America - Front
America - Back
By Karl Koebke 21st Nov 2008 | 12,636 views
The recent trend within storytelling in gaming has been to move away from linear storylines and lean on the side of player freedom, allowing a person to choose between options and in a way make their own story. While this is commendable in some ways, there is still a lot to be said about a great linear gaming experience, and Valkyria Chronicles shows exactly that. The game plays exactly how a linear game should play, putting in new functions that lend new options to the player and telling a mature story without ever resorting to gore or excessive bloodshed to prove its own maturity, something that is not often seen in a game whose story is centered on war. It also succeeds in making one of the most engaging and accessible battle mechanics to any Strategy RPG I have played.
The combat in Valkyria is easily one of the greatest achievements of the game. It changes up the regular SRPG standard in a way rarely seen. Your role in these battles is acting as the general commander on the field. At the beginning of the battle you are given information on the goals as well as the obstacles ahead and allowed to pick and choose which members of your squad will be starting in the positions available. Each turn you are given a certain number of command points which you can use to issue special commands that up certain stats of your squad members or heal a character in dire need, or you can use the points to take control of one of your squad members. Once you have chosen a squad member the camera dives into your strategic map, coming to rest in a behind the shoulder view of your chosen squad member. You now have control of the character, running with the left analog stick, manipulating the camera with the right analog stick, toggling through weapons with the square button, and taking aim with the R1 button. The character cannot move around infinitely, however, and is given an AP bar which will steadily decrease as you move your character wherever your heart desires. Once you have found a good position, or run your AP bar dry, you can then press R1 to go into a first person view and take aim at your preferred target. Head shots do more damage than body shots, a display on the upper right will tell you how many shots you will take as well as how many shots it will take to kill the current target, and a circle around your crosshairs gives you an idea of the precision of your current weapon. Once ready, you then press the X button to let your bullets, or grenades, or weird exploding lance rocket-like thingies fly.
Most of the strategy of Valkyria Chronicles comes from managing your command points as well as positioning your squad members effectively. The command point management is difficult because command points can be saved for a second turn or used for special orders, and a single character can also be used multiple times during any given turn if you have the necessary command points (albeit with a decrease in available AP each time you use them more than once in a single turn). Utilizing your command points well is often the difference between defeat and victory, and is always important if you are looking for a good rating at the end of the fight.
Squad member positioning is another key factor because every soldier with unlimited ammo (shocktroopers, scouts, engineers, and the machine guns of tanks) will let loose whenever they see an enemy coming, and also because crouching in cover greatly reduces damage and negates the possibility of head shots. These two things make where you position your soldiers for your enemy’s turn almost as important as what you do during your own turn. Placing a line of soldiers where you think your enemy is intending to go can kill off an enemy without wasting any of your own turns, and keeping your squad members in cover is essential to making sure they get out alive.
It is also important to take out the enemy’s leaders while protecting your own. There are certain characters in the game that are denoted as leaders, and having these characters alive during a fight will give you one more command point for each leader alive. This means that you will almost always have all three leader characters out during any given fight, which is one of my few pet peeves because I would’ve liked the punishment for not using the main story characters to be less severe. Though you can certainly play through the game without using them, you’ll just have less command points than the maximum possible.
There are essentially 6 different unit types in the game. The tank, which houses the squad commander, is fantastic for taking out other tanks, clearing up a group of enemy soldiers with a well placed explosion, and knocking down almost any obstructions it comes against. On the negative side the tank takes two command points to use instead of one, and has a fairly low AP amount.
Scouts are basically as their name describes, they are armed with a rifle and one grenade per turn, have extremely high AP, and are especially useful for catching sight of hidden enemies in tall grass. Their attack power and defense are fairly low however, so they can’t deal with an entrenched enemy very well and can easily die if they get caught in a crossfire.
Shocktroopers are your all around soldier, with no specific downsides to using them. They carry a machine gun and have probably the second highest defense , with about half the AP of a Scout. Shocktroopers are usually best used to run into heavily entrenched enemies and take them out using either the machine gun or one grenade per turn.
Lancers are your anti tank troops. They don’t run very fast, but have around the same AP as Shocktroopers. They only have a lance as their sole weapon, and are extremely bad shots with it. You can think of a lance as a goofy rocket launcher. When going against enemy tanks, Lancers and your own tank are really your only option to taking them out. They are provided with their maximum of three rockets to begin with and then gain one more each command turn. Lancers have very high defense from explosives, but not as high bullet defense so they are highly susceptible to snipers, which brings us to the next unit type.
Snipers have easily the lowest AP, it can be difficult to move them to where you want them, and their low defense means you won’t be running them through gunfire for very long. However they come with the best accuracy, the ability to zoom in on targets, and the ability to kill enemies with a head shot with a single round. Snipers have the same ammo worries as Lancers, however, as they start with only their maximum of three rounds, and gain another each command turn.
Engineers are probably best described as a support class. They have AP around three quarters of a scout’s and a comparable defense with easily the worst offensive capabilities. This weakness is tempered by their ability to disable enemy mines, repair tanks, sandbag walls, and refill the ammo of any squad member by touching them. Whenever you plan to use a lancer or a sniper for more than three turns engineers are your best bet, and they are the only means by which you can “heal” your tank.
One slightly unique function of the battle system is what happens to your characters when they die. When a squad member’s health goes to zero, they are knocked out on the ground and their mark on your strategic map is crossed through. You are then given 3 turns to get to and touch that character with another soldier to call a medic and safely evacuate the character out. If you do not do so by the end of three turns, or the enemy touches the fallen squad member before you do, then that character is dead and gone for your entire play through (presuming they aren’t one of three main story characters who instead are gone solely for that fight). During especially difficult fights you will find that you have to balance your objective with trying to reach the fallen, and it is fairly likely that you will lose a couple of soldiers through out the game. I really enjoy this system because it adds permanence to the death of a side character that (along with reading the back story of the side characters) can actually make you miss your fallen comrades somewhat (R.I.P. Nadine).
The other side of this mechanic is that the death of a character or two is not as detrimental as it probably would be in other games. Due to reasons I will touch on later, the members of any given class are all fairly equal in stats and are therefore mostly interchangeable for your strategies. This doesn’t mean that they are all carbon copies of one another, however, as each of your characters will have some perks or detriments based on their given side story. These vary from Walter who is cocky and therefore has a chance of lower evasion skills when his health is high, to Rosie who has a debilitating allergy which has a chance to drain her health whenever in a desert environment, or Lynn whose hard working attitude gives her a chance to take two actions in a single turn instead of one. These attributes add nuance and complexity to how you organize your squad, and also serve to give each of the characters their own story and personality.
The first thing that should clue you in on Valkyria’s linear storyline is the menu set up itself. All of the menus in Valkyria are managed through a book-like interface. From this interface you can choose to continue the story, go to the headquarters to manage troops and equipment, look at the medals you have achieved in combat, and read up on weapons, people, and “historical” events. The “Chapters” tab which encompasses the storyline is easily the best and most important consequence of this menu style. In this tab you unlock battles you can play as well as storyline events that you can watch. What makes this interface great, is that once you have unlocked any cut scene or dialogue, you can come back to that scene as many times as you want. This is a fantastic way to give the player the freedom to watch their favorite cut scenes as many times as they want, and I can tell you that I have watched a particular scene from Chapter 11 at least five times. You don’t have the same freedom with the battles on your first play through the game, but if you decide to go through the story again, you’ll then be able to do the battles as many times as you want.
The “Headquarters” tab allows you to manage the members of your squad, the equipment your squad is wearing, as well as use your experience and money earned. At the Command Center you are able to choose which 20 members of the 50 or so available candidates you want to use in the upcoming battles, which can be especially important if your current squad contains soldiers who may have allergies that will be detrimental in the next fight (I still want to know how people can be allergic to metal). In the R&D facility you can satiate your commercialist desire by spending your hard earned cash on upgrades to weapons and armor and various options for outfitting your tank. The “Training Field” is where you will utilize your experience points to level your characters. One great thing about Valkyria Chronicles is that you don’t level characters individually, but you instead level them as a class. This makes all of the members of any class mostly statistically interchangeable and works very well with the game’s death system, allowing you to miss the character that is gone, without completely screwing over your play through. After you have chosen who will be in your squad, the “Squad Barracks” can be used to choose what specific weapon model each character will use and view various information on the squad members themselves.
Valkyria’s storyline centers on the plight of a small country stuck between two battling behemoths. The East Europan Imperial Alliance and the Atlantic Federation are fighting for dominance of the entire continent of Europa (just change the “a” to an “e” and you’ll have a good picture) while the citizens of the tiny neutral country of Gallia try to ignore the conflict and go about their daily lives. Before too long, the rich resources of Ragnite (basically powers everything in the game from streetlamps to mortar shells) in Gallia are too tempting for the Empire to pass up, and they begin to invade. Gallia has long had a policy of universal and mandatory military training, and you take command of one of the squads of militia formed to fight off the coming Empire.
There are a lot of things that the storyline of Valkyria does well that should be commended. While there is very little blood in the game, the story delves deeply into many mature themes such as racism, death, and the idea that even though you are at war, the people on the other side of the battlefield are still human beings with lives and families to go back to. It is very refreshing and I am happy to see that the developers used the general atmosphere of a war movie extremely well when making their story. Also interesting is the aspects of life that the game totally ignores. Based on attributes there are some characters who are clearly homosexual, but this is simply treated as a random attribute that has very little bearing on the narrative or the stats of the character. It is an extremely mature and commendable way to deal with the subject, and I hope other developers take notice. The story is not perfect of course, there are a few clichés (every JRPG needs a love story right?), and a few cringe worthy moments mainly stemming from the inclusion of the Squad’s pig mascot, but Valkyria gets far more things right with the story than it does wrong.
The second thing that Valkyria does very well from a story aspect is giving a meaningful personality to all of the 50 characters you’ll have the ability to use. Every single squad member has a back story, their own voice acting, and their own attributes that make them unique. There’s enough variety in there that I think that everyone will find some that they really enjoy using and listening to (Walter, Cherry, and Herbert are all hilarious). You also have a lot of incentive to use every single available character, since using them for a few battles will unlock more of their back story as well as another attribute. This has been the main focus of my second play through.
There are a couple issues as far as technical presentation goes. When looking through waving grass or smoke there can sometimes be significant frame rate drops. These are few and far between however, and do not affect the actual gameplay at all due to the turn based nature of the game. On the other side, the menus of Valkyria are close to brilliant, as reading all of these events from a “book” is not only aesthetically pleasing, but also allows the player to go back to any scene that they care to watch again -- something that I hope JRPG developers in general pick up if not the book interface as a whole. The load times are fairly short, with probably only 10 seconds when the battle starts and then nothing else throughout. These loading times were tested using the optional install however, so I am unsure of how they would change without it.
The visual presentation of Valkyria is nearly breathtaking. The pseudo-watercolor aesthetics really catch the eye, and are accentuated by the painting-like border that is always on the edges of the screen, giving the game the look as though you are playing it on a canvas. With the exception of enemy non-leaders, the character models for are very unique, with very few characters looking anything like each other. I think the only little annoyance I have with the visual presentation is that no one has lips. This is a small issue, but becomes extremely obvious when two characters try to kiss. Also the "talking heads" motif common in SRPG's is used perhaps more than I would like, but I can understand that one wouldn't want every scene to be a cutscene since it's nice to be able to control the tempo of the conversations.
The music is top notch, a very nice score that will stick into your mind. I think my only complaint is that they use certain songs too much, and I wish they had spread the song use out better so that you are less likely to get tired of any given song. The voice over talent of Valkyria is great in both English and Japanese. I played through my first time in English and I found very few annoying voices, and the acting during cut scenes was usually very believable even in the more emotional scenes. As I played through my second time in Japanese I noticed a couple voice talents that will make any anime nerd happy (Maximillian being Lelouch from Code Geass for example). Also a major upside to Valkyria’s audio presentation is that there is very little text left unspoken. Unless you are being briefed on a mission every single sentence that is uttered by a character is voiced.
Even with the great presentation, Valkyria’s best aspect is its gameplay. The combination of strategy with a unique interface makes for an extremely fun battle system that has been the main impetus for me starting a second play-through. The story missions are all unique and you will find yourself fighting trench warfare across deserts, reclaiming hostages, and doing demolition work on key strategic Imperial strongholds. No two missions feel anything like each other, and the variety among them is very commendable. My only qualm with how the game played was the inability to change the sensitivity while aiming. This can make aiming with a sniper rather difficult as you try to get the crosshairs just barely where you want them. This is a minor annoyance due to the game’s turn based nature, however. The story is also extremely fun to play through and watch, with many epic moments that I find myself watching again and again.
Value is probably Valkyria’s worst point. My first play through clocked out at 32 hours, which is shorter than a lot of JRPG’s. This is tempered by the idea that Valkyria’s design takes out much of the grinding that can take up your time in other JRPG’s, so I would argue that 32 hours in Valkyria is much more value than 32 hours in your average JRPG. Another upside is that Valkyria has a lot of replay value, with more side characters to learn about as well as a great gameplay mechanic and medals to earn. I do wish that the medals had been adapted to trophies, since it seems like they are practically set up for it already, but such is not the case. There is the promise of further playtime through downloadable content in the future that allows you to try your hand playing on the Imperial side of the war, but as there will be a charge involved I can't really count this as a plus side for value's sake -- however true Valkyria die-hards will be happy for the further playtime and story development.
Those who have read all my reviews and are keeping track (so basically the staff editors and my immediate family. *waves* HI MOM!!) will notice that this is easily the longest review I have ever submitted. This game deserves nothing less. I love this title and have very few complaints. The gameplay is addicting, the story is engaging, and the characters’ personalities are very interesting. On the downside there is a lot of use of the old “talking heads” motif within JRPG story telling, some slowdown in specific points, and no one has lips (yes I’m still harping on that). Basically, if you are a JRPG fan and you don’t give Valkyria a shot, you do yourself a disservice. So go out and buy it if you own a Playstation 3, or go borrow one if you don’t, because this is the kind of JRPG that the Playstation 3 users have been waiting for.