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Tactical RPGs have a little bit of an image problem now. Only one company is religiously making them and they’re for their audience of otakus and fantasy geeks. They’re making some money out of it, but the genre hasn’t really moved too far from the late 1990s. The genre went from the 2D overworld style of Shining Force on the Sega Mega Drive to the isometric landscape we see today. So what has improved over the past decade? Better artwork and higher resolution sprites and textures combined with more content than any sane man would try to delve into. Confused? So am I! How come a once mighty genre hasn’t moved an inch since Final Fantasy Tactics or Disgaea: Hour of Darkness? A “eureka!” moment hit one group of developers like an oncoming car screeching towards a glazed eyed pheasant. Success in game change has sometimes come from creating a hybrid. So from the monolith publishing firm that is Sega came Valkyria Chronicles, a PS3 exclusive that promised to reinvent a genre by incorporating style and execution. Was this promised fulfilled or was it a nightmare of broken aspirations?

Set in the kingdom of Europan in 1935 E.C, the Eastern Europan Imperial Alliance (Empire) is waging war with the countries in the West of the region. In their campaign, the neutral country of Gallia is suddenly being invaded. It is at this point that Welkin Gunther makes his homecoming to the village of Bruhl on the border. When soldiers appear on the shore, he is forced to take arms and eventually gets conscripted into the army. As his father was once a great general, he is given a team which consists of a fellow citizen of Bruhl; Alicia, his adopted sister and a few others. It is a tale told with a surprising amount of maturity. Sure there are quirks one would assume with a Japanese anime (pigs with wings to name one), but there are some harsh moments and mature themes exploring inherent racism towards the Darcsan people and lots of death and war. Its gritty for a video game of such light hearted first impressions and that only adds to the package.

Let’s get this out of the way fairly quickly. The visual presentation of Valkyria Chronicles is simply stunning. Not only are the textures smooth and the setting of a world at war is achieved with real depth, the actual visual style uses a unique watercolour effect which only serves to make the look and feel of the game completely astounding. Sure there is an anime overtone surrounding what you see, and this is something that can be abused in future instalments. But somehow it works here and it would be difficult to show a similar visual presentation without it. Perhaps it is because the anime style serves to enhance the presentation rather than detract from it. What also helps emphasise the appearance is the quality of the sound direction and quality of script. One could easily have a cast of hammed up voice actors to speak a dull and uninspired literal translation of the Japanese script. Instead we have a clever reimagining handled by a competent cast of voice actors that show some element of emotion. They’re not exactly of the greatest calibre, but you could very well hear worse. The music seems to stand out however as the most dramatic sceptical from a Japanese studio in a very long time due to its simplicity. No individual track stands out, but when one is faced with a particularly sombre scene in the game’s plot, the music accompanies this to added effect.

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For those who love the statistics and strategic plotting found in most tactical RPGs, it will come as no surprise that you are likely to find the concept a tried and tested one. You are one army, they are another, clash. You’d be forgiven for thinking however that it was merely as simple as that. Instead of plotting attacks and seeing the results; Valkyria Chronicles zooms in on the action and gives you the helm and a gun. In third person view, you control movement and firing just as you would with most third person shooters. When you focus with your rifle however, time completely stops and you get to pick your target. In terms of being an immersive experience; it is a dancing bear on stilts. Enemies will start firing at you when you get too close, stop whilst you’re aiming and then restart firing when you attempt to retreat. What’s even more unnerving is that your allies don’t do much to help you unless you’re firing alongside them, or your enemies wander within two feet of them. The other problem with Valkyria Chronicles is that despite what it is trying to do, it is still a tactical RPG. If one doesn’t have the time to sit down and play it to death, it will get fairly mundane pretty quickly. Thankfully though, this at the very least tries to spice things up beyond perspective.

Firstly, movement is done with CP (command points). Units use up one, tanks use two. This allows your units to move more than once in each phase. If you lose a unit, your overall CP goes down, while eliminating key targets reduces the enemies CP. It allows for more flexibility, but subsequent moves reduce the range they can move. Your squad will consist of a variety of different units, each with their own specialties. Scouts have an increased movement range, but are fairly weak on firepower. Stormtroopers are the assault units who have a machine gun and fairly average movement. Lancers have anti-tank weapons and are strong against explosives, but are susceptible to infantry fire. Engineers restock your allies supplies of ammunition, but can’t really defend themselves very well while Snipers can shoot from afar, but can’t walk around too far. You also get a tank of your own which you can use to steamroll through enemies whilst keeping enemy tanks under control using other units. Areas have their own hazards; such as mines to deactivate for example. To say this is the most original tactical RPG would be an obvious statement, but to say that it still has the same mundane nature might not be. That would be the case if it wasn’t for the fact that character interaction; such certain conditions and the light insight of your squad’s characteristics, really works well in making this a challenging experience in a way you probably didn’t think possible. Emotional ties really come into their own when they fall in battle and you can’t rescue them; ala Fire Emblem and their permanent character deaths. One might think this is a harsh tactic, but it serves to enhance the desperation of war that the game seems to be going for.

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Essentially how it works is that each character has conditions that improve their skills and conditions that hinder them. For example, one of the two snipers you have right at the beginning has the tendency to be a bit of a loner. To have others around her would distract her from picking out her shot. Another two come from the interaction between Vyse and Aika. The wise owl minded amongst you with a good memory of the Dreamcast game Skies of Arcadia (which needs a HD reimaging), then you already know that they’re part of the same team and are essentially best friends. They’ve somehow both wandered their way into the Europan war, but do better when one is next to the other. Some have preferences of terrain, whilst others are just really bad at taking down a particular unit. Since you level up your squads as a unit rather than as individual units, this aspect is not as intimidating as it might seem. Each squad member might learn a new trick with subsequent class rank upgrades. The flip side of this coin is that you need to upgrade your tanks and weapons on a fairly individual basis and this slowly becomes tedious. I had practically forgotten that there was a rank up opportunity for the Gunther in the form of buying new squad command instructions. Resources after battles are a little on the Spartan side. You don’t get a heck of a lot, but you’re expected to demolish the enemy or capture certain points within a set amount of turns.

There are a few side things to balance this out. Skirmish modes which come with difficulty settings allow for quicker play periods and reward you with experience and cash to spend. You can also delve into some of the sub-plots and hidden extras littered throughout the game. While it is nice to see a tactical RPG that tries to condense its package in return for more style and flair, some may complain about the lack of support the game gives you while trying to see everything in the game. That said though, the games plot spans around 15 chapters and there are a couple of reasonably priced DLC packs that should tie you over. All in all, the game is still a fairly hefty grind in terms of gameplay and there’s enough to keep one interested, but not enough to make one feel they still haven’t unlocked anything after spending a collective month playing it.

Valkyria Chronicles seems to excel in some areas, but come up short in minor ways. You’ll more than likely be engrossed in the sheer spectacle of the visually unique but tragically war torn landscapes of Gallia, with a story so engrossing yet believable that even the anime eyes won’t detract you from thinking this game is gritty in the best possible way. The battle system in turn also tries to put a unique spin on things, and it is a fairly reasonable effort to reinvent an ailing genre. Some decisions don’t really work out too well, such as the fact that enemies seem to have a heightened vision than anyone in your party or some of the upgrades being hidden away in a menu one would normally never visit. It is certainly worth a look for certain if you already own a PS3 because the things it tries are ambitious enough to warrant it, but despite the numerous innovations it is still a tactical RPG. Therefore, a wholehearted recommendation for this can only be achieved if you don’t need to do anything else for a long time.