Valkyria Chronicles – Staff Review

Valkyria Chronicles is an odd beast: a grim war story constructed with standard anime elements, all wrapped around an unusual twist on turn-based strategy and painted with every bright color in the palette.  It’s not always an easy fit, and the plot has an annoying habit of telegraphing its punches.  Yet there’s a respectable narrative at the core, backed by some solid direction and a charming cast.  And if that doesn’t do it for you, the game is still some of the most fun you can have with tanks involved.

Our story starts as a thinly-veiled World War II parallel, with the continent of Europa (you’ll see Freudian Slip typos at times) torn in half by warring, deadlocked superpowers.  Caught between the Federation and the Empire is the neutral, resource-rich nation of Gallia, which has to mobilize in a hurry when the Empire does what Empires do.  Swept up in this is one Welkin Gunther, the bookish, nature-loving son of a famous general whose hometown is the flashpoint for the Imperial invasion.  Gallia has a policy of mandatory military service, and thus Welkin hooks up with the local guard unit and distinguishes himself as they make a fighting retreat.  What follows is a chronicling of Gallia’s attempts to kick the Empire out, narrated and navigated by way of a history book that focuses primarily on Welkin and his quirky band of conscripts.

Battles are sequenced by teams, with each side moving its units until running out of command points to do so.  Selecting a unit puts you in direct control, letting you move a set distance (based on the type of unit) and attack once.  Multiple points can be spent on individual units, though with diminishing movement distances and, in some cases, ammunition.  The catch is the other team’s units can freely attack this unit as it moves if they see it, and whoever you’re shooting at will get to shoot back if it survives and is in range.  You’ll get used to ending your unit’s turn quickly after attacking, and you need to think carefully about unit position and facing.  Covering angles of approach, sticking multiple guns on known enemy positions, using tanks for rolling cover; this and more will be your bread and butter for the next thirty or so missions, and it works well once you get the hang of it.

One of Welkin's more important duties is officiating Squad 7's many staring contests.
One of Welkin’s more important duties is officiating Squad 7’s many staring contests.

Typically, your goal will be to capture enemy control points, through which you can call reinforcements if needed.  After the first few missions, you’ll get to select your own squad from the militia rosters: scouts for recon, shocktroopers for heavy close-range combat, lancers to kill armor, snipers for long-range support, and engineers to disable mines and keep your tanks purring.  You’ll field tanks as the plot requires it, and they can smash through certain obstacles, shrug off standard gunfire, and rain a variety of firey death upon careless soldiers.  While grenades can immobilize them and hits to the exposed radiator can cause damage, even one piece of light armor poses a real threat to the unprepared.  Fortunately, downed infantry can be evacuated and redeployed later if a friendly gets to them in three turns, and plot-critical units (besides Welkin, whose death means game over) will only retreat rather than be permanently killed.

Between missions you’ll get to spend earned experience and money to improve your squad and outfit your tanks.  Units level up as a class, so nobody kept out of battle will be left behind.  Each unit develops a unique set of potentials: bonuses and penalties for certain conditions, like resistance to interception fire or feeling under pressure for going last.  Gear upgrades are mostly linear, though infantry weapons do branch out into damage, accuracy, and special effect techtrees.  Tanks have both progressive upgrades and interchangeable add-ons, the latter of which fit Tetris-style into a storage grid.  Skirmish missions become available over time if you care to grind out levels, but the campaign is balanced well enough that superior tactics in the field are more important.  Still, it’s never a bad idea to pair units that work well together, or to fiddle with squad and tank loadouts prior to a mission.

The interface is a touch inelegant.  Some menu fumbling is needed to change individual weapons and tank parts, and you’ll regularly be dumped back to the chapter navigation screen just to select the next not-optional cutscene.  For some reason you can only actively take cover behind sandbags and in trenches to reduce damage, while perfectly good crates, fences, and chest-high walls stop bullets but provide no defensive bonus.  However, unit controls are straightforward – left stick moves, right stick rotates the camera, R1 readies your weapon, and X handles context-sensitive actions – and line-of-sight prompts make it easy to figure out when you’re exposed to enemy fire.  Key objectives and other special conditions, like artillery strike zones, are clearly marked by on-screen prompts, and no matter the circumstances you’ll rarely be without proper instructions for long.

Speaking of appearances, Valkyria‘s visuals are a treat for the eyes.  Cel-shading is hardly the new kid on the block, but it’s paired with distinct character designs and diverse backgrounds to great effect.  Battlefields range broadly from lush countryside to urban mazes to WWI-style trenches, and almost all are built to encourage multiple approaches.  Fights are flashy and explosive, with comic book-style sound effects splashed on the screen, and this has the dual purpose of alerting you to hidden enemies.  Squad 7 is a colorful bunch, though they largely stay on the more plausible end of the anime spectrum, at least visually.  Your enemies are more flamboyant, from skull shoulder guards to huge “tracts of land” to an outfit I can only describe as Pimp Caesar.  Still, people are expressive, cutscenes are well directed, and it’s tempting to join a character in doing a triumphant fist pump for a successful headshot.

BRING ON DA DAKKA!  No, wait, I meant our guys!  Ow!  OW!
BRING ON DA DAKKA! No, wait, I meant our guys! Ow! OW!

It’s no slouch in the audio department either, starring a veritable Who’s Who of “people who’ve been in damn near everything.”  Dave Wittenberg and Colleen O’Shaughnessey give fine performances as Welkin and Alicia, the game’s lead characters, and their interactions are absolutely adorable to watch unfold.  Largo, a Lancer and token big guy, is given a lot of heart by actor Fred Tatasciore, and I personally had fun fielding Team Grey DeLisle, since she voices one of almost every class.  Music is fitting but rarely overwhelming, typically adjusted based on the scale of the threat you face, and the more dramatic moments are scored well.  And if you’re going to get one thing right in a war game, it’s all the guns and bombs going off, so Valkyria is more than happy to turn up the noise.  From a single-shot rifle to the screen-filling superweapon, it will always be clear who’s shooting at you and how screwed you are if it hits.

Much fuss has been made over Valkyria‘s cheerful anime stylings contrasted with the horrors of war, and there are a few scenes that can cause mood whiplash.  Forget the obligatory beach episode.  That’s harmless, optional, and it’s at least amusing that they bring the tank along.  A far more glaring example occurs later, when an attempt to humanize the Imperials – by way of a grimly effective scene with a wounded soldier – is soon followed by scenes of them herding unpopular minorities into concentration camps for forced labor.  Would that mood whiplash was the game’s only problem, but it’s easily dwarfed by its tendency to spoil itself.  Let me save you some time: beautiful people will die tragically, ugly people are evil and/or incompetent, and whoever just left for no clear reason probably caused that plot twist you just saw.  While characters largely avoid long-winded morality speeches, the game wields foreshadowing with all the subtlety of a shotgun fired at a gong.

Mind, the plot isn’t really hobbled because of this.  Quite the contrary, scenes often work well even when you see the twist coming.  It might be a given that bigoted characters will learn to set aside their differences and work together, but it’s backed by solid writing and the actors capably sell their assigned conflicts.  You can bank on the titular Valkyrur – a powerful and mysteriously absent predecessor race – having a major impact on the game, in case the glowing blue lady with the red eyes on the box cover didn’t make that clear enough.  Still, the historical impact of the Valkyrur ties cleverly into current tensions and social development, and it makes for a particularly well done twist later on.  Victory might be a foregone conclusion, spoiled as early as the prologue narration, but the road to it is nonetheless compelling and enjoyable.

It helps that your squad develops in likable ways on and off the field.  Everybody important gets their moment in the sun, and quirky characters tend to be consistently quirky.  Case in point, Welkin’s love of nature has stunted him socially, to the point where he has trouble delivering a simple compliment; Valkyria has perhaps the first recorded use of “beetletastic” as a positive descriptor.  Largo has a fun little side mission fueled by his overwhelmingly zealous defense of vegetables.  Even those not bound by plot show some personality in action, from scout Susie’s incessant pacifism to engineer Dallas’ preference for her own gender.  Shocktrooper Salinas is a hoot to use alongside any tanks you might be fielding – “Who’s a sexy tank?” has been etched into my brain – and, of course, any resemblances in your squad to seemingly identical characters from Skies of Arcadia are purely coincidental.

Okay, here's the plan.  We go in.  We start shooting the big thingy with all the cannons mounted on it, and we see where it takes us.
Okay, here’s the plan. We go in. We start shooting the big thingy with all the cannons mounted on it, and we see where it takes us.

Back to the gameplay, Valkyria tends to rely on the same capture-the-flag objectives repeatedly, but it does mix up the circumstances on occasion.  One mission is carried out in two parts, with Welkin and Alicia sneaking through enemy territory in the first and hooking up with their squad to breach a bunker in the second.  A trench battle gets hectic as rockets flatten anything left on open ground after every turn, meaning you have to trade potshots with enemy snipers and look for a gap in machine gun coverage.  Elite units field more interesting toys that disrupt your usual tactics, such as scouts with rifle-mounted grenade launchers and shocktroopers carrying flamethrowers, and you get to return the favor as your team levels up.  The Empire will periodically throw sanity to the wind and roll out heavily-armed superweapons, one clearly inspired by the never-developed P-1000 Ratte.  A new game plus mode makes the second trip through smoother, should you feel up to making one.

There are enough minor irritants along the way to make the game seem longer than it needs to be.  Enemy AI can sometimes pick targets wisely but has a problem with the big picture.  More than once you’ll see a soldier charge into a lethal wall of gunfire right after the previous unit did exactly the same thing.  By contrast they’re also frustratingly accurate sometimes, able to make pinpoint shots with heavy artillery from obscene distances.  Turns will get wasted as units move back and forth for no discernible purpose.  A couple missions will see your units slaughtered if you’re not in a good position before enemy reinforcements arrive, such as an apparent cutscene battle that turns into a pincer attack from two boss tanks and respawning infantry; this is the game switching to what I call Nietzsche Mode.  Certain unique enemies are teeth-grindingly adept at dodging your shots, and can only be killed with concentrated fire or lots and lots of explosives.

But like any title worth owning, Valkyria is better than the sum of its moments.  You can get through the campaign in about 25 hours or so if you’re quick, while hitting all the skirmishes and unlockable side content can add a healthy chunk to the clock. At its most predictable and annoying, it remains engaging and an absolute blast to play.  Putting actual thought into your advances is all the more satisfying when it pays off, from simply capturing territory to pulling the wick on a tank with that last lancer shell.  The plot is far more competently executed than its colorful appearance and blatant WWII parallels would suggest, and Squad 7 works overtime to keep things entertaining.  Come for the story, come for the characters, or come for the simple pleasure of blowing stuff up and looking good while doing it.  But if you have a PS3, don’t let this one pass you by.

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