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Writer: Steven Hansen
Released: November 4, 2008
Ignoring whatever confused abomination (or occasional 2D gem) Sonic Team cobbles together, SEGA has done some interesting things both as developers and publishers; particularly, fostering new IPs. With one game alone, SEGA has built up a couple of banks worth of credit with me. That game is Valkyria Chronicles.
This artful strategy-RPG focuses on one Welkin Gunther, the well-educated and intellectual son of a legendary war hero, who lives in Europa, a surrogate, alternate, and warring 1930’s Europe. The narrative of Valkyria Chronicles is presented through a fictional book, “On the Gallian Front,” which acts as the central hub and menu for all of the events in the game world; there is no overworld to explore. With two large factions warring over a powerful, dwindling resource, Welkin and his small, sovereign nation of Gallia are swept into battle as Welkin, in his father’s old tank, assumes leadership over a militia squad.
While the storybook presentation is novel, it’s also a treasure trove of information, with tabs that allow access to all the details and back stories that help to solidify and give weight to the world of Valkyria Chronicles, acting as an encyclopedia for people, events, weapons, and other things in the world as you progress. The game is presented in chapters, each containing a few cutscenes, some dialogue exchanges, and missions to be completed. While thumbing through the chapters via the book hub, all other options are opened up, including the Headquarters menu.
Over at HQ, you’ll be presented with all of the new recruits, all of whom are fully voiced, who can be dropped and added at will to fill up the non-story-related slots in the squad. Though they’re largely interchangeable with respect to usability, their unique renderings and pasts exude enough personality for attachments to form; personally, I have an unfettered (and I suppose unrequited) love for a cold, collected sniper by the name of Marina Wulfstan, who I always deployed with me and took great care to keep alive. Additionally, experience points can be allocated to the different soldier classes in the training facility, while there’s also an R&D facility for upgrading weapons and tank, as well as a couple other non sequitur locales to frequent for bits of dialogue.
One of the most striking facets of Valkyria Chronicles is the art direction, with visuals that seem to whimsically blend anime, cel shading, and watercolor. Though some of the in-game maps are a bit bland or barren, every character looks unique and the game looks beautiful in motion, both in real time and during cut scenes. The pretty visuals are delightful, but also provide an interesting juxtaposition to some of the more heavy handed themes the game brings up, including racial supremacy, genocide, and the general turpitude of war. I tend to forget that Valkyria Chronicles is, for all intent and purposes, a war game, because the conflict at large, as interesting as it is in many instances, plays second fiddle to the memorable, fairly complex characters of Squad 7. Human vices – fear, doubt, anger, love, etc. – make for empathetic characters, which in turn lend weight to the overarching continental conflict.
Once you dispatch your squad, the gameplay is a unique mix of real-time and turn-based strategy. There are five different classes – Scout, Shocktrooper, Lancer, Engineer, and Sniper – that can be recruited into your ranks and deployed at the start of battle. Each map opens up with a briefing, giving you your objectives (often involving capturing an opponent’s base), followed by the opportunity to deploy whichever troops you see fit for the task at hand.
Once your soldiers are out on the map, you’re allotted a certain number of turns per phase (the game separates into the enemy’s phase and the player’s phase), which you can spend on a variety of actions, including issuing special orders from Welkin, who sits snuggly in command in the tank. Most frequently, turns involve individually selecting soldiers and assuming direct control of them, running around the battlefield in real-time; the number of steps you can take is contingent on the character’s AP gauge, unique to each class. From there, hitting R1 starts the aim mode, where your soldier stands still and performs an action: attacking enemy, healing an ally, etc. While you’re running around in real-time, enemies can’t move, but they can both fire if you enter their line of sight and return fire if you fire upon them.
With this rare synthesis of turn-based and real-time strategy, the gameplay is simultaneously tense, exhilarating, calculative and mentally stimulating, with enough variety in the maps and objectives to keep from becoming repetitive. The game is dependent on bit of trial and error in some instances, however, if you don’t catch the hints presented to you. Furthermore, a poorly spent phase or even a poorly spent turn can dig you into a hole nearly impossible to climb out of. If you’re ever feeling underpowered, of course, there are also Skirmish battles that can be completed for some much needed experience and money, but I never found this grinding to be necessary.
Valkyria Chronicles still holds up as one of my favorite games of its generation. It draws you in with its charm, and then leaves you on the edge of your seat with its surprisingly thoughtful and frequently gripping narrative, while the gameplay is inventive and fresh, making the game itself fun to play.