If we don’t end war, war will end us.
“The following is a contributor post by the Bizzaro Mage.”
The previous console generation for me was one in which I largely turned my back on Sony and embraced the physically fragile (I mean 5 RROD consoles, that’s just silly!) but more user-friendly Xbox 360. Any console that makes you sit and watch as it downloads huge updates over my at the time slow broadband connection is frankly going to get less use than an alternative that can update the same game in seconds.
Nevertheless, I did end up buying a PlayStation 3 eventually thanks to a hefty tax rebate. The only games I had been excited about playing were Killzones 2 & 3, Gran Turismo 5 and a title that I’d seen knocking around the used games section in my local Game, Valkyria Chronicles. It didn’t take me long to complete the Killzone entries and I grew bored quickly of GT5, leaving just that one last impulse buy to try out.
Valkyria Chronicles was developed and published by Sega and was released in September 2008 worldwide. It would be exclusive to the PS3 for 6 years until it received the remastering treatment and was released on PC in 2014 and the PS4 in 2016. Three sequels have been released, though 2 is a very much pared down PSP release and 3, also a PSP exclusive, was never released outside of Japan. Valkyria Chronicles was re-released for the PS4, Xbox One and Switch on the 25th September 2018.
Valkyria Chronicles is something of an oddity, playing quite unlike anything I have ever experienced before. To my mind, it comes down somewhere between a strategy game and tactical JRPG in the mold of, say, Final Fantasy Tactics. Whilst it sounds quite enigmatic, the game does make an effort to break the player in gently, using a couple of early tutorial missions to show you the ropes. There is still quite a bit to pick up after this, once the game begins in earnest, but it is largely nuanced details that won’t be needed early on.
The game’s story is split into chapters, with each chapter typically consisting of cutscenes, dialogue sections and, for the most part, a battle. Whilst the game features a good amount of these cutscenes and character building comic book-like scenes, the real, time-consuming meat of Valkyria Chronicles is its often huge battle sequences.
The forces of the Empire assemble
Battles are turn-based and typically involve using your roster of soldiers to capture enemy bases before they can use their soldiers to do the same to you. The engine created to deliver all of this is titled the BLITZ engine (Battle of LIve Tactical Zones).
Within your turn, you are given a certain amount of command points, or CP, with which to move your troops, though moving armoured units does use 2 of these at once. Movement of your soldiers is done in 3rd person and, much like Final Fantasy Tactics or even Dungeons & Dragons, each movement phase ends with an action phase, which typically consists of firing that soldier’s weapon, lobbing a grenade and applying some first aid, though each class of soldier does have slightly varying equipment. Movement of your troops is limited to a stamina bar that varies in length depending on their class. For instance, a scout can rove relatively far across the battlefield in a turn whilst a sniper can only move a comparatively short distance.
Once the player has used up all of their CP by moving their units and engaging the enemy their turn ends and the enemy’s begins. Though your troops are now frozen in place whilst the enemy is free to move, they can still take attacks of opportunity at soldiers that move too close, which does allow for defensive as well as offensive play, though this rule also applies to the enemy so charging a group of shocktroopers head on with a scout will almost certainly end their turn with a KO and some rather smug enemy soldiers.
Missions can have all manner of objectives
All battles in the game are subject to a turn limit, which encourages offensive and decisive strategies. Although it is rare to actually struggle against this particular fail state, the game does reward the player for wrapping up a battle quickly, as after each engagement your squad of misfits is awarded both EXP, for leveling up your classes, and DCT, which acts as currency that can be exchanged for weapon, armour and tank upgrades, as well as a couple of other rewards in the game’s headquarters area.
As previously mentioned, your squad out in the field is made up of a handful of unique classes, each with different strengths and weaknesses. Scouts are armed with short to medium ranged rifles, can move quite far but are lightly armoured, making them ideal for getting the lay of the land and responding to early skirmishes as each battle begins. Shocktroopers can soak up more hits, are armed with more dangerous sub-machine guns but have less movement and weapon range than the other classes. Snipers carry extremely dangerous rifles with unparalleled range (even if they do miss to a rather extreme degree) but are very squishy and easy to kill. Engineers are essentially scouts, just with slightly less movement range the ability to repair tanks and sandbag walls and the added bonus of being able to defuse mines. The final class is the lancer, an anti-tank specialist armed with a rocket launcher, they have heavy armour but can only move a short distance.
From 32-bit Sky Pirate to scout extraordinaire
On top of these classes is the squad’s tank, the Edelweiss, which is initially armed with an anti-tank cannon, a mortar for clearing out infantry and a machine gun, though it does get additional gear as the story progresses. The Edelweiss takes 2 CP to use but is often instrumental in attaining victory, though losing it will automatically end in a mission failure. This can bring up some very interesting risk/reward situations in battle where one must balance the strength of their tank versus the possibility of losing it once the enemy takes their turn.
The enemy in question is The Empire, a nebulous name given to an aggressive, militaristic nation that is basically a proxy for Germany across the two world wars (the rather scary politics of the Third Reich and the aesthetics and monarchy of the WW1 German Empire). Your side is that of Gallia, a nation that seems to be based on WW2 era Belgium or Holland. The war in question is the 2nd Europan War and it’s stacking up to be a nasty one. Europa is, in case you haven’t worked it out yet, a pastiche of Europe, filtered through a somewhat fantastical anime lens. After rebuilding in the aftermath of their defeat the last time around, the Empire (covering what would be central to eastern Europe in our world) has declared war upon the Federation (that’s western Europe to us!). Declaring neutrality is the tiny nation of Gallia, stuck in the middle of the two tussling giants. Yet Gallia is rich in a magically-imbued mineral called ragnite, which is used for everything from healing wounds to powering tanks. Naturally, the Empire would like to access this resource and use it against the Federation, neutrality be damned.
And so our hero, the daftly named Welkin Gunther, is embroiled into the Gallian war effort. In his ordinary life he is a nature-obsessed university graduate but, once he is enlisted into the militia, he becomes the commanding officer of squad 7, leading his team of typically over-the-top anime soldiers into battle from the commander’s chair of his tank, the Edelweiss.
Other notable characters are Rosie, a headstrong shocktrooper, Largo, a strangely vegetable obsessed lancer and Isara, Welkin’s sickly foster-sister who also happens to be a master mechanic. Squad 7’s 2nd in command is Alicia, once leader of the Bruhl town watch and close confidant of Welkin. The rest of the squad is made of lesser characters who, although they aren’t as fleshed out as the commanders, still have plenty of personality and individuality. I soon found my favourites and any fan of the Sega Dreamcast classic Skies of Arcadia might be in for a fun surprise as well.
A final bow to this game’s plot is the addition of a more supernatural angle, that of the titular Valkyria. An ancient race thought to be extinct and once in possession of terrifyingly powerful magics, the Valkyur have become something of a legend, a legend which the Empire seem to have acquired for their own war effort in the form of General Selvaria Bles. Awesome to behold in cutscenes and altogether unpleasant when she takes to the field, the Valkyur really shakes the game’s story and gameplay up whenever she appears.
I wouldn’t push in front of her in the mess queue, would you?
In an added attempt to flesh out each soldier, they also have certain character traits. Some excel at woodland combat, others perform better and Largo just, well, gets a general boost from thinking about veg. But as with life, each character is burdened with negative traits too, such as stat penalties for pollen allergies and, in one fun case, a soldier somehow losing their hand grenades just when I needed them.
Valkyria Chronicles was a beautiful looking game a decade ago and remains so now, with the remastered PS4 release’s graphical tweaks it resembles a game freshly released in 2016, let alone rereleased. A fair portion of this is down to the CANVAS engine, which overlays the visuals with a rough, penciled-in look, making the game look like a living comic book. The colours are also very vibrant, which looks fantastic and made the game stand out from the morass of brown and grey realistic shooters that seemed to flood the last generation. The anime style really meshes in well with these factors and all together it really does make the game look unique and exciting.
The soundtrack in Valkyria Chronicles fits well with its overall theme. Battle music is suitably epic and martial sounding and each area in the headquarters also has its own theme that is pretty typical of a Japanese, anime-themed title, though sadly they’re not in the same league as the works of Uematsu or Sakimoto. This isn’t to say that the music is poor, far from it as it is actually pretty decent, the music just doesn’t stick in your head quite as much.
Whilst the music is good, the sound effects actually rise above them in terms of quality. Each weapon has it’s own discharge sound and each weapon sounds nice and chunky when used. Gallian rifles sound completely different to Imperial rifles, for instance, and explosions sound suitably epic. There are few things in the game as scary as the sound of an enemy lancer’s missile whooshing past that one soldier you forgot to move into cover, avoiding being KO’d by a gnat’s whisker.
Then there’s the voice acting. Oh, boy.
Whilst it’s not as nightmarish as Shenmue or Resident Evil, there are parts of this game where the voiceover work made me physically cringe. Nothing takes you out of the urgency of battle than the soldier you’re charging through a hail of gunfire suddenly shouting “gotta love nature!” or “VEG-TA-BLES!” (Largo again, in case you didn’t guess that one). I understand that it’s something that typically crops up more in Japanese games, especially anime ones, but it never ceases to be jarring when it happens. Cutscene acting can similarly be a bit one-note. Welkin is the naive hero, Rosie is cocky and arrogant and Alicia is a good-natured dreamer, their voices all portray these traits constantly, playing the stereotypes to the max. I wouldn’t say its terrible overall, it just provides plenty of eye rolls.
This point brings me on to my final ponderence for Valkyria Chronicles, the overall themes of the game. The story is very much one of unlikely heroes overcoming great odds on the field of battle and forming bonds along the way. It could easily have become a “war is hell” story, reveling in the horrors of war, but instead, it uses that anime influence to inject a fair chunk of human drama and some light-hearted moments into things. Between the major story beats, there are plenty of cutscenes that exist solely to flesh out the characters and develop their relationships. For example, in the beginning of the game, shocktrooper commander Rosie is distrustful of her darcsen squad mates, often being straight up abusive toward the Edelweiss’s driver, Isara. But, over the many battles they face, the two finally form a bond and Rosie learns to respect the darcsen people. There is even one, rather comedic scene in which the squad comes across a winged pig creature called a porcavian (if pig’s might fly!) that they recruit as the squad mascot. All of these factors taken together set a more jovial tone overall, which makes the “war is hell” parts of the story hit home all the harder.
Rosie’s arc is particularly satisfying and heartfelt
There is one point, roundabout mid game, where a major character is killed during a cutscene, halfway through a rather emotionally charged character building moment. I remember sitting in disbelief, just staring at the screen. Amidst all of the character drama, comedy sections and flying porcine mascots, I had forgotten that this game is set during a war and that war inevitably takes its toll on those participating. There are a few other story beats that can be considered heavy-going, one chapter deals with ethnic cleansing, for instance, and is surprisingly chilly amidst the vibrant colours and upbeat characters.
The setting and aesthetic of Valkyria Chronicles initially reminded me of an anime series called Last Exile, even though that series was more focused on air combat between giant airships and Valkyria Chronicles is a very ground-based affair (despite the presence of the Skies of Arcadia crew) it does feature similar themes, including the industrial setting and supernatural elements. As far as other games are concerned, there is nothing quite like it, though there are some similarities to Final Fantasy Tactics, both original and Advance, mainly down to the turn-based, squad managing combat. Much like with my Oddworld reviews, I am finding it genuinely difficult to recommend similar items that I have experienced, the game is just so unique. Perhaps if you want more misery and less fun I could recommend the books of Sven Hassel, following the journey of a group of German infantrymen through the second world war. Just be sure to have a happy book to follow-up with!
If you missed this game the first time around on the PS3 then it’s definitely worth going for the PS4 or PC remasters now. They’re both cheap to pick up and deliver a very strong tactical RPG with a decent story to hold it all together.
The 8-bit Review:
A perfect 10 is a bit a rarity for a reviewer to give out but, ten years after release, I still feel that this game is absolute ambrosia to the eyes. Between the hand-drawn feel supplied by the CANVAS engine and the good quality anime graphics, Valkyria Chronicles has really stood the test of time. Menus are crisp, basic and intuitive, cutscenes look absolutely gorgeous (especially when the Valkyur takes to the field and the ethereal lighting comes out) and the battles themselves, the meat of the game, pop with colour. Each member of the squad has their own, unique look that allows the player to instantly tell them apart during the heat of battle and the tanks and weapons are all lovingly designed and, despite the fantastical trappings of the game, look fairly realistic.
With the recent remasters comes another interesting upgrade, in terms of resolution and a boost in frames per second. As I said earlier, it’s cheap on both Steam and the PS4 and I recommend snapping it up!
Valkyria Chronicles has a solid enough soundtrack, the music covering a range of emotional highs and lows, the heavy, urgent orchestral score of the game’s battle music will get your blood pumping in anticipation of kicking some Imperial bottom whilst the more gentle, tender tracks during a heartfelt discussion between squadmates helps the player to get into that specific head space. Whilst there aren’t really any standout, hummable tracks that will get stuck in your head the music does do a decent job of setting the scene.
The voice work is more of a mixed bag for me. Maybe it’s down to being spoiled by the stellar voice casts that we tend to see in modern gaming, like your Nolan Norths and Troy Bakers for example, but to me the acting in Valkyria Chronicles often comes across as a little hackneyed and over-the-top, though to be fair I suspect that the script the actors had to work with might have helped with this. This kind of voice work often crops up in older Japanese games (think Shenmue or Silent Hill) and Valkyria Chronicles is another game firmly in that bracket.
That said, there is a moment in the game where one of the characters sings a short song and the vocal work there is rather beautiful and really surprised me by how much it stood out against the usual patter between characters.
The gameplay in Valkyria Chronicles is very much a unique take on the tactical RPG genre. The combination of third-person shooter and turn-based strategy is a pretty unusual one and is even more commendable for the fact that is works. Flawlessly. The tutorial stages do an admirable job of explaining the mechanics to the player and from there on the more nuanced tactics and mechanics are spoon-fed on a regular basis.
The gameplay loop of cutscenes, dialogue sections and then battle helps to pace the game well, you’re not constantly in combat, giving you time to relax after that hard-fought victory. The story sections also help to set up the odds for the next battle, explaining the motives behind your latest foray onto the field and the reasons why the squad continues to fight so well together. These two different elements feed off each other and together they make for a compelling experience.
Valkyria Chronicles plot is quite an interesting one, certainly not something I have ever come across in my admittedly limited adventures into the world of anime. Telling a strange facsimile of the second world war through a fictional universe is an interesting concept, especially when it is interspersed with an almost magical mineral and an ancient race of super warriors with ethereal powers. I admit I had a little difficulty getting my head around this,
It was the smaller scale stories, however, that managed to invest me in this universe. Welkin, whilst the dorkiest commanding officer in history, is an affable character and you can’t help but root for him as he rolls the Edelweiss into combat against an arrogant and cocksure Empire. Other characters also have very satisfying arcs, like Rosie coming to terms with those different to her, Alicia gaining confidence as a leader and Largo, well, really digging veggies.
The endgame here is also incredibly satisfying, raising the odds and usage of unfeasible massive death machines to an all-time high, making the hours of gameplay that it took to get that far very much worthwhile.
My only gripe is, as I mentioned earlier, that the overall cheery anime style and tone of the game does occasionally clash with the “war is hell” message. But then when it does switch to that mode, the results will shock and sadden the player.
Valkyria Chronicles is a comfortable challenge most of the way through, though it does come across as unflinchingly harsh at times, to the point of being unfair. That and some missions towards the end of the game are straight up ridiculous.
There seem to be times in the game where the numbers are massively against you. As an example, in one mission I tried again and again to hit a single scout with my sniper and the unfortunate sharpshooter missed every single shot. Yet, on the enemy’s next turn, their sniper proceeded to KO 3 of my own soldiers from about the same distance. It reminded me of the harsh dice rolls in Bloodbowl and, I am ashamed to admit, may have led to a classic rage quit scenario.
Aside from these suspect moments, the average battle is actually pleasantly achievable. There have been a good few bouts where, at first, the odds have seemed stacked against me but, with perseverance and a decent knowledge of the game’s tactics, I was generally able to push to a victory without too many of the team being knocked out.
It’s the late-game battles that get a bit more technical. One memorable battle starts with your squad very much on top of things, helping a third-party to smash a beleaguered enemy encampment to pieces. Upon “victory”, however, the enemy fields not one but two super heavy tanks, capable of utterly decimating any foolish soldier (or tank) too slow to move out of their way. What follows is a very tense game of cat or mouse, moving your own tanks strategically to keep them out the way of the enemy tank’s massive cannons and within range of their weak spots. I wasn’t expecting this twist at all mid-mission and it really pushed my knowledge of the game’s tactics to come out as the winner.
One final note here is that leveling your classes and upgrading your gear is absolutely essential to beating this game. Not only does leveling increase your soldier’s stats but it actually unlocks additional weapons for a few classes further down the line, opening up new tactical options that help you maintain an edge against the Empire’s own upgraded soldiers in the mid- to late-game. Equipment upgrades serve a similar purpose, more powerful weapons make for easier kills, so resource management between battles is important to get right.
Tactical RPGs are all too few throughout the history of video games and, thankfully, the ones that exist are mostly very good. Valkyria Chronicles ranks amongst these rare titles and yet is so very different to them all.
The multi-leveled combat is one of a kind, going from an overview of the battle to in the midst of it in order to command individual soldier at the press of a button is very intuitive and flows well. Whilst it may sound similar to Final Fantasy Tactics in this regard, it plays out very differently in practise. The way in which the player directly controls each soldier makes it feel more like an action game at times instead of an RPG and really helps to set it apart.
The story is, for the most part, pretty basic. War stories are as old as time itself and this one would be unremarkable if it wasn’t for the addition of the Valkyur storyline. The idea that a modern era war could be influenced by supernatural powers is very interesting to me and, when the enemy’s own super soldier Selvaria takes to the field, it is pretty terrifying to behold.
An additional point for uniqueness goes to the CANVAS engine, it was a brave move to give the whole game a cel-shaded, sketch-like aesthetic and it really helps to make the experience a memorable one.
Valkyria Chronicles’ battles are huge and technical affairs. Do you send your shocktroopers into the long grass and flank, unseen, to assault the Empires defenses head on? Or do you send your scouts out into the minefield, defending that engineer whilst she gets rid of anti-tank mines, allowing the Edelweiss forward to cause mayhem amongst the enemy infantry?
The game is full of quandaries like this, for each battle can be played in so many different ways. Whilst there are sections in which the way forward is pretty clear, most of the game encourages the player to use their imaginations and think laterally in order to attain victory in as few turns as possible. This makes each replay different, even if the story beats will always be the same.
To add a little extra flavour, each member of the squad that isn’t a major character can be swapped out for another, as there are a good few soldiers who act as reinforcements who might never get to see any action on a single playthrough. My squad on playthrough two is very different to that from my first and each of these soldiers has their own traits and dialogue.
There is also the prickly issue if taking down all of the enemy aces, named Imperial soldiers with often monstrous stat boosts that, when killed, drop unique weapons and items that can be equipped to your soldiers. I became quite obsessed with taking these infamous warriors down and the rewards are often worth the effort.
My Personal Grade: 8/10
Back in 2011, this was the game that convinced me to buy a PS3 and, once the PS4 remaster came out, the game that allowed to get rid of that very same PS3, knowing that I could continue to enjoy it on a new system.
Whilst I confess that the story and voice acting doesn’t always hit home for me, the gameplay and visuals absolutely knock it out of the park. Whilst other games have used cel-shaded graphics before, I can’t think of a single other that uses the CANVAS engine’s hand-drawn style. That and the colour scheme really are a joy to the eyes and help to deliver that gameplay goodness.
I really became engrossed with the gameplay loop, getting a rush from every enemy slain and feeling the sting from every one of my own troops that went down to enemy fire in return. The BLITZ system really does an extraordinary job of balancing everything out, despite the odd case of inconceivable bad luck. The tanks add an extra dimension to combat, coming with their own set of strengths and weaknesses and the fact that they can’t get everywhere, meaning that you must always rely on your squishier infantry to do most of the dirty work.
Valkyria Chronicles, a decade on, is still worth picking up. The game offers a mostly fair challenge, beautiful visuals and a mostly engaging story set in a world tantalizingly like our own yet fantastically different. I heartily recommend that you give it a try, for I love it like Welkin Gunther loves nature. And boy, does he love it.
Aggregated Score: 8.0
Stepping from the shadows into the light, the Bizzaro Mage somehow functions as an average human being most of the time, just one with a faire few retro games cluttering up his tiny house. Check out his rambling attempts at sense over at winst0lfportal.wordpress.com.
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