Valkyria Chronicles ReviewJoe Shaffer
I always root for the underdog. Whenever I see a fight, I place my bet on the little guy. As much as I enjoy the brutal, naked truth shown in nature programs, I always cheer for the prey. That was the first thing Sega did right with Valkyria Chronicles. They wisely walked the line between empowerment and disadvantage by giving you a small but capable militia, a tiny fraction of a meager military, to command against an imperial army. Every mission and bit of narrative belies the futility in your efforts. With every victory, though, you see more of your home country, Gallia, liberated and restored much to everyone's surprise.
To fight against this menace, you're going to need a multi-talented crew. The game allows you to recruit a large number of soldiers of various classes and thrust them into the thick of S-RPG combat. Commanding your unit is Welkin Gunther, a lover of biology and a young patriot who has joined the militia to defend his home country. Though Gunther may seem like a typical mild-mannered youngster, he's actually more badass than you think. This is mainly because he co-pilots a tank. Joining Gunther on this mission to liberate Gallia are a motley crew of scouts, lancers, troopers, engineers and snipers ready to send the empire packing.
Think of how S-RPGs work. You start with a basic, limited environment filled with simple setpieces and a fat stack of enemies. It plays out like a virtual miniatures game, where you move your pieces and "roll the dice" to see if you land a hit, how much damage you do, etc. The main difference with Valkyria Chronicles, and one of its more impressive aspects, is that the environments are fully fleshed out with various smaller setpieces from one end to the other. If you travel down an alley while in urban combat, you might see more than few street lights. Enemies set up makeshift camps, use garbage bins as cover, and fire down from rooftops. You can creep down a forest path and find a small cabin hiding an enemy encampment, or a trail leading to a well guarded anti-tank cannon. Meanwhile, there are several other areas of interest in a forest setting, including multiple paths leading to the enemy's main base, some small checkpoints, and a few blocked off "secret" roads lined with landmines.
I enjoy the detailed terrain. I especially loved one mission that consisted of a complex network of trenches. I started with two small encampments against a legion foot soldiers and cannon-equipped bunkers. I had to plan my moves carefully. If I took a soldier out of the trenches at the wrong time, machine gunners would open fire and drain most of his HP. Since I was too far away to get a sure shot on the guy, I had to wait for an opening. I eventually got members from both groups to surround the enemy. I worked my way from both sides, taking out bunkers and unsuspecting foot soldiers on a mission to secure the enemy's base.
Base occupation is a familiar requirement for most battles. Commanding a small chunk of your militia, you start off with a finite amount of AP (referred to as "Battle Chips"). Each non-tank character consumes one Battle Chip, while tanks consume 2. Each character, depending on their class, can move for a certain distance and perform different actions, including opening fire on a target. When engaging a target, you go into a first-person view which allows you to aim your firearm at the body part you wish to hit. After opening fire, your target gets a chance at reprisal unless they're a heavy unit.
When you're done using a character, they don't become inactive until the next round. You can use them again and again as long as you have Battle Chips, but with repeated use the distance they can travel lessens. Despite that, there's one small flaw that you can exploit in certain missions that allows you to win within a round or two. I found this out in one stage where you must take back a windmill. I sent one of my scouts out, taking back alleys and side routes, and made it to the enemy base within a few turns. After a little shooting and few grenades, I took the enemy's base before the round was even up, netting tons of experience and money.
However, this is not the case with every battle. Some require different objectives, like defeating a boss or destroying a certain piece of environment. I remember one that looked easy. There was a lone base in the middle of a battered field, lightly guarded. Naturally, I took the base right away. Yeah, yeah, I could hear Admiral Ackbar crying his famous line with every step I took, but I still crapped my pants in terror when two giant tank destroyers rolled out with their howitzers pointed my way. Battles like these not only added much needed variety to the game, but challenge. These weren't battles you could win in a few turns. You really needed to plan and be efficient about it. Take too many rounds and you automatically lose.
The only real downside to Valkyria Chronicles is the AI. There were many times where the game could easily take out one of my units, but refrained from doing so. The computer could have easily reused a tank multiple times in one round and destroyed Welkin's tank (which automatically spells game over). Yet the game only takes one shot, maybe two, with a tank per turn. There were many times where a tank could have pulverized a troop with a single shot; where one of my tanks gunned down an enemy who blatantly ran up to it; where troops could have finished off a weakened unit. In every case, they refrained. The thing is if the game takes full advantage of your vulnerability, then it becomes much too unforgiving. The only answer was to dumb down the AI, though that's still on a good way to implement fairness in any game. This doesn't mean you'll walk out of every battle unscathed, without having to work for your victories. It just means the game is given to moments of temporary stupidity.
One nice thing that's also kind of a drag is that you can save any time in battle. Not suspend like most S-RPGs, but save and reload as many times as you want. While this is nice for people like me who have a limited schedule, it's also something you can easily exploit for an unfair advantage. Let's say you're about to attempt a critical shot and you don't want to miss. All you have to do is save the game right before the shot, then keep reloading until you make it. The only downside to this strategy is that the load times are long, but that's only a minor impediment to a patient player.
Despite the small flaws, combat is exciting. I looked forward to every new battle so I could see what this game could throw at me next. However, new missions were not my sole motivation in playing. Each chapter delivered great cutscenes with a lively cast of characters. I had hoped that Welkin wouldn't be another annoying, emotional, over-eager teen like so many J-RPG protagonists. When I saw that he didn't have a ridiculous haircut or a garish gender-bending getup, I let out a huge sigh of relief. The guy was quite down to earth, confident and intelligent. He and his friends wereen't driven by an altruistic need to save the world. What they wanted was simple and understandable, even relatable: to defend their home and freedoms. By supplying characters with grounded motives, Sega delivered a narrative we can relate to.
Outside of story and battle, you can make a pit stop at the Gallian capital. There you can spend experience to level up your troops at the training grounds or learn new orders from a war vet. If you've accrued a good grip of cash, you can also upgrade your tanks or purchase special side missions that further develop the main characters. If you perform well in battle, the princess will request and audience at the palace. There you can gain new medals that prove how awesome you are, as well as obtain special weaponry for your troops.
Valkyria Chronicles is definitely not a perfect game. Its flaws are unlike so many other games. The mechanics are perfect, and the rule system is mostly fair. The unfortunate part is it's a little skewed in your favor. Honestly, I can dig that. Since most strategy games have a tendency to rip my face off, it's nice to play one, albeit its imperfection, that doesn't slap me silly. It's also nice to play a Japanese game with a fairly grounded story, with gorgeous environments, and with intricate little missions. I guess what I'm trying to say is Valkyria Chronicles is a genuine pleasure to play. It's just got a few small kinks.
Disclosure: We are provided copies of games from the game companies for some games that we review.