Some of my favorite strategy games have been Sega titles. The Shining Force series and Dragon Force ate up hours of my life during the 16- and 32-bit eras. It might surprise some, but Sega had a fairly strong hand in the genre. The company has recently gotten back into the swing of things with the acquisition of Creative Assembly and the subsequent publishing of the sequel Medieval II: Total War along with Petroglyph Gamesí Universe at War. Valkyria Chronicles is more than just a return to form for Segaís console roots, though; itís 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 drug on and resources became strained, the neutral nation of Gallia was invaded by the Empire for its abundance of ragnite ore deposits. You take on the role of Welkin Gunther, the son of the Gallian General Belgen Gunther, a young university student that is enraptured by nature. On his way home, Welkin happens upon Alicia Melchiott, the head of his hometownís 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 IIÖexcept with magic and a pig with wings. Ethereal ancient races and the odd animal anomaly aside, this is a reimagining of Europe in the 1930s and 40s. The Empire is Germany circa Third Reich in all but name, with similar uniforms, insignia, and mannerisms. Weapons, vehicles, and architecture are likewise similar. 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 becomes so proficient so quickly at armored combat is surprising, but Isaraís 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 gameís 19 missions, and is used, of course, to teach a lesson and bring everyone together all kumbaya-like. 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 the Valkyrur connection forms.
You might be relieved to hear that you donít have a direct role in the partyís squabbles. As the commander, however, you do have several responsibilities that involve your squad. Troops have to be recruited, equipped, and trained. The troops can largely be left alone, however, only getting involved to replace fallen soldiers with new recruits. You can also micromanage the squad, however, which includes keeping note of their personalities. The unique traits of the soldiers will affect their performance. For instance, soldiers raised in the country will fight better in the open while those from the city will fight worse; and then there are 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 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 instead of individually. Units come 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 replacing them isnít 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 it is such knowledge isnít necessary, allowing for everyone else to get on with their game.
The story is broken up into chapters, which form a book about the war. Different tabs within the book lead to different sections: skirmishes (unlocked, replayable missions for cash and experience), headquarters, personal and weapon information, and the main story that consists of cutscenes and the 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. But all of this is to lay the groundwork for the combat.
Getting to the combat can take a while, though. Before receiving your 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 15-20 minute optional install, the game still loads frequently and sometimes for extended periods of time. If you opt not to install, which I advise against, then be prepared to wait. Sporting a unique watercolor look, smooth animation, and decent voice actors, the game looks and sounds great, but the dialog can produce a wince or two. Despite there being some heady material here Ė Darcsen concentration camp, war, death, and racism Ė its delivery is so saccharine that the clips can be hard to watch. Much of whatís said reminded me of Ben Stiller in Tropic Thunder asking why man uses stick to hit man Ė itís just not effective. These powerful scenes routinely fall flat and the characters, despite being the archetype of manís struggle (war, fear, revenge, and so on), end up being annoying by the end. Itís only after sitting through three, four, possibly five of these cutscenes that you then get to fight.
By the time I took to the field, I was itching to go. 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 on the battlefield. While not being the first strategy game to mix formats (real-time and turn-based), genre (action and strategy), or both, itís still an uncommon formula and its pacing is different. When a unit is chosen after deployment, you have direct control over them. During this time the enemy can fire at you and you at the enemy, 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., engineer disarming a landmine), but they can move as long as their action gauge isnít 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 enemyís 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. The depletion is a check to keep a unit from running rampant, so a scout isnít 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. Units will also return fire if the attacker is within range. The exception to this is that lancers and snipers cannot return fire when attacked. While it may make sense to restrict rocket and sniper fire, itís also ridiculous to see units get torn up from gunfire and do nothing about it. Movement therefore becomes not only setting up a proper attack, but also adequately preparing your 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 great fun. There is a rock-paper-scissors approach to unit interaction, as would be expected: shocktroopers are tough with 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 scouts, but also capable of repairing the Edelweiss and dealing 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: itís strange to see a rocket miss a unit thatís seven feet away or hit and have them brush it off. Itís obvious why lancers were nerfed the way they are, but it doesnít make the scenarios any less silly. 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 with a plethora of additional abilities, including bolstering and removing defenses. If ever in doubt, 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 doesnít, and how to keep it all from falling apart. It seems as though the sheer number of tactical options and modifiers were countered by a very rudimentary system. It doesnít help that you are always on the offensive, which means the enemy has the benefit of bases to call in reinforcements and cover to take pot shots behind. You are never given a respite, with some levels going beyond a puzzle feel and flat-out being puzzles. The game forces situations upon you that are initially winnable through sheer luck, but often necessitate multiple attempts. I cannot tell you how frustrating it is to have everything set up to where minimum damage is taken 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. Times like that are exacerbated by the enemy having unlimited reinforcements, numerous command points, or heavy artillery that peppers the battlefield. It doesnít help that you can get hung up on objects fairly easy, which siphons your action gauge like nobodyís business, leaving a trooper 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 you 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 theyíve had enough. I would venture to guess that a lot of the randomness is a direct result of the Edelweiss having to survive, because itís obvious that the computer understands this and can take advantage, but it often doesnít being the game would be unbearable. The result of trying to keep things fair brings about moments of awkwardness that are clear demonstrations of growing pains.
Itís easy to get caught up in the aesthetics, being as pleasing 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 playing: you can simply enjoy the combat and story, focuses just on that, or you can get involved in the world by reading the newspaper articles, matching unit traits, tailoring specific weapon types to specific units, view additional cutscenes, and fund 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 anytime is a godsend and helps to alleviate a lot of the frustrations from the handful of ďgotcha!Ē moments by the computer. 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 offered and a lot going on behind the scenes.
Overall: 8.5/10Valkyria Chronicles is both impressive and strikingly flawed. Many of its problems are growing pains, the result of trying to tackle a beefy, unseen combat engine with overly simplistic rules. The game ends up being infuriating and exciting, coming across as both polished and not quite done. Despite its shortcomings, it still shines. You wonít 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.