Valkyria Chronicles Anime Video Game Review
Valkyria Chronicles is set in time and place not unlike World War II and Europe, but with a significantly different history.
Centuries ago the Valkyria, a race of warriors with near-magical powers and incredible technology, ruled the land. They defeated the dark-haired Darksen race in a cataclysmic battle that still scars the land. To this day the Darksen are persecuted, while the Valkyria eventually faded into the realm of legend and religion.
In the year 1935 E.C., the East Europan Imperial Alliance and the Atlantic Federation are, for the second time in as many decades, at war over territory and resources. Caught in the middle is the unaffiliated nation of Gallia, rich in Ragnite--a valuable energy source--but weak in military power.
Enter Welkin Gunther, logically-minded botanist son of a Gallian hero of the first war and brother to an adopted Darksen girl, Isara. When the Imperial Alliance invades Gallia, Welkin is conscripted to follow in his father's footsteps leading the Gallian Militia's Squad 7. Under his command are the kind-hearted but determined small-town girl Alicia Melchiott and a ragtag band of other conscripts in increasingly desperate battles against the overpowering might of the Imperial Army.
Complicating matters, the Imperial Army, under the command of calculating Crown Prince Maximilian, may have a true Valkyria warrior among their ranks--a power that could single-handedly sway the fate of the war.
Valkyria Chronicles is, boiled down, what happens when you take a solid semi-real-time strategy foundation, apply oodles of artistry and creative mission design to it, and mix it with a solidly engaging anime series. It is also fantastically entertaining from opening credits to epilogue, with a near-perfect blend of challenge and story.
Let me frame my opinion here. With a minimum of free time, I pick the games I play carefully. I also bought a PS3 entirely for use as a Blu-ray player; Valkyria Chronicles was the first game I bought for it, based mostly on my gut and the downloadable demo. And the bottom line is, not only did this game make me glad that I owned a PS3, when you put it together with the more recent price-reduced mini, it's reason enough alone to buy a PS3 if you don't already have one. It's that good.
I'll get the most obvious thing out of the way: This game is flat-out gorgeous. It is anime. It uses a spectacular anime-style cell-shaded rendering engine with the artistic addition of an overlay and rough lines that makes the foreground objects look like they were drawn and colored in pencil and backgrounds that look like watercolor. It's so good-looking that most screenshots could easily pass for hand-drawn if you didn't look closely. The fully-animated cutscenes use exactly the same engine and character models, so the segue between action and plot is nonexistent, and when it occasionally switches to FMV instead of real-time rendered to include fancier lighting effects or crowded backgrounds there's so little difference visually that I literally didn't notice there was a difference until well into the game. It's so good that the actual anime adaptation is actually a step down visually.
Add in attractive, varied character designs, detailed, meaty mechanical designs (mostly the all-important tanks, which look entirely functional but not quite familiar), spot-on character animation (there is one bit of fantastic physical acting in a cutscene that stuck in my mind), perfectly-blended smoke and explosion effects, attention to detail in backgrounds and character models (down to the squad logos on uniforms), and a very good sense of mass to heavy objects and impacts, and the picture is complete. Seriously, lovely.
Now, the biggest complaint leveled at Valkyria Chronicles is that it has too many cutscenes. This is legitimate to a degree; the mission (or two) associated with each chapter is framed by a series of fully-voiced story scenes, some of which are fully-animated with the remainder having animated headshots accompanying the dialogue. In all it amounts to probably a half hour of story per chapter. The story segments qualify as decent anime entirely on their own, and in fact if you just watched the plot back-to-back and ignored the action, it'd be a solid TV series. But that's too much plot for a video game, isn't it?
Actually, no, it's not. In fact, it's just right--the story and plot blend together so smoothly that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. The action segments sometimes include brief bits of exposition (always kept short, so you're never stuck watching a lengthy cutscene in the middle of a battle), but the segmentation lets you get into the mood to sit back and absorb the plot, then change gears and dig into the battles that punctuate the characters' lives.
This works fabulously--you get to know the characters so well that you really care what happens to them on the field of battle, while the sense that you are them, rather than just watching them, makes the plot all the more engaging. Besides, this is a strategy game--you're probably going to spend a lot of time optimizing your strike force and prepping for battle anyway, so you'd be breaking the momentum anyway.
On that note, the literal chapters (the game is told through a history book, with occasional narration for background) are a great, bite-sized way of approaching the game--between the lead-in plot, half-hour to hour battle, and post-battle plot, it's easy to play a chapter in an evening then walk away at a satisfying stopping point.
Before I move on, a note about the alternate-WWII plot angle: It does a good job of feeling complex and real, while adding more than enough substantive changes from the reality that you don't feel like it should've been set in the real world. The anti-Darksen racism--both among the Imperials and your own squadmates--is consistent and harsh enough to actually work, though the story doesn't quite delve into full-on genocide. The technology is also a strong point--almost everything is Ragnite powered, and you can spot the glowing blue radiators on everything from tanks to farm vehicles.
The interface is probably the game's weakest point, and it's not much of one. Visually it's a wonderful layout--you see it as a book, flipping between chapters with the various cutscenes and battles laid out on each two-page spread. There are appendices, in which you can read up on (entirely optional) historical background, some of which is quite interesting. Occasionally you can unlock bonus "side" chapters, some of which are just cutscenes and some of which also include battles.
That last bit is one of the best bits of storytelling--a couple of bonus chapters show you background on later dramatic developments, but you don't unlock them until after the cat is out of the bag, at which point they appear earlier in the book. This leaves the dramatic reveal intact while allowing for "flashbacks" to fill in blank spots in the past.
Separately, there's the mechanical interface, through which you upgrade your weapons, spend gained experience training your troops to unlock new skills and increase abilities, choose which of the many misfit recruits you'll put in your squad, and occasionally unlock bonus weapons or chapters. This is the weakness; switching between this and the book can be a bit of an annoyance due to minor load-lag, and it's also annoying that you can't see the new talents you've unlocked unless the person is in the active squad, meaning you need to do a bunch of swapping to check what all they can do. Similarly, you won't know if you've made new weapon/tank upgrades available to purchase, unlocked new battle orders, or new bonus materials (through the in-story reporter) without looking at each section individually after every chapter. It's not a disaster, but this all ends up being more time consuming than it needed to be--a simple "New!" icon would've saved a lot of time cumulatively. (Notably, the PSP sequel remedies every one of these flaws in its own interface.)
The background portion of things is, otherwise, satisfying--the upgrades come at a regular pace (though frankly you're rarely so strapped for cash that there's any need to pick and choose), there are a wide (and amusing) variety of specific traits for each character, and since all units of the same class advance together, there's no worries of leaving someone stuck at a low level. You could spend a lot of time optimizing your squad carefully--each person has specific traits that come into play in specific situations, and also other characters that they like and dislike, providing a slight bonus if they're together. Fortunately, you don't have to--the difficulty curve is reasonable, and the bonuses modest enough it's by no means necessary, just a slight edge.
The meat of the game comes, of course, in the big, turn-based, semi-real-time, 3rd-person-perspective battles. You start each round with a number of action points based on your skill as a leader and how many officers are in the active squad, which can be spent to move a character, call in reinforcements to replace fallen/evacuated comrades, or execute orders (effectively buffs). Each character, depending on class, can move a certain distance in a round, within which you are free to run, walk, crawl through grass, or take your time--only the number of steps matters. Enemy units, however, will lay down cover fire if you're in range and they can see you, so unless you're well hidden or far from the action you're forced to be careful about where you run and how to cover the ground as quickly as possible, with the least exposure.
During each action you can also make a single attack with the weapons the character has on hand; once you've dropped into a first-person aiming mode all action ceases, so you have as much time as you want to look around and aim your shot.
This works surprisingly well; there's a sense of urgency to the battles, and you're forced to keep yourself under cover and out of the line of fire, but being able to take extra time to aim (and look around) brings the strategy element back into it.
The game is also quite fair when it comes to who can do what--the enemy units (though generally weaker) operate under the exact same system and restrictions as yours, meaning your troops also lay down fire when they're running around. This opens up the opportunity to put people in defensive positions so that they mow down enemy soldiers while they're moving, rather than on your turn, as well as prevent flanking.
A small but varied selection of weapons and troop classes leaves lots of room for specialization and strategy--both in terms of who you bring to a particular fight and how you use them--without overwhelming with options. You can easily pick up how to play over the course of the first couple of easy introductory battles, yet it doesn't feel oversimplified or constrained.
What really makes the game enjoyable from a strategy perspective, though, is the incredible variety of missions. I honestly never once felt like it was getting repetitive--if anything, you are always on your toes trying to keep up with the new set of circumstances thrown at you. There's wildly differing terrain (everything from rubble-strewn, sniper-infested cities, to open desserts covered with tanks and beset by blinding sand flurries, to a vicious beach landing through a heavily fortified corridor), challenging new enemy units (from snipers to immense land-bound battleships), and unusual restrictions (can't be spotted, someone has been separated and needs to make their way across the field to rejoin the main group, and simple capture-the-flag).
Over the roughly 20 missions I honestly never once felt like the game was even close to a rut, nor did I feel stuck. Even the skirmishes--a selection of past battles you can try again to earn extra experience and money or to practice and test new people and weapons--hold some surprises, which I'll come back to.
The weakest link in the gameplay part is that the enemy AI occasionally spazzes out and does something either inscrutable or just plain dumb. While it's a welcome relief in a few particularly vicious battles, it also doesn't feel fair, or particularly satisfying. Still, the hiccups aren't that common, and the rest of the time the enemy seems brutally effective.
An interesting aside in the battle segments is how attached you get to the various characters. The game has one of the best excuses for a random, motley crew of misfits I can think of: you're a militia unit in a country with universal conscription, and a disliked one at that, so they're the dregs of the conscripts rather than the army proper. Nor are all created equal in the varying personality traits that directly affect game play--you have everything from icy, all-too-effective snipers with great night vision, to one pacifist scout who's sometimes so broken up after killing someone she can't act the next turn. (Then there's my favorite, flower shop girl Jane--who turns out to be a literal sadist and gets all kinds of bonuses once she starts shooting Imperials. Other fun traits are, for example, "mooch" and "masochist.") They're a fun, appealing lot, even the ones who you don't want to use--they probably don't want you to put them in combat, either.
Incidentally, the game, despite being fully-voiced throughout, offers you a choice of English and Japanese dialogue--you select from the title screen, before you even start playing, and once you do 100% of the audio switches. While English is probably a little more suited to the alternate-Europe, the Japanese acting is notably better, particularly in the large and colorful cast of squad members. There are, of course, subtitles, but they're the weak point--the plot sections have subtitles that match the English dialogue, which sometimes differs moderately from the Japanese in content, and there are no subtitles to the various things the characters yell out during battles, some of which can be rather amusing if you know what they're saying.
Also interestingly, despite most of the Squad 7 members never having any lines in the plot sections, you get enough of a feel of their personality from their self-introductions and what they yell out in battles to get quite attached. When someone does inevitably get shot down, you have three more rounds to get someone to them and call in a medic. If you don't (or an enemy gets there first), they're dead, permanently. Now, you don't need to save them--there are plenty more who can fill in in any of the classes--but you're likely to get so attached to them that you'll go out of your way to make sure everybody survives. Nice touch, if you ask me.
The one other thing to bring up is the challenge and replayability angle. It's not a wildly difficult game; so long as you're careful with your choices and plan your moves in battle carefully you can probably finish it without having to re-do more than a couple of maps. But, the difference between a D rank--fine to advance in the game--and an A rank--which nets you extra experience, money, bonus weapons, and pride, but no plot changes--is usually the difference between a careful, methodic slog and doing nothing wrong.
You don't get the chance to go back and replay earlier fights (apart from the selection of skirmish battles) until you've finished the game and get a second, more open, play through. The second time through does add a little bit of fun (particularly getting to use your fancy, advanced troops on the comparatively flimsy early enemies), but what's really impressive is the skirmishes. The regular difficulty levels are just steps up in the same challenge--more and tougher enemies. But the Expert versions of each that you unlock after finishing the game are something else entirely. The maps may be the same, but the layouts are different (often role-reversed, in fact), the goals are different, and the enemies... well, it goes from a battle to sticking your face in a wall of Gatling guns while somebody uses your rear for target practice with a heavy tank.
Even surviving these advanced skirmishes is a challenge, and getting an A requires clever planning and near-perfect execution. That it manages to do this with maps you've probably played through a dozen times is testament to the designers' ability to come up with creative new things to do. There are also several DLC modules, some of which are quite interesting.
When you put all this together, you have what is one of the most emotionally engaging, entertaining, visually beautiful, and all-around fun to play action-strategy games of all time. It is heavy enough on plot and fantasy-Europe history that it won't appeal to everybody, but personally I can't recommend it highly enough.
Notes and Trivia
A completely original Sega concept that has aggregated itself into a bit of a franchise--which it deserves. As of this writing there are two spin-off sequel games (Welkin and a few familiar faces make appearances, but the main characters are different) with very similar mechanics, both for the PSP.
There is also a two-season anime adaptation of this game; it has the same character and mechanical design, and the same voice cast, but somewhat ironically doesn't look as good. The anime version makes a number of changes to the plot, and particularly toward the end does a significantly worse job with the drama. You would, in all honesty, probably do better to just watch the cutscenes in the game straight through.
The game is rated "Teen" by the ESRB (for animated blood, mild language, mild suggestive themes, use of tobacco, and violence), and probably deserves to be in the 13+ range.
Violence: 3 - There is almost no blood, but it's a war story--many people, including main characters, die onscreen and off.
Nudity: 1 - A few bathing suits.
Sex/Mature Themes: 2 - Little more romance than a kiss, but themes of racism and genocide.
Language: 1 - Fairly clean language.
Available in the US from Sega exclusively for the PS3. DLC also available.