"...sound design alone does not make an SRPG succeed..."
"Give me your last-gen, your good, your JRPGs yearning to be re-played." -- Gabe Newell
Okay, so maybe Mr. Newell didn't actually say that, but the resurgence of Steam JRPGs is hard to ignore. Sega's critically-acclaimed Valkyria Chronicles enjoyed a PC port this past November, carrying the series' flag with Welkin, Alicia, and company hoisting it atop the valve-laden hill. The question is, will we enjoy it?
For those unfamiliar, Valkyria Chronicles is a JRPG set in a world uncannily like our own. The similarities are irrefutable: the second Europan War breaks out in the 20th century involving the Empire, who bear a hatred for a class of people called Darcsens, and the Federation, a vague consortium of allied nations we never learn too much about. Caught betwixt these rivaling factions is the long-neutral nation of Gallia, whose Ragnite mines seem too tantalizing for the Empire to pass up. Cue Welkin, an enlisted young man whose love of nature pervades everything in his life, and Alicia, an enlisted orphan whose bread changes the lives of fellow orphans. Our lead protagonists use unconventional tactics to thwart an attempt on the country's capital alongside their comrades of Squad 7. What follows are trials and stories of friendship, growth, and humanity.
Like most JRPGs, the central plot is as generic as it comes, but the storytelling's power lies in its characterization and relationships. For the most part, Valkyria Chronicles tactfully avoids fan service and wacky humor, but can't always shake its anime-inspired roots. Those who steer close to the core plot will see little of this, but those who veer into side-quest territory will be confronted with skimpy bathing suits and a vegetable-loving maniac.
A little bland, the plot served as a suitable vehicle for Valkyria Chronicles' colorful cast. While the story isn't of Dragon Age caliber, the theme-driven narrative is pleasant and serves as a simple reminder of what's really important. Personally, I care enough about the characters to have been a little grieved at one point of the game, but the story never kept me up at night.
The novel approach to gameplay melds action and strategy in a delightfully seamless manner. Valkyria Chronicles offers a light tutorial that doesn't exactly spell out all of its mechanics, but offers enough support to aid players in progressing on foot, rifle in hand. Players place anywhere from 5 to 10 units on the battlefield before engaging in combat. These units include Scouts, Shocktroopers, Lancers, Engineers, and Snipers, each with strengths and weaknesses that have a definitive purpose in any battle depending on the situation. With excellent map design, eye-catching topography, and obstacles that make sense on a modern battlefield, most players will want to include at least one of each unit in every battle. I found some classes far more valuable than others, but those utilized less frequently can simply be considered "special ops."
After selecting one's team, the action ensues. From an aerial view of a map appearing like one found on a tactician's table, players select a unit they wish to control. After this occurs, the camera pans down to the unit in third-person view, wherein players can expend an energy bar to move the unit, granting them one action to use on the field, including shooting, throwing a grenade, and healing. This is the standard format for every battle. Of course, anyone who's researched Valkyria Chronicles even a little bit knows that tank combat is included. Fortunately, tanks are handled intuitively and aren't over-complicated — they function much like standard foot soldiers.
Details of combat include hiding in grass, armor class of units and tanks, head shots versus body shots, and individual characteristics of each character. At the start of the game, players will choose 16 soldiers to venture onto the battlefield with. These units can be swapped out for new units at a later time and each have their own unique strengths and weaknesses. For example, some love fighting in the city while others hate fighting alongside Largo. As one might imagine, each character has its own personality and backstory, which is filled out in the Personnel encyclopedia of the game as each character is used. While plotting with each character's unique traits could certainly add depth of gameplay, this isn't necessary, as no battle is that difficult.
Cautious, tactical players will find Valkyria Chronicles a breeze, while those less accustomed to this playstyle will endure permanent death of characters and more than a few retries. Although I had to make a second attempt at some battles, especially the longer bouts later in the game, this will likely only happen to most players once or twice, as enemies consistently ambush from the same places in each iteration of the battle. When the enemies lose the element of surprise, each battle is a matter of putting the right people in the right places.
Valkyria Chronicles also includes trips to Headquarters, where players can upgrade their units with experience, buy equipment for their troops, and learn new Orders to enhance the characteristics of whoever receives the Order. Little customization and diversity makes this portion of the game bland, but I enjoyed making ultra-powerful Scouts to dominate earlier battles, as if mighty, flaming steeds bearing gatling guns of five-shot bursts.
When all's said and done, I love the battle system. Being a Strategy RPG enthusiast, I felt at home while reveling in the action-oriented aspect of gameplay. The whole experience was clean and made sense. Nothing was obtuse or over-complicated, but I always felt like one wrong step would mean a grim outcome for any of my favorite units. Each battle was memorable, and I vividly recall who led a charge while another unit offered cover fire; in short, I made my own story with each battle, aided by the voice acting and small personalities of each unit I recruited. That said, the mechanics can be exploited, such as with my mecha-equine-Scouts of flaming death I alluded to earlier. Still, sound design alone does not make an SRPG succeed: the landscape and map design are just as important and masterfully executed.
Anime fans will bask in the artwork as character models move smoothly across the battlefield and show decent expression during dialogue exchanges. The animation brings the combat to life, and when one of my units suffered a blow from a grenade, I worried about them as their body flew in one direction. Amusing sound effects are written out as tanks "vrrrr" by and engines go "zzzt."
Speaking of sound, the English voice acting is acceptable and after prolonged exposure, I began to really take to my characters. At first, Welkin's acting bothered me, but by the end of the game, I couldn't imagine him speaking with any other voice. The music expertly complements the scenario or cutscene, but doesn't really worm its way into one's ear; once the scene's over, so is any memory of the music.
Control is where Valkyria Chronicles truly suffers. Even at the end of the game, I battled the environment when I tried to rotate, turn, or even move forward with my tank. Whether intended or not, moving was a huge chore that resulted in wasted energy as I tried to move efficiently across the field. This was entirely frustrating and I wondered how the developers could bungle one of the core mechanics. In addition, aiming at the head a soldier or body of a tank was finicky at times.
While this title originally released in 2008 has certainly withstood the test of time, it's not Game of the Year. Valkyria Chronicles was a worthwhile trip that I wholeheartedly enjoyed, and I regret exactly zero minutes of my time spent with it. I will likely remember some of the characters and reflect fondly on the relationships made, but only in passing. If I do return to Valkyria Chronicles, it'll be to enjoy some post-game content, meaning additional battles and other challenges. For right now, I just hope that Sega orders the second and third games to MOVE OUT!