenever you wish, and you don’t have to spend turns on units that are better off staying put. In other words, if you want to move the same unit three times in a row, feel free. You can spend your CP however you see fit, and before you pick the unit to move, you have an unlimited amount of time to think about your options. This is great, but once you’ve selected your unit, the camera zooms down to the ground giving you real-time action control of the chosen ally. At this time, you can move as far as the action bar will let you move (keep an eye on it), and perform one action.
The action ranges greatly depending on the type of unit (are you merely a soldier or a whole tank?), and the Class of the unit. You can attack, heal, support, or simply maneuver for a better position; you can often crouch behind sandbags, crawl in high grass, climb lookout towers (say hello, Snipers), or strategically position yourself behind a wall. When you’re in range of the enemy, the enemy will fire, so it’s always important to plan out your move before taking off. If your action bar runs out and you’re left standing in the middle of the battlefield, you may as well kiss your ass goodbye. But at least you won’t die if an ally can reach you before three turns are over. If you can get there within three turns, the fallen unit will be safely evacuated from combat, but he or she is gone for the duration of that particular battle. If you don't make it...the fallen unit is dead for good. The good news is that Ragnite can cure you, and your units will replenish health upon completion of each turn. You’ll get more benefits (extra health and ammo, for instance), if you gain control of an enemy camp. The key is to launch attacks while remaining in solid defensive positions, and it’s a lot of fun, because you are in complete control the entire time.
And what lies beneath this original style of strategy gameplay? A very deep character advancement mechanic, of course. There are five separate Classes – Scout, Shocktrooper, Lancer, Engineer, and Sniper – and each serve very specific purposes on the field. The Scout has great maneuverability and can be used to examine the field so you can better plan out your ground attack. The Shocktrooper is a well-outfitted offensive machine, equipped with a machine gun and great defense. They don’t have any special specific skills, but in terms of offensive foot soldiers, there are non better. The Lancer is best used as an anti-Tank unit; he comes equipped with a Lance (which is actually a rocket launcher of some sort), and although he’s slow and doesn’t handle quick units well, he’s always a necessity when enemy tanks are around. The Engineer runs around and supplies your allies with expendable items, like sniper bullets and heavy ammo; so when your Lancer runs out of shots (he gets 3), the Engineer needs to run to his side and re-supply him. So while the Sniper is uber-effective, you’ll want an Engineer on hand to restock the ammo, especially if it's a long battle.
You can train each Class using experience gained in battle, and you can upgrade your weapons, battle suits, and even your tank with the money you collect. You will spend it on Research and Development, you can add Accuracy and Strength boosts to the weapons for each Class, and provided you continually train your Classes, you will rise in Level. The good news is that it doesn’t matter how many of the 20 members of your Squad you take into a battle, or which ones you take; whatever they earn will be earned by the entire Squad so you never have to worry about leveling up individual characters. Your mission objectives will range greatly: sometimes you’ll have to capture the enemy camp, other times you’ll have to simply hold out until reinforcements arrive, and other times, you’ll have to protect a valuable strategic battlefield position. Now, all of this is fantastic and easy to dive into – especially if you’re familiar with this kind of depth – but there are a few issues. For the most part, this entire mechanic works beautifully, but there were some eccentricities that annoyed us.
For example, it would’ve been better if more of the environment was open during your battlefield movement. If you head to an alley for cover, you may not see the almost invisible wall until you’re halfway there, and if there’s no additional cover nearby, you could be in trouble. Secondly, the enemy AI really isn’t that bright. They’ll often act rashly and/or make a ridiculous decision in certain situations, which makes things easier on the player, but sometimes it’s almost laughable. Their intelligence does seem to increase as time goes on, though. We also had some problems with tank combat, as firing the Anti-Armor Shells seems somewhat inaccurate: you can target different parts of a tank, but we remained confused as to why a straight shot to the body would mystically eliminate the tread. Then there was a time when a shell appeared to go directly through the tank without actually hitting anything. The machine gun mount wasn’t anywhere near strong enough, either, and it sometimes felt as if only the mortar attack did exactly what it should. Lastly, there are a few balance issues concerning the Classes, but this is often difficult to avoid.
The rest is all roses. The story is good, the characters are decent, the overall gameplay mechanic is refreshing, original and even addictive, and having so much control at all times is intoxicating. You can visit Headquarters at any time in between episodes to outfit your characters, head into Training to gain Levels, visit Research & Development to upgrade your weapons and armor, and choose new soldiers for your Squad. If the plot-advancing main battles are proving too much of a challenge, just jump into a few Skirmishes to farm up the Exp and Gold. You can do this as many times as you wish, and you can even go back and view any given episode in the book any time you want. Everything from recruiting to training to outfitting to deploying to the action on the field…it’s all excellent, and you can lose yourself in this enveloping game awfully quickly. There are a few inconsistencies in battle that continued to rear their ugly heads at certain times, but while a little irritating, it wasn’t enough to significantly detract from the fun factor.
Valkyria Chronicles is indeed one of the best games of 2008, and certainly the best strategy/RPG of this generation. Some may argue that it can be too easy to power-level through the Skirmishes, and others will lambaste the lacking AI or get all bent out of shape concerning the hidden enemies that don’t show up on your map. Then there's another group who will become very annoyed when Welkin bites the dust in an hour-long battle, causing you to replay the whole thing. That’s all well and good, and there are legitimate complaints out there, but for the most part, this is one title you really shouldn’t miss. At the very least, if it’s not your cup of tea, give it a rent…you might be surprised at the result. Now, Sega, how’s about a sequel?
2/7/2009 Ben Dutka