After two sequels on the PSP and a spinoff action title, the Valkyria Chronicles series finally finds its way back to console after interest peeked in the IP after a successful remaster of the original game for PS4 and on Steam.
It’s safe to say right from the start of this review that if you liked the original Valkyria Chronicles then you can safely purchase this game and know that you will get total enjoyment out of it. The template and systems from the original that you loved are all back, alongside a few modest additions, but at its heart this is a game jumping back to its roots after a period of experimentation.
Graphically, this title employs a tweaked version of the HD remake’s engine with some slight alterations to bring in new environment types and larger groups on screen. It will not blow you away with its next-gen visuals but it does represent its world in a pencil-drawn art style that hatches and watercolours environments and characters in 3D for a story-book style unique to this series. The new team of playable characters are recognisable and likable, though the protagonist is a little too visually similar to that of the original for some, and leave memorable touches to differentiate them from the growing army you muster. Menus and in-game data is spaciously presented and has room to breathe, not packing to much information on screen.
As large stretches of VC4 are essentially visual novels, it falls on the voice cast to pick up a lot of the heavy-lifting when it comes to expressing how dire or jovial scenes should be. Happily, the cast turn in excellent performances and there’s a wealth of expression in dialogue. Music is a solid showing but doesn’t stand out particularly, being subtly emotive when needed but primarily used to dress scenes in the action or to set a general tone without specific context. Aside from one or two key themes, many blend into the background so thoroughly that they are difficult to remember. Nothing is bad, sound effects are solid but unremarkable, it’s just that both are simply set dressing compared to the strong vocal performances.
Taking place concurrently with the events of the original Valkyria Chronicle (in fact DLC does allow you to play a joint scenario with and then unlock the original cast to add to your rosta), VC4 follows Squad E, a specialist group who are part of a spearhead attempting to take the Empire’s capital city in a push to end the Europan war. Initially setting up supply chains and making steady progress, the sudden, early onset of winter coupled with a major counter offensive leads to the offensive folding and the squad now stuck behind enemy lines without backup. The game takes its time establishing the internal dynamics of Squad E, and though you primarily see the main campaign through the perspective of its primary characters, sub stories and side missions flesh out other members of the group and turn them from disposable cannon fodder into living, breathing characters.
Gameplay sees you make your way through a series of Visual Novel styles story sequences before being presented with combat situations to conquer before progressing back into the story. This at first feels quite linear but quickly opens out to feel less so as the game introduces side stories and other things to be doing. Skirmishes are available early and grinding (especially in the very first mission, which can be heavily exploited from as early as Chapter 1!) is easy to do, providing experience that you can spend on levelling up squad types rather than individual characters, and money to spend on a diverse range of skill trees for equipment. These are applied to each weapon type, sub weapons, uniforms and vehicle parts, and later the game presents a battleship to unlock and upgrade as well. Missions can also drop items that can be equipped to characters for stat adjustments and passive bonuses, and levelling units can unlock Orders (special actions in combat) and Potential (passive bonuses) which directly affect play. You can nip to the mess hall as well, which may unlock option scenes between characters that present new ideas for high powered Orders that you may otherwise miss out on. Combat itself is the true meat of the game and this sees you deploy a set amount of units onto a mission-specific map. Once this has been done the player will have a set of points that he can use in his round to trigger unit turns, with each turn equating to one point. These points can also be used to issue orders and call on the battleship, with varying costs. Inside a unit’s turn they can move for the duration of their stamina (which is displayed on a bar that ticks down) and attack once, using their main or sub weapons. This usually takes the form of moving and shooting but can also see you removing traps, sniping at distant foes then running to cover or healing allies. It’s essentially a fully 3D realisation of turn based tactical combat, with the world freed from a grid. Head shots will deal critical damage but are harder to guarantee, and units grouped together can join their fire on a single target for better damage, making positioning vital. Once you have used all your action points the dynamic will shift to the opponent’s round, and they will enact their turns. Importantly, units will react automatically to provide covering fire and be on over-watch for moving enemies in line of sight, which adds a dynamic missing from many tactical battles. Usually the goal of a mission is to simply capture the opposing bases, which are scattered around the map, but these goals can evolve mid-mission in-story with cutscenes to drastically change the tide of a battle. Thought you were going to call it a day by claiming that distant base? Now the enemy has sent in a fleet of tanks and you need to pull back to a rendezvous point and survive three rounds as they charge you, etc. The missions and scenarios are deeply diverse, and few tricks are repeated twice. A para-jump into an enemy naval fortress to destroy two large cannons in thick fog is a great example of this, adding high stakes, powerful forces to overcome and randomly spawning small encounters on the map that appear suddenly out of the mist. It’s a satisfying gameplay loop of story and missions that keeps player’s interest to the conclusion of the campaign.
Overall, Valkyria Chronicles 4 is perhaps one of the more enjoyable entries in the series, but it doesn’t add a whole lot of new content to the framework of the original. We get a new unit in the form of the Grenader, who can launch mortars and take out encamped foes or tanks in a different way to the usual Lancers, a new vehicle type and the battleship. It’s perhaps a little too safe a sequel, but clearly Sega have gone back to basics after some serious shaking of the formula over the past few years. Still, as current generation tactics games go, this is one of the very best.