Valkyria Chronicles Review

Originally released in 2008 exclusively for the Playstation 3, Valkyria Chronicles is one of those games that I really wanted to try, but was nevertheless on the fence about. On the one hand, it looked like an incredibly creative game. On the other, games with an anime aesthetic sometimes go very bad, turning into preachy, screechy, utterly abominable messes. Eternal Sonata is a wonderful example of this, taking one of the greatest classical composers and thrusting a ridiculous, fictionalized anime version of him into a world devoid of meaning or entertainment. Skies of Arcadia is another example, which, while not quite as bad as Eternal Sonata, had a story that made absolutely no sense and saw its characters acting as stupidly as possible in order to hamfistedly stitch together something resembling a plot. Before I had a chance to make up my mind about Valkyria Chronicles, however, my Playstation 3’s disc drive broke and the decision was made for me. Imagine my surprise when an inexpensive PC port came out of nowhere and included the DLC. Needless to say, I finally pulled the trigger, and I’m glad I did—this is an amazing game that deserves all the praised heaped on it and more.

A war that seems like war

One of my concerns about the game was that the lighthearted aesthetic would cause the story to steer away from the ugliness of its subject matter, that being a large-scale war. While those concerns aren’t entirely unfounded and certain characters have moments of childlike wonder despite the chaos surrounding them, Valkyria doesn’t pull any punches; not only can your characters experience permadeath in battle, but certain sequences and story developments prove to be unexpectedly gut-wrenching. The game never shows anything gory (there isn’t even any blood in the game), and yet there are some devastating moments reminiscent of those in war movies like Saving Private Ryan. In a lot of ways, the cutesy aesthetic lulls you into a false sense of security, only to have it suddenly torn away, and this is something I have to give Valkyria a lot of credit for.

Major and minor characters

There are two kinds of characters in Valkyria Chronicles: the ones who are actively involved in the story (Welkin, Alicia, Isara, Rosie, and Largo, all of whom are surprisingly likable), and everyone else. While the former receives more in-depth back story and characterization than the latter, all characters have their own unique personalities to the point where you’re bound to find one or two that you enjoy using out of the 30-50 that are available. Characters don’t only have their own personalities and voice acting, though—their back stories influence their “potentials,” which are positive or negative buffs that have a chance to trigger under certain circumstances and are informed by characters’ personalities. For example, Catherine the sniper once failed to save an ally because she ran out of ammo, so using all of her ammo activates the “ammo worries” potential that lowers her attack power. Most potentials I experienced were positive, though, granting improved attack power, double damage against certain enemies, or even extra ammo.

Most of the time, you’re best served running past enemies.

Command points and action points

You start each mission with a set number of command points, these effectively being the number of “moves” you can make that turn before the enemy’s turn begins. Bringing “leader” characters like Alicia, Rosie, and Largo into combat adds to your command point total and grants you a bonus to their regeneration each turn (provided these characters haven’t been gunned down), allowing you to do more each turn. Selecting your tank costs 2 points while selecting normal units only costs 1, and selecting either from the map grants you control over that unit. Once selected, that unit’s movement is limited by their “action points,” these representing how far that character can run in a single move. You can select one character over and over again, of course, but your characters have their available action points reduced by a third each time you use them in a single turn until they only have a useless sliver of possible movement left. Your units can only attack once each time you spend a command point on them, however, so it sometimes pays to reuse a character repeatedly in order to attack multiple enemies. You can also end your turn without using all of your command points to transfer them to your next turn, ensuring that you’ll be able to do even more damage than usual.

Classes and leveling

There are five different unit types: scouts, shocktroopers, engineers, snipers, and lancers. Scouts have the greatest number of action points out of all the classes, allowing them to cross into enemy territory with ease, but their firepower and defense is a bit lacking, so you have to be careful with how you use them. Shocktroopers have fewer action points than scouts, but their defense and firepower is significantly greater. Engineers have defensive and offensive capabilities similar to scouts and action points comparable to shocktroopers, but they’re important for replenishing the ammo of snipers and lancers (scouts, shocktroopers, and engineers have unlimited bullets). Snipers have limited ammo, poor defense, and a small amount of health, but can be lethal from across the battlefield. Lancers also have limited ammo, but they defend well against explosives and use rockets instead of bullets, making them ideal for destroying tanks, flushing enemies out of cover, and doing area damage.

Rather than having units level up individually, you use the experience gained during missions to manually level up entire classes at once. This gains your characters new potentials, as well as unlocking new “orders” for you to use inside of combat (provided you level your units up equally). At a certain point, units have their class go up. For scouts, this means gaining a grenade launcher. For shocktroopers, it means flamethrowers. However, orders end up being far more important than new weaponry, so it’s important to keep all of your classes leveled up equally to gain access to as many new orders as possible.

Orders are orders

Orders are special buffs/actions that main character Welkin (any certain enemy commanders) can use in order to help their squad. These cost anywhere from 1 to 6 command points depending on the order in question, but the benefits are undeniable: you can call in a sniper strike to damage an enemy, raise your units’ attack or defense, grant weaker units like scouts the ability to damage tanks that they’d ordinarily be ineffective against, and even heal units who have taken more damage than you’re comfortable with. Buffs only last for a single turn, though, and you can only use one kind of order per turn (for example, using an order to heal an individual character means being unable to use the “heal all” buff that turn). This adds a layer of strategy to the whole thing that’s very much appreciated.

Real-time elements and interception fire

One of the strangest things about Valkyria Chronicles is its real-time elements; rather than being strictly turn-based, choosing a unit means entering a real-time mode where enemy scouts, shocktroopers, and engineers are free to shoot at you as you move (this is also true of your scouts, shocktroopers, and engineers during the enemy’s turn, and it’s something to consider when choosing which units you bring with you into certain missions since lancers and snipers have no ability to fire at nearby moving enemies). When you enter into the game’s aiming mode to line up a shot, enemies are no longer free to fire at you, but they will return fire if you don’t successfully kill them first. This combination is unlike anything else I’ve ever played, and it works almost flawlessly.

Why only “almost,” you ask? Because you’ll sometimes venture into an enemy’s range and immediately start aiming, but still get hit with a few bullets. Similarly, you’re bound to get hit with a few more bullets after shooting if you can’t end your turn quickly enough. It’s a minor quibble, but it’s definitely something that takes a bit of time to get used to. Once I got a handle on how this worked, however, I was more than comfortable with Valkyria’s combat.

Critical hits and cover

Both your characters and enemy units can take cover behind sandbags, lying down in tall grass, and in trenches. Cover is an important part of combat because of how crippling headshots are; by aiming at the head, even scouts can take down most foes in a single attack. However, units hiding behind sandbags are immune to these kinds of critical hits, meaning you have to use a grenade or other type of explosion to destroy the bag and/or knock units away from it before enemies become vulnerable to devastating headshots, and this means alerting them to your presence and opening yourself up to fire if they haven’t yet spotted you.

Ganging up

When scouts, shocktroopers, and/or engineers are all nearby each other and one initiates an attack, the rest have a tendency to join in. On one hand, this means increased firepower. On the other, this often means putting units in a vulnerable position since there’s rarely enough cover to go around. Sneaking up on enemies from behind and having several units attack as a team is a great way to bring down some of the more difficult end-game boss characters, though, and it’s definitely an option to keep in mind should you find yourself hopelessly outmatched.

The game has a storybook format

Everything in Valkyria Chronicles is laid out in this book, including story missions and cutscenes. This means that you can replay cutscenes whenever you want, like if you want to revisit a certain scene to refresh your memory about what happened. I found this really useful, personally. Story missions, on the other hand, can only be completed once before being locked, but this is alleviated somewhat by “skirmish” battles that are unlocked as you play. These skirmish fights are basically reused story missions that can be replayed repeatedly for extra money and experience, so while you can’t replay any story mission you want repeatedly, you’ll eventually have something like 8 of them that can be revisited however many times you want.

Limited customization

Much like experience can be used to level up entire units, money can be spent to upgrade your weapons for all units. While the upgrade trees start out linear, many weapons eventually branch out to 3 different variations that boil down to focusing on power, accuracy, or adding debuffs onto enemies. Additionally, doing well enough in missions eventually means being rewarded by the country’s princess with medals and special weapons. This means that toward the end of the game, you’re able to equip your best (or most-liked) characters with powerful weapons that your other characters don’t have access to.

You can also use money to upgrade your tank. Some upgrades are automatically applied, while others have to be equipped in a grid, meaning juggling different pieces to try and find space for this and that. It’s a bit reminiscent of Deus Ex (and maybe Tetris) in that respect, and while this introduces a certain amount of risk-versus-reward into the mix, I found that the tank quickly became dead weight and eventually stopped dealing with the grid altogether.

Valkyria Chronicles

“You’re ordering me to do WHAT?”

Great saving situation, but one flaw

In Valkyria Chronicles, you can save in the storybook view, or in the middle of combat (though not when you’re actively controlling one of the characters). This means that you can save after a particularly good turn and return to that save should things suddenly turn bad. Unfortunately, the game’s console roots show when you run up against the game’s 20-save limit. This can be worked around by exiting the game and backing up the saves, then deleting all but the last one, but it’s still a bit annoying for people like me who save after everything.

Problems and issues

I love this game, but it definitely has a few issues. Most problematic are the invisible walls; at one point I tried to throw a grenade over a small fence, and while the pre-throw angle looked perfect, the grenade ended up bouncing off of an invisible wall above the fence and blowing my character up instead. That’s in addition to numerous instances of characters having their bullets stopped by invisible walls, wasting their turns. This is something I eventually learned to work around by making sure that the menu telling you how many shots have to hit to finish off the opponent you’re aiming at appears, but it still proved to be a periodic annoyance.

Another annoying element of the game is that there’s no way to skip through mid-battle cutscenes like orders and enemy movement. Given how many orders you’re bound to use over the course of the game, I see no reason to disallow skipping past these. Being unable to skip through an enemy’s turn is arguably even worse, though, because if they end up killing one of your favorite characters, you have to either wait for the enemy’s turn to end to reload a save or enter task manager to force-close the game. This only compounds the inevitable frustration.

Fuzzy cutscenes, but great style

There are a lot of cutscenes between missions, so I suppose it makes sense that the prerendered video is only 720p (1280×720). Many cutscenes are unnecessarily ugly and lossy-looking because of this, though, and I really don’t see how those scenes couldn’t have been rendered in the engine like everything else. However, while the game’s sketchbook-and-anime style means that there’s a certain amount of blurriness, the game is still gorgeous. Shadows are presented as lines and the edges of most scenes aren’t filled in with color, making much of the game look like an in-process sketch. All in all, it’s a very cool look.

Great music, too

I’ve gone this entire review without mentioning my beloved Fire Emblem series once despite the similarities between the two (fixed group of characters with personalities, permadeath, etcetera), but I have to bring it up because the music is where the resemblance is most uncanny. Fire Emblem has some of my favorite music in all of gaming, so that’s no small compliment, and the parallels between the two really struck me: both sport bombastic and somber themes that stick with you, and I even found myself playing the game’s music in my head days after finishing. It’s an orchestral soundtrack done right, and it suits the game perfectly.

Here’s what you should do:

Valkyria Chronicles

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