A melting pot of story, turn-based and real-time strategy Valkyria Chronicles is an engaging retelling of a war with rich and complex gameplay to match. Not without its quirks, some gamers may be deterred but they will only be missing out on a wholly remarkable title that defies conventions and delivers something greater than the sum of its parts.
A WWII game with a moderately clever disguise Valkyria Chronicles is set in a re-imagined Europe of the 1930s and tells the tale of a great war between the Atlantic Federation (Allies) and the East European Imperial Alliance (Nazis). After a little background of the surrounding war-torn countries, the game shifts focus to the small nation of Gallia and the struggle of their army to protect the tiny country from such a sizable foe. An otherwise neutral nation, Gallia is drawn into the conflict when the Alliance sets its sights on its resource-rich countryside. An abundance of the highly valued ragnite is not the only thing driving the conflict and it is revealed that the ruthless enemy has more than trace amounts of pure evil and a hearty vendetta against Darcsens (Jews).
Fortunately, lead character Welkin (a nature enthusiast the likes of which not seen since Audubon) calls Gallia home, and as the son of a renowned general he is certain to make something of himself. For a neutral country, Gallia has some tactical advantages as all of its residents have at least some military training, and with Universal Conscription in place there are more than a few colorful battle-ready characters dotting the pastoral landscape.
The game is presented as a storybook in a text titled “On the Gallian Front” with a menu of pages, pictures and chapters. Each sepia-toned two-page spread lays out the cut-scenes and battles which are filled in with the game’s watercolor and pencil style as you alternately view and play through them. The story is well done, and there is plenty of it – and with a remarkably large cast of characters the background is needed just so you can remember who is who and why you care. In the beginning the game feels cut-scene heavy, but as the battles quickly become more epic in length a balance is struck and the well-woven narrative finds its place as a human element in a time of inhuman ruin.
Before each battle you receive a brief with the situation and the primary objective after which you can select which characters you want to deploy into the field. Of the 20 characters pulled from specialized classes each battle limits how many can be on the battlefield at a time. A medic is on standby for retrieval, and reserve troops can replace ones currently deployed as the need arises. For gameplay as heavy on the strategy as it is, I did find I wanted more tactical briefing before a battle. Just the difference between the map and the third person reality of the battlefield can be difficult to get your head around – namely, what is penetrable and what isn’t – and when the briefing about the terrain is overly, well, brief, then mistakes happen.
In each scenario you are given a number of Command Points which fixes how many moves you have within a turn (or Phase) and replenishes at the beginning of each Phase. For each CP used on a unit, they are allowed a set range of motion tracked in a meter, and one attack. A character can be used multiple times in a turn in this system, though they will not be fresh at the beginning of each move.
Unlike a standard SRPG where your turn means you are at your leisure to handle your team, the enemy in Valkyria attacks in real time making for intense and absorbing battles. Once your unit enters attack mode the enemy fire will stop giving you time to target. After firing, however, the enemy not only returns fire they will continue firing should you dilly-dally about what’s next. Your units will respond in kind when the enemy attack, which means you, will want to avoid lazily leaving members of your squad with their backs to combat, out of cover. During battle, you are unable to pause during the enemy phase or while you attack which can lead to some of those truly frustrating gamer moments and it is this sort of intensity that may scare off gamers already shy of real time action.
After each battle you are awarded a rank based on how well you complete the scenario, with experience bonuses handed out for higher levels of success. XP are used on the Training Field to level up any of the five main characters classes making them stronger and giving them new abilities. Characters of the same class will level up to match their comrades whether or not they were in the field, sparing you any additional grinding. The R&D tent holds weapons, upgrades and tank modifications – enough diversity to make every player’s approach unique, though the scope of battle makes a necessity of versatility. Not getting locked into one strategy is vital to success, especially as the battles grow in scope with more diverse cover, units and destructibility. Skirmish mode uses the same campaign maps with different scenarios so that you can earn more XP, but not without some risk – any character that dies in a skirmish is dead in the campaign.
With as many characters at your disposal as Valkyria offers, the Barracks is a necessary resource that allows you to learn more about a character before adding them to your squad. Each character comes with “Potentials”, or abilities that serve as a combat bonus or penalty based on the circumstances. A Scout like Ted becomes far more memorable for his Potentials – Fancies Women and Men – that give him a boost whenever he is fighting alongside a companion. These Potentials only hint at the personality of each character, which you will have to take into account if you want to get the most out of your squad.
Not necessarily a graphical powerhouse, Valkyria Chronicles may only make you wonder why games with more polys can’t be as lovely as this. The art design, with its soft palette and vignette landscapes is charming and romantic delivering a sharp and pointed contrast between the combat. The battle environments have some destructibility, like sandbags and structurally unsound barriers. The score is moving and understated, and the original Japanese language track is available.
Unconventional and beautiful, Valkyria Chronicles delivers a game that is both deep and whimsical. A well-balanced tactical and story-driven title, it may well seem like a game for the open-minded though it is sure to ensnare any that pick it up as the diverse genres and gameplay styles combine to form a rewarding whole.