An Extremely Polished
Tactical RPGs have trouble jumping over the genre hurdle and making headway in a mainstream sense. It’s not hard to pinpoint why: there’s a level of patience and diligence required on the player’s end that most other genres simply don’t require. However, that’s what makes them so satisfying to fans. That investment – in terms of time, tactical planning, and character leveling – makes every decision feel more important and, ultimately, gives the genre a heftier weight than most.
It doesn’t help that there’s any extremely limited number of choices out there for turn-based strategy fans. Sure, portables have staples like Final Fantasy Tactics and Advance Wars, but consoles tend to get the short end of the stick. Earlier this year, Success brought us Operation Darkness – a 360 title – but its list of problems relegated it to an obscure gaming corner, garnering it one of those “only fans of the genre need apply” tags. With the release of SEGA’s Valkyria Chronicles, console tactical RPG fans are left out in the cold no longer. It’s a stellar showcase for its genre, as well as a demonstration of proper developmental care – it looks great and plays exceptionally well, rewarding the player with a fantastic gaming experience.
Graphically, Valkyria Chronicles’ visuals serve as a form of enticement. Combining elements of comic book style pencil shading and thick outlines as well as borrowing bits of watercolor painting, it sets its own identity in a strong manner. Not only is this approach unique, it’s downright refreshing. While other games may tout enormous polygon counts, normal mapping tricks, and HDR lightning, Valkyria Chronicles sits comfortably with its painterly style. Sure, the level of detail may feel minimal from time-to-time – some characters and objects look a little too simplistic – but the overall charm outweighs any technical deficiencies.
With any PS3 title there’s always the lurking suspicion of a required hard drive install. Thankfully, SEGA has taken a levelheaded approach to this increasingly common problem: it’s entirely optional. You can run the game right off the disk and load times rarely top more than 10 seconds. If you want to sacrifice the disk space (about 3.3 GB), then your load times are cut in half. Other developers should take note: make your installs optional; quit treading into once-PC-only territory.
Like its tactical RPG brothers, Valkyria Chronicles’ weakest point is its plot. Playing on the alternate history angle, the game is set in 1930s Europe, or, as the game refers to it, “Europa.” Two sides – The Federation and The Empire (guess which one is evil) – are fighting over a rare resource called Ragnite, and the small nation of Gallia is caught in the middle. It’s strange that the plot revolves around this RTS-like resource, reminding one of something like Tiberium from the Command & Conquer universe. The narrative unfolds mainly from the perspective of the 7th Platoon, led by recent college graduate/nature lover, Welkin Gunther. Of course, all this has the trappings of anime, so there’s plenty of speeches about valor, nationalism, and the tranquility of nature. It sets up a story that is rather generic (and its delivery ensures that you can easily predict most of the dialogue and plot twists), but it’s completely serviceable – this is a game about tactics, so a premise that serves up plenty of battle scenarios suffices.
Brushing aside the story is rather easy once you get into nuts and bolts of the strategy rules underlying the game. During any fight you have two vantage points: an overhead map (the Command Mode), listing your locations as well as spotted enemies, and a 3D view (the Action Mode), that allows you to move around your characters. The Command Mode resembles a table-top game and lists your available Command Points (CP). These determine how many instructions you can issue each turn. For example, you might have seven CP. That means you could move seven units, one time each, roll out a tank (since it requires two CP) and five units once, or advance the same unit seven times. Pairing with the CP system is the Action Points (AP) gauge. AP points differ depending on the unit, drain while you move, and don’t recharge until the next turn. Since AP drains, this stops you from continually advancing one unit over-and-over again; it forces you to utilize most, if not all your units during each fight.
Once you start moving around in 3D you’ll notice a strange omission: there is no grid system. You move utilizing the AP you have available. Since there are no grids, it means you can face odd diagonals to properly utilize cover – and cover is very important. A large rock can completely block a tank round; a pile of sandbags significantly reduces the accuracy and damage of enemy fire; and your troops can lay in tall grass to sneak up on enemies. Likewise, the targeting system takes advantage of this non-restrictive, fully 3D approach. Body parts can be targeted, allowing you to perform head shots and take enemies down in fewer hits.
Joining you in battle are several different types of units. Scouts have the most AP, allowing them to jet across the battlefield quickest, spotting enemies along the way; Shocktroopers function as good all-around fighters, with their rapid machine gun fire; Lancers sport heavy armor and bazooka-like rounds, making them ideal for dealing with tanks; Engineers treat the wounded, restock ammo, and repair tanks and sandbags; and Snipers offer excellent attack range.
Now, all these unit types make for a solid variety, but SEGA did gamers one better and included the Potentials system. Each unit has a different list of Potentials, which have psychological labels. Depending on the Potential and character, their stats are affected. For example, a unit with the “Country Bred” Potential gets an accuracy bonus when they’re on dirt, whereas one with a “Born Leader” Potential receives a defense boost when allies are close by. However, not all Potentials are good. Some, like “Bad Back,” lower your defense if you’re crouching. Since most units you recruit come with both positive and negative Potentials, it encourages you to think about your surroundings before sending a particular unit into battle.
Unlocking the Headquarters in the third chapter opens up a lot of new opportunities. You can spend your experience leveling up particular units, recruit new soldiers, upgrade your weapons, armor, and tank at the R&D Facility, and visit the War Cemetery to chat with a veteran of the last war who exchanges Orders for experience points. Orders allow you to use CP points to call out special tactics in the middle of battle, such as increased defense or evasion, sniper shots or extra medical help. The inclusion of the Headquarters, with its myriad of potential upgrades, encourages you to battle on, so you can unlock that next Order or increase the ammo capacity of your tank.
It’s this constant process of reveal that makes Valkyria Chronicles so special. For example, early on, you may wonder if you can grind for experience before continuing on. Once you unlock the Skirmish Mode, you find out that not only is this possible, but it’s also less of a grind because you get to know the maps quite well, figuring out ways of completing them in the least number of turns. As the game progresses, you get more abilities in the troop retreat and reinforcement categories. If you wait less than three turns and get a unit near a fallen soldier, you can call a medic to evacuate the injured party. You can capture bases (marked by a flags) and once capped, they can be used to send in reinforcements while you’re still in battle. Also, similar units can team up to deliver Team Attack fire.
All of Valkyria Chronicles’ pluses could have been ruined by shoddy A.I. or an unfair difficulty, but neither of these typical complaints popup. Some missions are difficult, but their difficulty is merely a function of the terrain and unit positioning, not cheap intelligence tricks on the computer’s part, and since the game allows you to save anytime, you can experiment with different plans of attack quite easily.
SEGA has delivered a standout title, one that pushes past its strict genre boundaries and deserves to be played by not only fans of tactical RPGs, but also those that have never touched the genre. Turn-based strategy doesn’t get much better than this. PS3 owners who pickup this title won’t be disappointed.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.4 Graphics
The initial star of the show. Between the fluid animation, bright colors, and the mixing of comic book and painterly styles, Valkyria Chronicles is one of those titles that’s a delight to behold. 4.3 Control
By combining an efficient overhead map and capable 3D camera system, SEGA has made a tactical RPG that almost plays as well as it looks. 3.7 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
There’s some solid voice talent to be heard, but it’s held back by the generic plot and flimsy dialogue. The score settles into the background nicely, adding enough orchestral hints to keep your attention. 4.2 Play Value
The stellar graphics may grab your attention, but the gameplay is what keeps it. With a lengthy campaign and tons of upgrades – from weapons to Potentials and Orders – there’s always something worthwhile to do. 4.2 Overall Rating – Great
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.