"So should I recommend this game to you, or should I suggest that you read a plot summary of this one online, skip playing it, and move on to its successor instead, even though I like Valkyria Chronicles 1?"
Editor's Note - 12/28/18: This review has been updated following a reader comment on the game's control scheme. This has affected the control score and increased it by 5%, and the review text has been updated to reflect this.
I'm not sure how I missed out on playing the Valkyria Chronicles series up until now. I loved the art style from the first time I saw it, I've heard only good things about it from fellow RPGFan staffers, and I like strategy RPGs, even if I'm not always the best at them. And yet, I somehow had never found time to add the series to my gaming resume. So when we got a code for the recent Switch port of the original Valkyria Chronicles, I jumped out of review retirement to take it on.
In case, like me, you've missed out on this game until now, here's the low-down: you play as a squad of soldiers from the country of Gallia, a "Europan" country being attacked in a war like our World War II. A subset of your squad act as the main characters and the focus of the story, and they are perhaps the game's biggest success in my eyes. They are likeable and interesting but not without their flaws; one of the main characters reveals herself to be fairly racist early on, and her struggle as she realizes how wrong she has been is a great arc.
But what I really loved is that these main characters aren't the only ones who have personality. Every soldier in your squad has people they are friends with and will automatically support during battle as well as unique strengths and weaknesses, from a bad back that lowers certain stats when crouching behind cover to a hatred for specific enemy types that boosts damage when attacking them. The NPCs are also memorable, which brings a little unexpected joy to home base activities between battles. And since all characters in a class level up together, you never have to worry that a soldier who's good for one set of battle conditions after being wrong for the previous two or three will be too weak to utilize.
As you hit the field of battle, things play out in a fashion unlike any other game I've played. The overall structure is turn-based, but when you select a character to move, there's no grid, and if they run past an enemy soldier, they take fire the whole time they're in range. Fortunately, the same applies to the enemy's turn, so my squad routinely took people out while they were running to whatever position they wanted to use to fire on us.
It's a fun system, and I played quite a few optional "skirmishes" just to spend some extra time in the game and level up a bit more. Unfortunately, doing so became less and less optional as time went on, until the point that even with a walkthrough, it took me a week or two of my limited gaming time to succeed at one battle. Immediately after, I was hit by a gut-punch of a cutscene that left me depressed at my victory rather than elated at having finally succeeded. (Veterans of this game all know exactly which fight and cutscene I mean, because it sounds like it was similarly challenging for everyone.) Still, it's only because I enjoyed the overall gameplay so much that I was able to persevere even that far.
Unfortunately, only part of my trouble came from my failure to "get good." I can't compare to previous console versions of this game, but the Switch joystick was imprecise enough that any time I tried to line up a tricky shot, it took twice as long as it should have. And many were the times that I didn't stop running quite where I wanted, which can be fatal in battle. After the original posting of this review, a reader informed me that the D-pad can be used for small adjustments in your aim or to move a soldier at a walking pace. Having tried it out now, it does make a big difference in aiming, but I'd only want to walk if my soldier wasn't under fire. Even if you're not aware of the D-pad's use, these issues are not bad enough to make the whole experience miserable, just bad enough to raise your stress level an unnecessary notch or three.
The rest of the presentation, however, is top notch. Both the video and sound are great, particularly the art style. It looks hand-drawn in the same way as the scenes in Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions, and I really enjoy the way it seems to blend 2D and 3D techniques. The joystick may make it hard to aim sometimes, but at least you can always tell what you're aiming at.
With all of that said, I find myself in a strange position as a reviewer. The Switch now has both Valkyria Chronicles and Valkyria Chronicles 4, which I am told
is very similar to this game but with some small improvements. So should I recommend this game to you, or should I suggest that you read a plot summary of this one online, skip playing it, and move on to its successor instead, even though I like Valkyria Chronicles 1? Sadly, despite the good score at the top of this review, I think I have to go the latter route. If you'd like this game, you'd like number 4 as well, and there's no compelling reason to forego any improvements that game contains. If you love game 4, though, I'd definitely recommend that you come back and play this one as well, for the pleasure of the characters' company. (Nice, I got a military pun in!)
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.