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Review: Valkyria Chronicles (PS3)

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Sega’s history as a game-crafter is speckled with some real gems, some of which have had significant impacts on future generations of games.  One area in which Sega has usually performed well to warm fan support is the classic RPG.  Though Valkyria Chronicles follows somewhat in the tradition of such games, it falls far more squarely into the realm of strategy RPGs, such as Final Fantasy Tactics.  Chronicles does manage to provide a surprisingly deep story though – not without the occasional JRPG cliche, to be sure, but nevertheless clearly well-developed and enjoyable. 

Centering around a fictional and stylized Europe in the 1930s, VC focuses on the small independent nation of Gallia.  This tiny country is geographically between and adjacent to two vastly larger powers who are warring over the fictitious mineral Ragnite, a rare and valuable stone which can be used as a mechanical power source, a high-powered explosive, and (oddly enough) a healing aid.  Gallia’s soil is rich in the miracle metal, making it a target of exceptional strategic importance to both the Atlantic Federation and the East Europan Imperial Alliance, the latter of whom are the clear villains of the piece.  As the Imperial Alliance – the Empire – advances relentlessly into Gallia, slaughtering even civilians in their haste to occupy the land and begin mining it of Ragnite, Gallia’s beleagured native militia finds a surprising new strategic asset in young Welkin Gunther, the player’s primary avatar and male lead.  Welkin’s father was General Belgen Gunther, who was famed in the first Europan war as a lethally skilled tank commander.  Unbenknownst to Welkin, his father’s awesome tank, the Edelweiss, is still in perfect working condition, hidden in his family’s homestead.  When the advancing Imperial line forces Welkin and his foster sister Isara to flee their home, Isara reveals the mighty Edelweiss to Welkin, who then becomes a tank commander and leader of Squad 7 in Gallia’s militia.  The game’s moderately lengthy campaign follows Squad 7 as they defend their homeland, and uncover some mysteries about its myth-laden past.

From literally the moment you first see its title screen, Valkyria Chronicles practically reaches out of the screen and grabs you with its artwork.  The first title to utilize Sega’s much-talked-about CANVAS visual engine, VC’s graphics do a remarkable job of simulating something between traditional hand-drawn anime and a pencil-and-watercolor artwork.  Said title screen even shows the evolution of its imagery through basic pencil strokes to colored forms, to the final smooth-shaded version.  The game does have some very minor aliasing, but one has to truly nitpick to notice such things – the overall quality of the visuals thoroughly overshadows any minor blemishes, and really gives a glimpse of what forthcoming titles on current and future generation systems will be able to achieve.  Craftsmanship is clearly evident in every line and expression of a character’s face, and the exquisite detail of individual uniforms and field kits.  Words really can’t describe it – everyone should at least try the VC demo to see for themselves.

Production values remain high in sound design.  While the sounds of tanks rolling and weapons firing aren’t as grittily realistic as you’d get in a Call of Duty game, they do the job of bringing across the power of the weapons, or mass of the vehicles.  Voice acting is similarly worthwhile; while the Japanese samples are available (and predictably superior, or at least far more in keeping with the art style), the English actors do sound like they cared about their roles, and do a good job of making a few words of dialog convey a good amount of meaning.   There is literally nearly nothing to find fault with in VC’s presentation.  The story elements (and battles) are revealed to the player as though they were reading a large book, with each “Episode” containing either a small story segment or a battle segment.  The book is well-illustrated and looks especially good in HD.  If anything might be pointed out as even a potential flaw, it’s that the battle music can get a little repetitive, since though each side has a distinct theme while moving and acting, the themes are short and do loop.  In all probability though, you’ll be involved enough not to care.  The between-battle pieces, and there are many, are all glorious; classically influenced and understated, but universally enjoyable.

VC’s battle sequences play out in fairly traditional turn-based fashion, though once a unit is selected the player actually takes 1-to-1 control of it and maneuvers it to whatever destination is desired, perhaps performing an attack or healing/repair action along the way.  An Action bar does limit total potential movement, but there is a rather greater feeling of free action than a traditional grid-and-marker setup.  The game has very light third-person-shooter elements during this direct-action phase, to the point that the opposing forces will actually fire at you if you move through their visual field (your own troops do this as well, when enemies advance).  Some considerations crop up in mid-battle, like sandstorms in desert areas, or the advent of powerful enemy reinforcements.  Fighters can also crouch behind certain items of cover (usually walls of sandbags) to reduce their vulnerability to enemy fire.  That’s a big deal too, because in another nod to 3P shooters, headshots actually do significantly increased damage to non-crouching opponents – hello, Sniper class.

Speaking of classes, the game offers you five (in addition to Welkin, your Tank Commander, who sort of stands outside the normal class guidelines).  Scouts are fragile, high-mobility troopers who are excellent for capturing objective points (as long as the opposition isn’t too fierce or numerous); Shocktroopers are far less mobile, but also much tougher and capable of dealing out vast amounts of anti-personnel punishment in short range.  Lancers are bazooka-wielding tank slayers, slow and lacking head-to-head combat abilities but tough and immensely valuable for their anti-armor capabilities.  Engineers are healers and tank repairers, with good mobility and approximately the same attack capability as Scouts, but rather less toughness.  Snipers are, well, Snipers.  They fall over if you look at them funny and can barely move half the distance of most other units in an action, but lord help you if your head gets in their scope.  Each class gains levels as a gestalt, rather than each individual character.  That’s fairly important, too, since your squad will rarely have more than a few units in the field at one time, but you’ll have a large pool of potential talent to choose from.  Your squad can have a total of 20 members, with typically between 8 and 10 actually in the field, while the rest wait in reserve if a member is evacuated or retreats.  A much larger pool of candidates is available back at the militia headquarters.  Selection of active squad members can be a very involved process if you pay attention to detail.  Each militia member has a certain set of unique potentials – events that will positively or negatively affect their status in combat.  Some fighters are right at home in forest locales, leading to increased defense or accuracy; while others are actively allergic to plants, meaning they’ll take damage if too close to thick foliage.  Other potentials include a bonus to defense when rushing towards emplaced enemies who are actively firing.  These circumstance-triggered events usually involve a brief headshot and tagline by the fighter in question.  Though all fighters are members of an overall class, they have remarkably well-developed personalities that you’ll probably find yourself getting attached to.

Though much of the game’s visual design and some of its storywork feels rather whimsical, there are serious undertones.  Opening cinematics do a generally good job of portraying Gallia’s oppression by the Empire, and – in another personlaity-development quirk – team members who are permanently killed in battle (either by remaining without aid for too long or being touched by an active enemy soldier) have poignant exit dialog; the soldier fades back into hand-drawn lines on paper as they “die.”  It’s a remarkably well done effect that, while totally bloodless, really gets the point across.

Needless to say, a story about war involves a lot of battles.  However, VC does a decent job of occasionally breaking the action up with slightly different missions.  You’ll still be moving units about and attacking with the same commands and (most of) the same abilities, but the objectives are usually more strategic, or about pure survival in enemy territory.  Though not totally different from the regular flow of larger-scale battles, these do help provide some change of pace.  Amusingly, training your squad members and upgrading weapons and equipment can be done at any point in the campaign – including when your soldiers are supposedly stranded behind enemy lines and fighting for their lives.  This has to do with the book interface, which can be accessed at any time save in the middle of an active battle, but doesn’t really harm the experience – far from it, if being able to upgrade your troops makes a tough mission easier.

As VC’s story goes on, the conflict becomes less about purely military objectives and more about forgotten elements of Gallia’s past.  As usual, I’ll try to avoid spoilers, but will say that some of those JRPG cliches pop up in full force here.  However, the story stays engaging throughout, and may even have your heart in your mouth at one or two points.  The conclusion is fairly satisfying (as is getting through the later battles, which become far less forgiving than earlier excursions), and in a sort of light-documentary fashion, the player finds out what their squad did after the war once you’ve completed the campaign.  You’re also given the option to re-play the game with all your powered-up soldiers and equipment, making the missions vastly easier (and making the elusive A ranks much more obtainable).  If you’re not hung up on ranks, the prospect of leveling enemy forces which stymied you on first playthrough might make a second one more enjoyable.

This next paragraph will get a little weird, so let me first simply say that if I haven’t made it clear to this point, strategy fans should immediately buy VC, if they haven’t already.  However, I do want to add this part of my experience, simply because it was part of the review process for me and think it should be shared.  First, let me qualify by saying that I’ve never played a strategy game before, and typically do very little with RPGs of any sort.  Perhaps for that reason, I found VC to be rather unfulfilling at first – it felt slow and difficult to enjoy despite the disarmingly lovely visuals and music.  Too, when having difficulty in battles, I often felt the need to reload a save several times in mid-battle just to achieve a desired outcome (for instance, a Sniper hitting a long, difficult headshot and the enemy not dodging).  The game does permit this, as a game can be saved after each individual action of the player’s squad, not just after a full turn.  The latter choice might have been preferable, since it would limit “tweaking” the outcomes of specific events as I’ve just described.  The game does grade on quick completion of battles (not more military objectives like number of enemies defeated), so if a player can overlook the tedium of multiple reloads – which I couldn’t – the option is hard to ignore.  As I played the game more, eventually to completion, I gradually got irritated enough with such backtracking to simply play battles through and accept poorer results, with the odd side effect that I learned to enjoy the game more along the way (though to be honest it never grabbed me as much as a title in a genre I enjoy more).  Perhaps that’s the lesson of a good SRPG, that good things can be worth digging deeper and waiting longer for.  If so, VC definitely does the job of being a deep and enjoyable adventure that’s worth seeing through to completion, and probably running through again for fun.  And again, I can’t stress enough that everyone should at least check out the demo to see its visual wonder.  If nothing else, VC is a promise of great things to come.

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