Valkyria Chronicles

Lately I’ve returned to Valkyria Chronicles, giving it a second playthrough on my new game+ file.  I feel like writing about it again, because for one thing I don’t like the quality of my original post for it.

Valkyria Chronicles is a unique mix of tactical RPG and third person shooter.  As the prologue so aptly describes, the game tells a story of war, and those affected by it.  The setting is an alternate but similar version of Earth in the mid 1900s.  In 1935 two world powers–the Federation and the Empire–scuffle over an increasingly important mineral resource called ragnite.  Tensions rise, and soon the Empire invades the Federation, beginning the Second Europan War.  The Empire makes good progress in the initial attack, and with the confidence gained from this, proceeds to also set its sights on Gallia.  Gallia is a small country sandwiched by the Federation and Empire, and until now it had managed to maintain a neutral position in their affairs.  However, Gallia is known to be a rich source of ragnite, and thus the Empire invades, opening up the Gallian Front in the war.  In addition to its regular army, the Gallian government enacts an emergency draft, mobilizing a militia.  The game deals with the Gallians’ efforts to push back the Empire’s assault.

We’re soon introduced to our main characters, Welkin Gunther and Alicia Melchiott.  Welkin is a calm-hearted tank commander and nature enthusiast with a wide knowledge of natural science.  Alicia serves on the town watch, and is also a talented baker.  Though kind, she’s no stranger to battle, and is determined to see her goals through.  The war sees both Welkin and Alicia assigned to Squad 7 in the militia, where they meet many different characters, most notably Largo and Rosie, the former of which is a grizzled war veteran, and the latter a sassy lass who used to sing in a bar.

The visual theme of the game is that of a history (or story) book that focuses on Squad 7 and its various members as they live and fight in a world ravaged by war.  The book serves as your menu, with different plot chapters and modes present in their own chapters in the book.  Story progress is made by selecting various illustrations on each page, which represent either cutscenes or battles.

When you’re not watching a cutscene or navigating menus, battles make up all of the gameplay in Valkyria Chronicles, even though it doesn’t feel like it.  When you first enter an engagement, you’re given a briefing that outlines your objectives and recommended strategies.  Then you’re given a chance to deploy your units; up to 9 (later 10) can be present at a time.  Once you’re satisfied with your formation, you can start.  Battles are turn based.  There are two parts to a turn (known as a phase in game).  First, you look at an overhead map that displays your units and captured camps and the known positions of enemy units and their camps.  Here is where you’d do most of your strategic planning, much like in any other SRPG.  Once you decide to make a move, you select a unit.  The game then delves right into the game world, where you control that unit directly, in real time.  Playing as a soldier on the battlefield, you have certain actions that you can take, before you have to go back to the map.  Each unit has a set amount of AP, or Action Points, that dictate how far they can move before they are rendered immobile for that turn.  Furthermore, you can also use something from your equipment loadout once.  This could be firing your rifle, tossing a grenade, healing yourself, etc.  Once you’ve done what you wanted to with that unit, the camera flies upward again, and you’re back at the map screen.  Taking control of a unit uses one Command Point (two, in the case of tanks).  Once you’re out of Command Points, your phase is over, and the enemy gets to move.  Once they finish, you go again, with a new stock of Command Points.  And so it goes.  The typical battle has you working to either eliminate all enemy units or capture all enemy base camps.

Units come in six different classes: Tanks, Scouts, Shocktroopers, Lancers, Engineers, and Snipers.  Aside from the ragnaid first-aid capsule (used to heal yourself or others) that all classes are equipped with, they all come with different equipment and stats.  

Scouts have the most AP of any class, and have a standard rifle and grenade loadout, but aren’t very tough.  Shocktroopers use machine guns (and later flamethrowers) to cut down enemy infantry with brutal efficiency, while trading max AP for higher defense.  As your anti-tank footsoldiers, Lancers are very tough, sturdy units, but are limited to rockets and portable mortars as their weapons of choice, with finite ammo per phase.  Engineers do everything on the battle except fight, having almost as much AP as Scouts (and sharing their equipment loadout), and being able to repair tanks other structures, disarm mines and replenish ammo, in exchange for being the weakest class in terms of defense.  Snipers have very little AP and defense, but come packing powerful sniper rifles, which can have better accuracy, anti-personnel damage, and range than any other weapon in the game.

Finally, we have the Tank class.  For much of the game, Welkin will be piloting your only tank.  Since he’s a central character, the destruction of the Edelweiss is an instant game over.  From most angles, tanks are completely immune to gunfire and grenades, and resistant to any other weapon.  They have about the same amount of AP as perhaps a Shocktrooper.  Tanks have two health bars; one is their primary HP, and the other is their tread HP.  Destroying a tank’s treads won’t destroy the tank itself, but it will leave it with almost no AP, rendering it close to immobile.  All tanks have a heatsink sticking out their back, which serves as their critical weakpoint.  Even bullets will do fair damage if aimed at this glowing weakpoint.  A tank’s primary weapon is its main cannon, which of course fires tank shells.  Tanks also have mortars and machine guns, for dealing with infantry.

The different unit classes form a loose rock-paper-scissors relationship, with certain units being more effective others, and better for certain roles.  There are many other nuances to combat, as well.  Different weapons have different effective ranges.  Attempting to hit enemies that sit beyond a weapon’s range results in dramatically reduced damage (and of course a much less lower chance to hit).  Even as you run for cover and take action in realtime, there are certain “rules” that arbitrate your success.  Enemies whose sight range you walk into are free to open fire on you, but are forced to halt as soon as you press R1 to begin aiming a shot.  When you aim at an enemy, a chart at the top of the screen tells you how many shots you will shoot, compared to how many will be necessary to KO the target.  An orange circle around the targeting reticule represents the extent to which shots can miss.

Strategy in Valkyria Chronicles extends not only to how you use your units, but what state you leave them in at the end of your phase.  You always have to be careful to make sure your tank won’t get hit in the behind before you end control over it, and it’s always advisable to leave your infantry either out of sight or sitting behind cover before you head back to the map.  Sometimes you can predict enemy movement and obstruct it by positioning your units to open fire on them as soon as they move.  In the map screen you can trade Command Points to use Orders, which can have positive effects on your units; anything from stat buffs to covering fire from offsite.

While the enemy AI definitely puts up a fight, it soon became clear to me that they were following a fairly straightforward and inflexible set of rules.  The result of this is a glaring lack of strategic sense on your opponents’ part.  Not unlike the philosophy of the Empire that most commonly represents your enemies on the battlefield, game difficulty will usually come from being outnumbered and outgunned, not outmaneuvered or outsmarted.

Of course, Welkin, Alicia, Rosie and Largo don’t serve as the only troops in Squad 7.  From book mode, you can view the Headquarters menu, which gives you access to the Command Room.  Here you can fill the squad’s ranks, drawing from a pool of around 50 unique individuals, spanning all the different classes (except for Tanks).  Each character is unique and voiced, with their own backgrounds and personalities.  All characters also have a set of traits and/or abilities known as potentials.  Potentials have the chance to activate while you’re controlling a unit in battle, and can have a range of effects.  For example, some scouts, like Alicia, can gain access to the potential “Double Movement”, which gives them a chance to completely refill their AP meter once it’s depleted once, allowing twice as much travel in one turn.    Jann, a Lancer, has a man-crush on Largo, exemplified by his “Largo Lover” potential, that gives bonuses when you bring him near the fellow Lancer.   One of the Shocktroopers, Jane, has the “Sadist” potential, that gives her a boost to damage when gunning down the Empire’s forces.  Characters also like and dislike certain others, with friendly faces being likely to pitch in with shots of their own when you open fire on an enemy while they’re nearby.

Should a character fall in battle, you have three turns to get another unit to their side and call in a medic before they bleed out and die, becoming lost to your ranks for the rest of the game.  The credits will show a list of everyone who lived or died, so you can imagine I felt pretty good when every character in the squad showed up as “Living”.

Headquarters (located in the Gallian capital Randgriz) is also home to a host of other options.  You can upgrade your troops’ weapons and equipment as well as individually fine tune each unit’s weapon loadout.  You can also use experience points gained from battle to level up your troops, which, in addition to buffing their stats, unlocks potentials and new orders.  Medals and rewards gained for battle performance are also received at headquarters.  Furthermore, it is home to The Writing on the Wall, a local newspaper that covers national events.  New articles are posted on it from time to time that not only cover story occurrences, but also other things going on, painting a better picture of the world as a whole.  Additionally, you can purchase playable “Reports”, extra chapters that aren’t part of the main plot but flesh out the squad’s various personalities; among these is the compulsory swimsuit/beach special.

The story book theme extends to the game’s visuals, which sit among some of the coolest I’ve yet seen, even today.  The engine was designed from the ground up to have a colorful, art book style of graphics.  The result is a game that looks like a painting or sketchbook in motion.  This is exemplified most effectively by the first few moments in the opening cutscene.  You watch as a picture depicting Welkin and Alicia riding the Edelweiss is first rapidly sketched up then colored, with them immediately springing into motion once the portrait is finished.  A finishing touch is added in the form of various emotes and onomatopoeia.  Even though it’s not eye-poppingly gorgeous from a technical standpoint, the game still looks great because of its art style, even today.  But if someone demanded that I think of a complaint against the visuals, it would be that the facial expressions and body language aren’t as lifelike as the voices and personalities associated with them.

Valkyria Chronicles isn’t just a stunner in the visual department; the audio is great too.  The soundtrack is one of the better ones I’ve heard this generation, and the voice acting is well delivered for nearly every character; a notable triumph, considering the rather large cast of voiced characters there are in this game.  Sticklers for original dubbing will be delighted to discover that the game also offers an option to play with the Japanese voice tracks.

Also of note is the game’s performance.  There is an optional install available, and with it loading times are usually very brief, spanning no more than 10 seconds, if I had to estimate.  Aside from some occasionally questionable rag doll physics, glitches are totally absent.  Framerate does dip noticeably sometimes though; particularly in grassy areas.

Earlier battles stick to having you capture enemy base camps, and are over quickly.  However, you’ll find that the further in you get, the longer and more tactically inclined they become.  I found myself spending more and more time poring over my map, planning effective courses of action, and before I knew it, a skirmish had lasted longer than 45 minutes.  There are about 18 chapters in the main campaign, with 1-2 battles per chapter.  Those that fall head over heels in love with the game may find interest in Skirmish mode, which provides extra, non-story related battles.

Valkyria Chronicles is easily one of the most charming games I’ve ever played.  It intrigues you with its colorful yet modest presentation, then keeps you interested with an engaging story, an incredible cast, and a unique gameplay style that leaves you wondering how it hadn’t been thought of before.  Few other games have touched me like this game did; its wonderful portrayal of human emotion is worth experiencing many times over.  A 9.5/10.

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