Fresh is not a word generally associated with the tactical RPG subgenre. A style of gaming very much grounded in old formulas and tested gameplay, it’s been a long time since some truly unique ideas have made their way into this gaming style. In that way alone, Valkyria Chronicles delivers, and to its credit, manages to stay an entirely enjoyable and excellent game at the same time.
Based in a fantasy version of Europe in the mid-1930s, Valkyria Chronicles follows a continent-wide war fought over the valuable mineral, ragnite. As the game describes, the stuff is basically used for just about everything, from medical treatment to electric supply, and whoever controls the most of it basically controls Europa. In a struggle for this power, the Europan Federation faces off against the fascist Empire. The game itself takes place in the ragnite-rich country of Gallia, which up until now has remained neutral in the ongoing conflict. This all changes when the Empire invades. The player takes on the role of Welkin Gunther, who is conscripted into the war effort and swiftly takes command of a squad of militia soldiers.
The story is fine. It takes awhile to get its stride, but when it gets going it is interesting enough, if perhaps a bit on the generic side. Just looking at the game, one can see the heavy anime influence, and this plays out in the story very much. It is filled to the brim with all sorts of lighthearted quirkiness — pigs with wings, anyone? — but at the same time has moments of almost grim seriousness. The characters are also quite likable (to a certain extent), though they do tend to fall into very clear-cut stereotypes often enough. Welkin is the quintessential inexperienced, but brilliant commander, while other characters can easily be identified as any one of the various war story cliches out there. They are at once wholly likable, but also perhaps a bit too forgettable for their own good.
The real stars of the game are the graphics and gameplay. The graphics, put shortly, didn’t impress me at first. Then, I wisely moved downstairs to my high-definition flat screen and was immediately taken aback by the sheer beauty of Valkyria Chronicles. The game maintains colorful, lush, and stylish graphics. Everything in the game looks to have been pencil-drawn, giving it a look wholly unique to the game. I simply cannot praise the way this game looks enough. It’s simply one of those titles I can envision looking back on ten years from now and still being impressed. If I can cite any problems with the art style, it’s that we don’t get to see enough of it. The game always looks nice, but the visuals become a bit more subtle in battle. Worse yet, those moments where it looks best, cut scenes, are fewer than they should be. Too much of the story is presented via talking heads that barely showcase the visuals.
The gameplay, too, is something special. Combining aspects of third-person shooters with the very non-shooter TRPG genre might seem like an odd fit, but it actually works wonderfully and gives you a sort of control rarely afforded the player by these games. You know how nice it is in a shooter to score a head shot? Well, it turns out it’s just as much fun to do in an RPG, and far more satisfying than waiting for some random statistic to deliver you a critical hit. How Valkyria Chronicles works is essentially you take turns directing your units across a map, third-person style. Each turn you have a set number of command points you can use to direct your units. Infantry units use one command point apiece, while tanks use up two. There is not a limit as to how many times you can use an individual character, as long as you have command points left in stock.
Smartly, there are some limitations in place. Each character has a set number of action points that dictate how far they can move per turn, and you can only attack once per turn. Action points become less plentiful if you use a character more than once during your command phase, making them less mobile if you use them multiple times, and many characters only have enough ammo for a few attacks. Furthermore, the game employs a balance system that makes it so no one character is too powerful. A sniper might be able to score head shots more easily, but they’re too fragile to survive a direct assault. Every unit is handicapped in some way.
To the game’s credit and detriment, Valkyria Chronicles focuses far more on the strategy elements than the role-playing ones. On one hand this is nice because far too many TRPGs require no strategic thought in the slightest. You can never just charge in guns blazing — especially since enemy units fire on you as you move — and things like cover are a necessity. This being said, a few more RPG qualities might have made it a deeper game. As it is, Valkyria Chronicles streamlines the process of leveling up to a point that it’s barely there. Rather than leveling up individual units, you level entire classes using experience points earned by completing battles. Similarly, you can upgrade all of your unit’s weapons and armor at the same time. On one hand, it is nice to not have to deal with this kind of pointless micromanagement, but at the same time, the lack of individually customizable characters makes your soldiers feel particularly expendable, especially since the game gives you replacement troops for free. Individual soldiers do have their own personalities, looks, and battle-related characteristics, but overall this isn’t enough to endear them to you in the long run.
The gameplay doesn’t come off flawlessly, unfortunately. The enemy AI is rather dumb. They will defend themselves and will attack you in a basic way, but generally with a little trial and error it’s easy to figure out a way to overcome them. The game makes up for this somewhat by giving your opponents a general numerical advantage of around two- or three-to-one against you, but it’s a shallow way to correct such a flaw. More noticeable, in my opinion, is the lack of online play. The story missions are varied, fun, and interesting, but the game still ends. Despite a nice skirmish mode, the ability to take your army online for some player-versus-player action would have upped the game’s value exponentially.
Other qualities are notable. The game features some nice side information for those further interested in the game’s world and characters. As well, the sound is generally excellent, featuring fine voice acting, a nice soundtrack, and great battle effects. Valkyria Chronicles succeeds where many other TRPGs have failed, it corrects the oft-repeated mistakes of the genre, and it rids itself of the myriad frustrations that have plagued game after game for years. It’s fun, it’s well done, and above all, it’s fresh. Valkyria Chronicles is easily one of the best games on the PS3 and is easily the must-have RPG for fans of the genre this year.