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Valkyria Chronicles (PlayStation 3) artwork

Valkyria Chronicles (PlayStation 3) review

"In retrospect, I suppose it's obvious how much SEGA was making a effort to flirt with the foreign markets, when they released the strategic, turn-based, adventure game Valkyria Chronicles. The lead cast's name is Welkin Gunther (“Wuerrrkin-saaan!”, if you choose the Japanese over the English voice-track), who has normal hair. A class-based selective upgrade system where you choose and manage weapon kits and personnel neatly replaced magic as well as the rotating numbers for stats and..."

In retrospect, I suppose it's obvious how much SEGA was making a effort to flirt with the foreign markets, when they released the strategic, turn-based, adventure game Valkyria Chronicles. The lead cast's name is Welkin Gunther (“Wuerrrkin-saaan!”, if you choose the Japanese over the English voice-track), who has normal hair. A class-based selective upgrade system where you choose and manage weapon kits and personnel neatly replaced magic as well as the rotating numbers for stats and levels. There are no super-attacks in the game that increase in power based on the numbers of simultaneously enthusiastic cheers, or matching super-hero poses. Grinding is virtually non-existent. And it takes several chapters before we even see sign of a magical pet with wings.

It's not that I hate magical pets with wings. But “Hans”, the flying and supernaturally emphatic piglet, is even listed in the comprehensive in-game glossary for game-terms as an evolutionary dead end. “There is”, it says, “no logical reason for it's existence in Gallia”. I couldn't agree more.

Valkyria Chronicles takes place in the somewhat fictional “Europa”. With the story beginning in 1935, a little time before the somewhat more fictional “East European Imperial Alliance”, and their invasion of everything else. The Imperials are led by someone who looks like Ceasar. The other Europeans, the Gallians, live in a small village barely visible on the map without a magnification glass. And as we zoom down from above, we can see how they have decided to good-naturedly take the war in their stride, and avoid the evacuation until at least the buns and bread are ready. Unfortunately, the Gallians have something else the Imperial Alliance wants, apart from their obedience, which is a naturally occurring substance called Ragnarite. This thing fuels all the power-sources in the world, and is, as it turns out, the reason for the many unfortunate events that befall the Ragnarite-rich Gallia again and again. Whether it is at the hands of the Imperials, indirectly because of their tentative allies in the overseas Atlantic Alliance, or simply treachery from within.

Thankfully, none of this actually matters when it comes to the story from point to point in the game, and simply serves as a backdrop for the main cast's universe. There's an ominous enemy to the East, there's a treacherous ally to the west. You can't be entirely certain about the royal Gallian stewards either. But the drama and the story takes place around Welkin's hometown, and between the militia forces he eventually ends up commanding into more and more significant battles as the game progresses.

This makes sure that as much as the main story is dominated by politics and the large alliances, you can simply let it fly past your head, and treat it with as much calm as Welkin does. Your concern is the well-being of your troops and the success of the next mission. And also, bugs and fish. When Welkin does not ride the main battle tank through the enemy front lines, Welkin waxes poetically about rainbow trout, bugs and flowers. But he also seems to have more than a scientific interest in Alicia, the second main cast - so rest assured he is not too weird (that was a close call, SEGA).

We do not escape the mandatory multiple successive crying death-scenes that plague similar Japanese adventure games, though. But as far as writing goes, both the running episodic plot, the scripting, and the dialogue is very good. Not good compared to other video-games - the self-contained several episodes have clear and concise plot and character-development that fits a tv-show rather than a typical game.

This structure also allows for interesting side-stories and more elaborate presentation of bi-characters than would otherwise have been possible. And we are treated to some real gems during the game, that tie in to the small dialogues during the battles.

What this means for the game is that instead of requiring a good 50 hours of commitment to lengthy, and let's face it, usually extremely boring cutscenes – before you achieve any sort of engagement with the game and the plot, Valkyria Chronicles will let you play an episode for some 30-40 minutes, reach an ending with a cliff-hanger within that time, and then continue playing the next chapter later, when you want to. Which brings Valkyria Chronicles very quickly up to the high art range of a one-season weekly show, without any problems.

There are typically two battles in each chapter. One midway during the build-up, and another leading up to the chapter's end. This phase consists of first visiting the headquarters, recruiting soldiers, managing loadouts, then spending experience points and money on upgrading your soldiers and different ww2 style gear. This is all rather brief and minimalistic – there's a menu presented to you like an open book, and you choose the locations you want. Then you select the mission, and are transported to the battle with little ceremony, where you choose the starting positions for up to eight of your crew on a blue-print style overhead map.

You then use this overhead map with blue spots marking your soldiers, and red ones for the enemy to orient yourself. Before spending what is known as “orders” to move your soldiers and tanks individually. When you do this, you scoop down into a third-person camera, and can move your personnel around. During the movement phase, you can perform one action, such as an attack or a support-task. When you select your action, time stops, and you can aim for as long as you want. But don't expect to not get shot back when you start firing. Afterwards you continue until the movement points are spent, or you end the soldier's action.

The twist here is that rather than using “interrupt actions”, as fondly remembered from Xcom or Jagged Alliance, the game is essentially real-time when running past a turret or a soldier that spots you. But if the enemy was distracted or engaged by another soldier during a previous order, they will be less likely to spot you, and will take some time to react. And this will be clearly seen in real time when you run. In that time, you can then enter aiming mode, and fire away. As well as gain various strategic advantages such as “flank”, and “unstoppable”. Or disadvantages that happen if certain soldiers have no backup, few bullets left in their rifle, or is outnumbered, and so on. Snipers, lancers and tanks will not be able to fire during the interrupts.

After you have wreaked havoc for a number of “orders”, you end your turn, and it's the imperials' turn to have a go. If you have placed your forces strategically during your phase, and not overextended yourself, they will have a difficult time attacking you, since you will interrupt them. But if you stormed a position and failed, you will now be in serious trouble. One of my soldiers unfortunately died permanently during an attack like that (Vyse, you will be missed). But there is a save-button hidden in the system-menu, so you can save at any point during your own phases of the game, if you can't bear to lose any of the individually animated and drawn troops - who all have their own unique backstory, special abilities and quirks.

At some point during the battle you will then reach a goal – whether it is shooting a particular target, defeating a boss, escaping by stealth, or occupying an enemy base – and the next cutscene starts, taking you out to the book-menu, and the episode-selection again.

Valkyria Chronicles does in other words do a lot of things right. It has well-paced writing, with minimally atrocious use of anime style emotion (though it is there, with “sweat drops” hovering over people's heads during uncomfortable moments. And “UNDODGEABLE SHOT” prompts triggering in the middle of a battle, set to super-hero music and sparkly backgrounds). And the strategy game part is strong – that is, if you can get past the abstraction that the game is neither a first person shooter, or a real time strategy game. At the same time the level up system, where you train your classes of soldiers, and choose upgrade paths for your gear, is both quick and sweet – it's not annoyingly complex, but has enough depth to allow you to twiddle around a lot if you want to.

Where Valkyria Chronicles fails was in two particular areas, that are tied together. First, it was the difficulty. There is a point, a few missions in, where you either will have to be superhumanly skilled, or you need to start grinding the “skirmishes” for experience points. You don't need much, and the game tips remind you that “if you feel overpowered”, just grind a bit and you'll be fine. We're basically talking about just playing either of the skirmish maps once, and you're in the clear.

But you don't notice this until you've started the mission, and gotten beaten really, really, bad. And since it will have been because you just did not have enough damage soak, and don't do enough damage to win: It simply seems unfair.

Then, the next mission becomes even harder again, just in case you actually managed to complete the one before with some clever trick. And forcing that on the player during the first couple of missions was probably not a good idea. Even though.. in a sense, it is incorporated into the story, that you need to train a bit more, and that you are not strong enough to fight the Imperials just yet.

Simply placing an “are you sure you wish to continue without training” before the mission would probably have solved this problem. But there is no difficulty setting on the game, and everyone playing the game will hit this wall after a couple of chapters.

On the other hand, when you start to get the hang of the game, and level up a bit, the game becomes interesting and strategic. Higher level doesn't mean more hit-points, after all. And you can't equip every soldier with the bullet-resistant armor - so you really are forced to change strategy underway many times. This is, however, the good kind of difficulty progression, that keeps the game fresh, in that it makes you actively look for strategic advantages, and new ways to use your classes and their gradually unlocked abilities.

The second problem the game had is the waiting. Like I said, it is intended that you should complete two battles and the plot in about 45 minutes. But if you play in a particular way, and do very little during your turns - the missions can drag on for quite long. Perhaps as much as an hour. This isn't a problem, really, since you can just save the game, and continue later. But it ruins the pacing, and most of the time will be spent looking at the Imperials have their turn. Afterwards, you want the cutscene to end, because the “mission complete” prompt itself was the high point.

But the playing style you have adopted in that case will succeed – eventually – just with more difficulty than you really should have had. Then afterwards, the game will give you a bad rating, rather than suggest paths for flanking, or insist that you should place a machine-gunner in a good passive position early on, or make a break for the enemy camps to insert new troops. And then the game will come off as being extremely difficult, and perhaps not entirely well thought through.

Yet what this means is that you need to play the game differently. To take more risks, and use different strategies.

Valkyria Chronicles is an episodic semi-turn based Japanese strategy action adventure game (or something) - that has reasonably normal characters, and a well written narrative set in a non-science fiction universe. I've played the game in short stints for number of months now, and reached the final chapters after about 30 hours of gameplay. Any old Xcom player will cry a small tear of joy at some point when playing this game. The only real complaint I have is that SEGA has still not patched in Norway into the middle of the overview map where it belongs.


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Community review by fleinn (May 21, 2010)

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