With Valkyria Chronicles Sega takes back the medal for best in field Tactical RPG that it lost to Final Fantasy Tactics sometime after Shining Force 3 and which Disgaea had been prancing about the Playstation 2 and 3 era landscape wearing like a badge of honour. Valkyria Chronicles is the natural evolution of the Tactical RPG, integrating real-time elements and a few shooter mechanics to the core concept to produce a unique experience that’s not been topped since.
Much like Metroid which utilised the Gameboy for its follow up title, the official sequel to Valkyria Chronicles debuted as a handheld title on the PSP. This didn’t sit well with some gamers and when sales were affected the third game in the series never left Japan. It’s a shame because titles such as Kingdom Hearts seem to bounce between handheld and console releases without too much trouble and some of these (Re:Coded!) have been less than stellar titles. Hopefully the recent re-launch of the original title onto Steam will stir some interest into a current gen game in the series being developed. As for the original game (and sequels) they are darn near perfect.
Graphically the game uses the CANVAS engine that gives fully 3D environments and characters the impression that they have been hand painted with watercolours. It looks fantastic and it means that this early PS3 title still holds up as one of the most timeless visual games on the system. The characters themselves are depicted in a similar adult style to the Tales of games, with anime influence in the character models but an adult tone. Designs are firmly rooted in a World War I aesthetic, however some uniforms reference World War I instead and the game uses a timeless ‘war’ feel that is both deeply serious and visually appealing. The game frames itself around a war journal with each cutscene and encounter a page in the book that can be freely explored, making for a simple but elegant interface, and maps are clearly drawn in 2D. Sound effects are pulled from the pages of a comic book and given visual representations, so standing under the cover of a tank means the glowing engines hum is represented by dynamic text going ‘hmmmmm’ which fades out and shrinks depending on how close you are to it. Areas are detailed and characters stand out between each other despite wearing the same uniform, meaning that their individuality shines through where it could easily have been lost.
Sound and Audio effects in battle are extremely realistic and some feel extremely mighty. The difference in feel between a machine gun and a mortar shell firing can be felt through the ears and damage makes you shudder accordingly. The sound of gunfire inspires worry in this game no matter when you hear it because of the active-response nature of enemy soldiers and your own, meaning that a fire fight can be waging as you manoeuvre at any time. All dialogue is fully voiced by an excellent and well-cast group of actors that bring their individual elements of the game to life, with some of the otherwise difficult dialogue feeling honest and in-keeping with the translation from its original Japanese. Musically the game is good, but not amazing, however musical cues are few and far between when the game puts its focus on the effects.
An outstanding element of this title is its story, which is upbeat, heartfelt and unafraid to deal with some of the nastier aspects of war. It fuses a semi-historical fictional setting with some fantasy notes to give us an almost-but-not-quite version of the Second World War where the defacto ‘German’ nation is in fact the put upon heroic nation of ‘Gallia’. This gives us some great windmill and down to earth locations for events to occur in early in the game. You follow Squad 7, led by university educated Welkin Gunther, the son of a great general from his nation’s military as he returns home in time to aid in the evacuation of the village, cumulating in rescuing his adoptive sister and local guardswoman/baker Alicia along with a pregnant woman on the verge of giving birth in his father’s restored tank. It’s an excellent introduction that feeds perfectly into them signing up and taking command. Squad 7 has a few character faces and can rope in a variety of other character, and permadeath leads to you quickly becoming attached to them. Fantasy elements make their way into the story slowly, after great thought and some time has passed to allow them to seem believable. Ultimately it’s a character piece with a focus on last minute twists and reveals that won’t disappoint.
Gameplay is the true revolution of this title, which evolves the very nature of the Tactical RPG. Battles are fought in turns based on a number of points you have, these can be carried over and additional points earned by claiming key areas or killing key targets. A unit takes its turn in real-time with a stamina gauge that depletes as you move and run to cover, ending when you shoot or take an action. You can push a unit for multiple actions in a turn but they become fatigued and have a shorter bar each time. You’ll want to sprint between cover because enemies with line of sight on your fire automatically, and even attacking an enemy can result in a deadly counter attack afterward. Cover mitigates this damage and each of the units personal stats will add extra layers of help or hindrance to this. For example Welkin loves the countryside so he gains a bonus on grass that he won’t have on concrete or stone. Other characters get hay fever in the wilds and so on. Units fall into several classes based on Scouts, Vanguard, Lancers (anti-tanks troops), Snipers and Technicians. You will note there’s no healer as any character who dies needs to be rescued and removed from the field before an enemy touches them, if this happens they lose 1 of 3 lives and then are permanently killed. Welkin usually comes outfitted with his tank, which costs more points to use but is an evolving powerhouse as you upgrade it throughout the game with new gear. Classes level up as a whole in boot camp where you dump experience into them instead of on individuals and split it as you choose, allowing you to be flexible. You can also find or research newer gear for people as well as use in-game currency to purchase special orders that play out like spells in battle or pay a journalist for additional optional chunks of the games story. All of this would be overwhelming if the games book-format layout didn’t make it streamlined to child-level simplicity, allowing you to concentrate on the missions at hand. The mixture of real-time action and turn based combat phases feels like the logical evolution of the genre and I’m surprised more titles didn’t pick it up immediately, giving an otherwise tried-and-true combat type a much needed shot in the arm. I can’t stress enough how well put together the games systems are.
Overall I’d be a fool to not insist that people play this game immediately if they haven’t already done so. It’s out on Steam for the PC at a lusciously high frame rate and screen size, as well as including all the DLC from the original in the package for a bargain price tag. It’s also cheap and easy to get a hold of on the PS3 and well formatted to the controller there, so any way you play it is fantastic. The sequel may not have been the follow up people wanted (that it warrants its own review) but it’s also a solid installment into the series. It’s just a shame more people aren’t out there buying it.