"Valkyria Chronicles looks like a water color painting in motion. Whoever made this artistic decision is a genius, because watercolors make anything look amazing, whether it be a stream or a pile of rocks, and here youíre seeing whole countrysides and full out warfare. The baleful music and the beautiful art blend together to create a nostalgic feel that leaves you coming back for the same broken mechanics and repetitious dialogue."
Well, it took me two months but I finally beat Valkyria Chronicles. Iíve come away with mixed feelings. Let me tell you about them.
Valkyria Chronicles is the story of World War II, if World War II were set in an alternate anime steam-punk universe where Hitler wore white robes and a laurel crown and commanded an army of behemoth tanks. Such is the role of Maximillian, leader of the Empire, which is engaged in a struggle for all Europa with the just-as-creatively-named Federation.
Caught between the two warring factions is Gallia, a small nation struggling to maintain its neutrality and freedom. Realizing there isnít much chance of success in this endeavor, Gallia puts together a peasant militia to augment its standing army. One of the militia squads ends up being run by Welkin Gunther, son of a war hero from the first European war. Hilarity ensues.
More on that in a minute.
The real reason this game got peopleís interest peaked was for its battle system. Valkyria Chronicles is a tactical turn-based shooter. You start every turn on an overhead map, looking at your units as objects on a board. When you select one you zoom in and suddenly youíre on the actual battlefield moving the unit around in real time while enemies fire at you.
I cannot stress enough how cool this is. It turns the game into something more than just moving pieces around on a map. You donít just feel like a commander. You feel like a participant.
Valkyria Chronicles does itís best to present you with a lot of strategy amidst this coolness. Youíve got six unit types, ranging from the fast moving but weak scouts to the slower but more capable shock troopers. Every unit seems to have its rock-paper-scisscors strengths and weaknesses. The tanks canít be hurt by regular fire, so they wreak havoc against the shock troopers, but throw one of the missile launching lancers their way, and they can go down in a single hit. Of course, the lancers have barely any defense against the machine gun fire of the shock troopers, and so on.
Every map is unique, every battle fresh in its objectives. Most maps have some environmental catch to them as well, whether it be sudden sandstorms that hurt visibility or fields of grass where units can hide. Everything pauses while you take aim, so the game never becomes a true shooter, but you do have to keep shooter tactics in mind, as you want to end unitís turns behind cover and aim for the heads when you shoot.
Sounds like the perfect blend of tactics and action. And it would be, except that Valkyria Chronicles is horribly, horribly, broken.
The point of the game is to capture your enemyís bases. This is done by clearing them of enemies and then hitting the x button. This would be a reasonably difficult goal if not for the fact that you can move your units more than once a turn.
Thatís right. You can run a single shock-trooper into a base and continue to activate him until every enemy is a pile of bullet ridden carcass. The game tries to solve this by limiting how far you can move each activation, and limiting the number of activations per turn, but believe me... youíll have plenty.
The computer, on the other hand, will almost never activate its units more than once a turn, and when they do activate, they like to send them on suicide runs against your tanks. In my entire two months of playing, an enemy only successfully captured my base twice.
Because of this, you usually only need six or so units to win a map, which means you pretty much only need six units for the entire game. Sure, the game advertises that your units can die permanently, and this is true. When a unit is shot down, they remain lying on the battleground until another unit reaches them. If this is a comrade, the unit heals to full life and is available for use IN THE SAME BATTLE (making death an effective method of healing). If the enemy touches the body, however, then youíre treated to their final heart wrenching words before their permanent removal from your rooster.
The computer never does this, though. Instead, enemies will gun down a soldier and then casually pass by the body, maybe as a sign of honorable fair play (which I usually repaid by promptly wiping out their forces with my invulnerable tank).
Why is the AI so dumb? Well, son, were the computer to take advantage of the broken mechanics, you wouldnít have a pigís chance at a pagan banquet of of surviving a single mission. The only solution (besides beta testing and prolonging the release date) was to make the computer a lousy opponent.
I know that the ability to be cheap isnít one of the seven deadly sins of gaming, but I prefer balance in my tactical experiences. Winning against insurmountable odds through good use of strategy is a joy. Here I usually won through relying on the enemy to make incredibly stupid decisions.
All that having been said, the battle system, probably due to that cool zooming thing, still ends up being consistently enjoyable... when the game lets you actually play. Because Valkyria Chronicles makes you eat your broccoli (watch lots of story) before you have any fun (kill any guys).
The story is a little cliche but not bad. Itís got balls, at least, and thereís definitely some tear jerker moments. Thereís some real meat, but itís hidden underneath alot of fat. You have to watch at least three scenes before any mission, sometimes more. And they arenít even real cut-scenes, for the most part. Usually theyíre just the faces of the characters in little boxes, sortíve like the events in Tales of Symphonia. Had they removed all of these and just kept the real cut-scenes, the story wouldíve been about ten hours shorter and a hundred times more engaging.
Let me say that the characters are extremely likable, and their little struggles are much more interesting than the war itself. Of course we expect to resonate with the the main players. More impressive is that I connected with the random guys you recruit into your squad. Some came from broken homes, some had relationships within the squad, some were bisexual. They each had their own story and personality. When the computer did wise up one time and kill one of my shock-troopers, I was devastated. ďShe was my friend!Ē I cried. ďWhat will I tell her father?Ē I wondered. You can even get Vyse and Aika from Skies of Arcadia on your team, and Fina is the teamís medic.
The dialogue, on the other hand, needed an editor badly. A good fifty percent of the dialogue is just different ways of covering the same material. The first time you hear Welkin compare the hopes of the people to a single struggling flower, youíll be sincerely touched. By the ninth time youíve heard it, youíll be ready to shove his cap down his throat.
Welkinís a boob, by the way. Heís that lovable every-man, perfect in every way. Humble, caring, intelligent, good with a gun, attractive... he even has the classic ďI donít want to be a heroĒ routine down pat, which is ridiculous since heís the very epitome of a hero. Fortunately, the other characters are more multi-dimensional, and Welkin stops being the focus of the game early on, serving more as a foil to bring out their more interesting personalities.
The most enduring aspect of the game by far is its presentation. Valkyria Chronicles looks like a water color painting in motion. Whoever made this artistic decision is a genius, because watercolors make anything look amazing, whether it be a stream or a pile of rocks, and here youíre seeing whole countrysides and full out warfare. The baleful music and the beautiful art blend together to create a nostalgic feel that leaves you coming back for the same broken mechanics and repetitious dialogue.
Does presentation and innovative battle systems a good game make? In Valkyria Chronicles, the answer is yes. Despite all of my complaints, I had a really good time with the game, and itís well worth the thirty dollars it quickly dropped to. However, I have trouble eating a cookie when I know it could do with a little bit more chocolate chips and theyíre sitting in an unopened bag nearby while the cook is getting drunk upstairs. Valkyria Chronicles couldíve been a masterpiece. As it is, itís an unforgettable exclusive for the PS3. Maybe thatís good enough, but Iím holding out for that extra chip.
Freelance review by Jonathan Stark (January 08, 2009)
Zipp has spent most of his life standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door. There is a small mailbox there. Sometimes he writes reviews and puts them in the mailbox.
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