Amid a sea of Resistance 2s, LittleBigPlanets, Dead Spaces and Mirror's Edges it's easy to miss out on some real gaming gems. Titles that don't immediately spring to mind when you think of 2008's must-have games, but which are nonetheless worthy of your attention. Valkyria Chronicles is one of those games and I'm putting my cards on the table in this, the review's intro paragraph, so that there's no ambiguity; Valkyria Chronicles is an amazing game. Here's why.
Valkyria Chronicles is a Japanese Strategy RPG set in a fictional Second World War. You take control of Squad 7 of the Gallian Militia in order to prevent the evil Empire from invading your home country. The game places a lot of stock in its story, with many cutscenes throughout.
The first thing you'll notice about the game is how beautiful it is. The overall anime style may be familiar to you, but you've never seen it done like this before. A textured overlay makes the game look like a watercolor painting on stretched canvas. An effect heightened by the very edges of the screen, which have been left blank and uneven. As if the artist has not painted all the way to the edge.
This faux-watercolor style compliments the pastel colors and the overall design of the game world. Everything looks stunning, especially the pre-rendered cutscenes. It's sometimes hard to tell which cutscenes are pre-rendered and which aren't, as the only difference is the removal of some jaggies that you may not have noticed in the first place. Character designs are excellent throughout the game. The Imperian Generals, in particular, look great and we suspect the Gallian Militia uniform will be a popular cosplay outfit for years to come.
Valkyria Chronicles' main menu is its "Book Mode" -- a book that lists the game's chapters and, within those chapters, the different episodes to watch and play. There are eighteen chapters with an average of eight to ten episodes in each. Of these, only one or two will be playable, the rest will be cutscenes. If you get impatient easily, you may find this frustrating. In that respect, the game is not for everyone. If you're not a fan of investing in characters or giving a damn about the story, then you might find it frustrating.
If, however, you managed to make it to the end of Metal Gear Solid 4 and still wanted more story (as I did), then Valkyria Chronicles should find a very special place in your heart. From Book Mode you're able to access your headquarters, allowing you to upgrade your weapons, train up your squad and trade out members as new soldiers join the cause.
When you're not micromanaging or watching cutscenes you'll be partaking in battles. Like most Strategy RPGs, these battles can take a while. They can average between 30 and 60 minutes each, so despite what I've been saying about story being king, there's still plenty of gameplay meat to enjoy here. Battles have a definite hint of X-com about them (2K Marin take note -- this is how X-Com gameplay should evolve in the current generation).
At the beginning of the battle you decide how to deploy your troops. Scouts are fast but weak, Shocktroopers are much slower but can take more hits and deal more damage, Lancers are slow, anti-tank personnel. Engineers are speedy and can disarm mines and restock peoples' ammo while Snipers are pretty self explanitory. Your personnel are more than just members of these five classes, however. They all have names and personalities.
Each member of your team has different "potential" abilities which take effect under different circumstances. For example, someone might have a Pollen Allergy, making their HP decrease when they're near grass, or they might be a Lone Wolf, raising their stats when there are no other team mates nearby. My favorite Scout, Ted, has the abilites "Fancies Men" and "Fancies Women," increasing his stats when he's around members of either gender that he wants to impress.
You'll base your squad member choices on these little nuggets of personality, making up rules regarding who should and should not join. Personally, I tried to keep hate within the squad to a minimum, meaning those with "Darcsen Hater," "Man Hater" or "Lancer Hater" etc, were not allowed in. Completely arbitrary, perhaps, but it made the squad feel much more like a group of people, rather than a list of names and stats.
Once you've set your troops to deploy you will then take it in turns against the computer to complete whatever task you've been set. You will be given a number of Command Points which you spend, one by one, in order to move each of your troops. There is no grid in this Strategy RPG, however. All movement is free and based on a fuel guage (a visual representation of X-Com's "Time Units") which will steadily go down as you run about the battlefield.
Shooting doesn't take up any of your action gauge, but instead each unit has one action per command unit spent. This could be shooting, healing or throwing a grenade. Units have a maximum of three actions per turn, meaning you can spend up to three command points on a single unit before they can no longer act. Their action guage will drop with each command point you use, meaning they can move far less during their third action than in their first.
The gameplay is complex, with far more intricacies than I can discuss in this review. The game ramps up steadily, though, teaching you everything step-by-step. You'll never feel plunged in at the deep end, despite the difficulty of some of the levels. Some may take a few attempts before you figure out the right strategy. There's some excellent fun to be had in Valkyria Chronicles thanks to the deep combat engine.
The game has a great soundtrack. The only downside is that there isn't enough of it. You'll hear the same pieces again and again during battle but, thankfully, it's of high enough quality that you won't mind. Cutscenes are also laden with music, adding to the emotional impact of the story. Japanophiles can choose to play the game with the original Japanese voices with English subtitles, though this isn't strictly necessary thanks to some great localized voice acting. It's always nice to have the choice, though. It'll make that second play through a fresh experience.
As I said, the game's story is one of its most important aspects. What starts off as a relatively small-scale fight for your home town turns into a fantasy epic, with a love story mixed in for good measure. Cutscenes come in two flavors -- fully animated episodes and talking-head dialogues. All really well written and full of heart. Characters are brilliantly realised and they grow throughout the course of the game.
The story deals with some interesting issues, taking inspiration from World War II. Racism is discussed at length, with concentration camps full of "Darcsens" and in-fighting between various members of the squad taking center stage at various points. The fact that an anime series is currently in production is a testament to the story. There's a lot of it, but if you're a fan of great characters and heartwarming fantasy epics, you'll be happy.
So far this review has been overwhelmingly positive -- and rightly so. Valkyria Chronicles is a must-play title that is in danger of being looked over thanks to the ridiculous number of excellent games being released this year. Having said that, there are some aspects of the game which are lacking. Firstly, the game has no trophy support. It's understandable, considering it was originally released in Japan in April. Don't expect it to be patched in, either. Chances are the development team has moved on to something else by now. Hopefully Valkyria Chronicles 2.
The other aspect of the game that is sorely lacking is multiplayer. Sure, I've made a big deal about the fact that this is a story driven experience, but the combat engine suits multiplayer down to the ground. While the game has plenty of longevity, thanks to a New Game+ mode, plus various skirmish maps to play when you're getting story fatigue, an online versus multiplayer mode would give the game even longer legs.
The PS3 is starved for decent RPGs but with Valkyria Chronicles it has found not only an excellent specimin of the genre, but a potential exclusive franchise. It's important that people at least give this a rent. At around 25 hours for a skirmish-free run through you won't be able to beat it, but once you've tried it the game should win you over with its many charms.
PS3 Fanboy score: 9.0