In 2008, Valkyria Chronicles launched on PS3 to critical acclaim. Critics agreed that it’s strategy RPG gameplay was a unique treat not to be missed. Now, 8 years later, after recently relaunching on Steam, it’s found its way to the PlayStation 4. It’s also found its way into my hands for the first time, after years of being curious about it. So, how does it hold up?
Unsurprisingly, good games stand the test of time, and, just as critics said in 2008, Valkyria Chronicles is a good game. There are a few games I can think of that really are just products of their time that can’t stand up in the modern age of gaming. But I firmly believe that games like Valkyria Chronicles do a pretty good job standing the test of time, conceptually.
For the unaware, Valkyria Chronicles is first and foremost an SRPG. Think Fire Emblem, Disgaea, or Advance Wars. The main thing setting it apart is the way combat plays out. From your top-downview above the battlefield, you select a unit and control them from a perspective reminiscent of a third-person shooter. You’re given a certain amount of actions that you can take per turn. These actions are represented by badges, called CP. Different units have different CP costs to activate, and as long as you have any badges left on your turn, you can continue to move units. You can even move units multiple times, which is pretty neat!
This freedom of movement extends to your enemy, too; they move with the same limitations that you do, and have the same unit classes that you do. It strikes a good balance; you can predict how your enemies will move, but not so much that combat becomes a breeze. There are so many little nuances of combat that might slip your mind during combat, but it doesn’t feel cheap; it’s always really clear that your poor tactics got you in to any mess you find yourself in.
And you will find yourself in a lot of messes. This game can be a bit cruel. At least, it was cruel to me. I named a bunch of SRPGs earlier in this review, but I’m not a master of any of them. So this game came to me, with my limited genre experience, and dragged my metaphorical face through the metaphorical mud. It took a while to get the hang of; there’s a certain art to placing your units, making sure they’re on guard to fire on enemies as they take their turns (as some classes of unit do automatically when enemies are in range). After a while I got the hang of it. At least, I’m pretty sure I did. As the game went on, I was able tostart thinking of my positioning a bit better than I was able to at the start.
That’s where my complaints with the game begin. The game tries its best to give you a little bit of a tutorial, but those tutorials don’t do much when it comes to teaching you the depths of combat. Of course, that was probably the point; not every game is going to hold your hand through its nuances. But I would have liked a little more insight into how my units worked. It was a while before I started even using snipers; it was hard to tell at the start of missions if they’d be useful or not, and I’d never used them in any of the tutorial battles.
I suppose I can’t mark that depth against it, though; I did pick it up eventually, after all. And even when I was totally lost, I didn’t feel frustrated upon defeat… With one major exception. Any time I failed because of a unit dying, I felt incredibly frustrated by the whole experience. I get what they’re going for. It’s supposed to capture the feeling of a game of chess. Protect your king and all that. And this definitely isn’t the first game I’ve played that had you fail a mission if your party leader died. But it definitely adds a layer of frustration to what is otherwise already a challenging strategy game. Though I guess, thinking hard about it, I don’t know what a better lose condition would be for a game like this.
I mean, it’s not as if Welkin (our protagonist) is defenseless; he’s driving a massive tank called Edelweiss around the battlefield. It’s a tank with a major design flaw, though; there’s a huge, exposed weak point on the back that, if exposed, can lead to your party leader being killed in one hit. It’s makes for a weird dichotomy, making Welkin both your strongest and weakest unit depending on the situation. He’s the definition of a glass cannon. From a practical engineering standpoint, there’s no reason to leave it exposed like that, and they don’t give an explanation as to why most of these tanks have these exposed backs as far as I saw. Some enemies had weak points that were somewhat explained, but the average tank remains curiously vulnerable. It makes for an experience akin to an interesting game of chess; it just sucks that I am clearly not very good at chess.
It’s not a problem that they made that tank decision and some others based on making for an interesting strategy game. My gripe with that, though, is that they’re clearly trying to construct a world here. They spent a lot of time on the story, clearly. It’s a pretty big focus of the game, along with the world-building, and yet they don’t trek enough in the details for my liking. But clearly they did spend some time on the game world; they even made some fantasy animal races, because why not?
That brings me to the story, which honestly… wasn’t too compelling to me. It was a little ham-fisted at times. In particular, the way it tries to work racism into the plot is very in-your-face. It plays into their pseudo-WWII plot nicely, but it’s very over the top. It was likely out of necessity, though; even though the game is pretty long, the plot moves very quickly, covering a breadth of exposition about the world and packing it densely into the cutscenes between battles. It honestly bugged me until one character said “Don’t worry about the details” in reference to an inconsistency that particularly bugged me. It was basically the game telling me to calm down; it’s just a game, after all.
Is it strange to say that a game is long and short at the same time? Because it is both. The game clocks in at around 30-40 hours, which is more than enough SRPG gameplay to whet my appetite. But it almost feels too short for the story itself. Or at least, it’s too short for the world they’re building. Maybe they expand on it more in the sequels, but I haven’t personally played them. Besides, this isn’t a review of those.
Jumping back to the game itself, I’d like to talk about the sound a little. In menu and in cutscene, the music does a fantastic job suiting the mood. It always rises when it needs to, and falls to more morose tunes when the time comes. In battle is a different story. Regardless of the situation, the music is always pretty constant. It does a good job of fitting the overall mission; it just isn’t very dynamic. I don’t expect every game to have a technical marvel of dynamic music, but it’d be nice to see a difference between when I’m in the middle of an intense firefight and when I’m being a bit more stealthy. There’s a notable change in tension between the enemy’s turn and mine, but when I started noticing how the music didn’t really match the way I was playing at times, it was hard to ignore.
There is one aspect of dynamism in combat, though, and that’s the characters themselves. The soldiers under my command oozed with personality. I definitely developed favorites; there was no way I was going in to a battlefield full of tanks without bringing Aunt Yoko and her massive rocket-propelled lancer in to battle with me. Every unit has unique personality, and I really love that. Games like X-COM have a similar vibe, but it just never worked for me before. Those characters were more like avatars to project your own ideas of personality onto, while the units in Valkyria Chroniclesare fleshed out characters. It was honestly very impressive to see in a game like this. It’s certainly not the first to do this sort of thing (or maybe it was back in 2008), but that doesn’t make it any less refreshing.
The voice acting definitely works in these characters’ favors. In battle or in cutscene, the voice acting shone through. The direction behind these actors is remarkable. They do a good job conveying emotion, and they definitely all feel like part of the world. The only voices I really had issue with were the intercom voices that the game would pepper you with when you stood still. Even those didn’t get too annoying though; they varied up enough, and I was typically more focused on my strategy than what they were trying to tell me.
Adding to these character’s personalities are buffs and debuffs called “Potentials” that each character has. These are traits such as “Country Bred” and “Fancies Men.” These little seemingly-random traits affect the way characters behave in battle, such as gaining stat boosts while on grass or near other people. Honestly, while neat in concept, these traits sort of fell by the wayside for me. I would notice these traits as they got triggered in battle, but I didn’t go out of my way to accommodate them.
I can’t forget to mention the graphics. This is a remaster, after all. The graphics definitely age well on this one. I’m sure care was taken in upscaling things for this release and making sure things were up to snuff, but there’s no denying the timelessness of cell shading. The cartoonish graphics work as well as they ever did. It’s nothing eye-melting or mind-blowing, but the polish and care shows. The game runs smooth as butter, looks great, and feels nice.
In the end, Valkyria Chronicles is a strong contender in the SRPG genre, just like critics back in the day said it was. I’m glad I finally got a chance to give the game a shot; it really does live up to the hype it generated all those years ago. I don’t know why I didn’t pick it up in ’08, but if you’re in the same skeptical boat about its gameplay mechanics, I urge you not to wait 8 years to give it a go. Just don’t expect a Shakespearean story.