As the sweeping score of Valkyria Chronicles rushed to meet my ears and the introduction sequence started to roll, sweet memories of the past came to me. It was six years ago; I was younger back then, sitting before my new piece of hardware with the few games I had received for Christmas alongside it. As the same sequence rolled back then, I knew I was in for an experience. While it was partly nostalgic, I knew I was in for an experience this time as well.
Valkyria Chronicles is a special game for a multitude of reasons. But it is a video game, and as many say, gameplay is king. Valkyria does nothing to dissuade that particular argument, even if it does have many different things going for it. In broadest terms, you could call it a Strategy JRPG, but it’s more than that. The game blends several styles of gameplay together that you wouldn’t think would go together and then blows away your expectations by having it work spectacularly.
See, Valkyria blends together not just Turn-Based Strategy and RPG, but it also incorporates the elements of a Third-Person Shooter. Each engagement starts with you in an overhead “Command View” which displays a generic map of the battlefield. On this map you see your troops as icons, and by selecting one of them you zoom down to take control of that particular soldier, also expending a “Command Point” from a pool which you replenish at the beginning of every turn.
Once taking control, you can move that unit around until you expend all of their Action Points for that move. You can take cover behind sand-bags or hide in tall grass, though it can be frustrating as you can only crouch/prone in very specific locations.
Even if you have expended all of your action points by moving, you can always take aim and shoot. Your selected soldier will take a few shots at the target, and then you’ll go back into command mode to issue further orders. After you’ve ended your turn, your opponent takes its turn under the same rules. It can be frustrating to be just a passive observer during these times, especially as you cannot just skip to the end of their turn, but most of the time it is tolerable, even if the AI sometimes makes questionable decisions (most of which end up saving you from losing).
In the end, it’s a simple system, yet so much depth is worked into it through other elements.
Your troops are not just generic units after all. They are a squad you personally put together from many options after the game’s opening missions. They each have their own personalities and backgrounds. They are even well-acted to boot, so it lets you really bond with the men and women under your command. That’s important, because if your units fall in battle and you don’t make it to them in time to call a medic, they are gone for good.
Luckily, you can always replace them with other troops of the same class. Classes are trained separately from the units themselves, so you never need to worry about losing the experience and skills of your troops, even if they fall in battle or you decide to replace them with someone else. There are five classes in all, and you will need to learn how to utilize each of them to be successful.
You have scouts, which can move the longest distance even if they aren’t the best at killing the enemy. Lancers, which haul around big rocket launchers to kill tanks. Stormtroopers, which are balanced with defense and offense and are the best for cleaning up the rabble. Engineers, the ones with the ability to repair your tank, disable mines, and replenish your troops ammo. Then finally, Snipers, which can’t move very far but excel at taking out enemies from long range.
You also receive a tank called the Edelweiss close to the beginning of the game. The tank is special because it’s hard to kill and has very powerful weaponry, but it takes two command points rather than one to move it. The tank, along with all the equipment your troops have, can be upgraded with money you acquire from completing battles. Experience is also earned, and that is used to level up your troop classes and acquire new orders. Orders can be used to grant bonuses to your troops after expending command points.
I never really felt compelled to use orders throughout the game, however. Their effects can seem very minimal, and the command point feels better spent at moving your troops into better position. Positioning is everything; you need to keep your units in cover or they will get decimated by enemy gunfire. While units can only move during their own turn, everyone around will still shoot at them if they pass in front of enemy units.
Units can also work together to take down one target, especially if the troops in question happen to like each other. Each soldier you have is unique beyond those likes; however, they also have “potentials” which are unique qualities they have that can grant them bonuses or weaknesses in combat. It makes each particular troop special. Even if you don’t lose all their experience when they die, you are still losing their potentials, even if you don’t care very much for the character in question.
It’s a very deep system, and it makes building your own squad very strategically significant. Spending your experience and money on different things can also help shape how you approach every battle, and by the end you really will feel like your squad is your own. That means you will have plenty of things to engage you both in and out of combat when it comes to guiding your squad to victory, and it can be really satisfying when the squad you built manages to overcome a particularly difficult battle.
The beginning of the game is very easy however, with a ton of handholding and tutorials that can make it difficult to get through. What’s interesting is that even with the plethora of tutorials, it somehow forgets to give an in-depth explanation of the Engineer class, which can leave you fumbling around for a bit trying to figure it out.
Even if the beginning is easy, eventually the game gets seriously difficult as the scenarios get more complicated and the victory conditions get a bit more creative. You may even need to partake in skirmishes, small side battles that you can run with your troops for extra money and experience points to upgrade your squad with. Most of the base game’s paltry offering of side-content also comes from these skirmishes.
Luckily, Valkyria Chronicles is quite a long game at about forty hours, and thanks to all of the DLC being included, the value doesn’t suffer with so little interesting side content to play around with in the base game. It’s just disappointing that there aren’t as many diversions to go after as in other RPG’s. There aren’t even any secrets or collectables, which really could’ve enhanced the replay value.
There is some side-content in Valkyria however, mostly boiling down to those skirmishes. But there is more content in “sub episodes”, which are side-stories that are optional to progress the game but add great context to the major characters. There are also Reports, which provide a bevy of interviews, side-stories, and news stories communicated through cutscenes, though there are very few actual missions contained in them… I recommend checking them out after every mission, as they do add some really solid character development.
Speaking of character development, what I feel is the best part of the game is its story. It’s a fairly simple premise, a slight parody of World War II. A small, peaceful, principality called Gallia is caught in-between the war between two nations called the Federation and the Empire. The Empire invades Gallia so they can seize the rich stores of a valuable mineral called Ragnite, which drives society on the continent of Europa. Our characters are natives of a Gallian town called Bruhl, and are forced into the army to help defend their country from the Imperial invasion.
While simple in premise, its execution is more complicated than that. The cast of characters quickly expands from just our protagonist Welkin Gunther, a war hero’s son with his head in the clouds. There’s his little sister, Isara, and former-baker-turned-captain of the Bruhl town guard Alicia Melchiott. The cast grows as the game progresses, such as veteran solider Largo, prejudiced bar singer Rosie, and even an enthusiastic reporter named Ellet.
What’s great is that every member of the cast is interesting in their own way, even if some are more compelling than others. They are all well acted, and even the villains put on a great show once they show up. I really enjoy how the game takes a while establishing these characters before throwing them into major conflict, allowing you to get attached to them before the plot becomes of central importance.
The plot, none of which I will spoil for you here, is really compelling as well. The thing I most enjoy about the story is that it doesn’t fall upon the corniness and melodrama typically associated with JRPGs. While that’s not to say it isn’t there, it isn’t there in such large amounts that it makes it hard to take the story seriously. Instead, it uses those elements when it’s appropriate, and the story’s emotional impact benefits a lot because of it.
So, as a fan of story-driven games. I couldn’t really ask for more. It’s well written, with characters that you can invest in, a plot that just gets more compelling as the game goes on, and the background of the world as well as the characters are further explored. It’s one of the best stories I’ve experienced in a video game, only improved by the great voice work, and the well-translated script.
What drives it even further is the general presentation of the game. Even at six years old, this game is absolutely gorgeous. It has a timeless style to it that can’t be degraded by years. While the faces lack detail most of the time, the textures look a little muddy by today’s standards, and there are some screen tearing issues in cutscenes… but it just has this perfect blend of anime and watercolor painting that makes it great to look at. It only serves to contribute to the atmosphere established by the story, and makes it easier to digest the heavier themes that get explored sometimes in the game.
It also helps to ensure that as the game goes on and more fantastical elements are introduced in the story, you never get pulled out of the experience of the story and gameplay. It all feels cohesive, as the care the beautiful graphics obviously got extended to the fantastic menu design. The menu you use throughout most of the game is framed as a book by a fictional author called Irene Koller, and you do most everything through it. When you complete all the missions and watch all the cutscenes on a page, the page turns and you move on.
There is also plenty of background information to read up on about the characters. Each of your troops has their own background. There isn’t a ton about each, but it gives valuable context to your troops if you choose to pursue it, and each of your many soldiers has it. Even the soldiers waiting around in the Command Room to be recruited on your whim have that same level of detail to them, and the game’s permadeath mechanic is only more compelling for it.
Beyond characters, you can read up on the lore of the world in general by browsing through the glossaries and weapon info included. It can help you learn some more in-depth information if you choose to pursue it and get more invested, and though I do tend to think it could use a bit more detail in places, that’s only a minor complaint.
Unfortunately, the presentation level of the menus doesn’t carry over to their functionality. The game was initially built with a controller in mind, and while the keyboard and mouse controls the gameplay perfectly fine, the menus are a different beast entirely. You can’t use your mouse to navigate menus, and must do so just as if you were using a controller, with pure button pressing. The mouse and keyboard also has another problem when it comes to controlling the tank.
The tank was already abysmally hard to control in the PS3 version, and it’s only harder to control here. It’s completely unresponsive, and the tank has a habit of driving off in the wrong direction or just spinning its treads for a few seconds occasionally, wasting valuable action points.
But these are only minor gripes, and most of the other PC-related functionality is alright, if not the best. The lack of graphics options in-game is particularly messy. Even accessing those options out of game is messy, with a complete lack of controls when it comes to adjusting things like texture quality and such. You can only adjust simple things like resolution and vsync. Fortunately, the paltry offerings don’t really matter much, as the game is old and will run on almost any modern hardware without problems.
It at least has the ability to adjust frame-rate, something that isn’t frequently seen even in modern PC games but happens to be useful. It doesn’t compare to the top-tier PC ports, but it should be enough to play around with. Especially as it supports full 1080p and 60 FPS, which looks fantastic in motion.
When it all comes down to it, Valkyria Chronicles is an excellent game. It doesn’t have your standard JRPG story about teenagers, instead opting to tell an emotional war tale. It has a deep combat system marked by it’s unique mechanics. It has compelling characters wrapped in an emotional story. It has timeless and gorgeous graphics. even if they are weakened just a small bit by age and small presentation issues. It’s even a decent PC port, which we are starting to see more and more of these days.
There aren’t many games like Valkyria Chronicles. It’s great to see such a great and underappreciated RPG come to PC, and it’s just as fantastic as it was when it came out on PS3 six years ago, some small problems and gripes notwithstanding. It even comes with all of the DLC, which includes some fairly strong side-campaigns and stories with the same great voice acting. It’s worth far more than the asking price on Steam, and if you are a fan of RPGs, even if you don’t like many of the Japanese ones, I recommend you pick this up immediately.