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Valkyria Chronicles is the best RPG I have played since Dragon Quest VIII. While there have been many contenders for this title in recent years–Kingdom Hearts II, Final Fantasy XII, and Oblivion all come to mind–this Sega-produced RPG is destined to become a classic that will be treasured for years to come. With brilliant artwork, a story that keeps you wanting more, and a fresh battle system that is challenging and fun, Valkyria Chronicles is a must-own for every PS3 owner. If you don't own a PS3, beg a friend to let you borrow it for a week–you won't regret it.
The narrative of Valkyria Chronicles is loosely set in the European theater of World War II, with different names and dates to protect the innocent. Instead of Nazi Germany, the "Empire" is out to steal ragnite ore, which can be refined into a powerful fuel. The plot centers on the nation of Gallia, where a group of rebels, led by the main character Welkin Gunther, set out to fend off the Empire and restore peace to the fictional continent of Europa.
Along the way, Welkin meets his team: Alicia Melchiott, who is the coolest and deadliest baker you'll ever meet (and who holds a fascinating secret that is revealed near the end of the game); Isara Gunther, Welkin's adopted sister, who is a Darscen (Jew) and is constantly persecuted for her "dark hair;" Rosie Stark, a former bar singer who is racist to the core when the adventure opens; and Largo Potter, a tough, no-nonsense soldier who wants to finish the war as soon as possible.
With this party, and others your militia helps you scout throughout the adventure, your team (Squad 7) goes on various missions to aid the uprising. These vary from rescuing a princess from an attempting kidnapping to the powerful liberation of a Darscen concentration camp. The missions vary in terms of terrain, objective, and difficulty, and all of them help in the exploration of the Empire's rule. As the game comes to a close, and the uprising's future is in doubt, Alicia's secret is revealed and provides a dramatic climax that leaves the player in awe. By the end, the player can look back through the game and realize just how much Sega accomplished in 18 short chapters.
Why is Valkyria Chronicles so brilliant beyond this captivating story? First, let's look at the graphics. As soon as you fire up the PS3, you can see from the opening sequence just how much care Sega put into its presentation. With their CANVAS graphical engine, the game utilizes a paintbrush type style that seems true to both the era and the genre of game. While it resembles some of the look of Okami, it is far more "realistic" and has an even better attention to detail. Every soldier's uniform, every tank's radiator, and every bullet fired uses the artwork perfectly. Congratulations Sega–the CANVAS engine is quite an accomplishment.
I must say that even more innovative than the graphical style is the gameplay of Valkyria Chronicles. The first question most RPG fans want to know is what type of RPG is it? Well, in reality, the game is an amalgam of a few different types of RPGs. Primarily, the game is a strategy RPG. For each mission, you must decide which characters to put into your party. There are five different classes: Scouts, regular foot soldiers who forgo strength and defense for the ability to traverse vast distances; Shocktroopers, stout soldiers who are best in defending and capturing bases; Lancers, missile-toting strongmen used to bring down tanks; Engineers, mainly used as tank healers; and Snipers, gunmen who can kill soldiers anywhere in their sight. In addition, the player has control of at least one tank throughout the game. Tanks have huge firepower, but if they are destroyed, the game ends. Valkyria Chronicles does a phenomenal job of incorporating all of the classes. For example, in a mission in the wilderness, you can't use snipers because there is often no line of sight. However, in the following mission, you may need four snipers with you. Suffice it to say that there is much trial and error involved.
After you select your party, the mission begins. Each turn, you have a certain amount of Command Points, based on who you have in your party. For every point, you can move and complete an action. An action consists of firing a weapon, throwing/shooting a projectile weapon, or using a curative item. It is your prerogative whether you want to move first or fire first. Sounds pretty basic, right? Wrong. Here is where Valkyria Chronicles stands out. First, you are not limited to using a character once per turn. If you want to move Welkin six times in one turn and complete six actions, you can, with one caveat: Action Points (AP). For each time a character moves or completes an action, his/her AP drops, and after a while you may have to just fire from where you are. This AP system allows for another layer of strategy not seen in most RPGs.
Valkyria Chronicles takes the battle system one step further with what they call the BLiTZ (Battle of Live Tactics). As you move your characters throughout the battlefield, the game shifts from a top down view, to a third person shooter view. Here is where the game is truly dynamic. I am not a shooter fan at all. I don't own any of the Call of Duty titles, and the last shooter I played was Doom II. Valkyria Chronicles changed all that for me. As you weave your way through the sandbags and mortar shells with Alicia, you feel like you are really leading the resistance. If you approach an enemy from behind and fire at his head, he is a goner. If you hide in the grass at the right moment, you can surprise your opponent. The game pretty much accounts for anything you can imagine, and most of the environment is interactive (if you fire a tank shell at a wall, it is likely to explode). I will say that the game takes a while to get used to, but it is one to remember.
Outside of battle, the rest of the game is a little more formulaic than I would like. You gain levels through a pretty trite training center, and new weapons are mostly procured through a boilerplate R&D center. That said, the interface that ties the game together is absolutely amazing. Valkyria Chronicles is all contained in a book (hence the name). You advance the game by literally advancing through the various chapters and turning the pages. You have various bookmarks/tabs on the side of the book that quickly zoom you to your headquarters, to various skirmishes (side-battles), or to the glossary. Overall, I enjoyed the book because I could flip back and forth and remind myself of plot points if I hadn't played the game in a while. I would have given the gameplay a perfect score, if Sega had added more side-quests, ramped up the level-gaining system, or changed the method of procuring weapons. Overall though, my critique is like trying to find a flaw in the Sistine Chapel.
The sound is more than just serviceable in this title. There is a terrific compilation of songs to go along with the battles that carry the perfect amount of emotion with them. In your liberation of the concentration camp, for example, the tune is aptly somber. When you are trying to surprise an enemy, the music is upbeat–driving you to finish the battle quicker. With all of this praise, let me say one more thing about the audio that was annoying to me. I have a Marantz DTS 5.1 Dolby Digital system with 2 floorstanding Boston Acoustics speakers and a Bose Center Channel, but I don't have rear speakers currently hooked up to my system. During some of the talking cutscenes, audio would drop out if sound was supposed to be coming from behind Welkin. So heed fair warning: if you set your audio as 5.1, make sure you have all of them set up in order to hear the sound the way it was meant to be heard.
Control is solid, with only a few complaints. While the control was perfect in "book mode" and on the battlefield when running and targeting enemies, I found controlling the Edelweiss (Welkin's tank) annoying at best, and terrible at worst. Often, I would use up some of my AP points aimlessly hitting the analog pads. With that said, the issue is minor, and the stellar use of the left pad as a camera makes up for it.
Valkyria Chronicles shatters all strategy RPG conventions. Taking the best from the genre in terms of tactical warfare and combining it with a brilliant, fast-paced first-person element makes every battle seem fresh, and the challenge fierce. While I "officially" finished the game at about thirty hours, my PS3 did not account for all of the times I died and had to reload the sometimes hour-long battles. There's not much more I can say other than this: if you're looking for a system-seller, this is it. Valkyria Chronicles is the best game exclusive to the Playstation 3, and it is going to take a game that is truly remarkable and an all-time great to replace that status in my mind.