Genre: Action / Strategy
Reviewer: George Damidas
Overall: 8.5 = Excellent
Some of my favorite strategy games have been from Sega. The company had a fairly strong hand in the genre for many years, as the Shining Force series and Dragon Force ate up hours of my life during the 16- and 32-bit eras. The company has recently gotten back into the swing of things with the acquisition of Creative Assembly and the subsequent publishing of Medieval II: Total War, along with Petroglyph Games’ Universe at War. Valkyria Chronicles is more than just a return to form, though, as it’s also one of the best PlayStation 3 games available.
In Europa, the Imperial Alliance is engaged in a war with the Atlantic Federation. As the war drags on and resources become strained, the neutral nation of Gallia is invaded by the Empire for its abundance of ragnite ore deposits. You take on the role of Welkin Gunther, an ecologically focused university student and the son of a Gallian general, Belgen Gunther. On his way home one day, Welkin happens upon Alicia Melchiott, the head of his hometown militia. As videogames tend to do, the age of the characters has no negative correlation to their role within the world, as teenage Alicia flexes her authority and has Welkin arrested under the suspicion of espionage. Long story short, Alicia finds out that Welkin is the son of a general, becomes his pal, and they blow stuff up together.
Valkyria Chronicles is essentially a retelling of World War II, except with magic and a pig with wings. Ethereal ancient races and the odd animal anomaly aside, this is a reimaginingof Europe in the 1930s and 40s. The Empire is Germany circa Third Reich in all but name, with similar uniforms, insignias, and mannerisms. Weapons, vehicles, and architecture are likewise similar. And to drive the point home, there are even concentration camps.
During a daring escape from Imperial forces, Welkin finds the Edelweiss, a tank built by his father during the First Europan War, and quickly comes to command it while his stepsister Isara acts as pilot and engineer. How a quiet 16-year-old so quickly becomes proficient at armored combat is surprising, but Isara’s technical chops and steadiness behind the wheel earn the brother and sister a name for themselves with the Gallian militia higher-ups. After being drafted, the two are joined by Alicia and a handful of others, forming Squad 7.
The characters are actually important here, unlike most strategy games. There is a good deal of interaction between the squadmates via cutscenes and pre-mission dialog. Isara is a Darcsen, a dark-haired people that are said to have been a violent race whose warlike behavior resulted in the devastation of the continent. Other squadmates, in particular the shocktrooper Rosie, are openly hostile to Isara. The friction between the parties is held for quite a while over the game’s 19 missions, and is used, of course, to teach a lesson and bring everyone together. Magic will eventually come into play in all of this, which is a bit jarring in an otherwise believable setting, but you have a good 12 hours before kicks in.
You might be relieved to hear that you don’t have a direct role in the party’s squabbles. As the commander, however, you have several responsibilities that involve your squad. Troops have to be recruited, equipped, and trained, after which they can largely be left alone, except for when fallen soldiers need to be replaced with new recruits. Those who prefer to be more hands-on can opt to instead micromanage the squad and keep note of their personalities, as the soldiers’ unique traits will affect their performance. For instance, soldiers raised in the country will fight better in the open while those from the city will fight less efficiently in the same circumstances; there are also those who fight better near men or women (or both), alone, in a group, near friends, and so on. Ignoring their personalities might make a turn or two more difficult during combat, but nothing insurmountable, while keeping them in mind will increase squad effectiveness and overall performance.
The troops are also trained by type, not individually. Units are pre-assigned as a scout, shocktrooper, engineer, sniper, or lancer (anti-tank). This is a fantastic approach and keeps things moving briskly; it stings to lose a soldier during combat (when an enemy reaches the wounded before an ally can call a medic), but having to replace them isn’t crushing since their replacement will have the same capabilities. Again, the micromanagers out there will know what weapons to change and how to adjust their line-up accordingly, but the beauty of the design is that such knowledge isn’t necessary, allowing for everyone else to proceed with the war.
The story is broken up into chapters that form a book about the war. Different tabs within the book lead to different sections: skirmishes (unlocked replayable missions that award cash and experience), headquarters, personal and weapon information, and the main story itself, which consists of cutscenes and the campaign missions. Headquarters will be visited often as that is where you receive decorations, recruit and train troops, research equipment and upgrades, read news articles about the squad, and so on. Combat earns the experience that goes to training and the cash that funds armor and weapon-upgrade research. The upgrades have a branching system, with paths that focus on power, accuracy, or effects. Vehicle upgrades come in the form of different-sized plates that are inserted into a set area, which forces you to balance between offense and defense. There is also a cemetery where you can view the graves of fallen troops, as well as gain access to new (and expensive) abilities from an old soldier.
Getting to the combat can take a while, though. Before receiving any marching orders, you will have to sit through numerous cutscenes. The clips can either go on for a few minutes or be so short that it takes longer to load them than it does to view them. That brings up one negative: loading. Even after the 15- to 20-minute optional install, the game still loads frequently and occasionally for extended periods of time. If you opt not to install, which I advise against, then be prepared to wait. Patience has its rewards, though. Sporting a unique watercolor look, smooth animation, and decent voice actors, the game looks and sounds great, even if the dialog can produce a wince or two. Despite the heady material—Darcsen concentration camps, war, death, and racism—its delivery is so saccharine that the clips can be hard to watch. Much of what’s said reminded me of Ben Stiller in Tropic Thunder when he asked why ‘man uses stick to hit man’—it’s just not effective. These powerful scenes routinely fall flat and the characters, despite being the archetypes of man’s struggle (war, fear, revenge), end up being annoying by the end. It’s only after sitting through three, four, possibly five of these cutscenes that you then actually get to fight.
I was always itching to go by the time I finally took to the field. After a quick briefing on the objectives, units are chosen, their positions selected, and then the squad is deployed. It will take a few minutes to get the hang of combat your first time out. While it’s not the first strategy game to mix formats (real time and turn based), genre (action and strategy), or both, it’s still an uncommon formula, and its pacing is definitely different. When a unit is chosen after deployment, you have direct control over them. During this time you and the enemy can exchange fire, or you can pause the action to aim in target mode. Characters can do one action per round, be it attack, heal, or a class-specific duty (e.g., an engineer disarming a landmine), but they can move as long as their action gauge isn’t depleted. This system allows for units to get near an enemy, toss a grenade, shoot from the hip, or target the head, then retreat and set themselves up for the enemy’s turn. Welkin can also issue squad-wide commands, boosting offensive and defensive capabilities.
A command point is used each time a unit is selected. Some special units offer additional command points as well, with the downside being that their death also removes one from the total. Infantry require one command point and tanks require two. Each time a unit is used during a single turn, they start with some of their action gauge already gone, and the gauge is gradually depleted the more a unit is chosen during a round. This depletion is a check to keep a unit from running rampant, so for example, a scout isn’t able to run the entire length of the map during the first time. In addition, some units also have limited ammunition. This restriction limits lancer and sniper use, which keeps them from taking out tanks and infantry from afar without fear of retaliation.
Units will auto-attack an approaching enemy if they are within firing range and facing in the appropriate direction, similar to the X-Com series. Units will also return fire if the attacker is within range. The exception is that lancers and snipers cannot return fire when attacked. While it may make sense to restrict rocket and sniper fire, it’s also ridiculous to see units get torn up from gunfire and do nothing about it. Movement therefore becomes not only about setting up a proper attack but also adequately preparing the troops for what the enemy might do during their turn. Effective combat requires taking a few minutes and thinking things through, especially if you want the extra cash and experience that is given for a good performance evaluation.
In general, combat is excellent. There is a rock-paper-scissors approach to unit interaction, as might be expected: shocktroopers are tough but have a limited range; scouts are highly maneuverable and have a long range but weak weapons; snipers have very limited range but can zoom in on their targets; engineers are weaker than scouts but capable of repairing the Edelweiss and dealing with obstacles; and lancers have anti-armor weapons, limited range, and blast suits that are capable of taking explosions from grenades and vehicles but are susceptible to gunfire. A weird result of attempting to balance out the mechanics is the ineffectiveness of lancers when fighting other infantry: it’s strange to see a rocket miss a unit that’s seven feet away or hit and have them brush it off. It’s obvious why lancers were nerfed, but it doesn’t make the scenarios any less bizarre. I also found one of the best classes to be the engineer. Engineers offer the same rifle as the scout and an action gauge of nearly the same length, but they also have a plethora of additional abilities, including bolstering and removing defenses. Deploy a few engineers behind the Edelweiss or to a wrecked camp and watch the tide turn.
Despite the high amount of polish and eye candy, Valkyria Chronicles is very rough around the edges. The problems all speak to a design team feeling their way through a new system, trying to figure out what works, what doesn’t, and how to keep it all from falling apart. It seems as though the large number of tactical options and modifiers are being tallied by a rudimentary underlying system. It doesn’t help that you are always on the offensive, which means the enemy has the benefit of bases to call in reinforcements and cover to hide behind as they take pot shots. You are never given a respite, with some levels eschewing the game’s overall puzzle feel in favor of becoming actual puzzles. The game forces situations upon you that are initially winnable only through sheer luck, often necessitating multiple attempts. I cannot tell you how frustrating it is to have everything set up for minimum damage to be taken in exchange for maximum ground gained, only to have your squad surrounded by fresh troops and vehicles. The worst is when snipers appear after the enemy becomes elite and starts picking off your soldiers from nearly the entire length of the map. Such difficulties are exacerbated by the enemy having unlimited reinforcements, numerous command points, or heavy artillery that peppers the battlefield. It doesn’t help that soldiers can get hung up on objects fairly easy, which quickly siphons their action gauge, leaving them stranded to face the artillery or ambush alone.
There are also numerous problems with the artificial intelligence. Enemies will at once be unstoppable and absolutely simple. At times, it seems as though the computer wants to remind you that it can make life miserable whenever it wants. Those moments occur when all troops gang up on the Edelweiss, with its destruction resulting in an immediate loss. Other times, soldiers will willfully ignore Welkin and go about doing something ridiculous, like jumping back and forth over sandbags until they decide they’ve had enough. I would venture to guess that a lot of the randomness is a direct result of the Edelweiss having to survive because it’s obvious that the computer understands this and can take advantage, but opts to avoid doing so as the game would become unbearable. The result of trying to keep things fair brings about moments of awkwardness that are clear demonstrations of growing pains.
It’s easy to get caught up in the aesthetics, as pleasant as they are, but there is a lot of game here. The core missions will take around 20 hours to play through, and the skirmish mode offers a great deal of replay value. There is also a lot of streamlining involved, which offers two different approaches to play: you can simply enjoy the combat and story, or you can get involved in the world by reading the newspaper articles, matching unit traits, tailoring specific weapon types to specific units, viewing additional cutscenes, and funding additional background stories about the squad and its members. The amount of modifiers is also impressive, ranging from unit- and class-specific to environmental. The ability to save at any time is a godsend and helps to alleviate a lot of the frustrations from the computer’s handful of “gotcha!” moments. Even the puzzle-like qualities can lead to interesting situations, revealing just how ingenious the game allows you to be. It may have some rough spots, but there is a lot on offer and even more going on behind the scenes.
Valkyria Chronicles is both impressive and strikingly flawed. Many of its problems are the result of a game finding its bearings while dealing with numerous modifiers and variables in an overworked combat engine. The game ends up being infuriating and exciting, coming across as both polished and not quite done. Despite its shortcomings, however, it still shines. You won’t find anything else like it on the PlayStation 3, and I doubt you will for some time to come. Strategy fans, check this one out.
(This review is based on a copy provided by the publisher. Originally published on December 22, 2008.)