Note: This review is based on the Japanese version of the game.
Am I the only one who hasn’t thought about Sega in a while? I mean sure, I enjoy rocking out to my Game Gear on the subway from time to time. I still play Dreamcast. But since they reorganized back around 2002 and decided to focus on slot machines and software, not many of their console games have caught my attention.
And then Senjou no Valkyria came around. I had not picked up on any of the buzz about the game, possibly because it’s one of those rare original games that actually isn’t a remake or part four in a series. (Yeah, they actually still make original games. Freaky-deaky) When I read about it and heard “Tactical SRPG for PS3” my Spider sense immediately started tingling, and I took the plunge and got it straight away.
I don’t usually get games without knowing a lot about them before they come out, but I’m glad I made an exception this time. Valkyria is not what you’d expect; it does not immediately fall into any one genre. The mix of turn-based strategy, character management and first-person shooting action is appealing to gamers, such as myself, who enjoy a variety of games and are sick of seeing RPGs do the same exact things with gameplay and mechanics. If you’re a fan of WWII style weaponry and combat and dig a more action-oriented strategy game with an anime style, Valkyria is just the ticket.
Valkyria offers some of the most fun and rewarding game mechanics I have experienced in recent memory. It’s an addictive game thanks to its depth and variety. Basically, there are two main areas of gameplay; conducting battles and organizing your unit. The battles are divided into command mode and action mode. In command mode you can use orders that tell your troops to focus on defense, evasion, fire power, or healing. Orders can affect the entire party or individual soldiers. You can also call for reinforcements, check victory conditions, study enemy troop movement, and enter the system menu, which allows you to save in the middle of battles. This is a significant option since it allows you to experiment and restart battles from the last turn if you make a stupid mistake. A friend told me that this makes the game too easy, and my response to him was, “Well, don’t use it then.” I did not use this option at all during my first play through, and it made for interesting consequences.
During the action mode, you take control of individual characters and move them around within a range determined by AP or action points. Different character classes have differing amounts of AP and thus differing mobility. Scouts, for example, have the highest, while snipers’ and assault troops’ are quite low. To balance this, assault troops and snipers have very powerful attacks while scouts are weaker. The unit types form a rock-paper-scissors system somewhat like Fire Emblem. Tanks are powerful against infantry but weak against anti-tank troops. Anti-tank troops can destroy tanks in one hit with their bazookas and some decent aim, but they cannot counter attack infantry so they are easily dispatched at close range. Infantry, particularly scouts, are highly mobile, and effective at taking out snipers and anti-tank troops, but one tank shell or artillery hit and they’re usually done.
Along with manually moving troops, you can perform one action per turn and have to manually aim and fire at targets. This does not mean that for each round you can use characters only one time. You can use the same character repeatedly, but the catch is that each time their AP is reduced, and thus they cannot move as far as before. Each round allows you a certain number of turns to be spread out among all of your characters, which means you can spend an entire round advancing only your tank, which eats up two turns per use because of its power and low mobility. Enemy and ally troops can and will fire when it is not their turn, based on their position and awareness. You cannot just run up to any enemy troop and shoot them in the head. Charge at an assault trooper with a scout and you’ll be cut down in machine gun fire. Using cover, shadows, bushes, and ducking down and walking slowly will help you sneak up on foes from behind to get killer head shots. If the enemy survives your initial attack, they can still counter, so caution is critical. You must always consider line of site and firing position when you end a turn and leave your character at a certain point on the map. Good troop positioning can make it impossible for the enemy to advance into your territory.
Here’s something that may turn a lot of folks off the minute they read it: In Valkyria chronicles, again like in Fire Emblem, characters can permanently die. This does not happen automatically if they run out of energy. At first, characters will simply fall down incapacitated, yelling “save me!” or “fudge sticks!” or something. You can save them by having another squad member get near them, which automatically calls a medic that pulls the disabled character off the battlefield and saves its life. That character can return to that same battle after a round goes by. If you do not save the disabled character after three full command rounds, the character presumably bleeds to death and dies. You cannot revive it, re-recruit, or ever use it again. Characters also die if an enemy unit reaches them before one of your guys. Now I understand that this may bother some people, but I really like this system. It adds a bit of gritty realism to an otherwise fairly innocent looking war game. As I mentioned earlier, I did not save during battle or do any resets for my first play through. Due to carelessness, I ended up losing about five guys permanently, and I felt like crap. Ultimately, it was a good lesson. I suffered for my inexperience and lack of foresight, and became a better player. Second time through, I did not lose anyone.
Your squad can only have twenty members at a time. Between battles you can dismiss members you don’t like and rehire them later. If characters die in battle, there will always be a replacement of the same soldier type for you to recruit. If you are offensively bad at the game, I suppose it is possible to have so many characters die that you end up with less than twenty characters and a reduced size unit. Most battles only use around nine or ten members, so in order for permanent death to really hurt your squad, you have to be superlatively bad. And again, you can always just reset the system, quit the battle, or redo a turn by saving mid-battle. With that in mind, permanent death is no big deal. For non-sissies, the possibility of losing your beloved squad members only makes the game more exciting.
And beloved your squad members will become thanks to a strong character development system. I’ll get the biggest flaw out of the way first; you cannot develop character abilities individually. At the individual level, you can switch equipment and weapons, and that’s about it. Character development works by unit type. Experience points earned from battle are allocated to entire classes, meaning assault troops, scouts, and engineers all level up at the same time. Money spent on research for improved weapons and armor automatically upgrades all unit weapons at the same time, though you can use enemy gun types by switching them onto units individually. The amount of money and experience you obtain from a battle is determined by how well you fight, the number of turns you take to win, how many members were killed, and so on and so forth.
To make each character unique since they do not advance individually, a clever system of ‘potentials’ has been added to each character. The potentials reflect each character’s personality. For example, some female characters fight better around a group of men. Welkin (aka ‘Nature Boy’ as I call him) gains an advantage when fighting in natural settings. Some characters have allergies, and their stats are lowered when they crawl through grass. There are dozens of different potentials for each character, and on top of that, characters have affinities towards different members. A high affinity between members means that they will often fire together and protect each other in combat. While good tactics can allow you to beat the game and ignore this system, it’s another cool thing you can take advantage of if you really study the terrain and battle environment.
The variety of weapons is pretty good but not huge. You have scout rifles, sniper rifles, machine guns, bazookas, grenade launchers, grenades, and various tank artillery. After reaching level eleven, units get a class up stat boost and new abilities. Assault troops can then use flame throwers, which rules so hard that it stings. You have to put some thought into how you upgrade weapon types after you pass the first third of the game. At that point, you can choose to focus on accuracy, fire power, or special traits in each weapon type. Your trusty tank also has its own system of upgrades to fire power, mobility, and defense using a grid where upgrades are added; you cannot attach all of them at once, so again, use discretion.
Maybe I’m spoiled, but I would have liked to see more weapon types. Melee combat, handguns, and more explosives would have really been sweet. Still, there is a good amount of customization. As you unlock new missions, new upgrades become available. Mission battles cannot be repeated on the first play through, but the game features replayable optional skirmish battles which are good for practice and gaining some extra experience. There are side quests and optional chapters which add to character depth, hard modes for skirmishes and mission battles on the second play through, and even a new game plus that allows you to start from the beginning with all of your improved stats and equipment. I doubt most gamers will find Valkyria to be too easy or too hard, and the extra difficulties make the game flexible enough to satisfy people who study the game. Some additional super hard fights and a two player mode would have been appreciated, but I’m over it.
The graphics are technically impressive and well done. While the style may be a matter of taste, I found that it grew on me as I got more into the story. Valkyria uses detailed cell-shaded animation for story parts and battles, meaning the graphics are consistent throughout. It’s unambiguously anime when you look at it, yet because of the story there are a number of western influences. The characters, clothing, and architecture all have a European look, which relates to the random German words you see thrown around in the writing. Tanks, weapons, and uniforms are all detailed and reminiscent of WWII, with a slightly fantastical touch (there’s that anime influence). One nice touch is the comic book style onomatopoeia words that accompany explosions and gun shots. When artillery shells hit, expect a “kapow!” or “BLAM” in bright lettering to accompany the explosion. Maybe it doesn’t sound cool, but it is.
There are minor points I could take issue with. The lack of blood seemed odd in a war game. The explosions could have been more detailed, and the rendering of natural objects is sometimes rough and jagged. You notice it in grass particularly. But really, is ‘properly rendered grass’ really that high on your list of concerns about a game? While the PS3 is capable of better, stylistically Valkyria is a fine looking game with gameplay that will overshadow any grumblings about graphics.
The game centers around two protagonists – Alicia Melchiott and Welkin Gunther. Valkyria is basically an alternate WWII history set entirely in Europe. The conflict is between two major powers; the Eastern European Alliance, and the Atlantic Federation in the west. Caught in the middle is the small nation of Gallia, officially a neutral party though inevitably drawn into the conflict due to the nation’s natural abundance of ragnite ore, a critical energy and fuel source. The story mostly takes place within Gallia, as the Eastern Alliance imperial army invades Alicia and Welkin’s small hometown early in the game.
Alicia, a baker who constantly adorns an unfairly cute red handkerchief cap at all times, is the leader of the town’s militia. Welkin, nature expert and son of a legendary army commander, we meet on his return home from college. The two are drawn into the conflict once Gallia begins organizing a push back against the Eastern empire, with Welkin becoming a commander and Alicia joining as an officer in Welkin’s platoon. The supporting cast includes Isara, Welkin’s adopted younger sister and a member of the Daruks ethnic minority, Largo, the gruff veteran anti-tank soldier who acts as a mediator and father figure, and Rosie, the tough talking former bar singer who bears a strong hatred of Daruks people and will inevitably become your favorite assault trooper.
Though the story takes a purposefully narrow focus on Welkin’s platoon and the relationships between its members, it never gets too melodramatic or clichéd. There is a lot of heart and humor, and the optional stories and side quests add to the depth of each character. Recruited squad members have unique voice actors and background stories that expand if they survive to the end. The main antagonist, besides the Eastern Alliance generals you’ll encounter, is Imperial Prince Maximillion, the supreme commander of the Gallia invasion forces. He’s not a great villain, but he is unlikable enough to keep you motivated to take him down. Mixed in with the inevitable intrigues and tactical shifts in any war story is an intriguing subplot related to the mysterious Valkyria people and the supernatural powers they commanded in their ancient civilization.
You’ll face off against those powers before the game’s midpoint (be sure to save in battle!) and if you’re like me, you’ll think “Holy smokes! When can I use those sweet powers?” Well, don’t get your hopes up on that front. Story and gameplay wise, Valkyria is nine parts war game and one part fantasy. Overall, the plot is slightly above average. It isn’t Apocalypse Now, but it’s a passable war story. The characters are likeable but not great. There are moments that feel unnatural and inconsistent considering the setting.
One of the inconsistencies that perhaps other JRPG fans won’t notice is that even with the story’s distinctly 1940’s fantastical European setting, many characters still bear all of the hallmarks of contemporary anime. For a gang of roughnecks and soldiers, many of them seem easily embarrassed, constantly formal, and incapable of showing their true feelings. Because of this, even semi-interesting characters like Welkin and Isara will feel familiar and predictable. Even an anime nerd such as myself can admit how rare it is for Japanese writers to convincingly create non-Japanese personalities. It’s a flaw, but not a huge one.
The three basic categories are music, voice acting, and effects, and they break down as follows: solid music, excellent voice acting, so-so effects. The music has a few stand-out songs among the battle themes, particularly the last fight. The main theme is appropriately militaristic and loud, with some nice tunes during story interludes and unit management sections. Considering the sheer quantity of original orchestral music here, it’s a pretty impressive soundtrack. Nevertheless, most of the music is forgettable outside of the game itself. An above average game soundtrack has you humming tunes while you walk down the street or try to concentrate on replacing the french fry basket at work. I didn’t have that experience with this game. The music, for the most part, works exactly as it should, as background music and rarely much more.
The sound effects are also ho-hum. For most games, we take effect noises for granted since they are relatively unimportant. But in a war game, really crisp, powerful sound work does so much for the experience. True to life gun sounds, the shriek of incoming artillery, rattling explosions and projectile impact – this is what makes war scary and cool at the same time. The explosions and gun noises are uninspired and feel fake, with the exception of the sniper rifle. You only notice it after you play for a while, but by then you will probably be hooked on the gameplay and will get over it.
The voice acting is where the sound work really shines. Zaka, Rosie, and Largo sound the best and have a lot of regional flair and personality in their voices. The female characters are not annoyingly high pitched or cutesy (hopefully this will not be an issue in the English version either). The amount of voice work is impressive too. Among the dozens of recruitable characters, each one has a unique voice and a decent variety of phrases for battle situations. If you really want to appreciate all of it, let characters die in battle and listen to their dramatic final words.
Valkyria is not difficult to play at all, and most of the commands and character controls are intuitive and flexible. The camera work is generally good, though like in most 3D games, you can be blinded by corners and overhead views. There were some weird moments where crouching enemies were impossible to headshot, possibly a glitch. Other gamers may notice inconsistencies in counter attacking or enemy awareness based on position. These are not big problems though since it isn’t hard to adapt to them.
The best thing about Valkyria is the way the game gets better the more you play it. As you progress through your first play through, unlocking improved weapons, character classes, command options, and skirmishes, you’ll really start to bond with your squad as the solid story sucks you in. The new game plus and hard mode will make a second go through hard to resist, and there are innumerable ways to create your own challenges (Try using only a single character, only snipers, etc.) The negative points regarding any aspect of the game, be it the music, graphics, gameplay, or controls, are all minor. Together they add up to a flawed but still excellent game. It falls short of being a must-own title, but it’s a great addition to any strategy game lover’s library and to the PS3 library at large.