Valkyria Chronicles | Principal Platforms: PlayStation 3, PC (format tested) | Developer: Sega | Publisher: Sega | Genre: Strategy, RPG | Year: 2008
I never owned a PlayStation 3 and I can’t recall ever playing a full game on one either, but that little fact has never hampered my interest of Sega‘s 2008 release Valkyria Chronicles one bit.
Looking at the strong development team behind the game, whose credits include director Shuntaro Tanaka of Skies of Arcadia fame, I knew this was one JRPG that I would simply have to try out at some point. Six years after its initial PS3 release came a port to PCs via Steam and at long last I would finally get to sample its renowned delights.
Valkyria Chronicles is a turn-based tactical war game where players take command of a custom-selected squad of soldiers in an attempt to repel the invasion of the bloodthirsty Imperial army.
Essentially an analogue for the events in Europe during World War II, this fictional account of those violent years blends elements of science fiction, low fantasy and classic war stories to create something that certainly feels a bit different from your usual turn-based affair.
Over the course of the game you’ll take command of squad leader Welkin Gunther, issue orders and directly move troops (both on foot and aboard the signature Edelweiss tank) to accomplish key mission objectives such as capturing enemy camps and destroying high-priority targets.
Your troops each have their own discipline and it’s key to learn the strengths of each class if you want to be successful. Stormtroopers are tough frontline units touting machine guns, snipers engage enemies from afar and your lancers are explosive experts and the only units capable of dealing with enemy armour.
Each class has its own movement allowance and as you move them about the game world you’ll see this movement bar steadily deplete before that troop will be left standing out in the open. As you can probably guess for a war game; it’s vital to keep troops in cover whenever possible in order to conserve their health and prevent the enemy from landing lethal head shots.
Each battle feels remarkably tactical and you’ll often find yourself with only enough command points (or CP) to do half of the things that you really want on your turn; you’re constantly being challenged to think out your approach in advance and trying to balance all of these concerns can get pretty stressful at times.
A big focal point of the game though is the story and it’s here where I’ll start to move away from the more basic synopsis and start telling you why this game is such a disappointment for me.
In a general sense, the story in Valkyria Chronicles is perfectly serviceable. The many cutscenes do a decent job of establishing the key players and side characters and there’s a good cast of voice actors to make the English dub bearable.
The problem is that there’s just too much story with even the non-optional interludes quickly outstaying their welcome. The majority of cut scenes are those ploddy and often completely inconsequential sequences that the anime art style is known for; plenty of irrelevant exchanges illustrated through talking heads and static backgrounds rather than dynamic action and movement.
Obviously this game’s cult appeal is partially due to its heavy anime influence, but it doesn’t suit the more gritty Weird War scenario at all. What’s worse is that the game tries to have it both ways; one minute you’re witnessing a horrible scene with innocent people being shot down in the street and their homes burned to the ground, and the next moment you’re being introduced to the squad’s newest member: a cute little flying pig mascot that says “moink!”.
There are plenty of plot analogues for racial discrimination too, but any meaningful message here is just offset by other absurdities such as a stupid romance angle, a plethora of submissive female stereotypes and a typical plot involving a super-powered ancient artefact that was once buried in legend and whose awakening threatens the stability of the world. Yawn.
A lack of originality in this sense is hardly a crime and, granted, settling on an anime theme isn’t always a recipe for instant disaster, but the tale that Valkyria Chronicles is, well, chronicling is just so ultimately boring at its core.
Adding to this sense of lethargy are the missions themselves which, whilst somewhat entertaining for their tactical nature, go on for way too long; anywhere from 30 to even 60 minutes for the primary missions alone. The whole game in fact plays out in a very sluggish manner. Menus are slow to appear when clicked, troops meander across the battlefield at a leisurely pace and the pre-battle cutscene (complete with poor lip-syncing) can never be skipped.
Once all of your command points are spent, the enemy faction takes their turn and then you simply put down your controller/keyboard and watch as the computer gives its own equally sluggish orders. Sometimes the enemy might not even be in direct sight of your troops and so they’ll simply patrol a preset and unseen portion of the map whilst you wait for their movement bar to expire. It’s excruciating to watch and is a far cry from the quick-fire control of an XCOM or Fallout title.
Then you have the experience points system, which is so convoluted it defies belief. You gain XP points for successfully completing missions, but you’re forced to return to headquarters and visit the training camp area before you can actually trade in that XP for level-ups on your character classes. This involves dragging a bar across the screen and confirming your expenditure for each new level-up you want to assign. It’s a pointless and time consuming process that only seems to be there to give you the illusion of progression and to pad out the game.
Indeed, the main campaign of Valkyria Chronicles does not seem to be terribly long, as the bulk of your time is spent watching cut-scenes and navigating the ‘we’re a JRPG, so let’s bury everything under a ton of menus’ style of interface. In case it’s not clear; this is certainly not a friendly title for those new to the genre.
The controls are also puzzlingly awful. Each command is mapped to a reasonably sensible place, but turning your characters is a lot more difficult than it needs to be. As a console port, things feel a lot more natural when you use a controller (the menus don’t seem to be compatible with a mouse for some reason) and the game’s blend of turn-based plotting and real-time moving and shooting is undoubtedly better with a pad too.
But it doesn’t stop the mix from feeling a bit awkward and nowhere is that more apparent than in trying to correctly maneuver the squad’s tank- a maddening task if ever there was one.
Engagements between troops also play out in a fashion that is way too random for a strategy title. Shooting at any enemy comes with an innate chance of your attack being evaded and there’s really not much you can do about it.
You can be at point blank range with a rifle to the back of their head, but there will still be a chance that the shot will be dodged; not only wasting your precious activation point, but also chancing that your character will be ripped apart in the resulting return fire. For a game that also features character permadeath, it’s something that can lead to a few frustrating moments to say the least.
Perks or ‘potentials’ are another interesting feature that tries to make each character in the squad unique, but sadly these abilities are also activated seemingly at random. You simply can’t build much of a strategy around them because you never know when they’re likely to go off and it actually ends up diluting the experience more than it bolsters it.
If you want to earn the biggest rewards then you need to try for a higher rank on each mission, but how do you earn the higher rank? By doing the mission faster. Yes, speed is everything in the quest for the coveted ‘A’ rank it seems; not effective strategy, not larger kill counts or even keeping your own troops alive; but just the pure velocity of your approach.
The ideal setup in most scenarios is to simply load up your squad with the broken scout class soldiers (very high movement rate, supposedly weaker attacks) and activate them over and over again until they’ve covered the entire battlefield and essentially rushed the enemy camp into submission.
I managed to win at least two scenarios within 2 turns using this approach and it made all that potential strategy to be had in the idea of positioning snipers and repairing barriers with engineers to just seem like a complete waste of time.
Another sin the game commits is in its lack of an autosave function. For a game released in 2008, this is quite simply unforgivable and woe betide you should your game crash during one of those 45 minute missions… I imagine many players have stopped playing outright because of this and I wouldn’t blame them one bit if they did.
It’s a real shame because on the whole the PC port is actually well programmed, the game runs well and loads new scenes pretty quickly in comparison to its reputedly slow console cousin. It doesn’t save you from all that arduous pre-combat dialogue, but at least you can quickly jump in once all the talking finally does stop.
At this point I feel like I should stress that Valkyria Chronicles is not a bad game as such. There’s a unique setup, a great visual flair and some fairly entertaining and tactical missions to play through here. However, these good points are spoiled by mistakes that could easily have been avoided and I wonder how many fans have overlooked these failings because of a connection with the game’s central theme and romantic sub plot.
If you’re a nut for slow burn strategic titles with a dollop of randomness and you have an anime fixation, then by all means; play this game right now as you’ll likely join the majority in absolutely loving it.
Everyone else though would do well to steer clear of Valkyria Chronicles altogether; there are games out there that do this sort of thing a lot better without the protracted gameplay and cute flying pigs.
Too sluggish for my action sensibilities and too chaotic for the part of me that appreciates deep strategy. Valkyria Chronicles feels unique, looks gorgeous and is blessed with a great PC port, but its punishingly slow gameplay, unengaging story and jilted controls ultimately ruin what could have been a grand tactical adventure.