Wednesday 10 December 2014

Valkyria Chronicles

The small Republic of Gallia has been invaded by the forces of the East Europan Imperial Alliance, which is determined to conquer the entire continent of Europa. Welkin Gunther, the son of a former war hero, is pressed into service as the commanding officer of Squad 7 of the Gallian Militia. Gunther has to overcome prejudice from the regular army in order to guide his squad, and ultimately his nation, to victory.

Valkyria Chronicles has an interesting history. Originally released on the PS3 in 2008, the game sold modestly but not outstandingly. Sega commissioned two sequels for the handheld PSP, but only one of these was released in the West. Despite critical acclaim, the series would have likely faded away (save for the odd 'best game you've never played' feature) if Sega hadn't been presented with a petition asking for a PC port of the game. With the PC an increasingly important format for Sega, they surprisingly agreed and the resulting release was a big hit, hugely exceeding Sega's sales expectations.

The game itself has been described as a turn-based strategy game similar to the XCOM series, although that's not entirely accurate. Each mission presents you with a series of command points which you can spend however you wish. You can move and attack with one unit as many times as you wish, although their range of movement decreases with every extra move you make with them. Some special weapons (such as sniper rifles, grenades and rockets) can also only be fired a couple of times per turn (though these can be replenished by using an Engineer). Units can use cover to better protect themselves, although bizarrely only behind sandbags; other forms of scenery (such as garden walls or crates) can't be used as cover.

Europa, which is basically Europe to the point of having some of the same names. Why they just didn't use Europe and call it an alt-history, I don't know.

Your military force consists of four basic unit types: Scouts have a tremendous range of movement but are fragile and easily killed by almost any other unit type. However, their rifles become incredibly powerful as they are upgraded and they gain the ability to use grenade launchers. If they can outflank an enemy and get behind them (where the enemy can't shoot them on crossfire, this game's version of overwatch) they can usually kill them before they can get a shot off in return. Shocktroopers have more limited movement but are armed with heavy machine guns and, later, flamethrowers. These are the bread-and-butter combat units but it's surprisingly how infrequently you use them for anything more than base defence. Lancers deploy extremely powerful anti-tank rockets, although they can also be used against soldiers. Whilst powerful, they lack any kind of defence (they can't use crossfire) and are vulnerable to enemy attack. Finally, Engineers are used to repair tanks and re-supply other troops with ammo in the field, although they also have a moderate attack and defence ability. All units have the ability to use medical equipment (on themselves or allies) and also use grenades. Units are not killed upon being downed and can be rescued by a medic if another unit is able to get to them; they can be killed if an enemy unit reaches them first though.

As well as the soldiers, you also have the ability to command tanks. Early missions see you using Gunther's vehicle, the Edelweiss, whilst later on you get a second, smaller vehicle, the Shamrock. Tanks have formidable anti-armour guns and anti-personnel mortars and machine guns, but use up a lot of command points and are vulnerable to enemy Lancers and tanks.

Scouts feel a bit pointless at the start of the game but rapidly turn into the most devastingly effective units, if upgraded and used right.

Unlike most turn-based strategy games, there is no grid for movement. Instead you have a certain number of movement points which are used up as you move around in a third-person view similar to action games. You can't tell how far you can go in a move (without actually moving), so the game encourages you to move cautiously and use cover where possible. When you attack, you use a more action game-like direct control mechanic. Your ability to hit a target depends on range, cover and how well you have upgraded your characters and equipment.

Between battles, you can retire to the capital city to rest. During this phase you can upgrade your equipment by spending money on R&D, hire and fire soldiers, visit your fallen comrades in a cemetary, train up at boot camp or pay a visit to a friendly journalist who is relaying your exploits to the nation. The non-battle parts of the game are depicted like a book, with you turning to different pages to visit different parts of the city, continue with the main story or play skirmishes. Skirmishes are optional (sort-of) smaller engagements between the big story battles, but still give you important EXP and money which you can use to prepare for the next battle.

The overhead tactical map, from where you select which unit to use next. Your remaining command points are shown at the top of the screen.
The biggest difference between Valkyria Chronicles and similar games, like the XCOM series, is the lack of any grand strategy layer. The course of the war is completely set and you roll from mission to mission through cut scenes. Aside from deciding when to do skirmishes and in what order, you have no real control over the bigger picture of the game. Whilst some may bemoan this, it does result in a much more detailed, hand-crafted approach to the game. Each battle is meticulously designed to be different to the one before whilst still building on what you have learned. This results in a - mostly - smooth difficulty curve and tremendous variety in the types of battlefield you encounter.

Tanks are formidable, but very vulnerable to Lancers if left exposed. Like here.

There a couple of issues here. First, the game does have two rather ridiculous difficulty spikes. The seventh mission is punishingly hard to the point of lunacy. This happens again later on on the seventeenth mission, although this is less of a problem because greater experience by that point should allow players to overcome it. Secondly, the game clearly states that the skirmish missions are optional, and indeed, you can get to the final battle straightforwardly (despite the two above tough missions) if you don't bother with them. However, the final mission becomes extremely difficult without the extra equipment, potentials (special abilities) and experience gained from doing the skirmish missions. The problem with the skirmish missions is that they often take place on the same maps from the main campaign and soon repetition sets in, which the main campaign avoids through either not re-using maps, or changing things up meticulously when they do.

Still, if you can accept that limitation the game emerges as a lot of fun. The different art style, which makes the game look like an animated painting, is highly effective and distinctive. The music is excellent, although some of the sound effects grate after a while. The characters are archetypal and don't stray far from cliche, but are still distinctive and memorable for that. Where the game does break down a little is the plot. Early on the game is a surprisingly realistic take on WWII, with tanks, blitzkriegs, rifles, machine guns and hardcore moral dilemmas. The appearance of concentration camps and firing squads takes the game in a grim direction which, whilst often at odds with the cartoony graphics and questionable uniform choices (that female soldiers can fight alongside the men with no limitations is great, but why are they all wearing miniskirts?), is highly effective.

When the weird people with crazy hair show up with the blue lances of death, the game definitely gets bit more boring.

However, towards the end of the game all of that goes out of the window as the story turns to embrace ancient alien superweapons, people flying around with glowing eyes and cartoonish villainy. It's all good pulp fun, but I think it would have been far more interesting to have stuck with the more realistic 'fantasy WWII' from the early part of the game, a great idea which is thus left chronically underdeveloped (at least in this first game in the series).

Valkyria Chronicles (****) is a very different type of strategy game, one which employs its own style of combat and a distinctive graphical style to make something unique and memorable. The combat is engrossing, the story reasonably interesting (if becoming more predictable towards the end) and, despite some tough difficulty spikes, it all flows together reasonably well. The game hits that design sweet spot of being built from some very straightforward building blocks, but then combining them into something compelling. The game is available now on PC and PS3 (UK, USA).

1 comment:

Mark Andrew Edwards said...

I've been curious about this, so thanks for the review. I have it in my Steam wishlist, if it goes on sale, I'll pick it up.

Thanks again!