Valkyria Chronicles - Staff Review  

No Grids Allowed
by Oliver Motok

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20-40 Hours
+ Incredible combat system
+ Varied mission design
+ Solid cast of characters
+ Spectacular visuals
+ Highly engaging plot

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   Valkyria Chronicles is the rare Japanese role-playing game that can't be explained through comparison. While it may be a strategy RPG at heart, the game plays nothing like, say, a Fire Emblem title; the gameplay here can truly be called innovative. The game is a blast, to be sure, but Valkyria Chronicles' strength doesn't lie only in the gameplay; it features a beautiful graphical presentation, a gripping plot packed with memorable heroes and villains, and a mesmerizing world that blends our own 1940s Europe with a touch of JRPG fantasy.

   Valkyria Chronicles begins in the small, neutral nation of Gallia, which is trying its best to avoid becoming involved in a war between the Atlantic Federation and the massive East Europan Empire. However, this becomes impossible when the Empire descends upon Gallia with the intent of utilizing the nation's rich supply of a resource called Ragnite. Welkin Gunther, a young scholar and the son of a deceased military hero, finds himself drafted into the Gallian militia and made the commanding officer of Squad 7.

   While there are dozens of members in Squad 7, the story in Valkyria Chronicles focuses on a handful of key characters and their struggles amidst the horrors of war. There's nothing terribly original in the plot here, truthfully, but the human element present in the story is so prevalent, and the characters so likeable that it more than compensates. It's impossible not to care about the members of Squad 7 and their struggles to preserve their homeland. The villains present in this tale are similarly excellent, making Valkyria Chronicles one of the more character-driven epics in recent memory. Truthfully, the game will leave you wanting more. Only the smallest glance at this massive world and its nuances are given; it's obvious that there are countless more tales to be told here.

   The dialogue in the game is sharply written, and there are enough exciting moments and plot twists present throughout the game to keep the player glued to the screen. The presentation is brilliant, too; the entirety of the game takes place between the pages of a book. Cutscenes and battles are displayed as pictures on the pages that the player selects to advance the game. The only minor complaint is that some cutscenes feature full-screen, movie-like presentations while others, for whatever reason, have the action taking place in small boxes set against a static background image.

Stay close to the tank... Stay close to the tank...

   When it comes time to do battle, you'll quickly find that the combat in Valkyria Chronicles is unlike anything seen before. Strategy gameplay and FPS elements are almost equally combined in a system that requires substantial forethought, but is extremely fun to play. When a unit is selected from the overhead map, a Command Point is used, and a smooth transition to the 3D battlefield is made. At this point the player is given full control over the unit selected, and can move about freely until the unit's Action Bar is depleted. While moving about, enemy units will open fire, so the use of cover is vital. However, when the right trigger is pressed to bring up the player's own targeting reticule, the action freezes and he is allowed to take as much time as needed to aim. Selecting when and whom to attack is important, as a unit can only attack once per turn. Like a standard FPS, headshots will deal extra damage. When a unit's turn is ended, a transition back to the overhead map is made. A single unit can be selected as many times as the Command Points allow, although the unit will begin with a smaller Action Bar every time, ensuring that certain powerful units aren't abused.

   Five different unit types are found in the game: Scouts, Shocktroopers, Lancers, Snipers, and Engineers. Each of them serve a different purpose, and each are vital to combat strategies in one way or another. Scouts have the largest Action Bars of the five units and can cover long distances in a single turn, in addition to being capable combatants. Shocktroopers have little movement range but are by far the hardiest units available -- they can soak up a ton of damage and deal a lot more. Lancers fire explosive shells which are vital in taking down tanks or other armored obstructions. Engineers are the only means of repairing tanks, and they can also disarm land mines and rebuild barricades. Snipers, unfortunately, are the least useful of the five classes, but in the rare case that a map actually features some decent sniping points, they're quite fun to play around with. In addition to these five different classes are tanks. Tanks use two Command Points when selected, so they must be used sparingly; however, they are invulnerable to standard gunfire, have the ability to mow down obstacles, and pack some serious firepower of their own. Often they are vital for use as cover for standard units. However, tanks have a weak point at the rear that must be protected or else it's possible to have a tank taken down in a single shot by a lancer. Of course, this holds true for enemy tanks as well.

   The mechanics behind the strategy gameplay are extremely solid, but in addition to this, the individual battles themselves are extremely well-designed and executed. Mission objectives vary widely, ranging from simply forcing a way to the enemy base and claiming it, to tasks a little more extraordinary such as guiding a mechanical dreadnought into a minefield. The intensity of some of the missions is positively breathtaking; Valkyria Chronicles succeeds brilliantly at making the player experience the heat of battle in a way that no other SRPG, or even FPS, ever has.

A very bad idea, epic as it looks. A very bad idea, epic as it looks.

   There is plenty else to do when not watching cutscenes or battling. Paying a visit to Headquarters presents several different options to choose from, such as swapping squad members in and out, catching up on the daily news, and most importantly, leveling units and upgrading weapons.

   It's worth mentioning that units do not level individually in Valkyria Chronicles; instead, entire classes are leveled. After each battle a substantial amount of experience points are awarded. These can be taken to the Training Grounds and spent as desired, leveling whichever classes the player chooses. This system eliminates the need to utilize certain characters or classes simply to keep them from falling behind. At the same time, since individual character advancement is impossible, it eliminates the customization that certain RPGamers thrive on. Opinions on this will vary, but it's difficult to fault such a user-friendly leveling system.

   The weapon upgrade system will also take up quite a bit of time, although it is fairly simplistic. As the game progresses, more and more weapon upgrades will be available purchase. Upgrades are available for everything from shotguns to blast suits to tanks. Acquiring these upgrades is as simple as selecting them from the menu and shelling out the cash. It's not the most in-depth system out there, but it gets the job done. In essence, it's no different from walking to a shop in a standard RPG and purchasing a more powerful sword.

   Valkyria Chronicles is quite the looker. The full-motion cutscenes are beautiful, and nearly on par with a high-end anime feature. The entire game looks like it was brought to life through use of a paintbrush and some gentle watercolors. Character designs are very well done, and environments are impressively detailed. A few of the arenas in particular stand out; such as the ones shrouded in nighttime darkness, and a few that were ravaged by war before the arrival of Squad 7. Beneath this beautiful artwork, the game is no technical slouch; few jagged edges are seen, and nary a frame is dropped throughout.

   The story is brought to life with some very competent voice acting. Dave Wittenberg's ever-subdued performance as Welkin stands out, as does the voice work for Eleanor Varrot and the evil Emperor Maximillian. Every single line of dialogue in the game is voiced, which is very welcome indeed. The music is composed by the great Hitoshi Sakimoto of Final Fantasy Tactics and Final Fantasy XII fame. The soundtrack certainly gets the job done, lending the appropriate atmosphere to battles and scenes. Unfortunately, it never really does more than that, and it becomes a tad repetitive after thirty plus hours of the same battle tracks.

   This review has been largely positive, which is appropriate, but Valkyria Chronicles does have a few minute annoyances which make themselves known from time to time. First and foremost, the enemy AI ranges from strangely awkward to mind-bogglingly stupid. Enemies often spend turns running in odd directions, not attacking when they have a perfect opening to do so. Weak enemy units will charge towards tanks. Even bosses occasionally spend their turns running from one end of the map to another with no apparent goal in mind. As intense as the battles are, the AI occasionally manages to cheapen a victory. Another minor flaw is the rather loose controls; at times, it's difficult to precisely direct units in tight spaces. Additionally, precision tasks such as aiming for headshots can be incredibly frustrating. Finally, the overhead map could stand to be a tad more detailed. Only enemy units that have been sighted are shown, and it's occasionally hard to tell what paths are supposed to be taken. This may be more realistic than a checkered grid, but it's a bit frustrating to go halfway through a mission and realize that you've brought too few lancers, or too many scouts, et cet. Thankfully, the game allows you to swap units in and out at base camps, but this consumes Command Points.

   However, these flaws do very little to mar the excellence of Valkyria Chronicles. The game is a complete package of truly innovative and engaging gameplay, an extremely well-written and well-executed storyline, and a stunning presentation on every level. If you've been holding out on a PS3 purchase, now might be the time to take the plunge. If you own a PS3, then you simply must own a copy of Valkyria Chronicles.

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