Guest Author - James Shea
"Valkyria Chronicles" is a fairly unorthodox game - it's got the art and general handling of "Final Fantasy Tactics" combined with the military tactics of "Full Spectrum Warrior". Possessing the feeling of an RPG despite taking place during WW2 (or a fantasy representation of it, more accurately), Valkyria Chronicles represents an exciting new game that should be liked by both strategy-RPG fans and the more hardcore military crowd.
The game takes place in "Europa" - a fantastic version of Europe, where the two dominant countries are the Federation (to the West) and the Empire (to the East). Caught between these is Gallia, a small independent nation rich with Ragnite, the world's fictional power source. The player takes the role of Lieutenant Gunther, the leader of a 20-person unit of militiamen raised to repel an invasion by the Empire.
To that end, the player must manage their squad of soldiers and drive back the enemy. From a pool of 50 soldiers (though most have to be unlocked by progressing in the game) the player selects 20 to serve as the active squad. Soldiers can come in one of five types. Scouts are light and fast, but are lightly armored and don't do much damage. Shock Troopers are more heavily armored and armed with machine guns, but are slower than scouts. Lancers are anti-tank troops armed with heavy rocket-tipped lances; they are the most heavily armored, but are only useful when dealing with enemy vehicles. Engineers are armed and armored like scouts, but trade the movement speed of that class for the ability to pass ammo out to comrades, disarm mines, and repair friendly tanks. Finally, Snipers have long-range capabilities and can take out an enemy in one hit if they're lucky, but have slow movement and low defense.
Besides their classes, each of the 50 unique characters has their own set of traits that affect their stats in battle. Character traits can reflect everything from upbringing (characters are more at home in their home turf) to sexual preference (some characters prefer to be around lots of women or lots of men) to more individualized personal effects (like a character who gets a huge attack bonus for charging headlong into the enemy's guns, or a character who gets a bonus just by being around tanks). In addition to these traits, characters also have bonds with certain other characters, and will do better when around those characters. Finally, there are certain stats (accuracy, damage, movement) that differ from character to character - but the stats themselves aren't recorded, so the player has to find out for themselves which characters have which statistics.
The characters' personalities are revealed through combat - use a character a lot and a newspaper reporter will conduct an interview (off-camera) that puts more information in their biography. This also adds new traits to their character, as well as background information. In addition, each character has unique voice acting, and they will often call out to characters that they have bonds with. All the characters are really fleshed out by their traits and biographies, and it becomes fairly easy to find at least a few favorites that you're likely to use over and over.
The gameplay itself is a sort of hybrid between turn-based strategy RPGs and tactical squad games like Full Spectrum Warrior. During a mission, the player usually has 9 soldiers (selected by the player) plus a command tank. At the beginning of every turn, the player has a certain number of command points; these are used to take actions with characters. While using a command point, a character can move a set distance (based on their class) and take one action - either attacking or healing themselves/a nearby ally. Complicating this is Intercepting Attacks: if a character runs into the line of sight of an enemy unit, that unit will fire at him as he moves past. The same is true for the enemy, of course, so it's advisable to set up a position where you will be well defended and where you can counterattack enemies easily as they enter the area. Due to the cone-like nature of weapons fire, using cover is advisable and helpful.
Besides infantry combat, the other main part of warfare in Valkyria is tanks. Your side only has one tank, which is upgradable throughout the game. The enemy, on the other hand, tends to have a few more at their disposal, necessitating the use of anti-tank Lancers. Tanks, when hit from the front, may take a while to destroy, but if a character can sneak around the back of the tank and hit its exposed radiator, the tank can be taken down easily. Tanks are very powerful (being equipped with an armor piercing cannon, an explosive mortar, and a coaxial machine gun) but cost 2 command points to take a turn, rather than just 1.
Leveling up and advancement is handled fairly simply, compared to a lot of similar strategy-RPGs. At the end of a battle, the player receives gold and experience based on their performance. Gold is used to develop new weapons and armor for your characters. A certain amount of gold is spent to upgrade a specific category (rifles, for example), and all soldiers who use rifles are armed with the upgraded rifle. These weapons are standard issue once developed, and the only customization comes when the development paths split into certain specializations (higher accuracy, higher damage, etc). In this case, you can choose for individual soldiers which weapon they should have. Leveling up works similarly - you invest experience in a class, and once you've spent enough that class levels up. This means that EVERYONE who is a member of that class levels up, regardless of whether or not they're currently in your squad, which means that there's no trouble with one unit getting way ahead of the others in experience terms.
I only had a few problems with gameplay. One is that speed is emphasized heavily - not just as a nice bonus, in most cases, but as the major source of experience and money. Completing a mission quickly is worth far more than any points you might get for doing things during the mission, which on the one hand works for players who are willing to take risks and rush in, but discourages players who are more cautious and defensive. Another issue with gameplay is that the levels tend to focus more on particular objectives or gimmicks rather than straight-up warfare; almost every level has your squad being split up, or some other condition that makes it harder than simply using regular tactics. Both of these things make the game less fun, and even in Skirmish mode (missions that can be played an infinite number of times to get more money and experience) they pervade the atmosphere of the game.
The graphics are incredible - not just in quality, but in style, as well. The game uses a unique colored-pencil style of in-game coloration, so everything has a very artistic feel to it. Some effects - like a tank's movement or an explosion - are represented by sound effects (like "vrrm" or "kaboom") popping up on-screen, which also serves to give it an "illustrated" appearance. The character designs are well-done, while still having a realistic aspect to them and a sort of group appearance emphasized by their standard-issue uniforms. The game in-action is really neat to watch, and the new approach to graphics is appreciated.
The sound is decent enough - the English voice acting is well-done, and as mentioned each character has a unique voice and a wide variety of prompts and lines. The music is good, but ultimately forgettable; it serves its purpose as background noise, but isn't particularly enjoyable on its own.
As a whole, Valkyria Chronicles is an amazing game that tends to get caught up too much in story and gimmicks. The engine is solid and fun, and the game in basic terms is great. However, the way it's used - the reliance on objectives and unusual gameplay situations - reduces the enjoyment of the system. In addition, the lack of multiplayer is a major annoyance. All-in-all, Valkyria Chronicles is a great game that also feels like a waste, in terms of what is done with the gameplay.
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