I’ve always been a sucker of the most helpless kind for cel-shaded graphics, and to a slightly lesser degree, a fan of turn-based strategy games such as Fire Emblem and Advance Wars. I was intrigued by Valkyria Chronicles’ cinematic presentation and promise of combining traditional strategic placement with more open shooter elements - but does it deliver?
Oh my god yes. (Only the finest journalism here, folks). Ever since I began the relatively lengthy thirty-hour campaign, I haven’t been able to put it down save for the occasional sleep or nutritional supplement. The story is gripping, following a small band of citizens forced into combat as their peaceful Europan country becomes engulfed by war in the mid 1930s. In particular we focus on the exploits of Welkin Gunther, a gentle nature enthusiast forced into leadership as pilot of the Edelweiss tank, and Alicia Melchiott, watch captain of the small town from which they both come.
Valkyria Chronicles is in large part a visual novel - the game mostly consists of lengthy cutscenes and dialogue sessions in between battle missions. These scenes are explored through a very nicely presented book system, which separates the story into chronological chapters. There is also other screens such as the headquarters, from where you can level up your units, research new weapons and change equipment, as well as a skirmish menu used to access non-story missions to earn more money and experience.
Multiple classes of unit are available, allowing you to tailor your squadron to the task at hand. Scouts have many action points and as such can move over long distances, but their light armour and weapons leave them vulnerable to attack. Shocktroopers are a much hardier breed, acting as a compromise between the agile scouts and powerful sniper and lancer classes, useful for eliminating personnel and vehicles, respectively. Of course you have machinery of your own in the form of the Edelweiss, carrying a variety of weapons for any situation. It is vulnerable to the rockets of enemy lancers mind you, so be sure to bring an engineer or two to fix it and disarm the mines that litter the battlefield.
Your valuable command points can also be invested into orders, activated by your commander which provide additional abilities for your troops such as healing, increasing their damage against tanks or even calling in a mortar strike on a particular location. Alternatively you can actually activate units multiple times each turn, at the cost of reduced action points for movement and depleted ammunition in the case of snipers and lancers. While it might sound disadvantageous at first, it actually becomes really useful as a tactical move. For instance if you can sneak a lancer behind your enemy’s tanks and target their exposed radiators, you can very quickly decimate their heaviest firepower sources.
I also need to congratulate the game’s interface for being well-themed and nicely novel (no joke intended). The game’s story and missions are accessed via ‘book mode’, in which any chapter unlocked can be accessed. Otherwise various locations are available through Tab mode, including the R&D department wherein funds gained from battles can be spent upgrading your equipment and developing new weapons. Experience can be pumped into squads in the training grounds to increase their resilience and unlock new potentials which activate under particular conditions in battle.
There’s a couple more things to do - individual reports for particular members of your crew are purchased through journalist Ellett, new orders can be learned from speaking to a wise old man in the cemetery, and new members for your squad chosen with control over the equipment of each individual unit. New gear can be attained by beating particular missions or finding enemy ‘aces’ in each level, identified by their unique name and firearm they carry, which is taken on their defeat.
There’s an incredible amount of story in each chapter, delivered through a huge number of cutscenes, and this is one department in which the delivery can become slightly annoying. Early on I found myself just wanting to hit the next mission instead of sitting through fifteen minutes of exposition, but that waned after the first half of the game when the story really picked up. The reports in particular that establish backstories of particular characters are some of the best missions in the game, one-offs and optional though they are.
That brings me on to the variety in the missions themselves - although the formula seems somewhat limited in what you could be asked to do with the simple mechanics available, some levels might task you with avoiding detection or taking out a particular enemy, giving variety within the basic structure. Terrain and mechanics such as lifts or barricades will influence your unit choices and encourage more lateral thinking, which gives each player a chance to develop their own tactics and more importantly learn from their mistakes.
Lastly I’d like to address the story itself, because it’s the real stress point for me. I’ve heard many critics say that gameplay is the core of a good product, and to a large degree I affirm that, but an excellent story coupled with that will always beat out a pure gameplay-based experience for me. Valkyria Chronicles is just that, a chronicle, following a squad that you come to know and love despite their faults. They feel incredibly organic and genuine, the core group at least, in a way I haven’t encountered since I gushed over Persona 4. This is all cemented by the beautiful 3D anime cutscenes and glorious soundtrack, with the military theming providing a distinct flavour and ultimately combining to make Valkyria Chronicles a must-play.