Review: Valkyria Chronicles (PC)

It’s hard to figure out where to even begin talking about Valkyria Chronicles­; there’s so much to say. Sega’s brilliant take on turn-based tactics is one of my favorite games of all time, but beyond that I think it’s a very important game. It’s important because the story touches on some of the darkest moments in human history – moments no other game has dared to touch – and does so in an intelligent and sensitive manner. It’s important because of the innovative ways in which it manages to systemize its characterization and themes. It’s important because it marks the last time that Sega put in the care and effort needed to make something unequivocally excellent.

After six years it’s also the game to break that unfortunate streak. Fans of Japanese games have been let down time and again by PC releases, and when Sega announced a few weeks ago that Valkyria Chronicles would be coming to steam we had every reason to expect a buggy, slapdash port. And that would have been a real shame, because with its sketchy watercolor aesthetic the PS3 version is one of the most enduringly beautiful games of the last generation. Fortunately, not only does the PC version of run at 60 frames per second in high definition with nary a hiccup, it also makes several significant enhancements to the original game’s effects.  Even better, it condenses the PS3 version’s excruciating loading times to a fraction of a second. The only things this port doesn’t improve on are the cutscenes, which are unfortunately encoded at 720p despite most of them being rendered-in engine.

Valkyria Chronicles has a very dense narrative, but to sum it up it’s a steampunk fantasy take on World War II set on the fictional continent of Europa. Europa is embroiled in a conflict between two superpowers – the Atlantic Federation and the Imperial Alliance – over a miraculous mineral fuel called Ragnite. The small, neutral principality of Gallia is invaded by the Empire for their rich deposits of this precious resource.  The Empire is also running a campaign of extermination against the Darcsens, a race of pale-skinned, dark-haired people who have become scapegoats for the bulk of Europa’s ills. They kill them indiscriminately and even – here we get to the part of the war that no other game talks about – toss them into concentration camps and work them to death. It’s a little ridiculous that an anime fantasy game is the only AAA title in history with something to say about the Holocaust, but to this game’s immense credit it speaks with the care and respect such a sensitive topic deserves. Furthermore, it covers all of its subject matter with that same care.

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If Valkyria Chronicles can be said to have a single overarching theme, it’s that we are all human. The characters under your command, who together comprise Squad 7 of the Gallian Militia’s Third Regiment, are among the best-realized and most likeable characters in gaming history. Squad leader Welkin Gunther is a little socially awkward and obsessed with nature – a trait that sometimes gives him ingenious philosophical and strategic insights. Alicia Melchiott, his second-in-command, is steadfast, caring, and strong-willed. The way that her relationship with Welkin blossoms into romance over the course of the story is positively heartwarming. Conversely, watching Welkin’s adopted Darcsen sister Isara try to bridge the gulf of racial prejudice between herself and squadmate Rosie is nothing short of heartbreaking.

But the game doesn’t let us forget that there are people on every side of the conflict. Early scenes in the game which depict the Empire rolling through Welkin’s idyllic home town are framed almost as propaganda, but as the story unfurls we see more and more humanity in the enemy forces, and more evil outside the Empire. When the Federation gets involved in the conflict it causes no end of trouble, and some of the more officious ranking officers in Gallia’s own military pose as much of a threat as the enemy generals. At one point Welkin and Alicia become stranded with an imperial shocktrooper and they end up forming a brief connection. The enemy leaders in particular are painted with a very sympathetic brush. In early cutscenes they appear to be a shadowy cabal of cackling Power Rangers villains, but with each appearance we discover more of their history and see that they have very good reasons for doing what they do. “Beyond Her Blue Flame,” one of the DLC packs included with the PC release, actually puts you in the jackboots of an imperial soldier, and after you play through it you might find it tough to kill them (though in another sense you will find it very easy as completing the DLC gives you the best weapon in the game).

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Instead of seeing this conflict as it happens, we view it through the eyes of historian Irene Koller in her book “On the Gallian Front,” which covers the war from Squad 7’s perspective. Interestingly, Irene’s writing is a little biased, and the game leaves you to wonder how reliable a narrator she really is. Not only is this book a solid framing device for the game’s narrative, it also serves as its interface. Flipping pages allows you to transition seamlessly from watching cutscenes and selecting missions to reading character profiles and scrolling through achievements (represented in-game as service medals) – aspects which usually feel disjointed in your average game. The book menu makes a lot of information available in an intuitive and cohesive manner, an in a strange way making the conflict less immediate makes it feel more real.

The layout of “On the Gallian Front” allows for the insertion of reports – optional character-driven asides without detracting from the main plot’s pacing. If you want to you can spend hours delving into Gallia’s history or learning about your squadmate’s odd affinity for vegetables, but if you’re not interested you can simply focus on the war and on moving from battle to battle. There are usually benefits for investing time and money in these excursions (such as special potentials for the main cast), and while they don’t advance the plot they (mostly) contribute a great deal to the game’s character development. They also generally have a lighter, more humorous tone that feels refreshing in light of how morose the rest of the game can be. I’d only caution you to avoid “Report 5: Squad 7’s R&R,” as it adds nothing to the game save for out-of-place, anachronistic fan service. I understand why the developers felt the need to put in a “beach episode,” (as they say, “When in Japan…”) but it’s undeniably tasteless, and marks the only point where the game becomes too “anime” for its own good.

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A good interface and good story wouldn’t matter if the game itself was not good, and Valkyria Chronicles is great. On a surface level the game has a lot in common with XCOM. You take command of a military unit comprised of different classes – scouts, engineers, shocktroopers, snipers, lancers (anti-tank rocket units), and one tank – and take responsibility for their training as well as their mission performance. On the battlefield success is all about making strategic use of cover and positioning soldiers for the best shot or an effective ambush. Depending on how well you do you’ll earn varying amounts of gold and experience that can be used to upgrade Squad 7’s equipment and capabilities. The similarities only run so deep, though. The most obvious difference is that Valkyria Chronicles eschews grid and menu-based tactics in favor of an odd third-person-shooter hybrid setup that lets you control units directly.

This could have been nothing more than a gimmick, but it adds a substantial layer of strategic depth to warfare, and has the added benefit of making the game feel more fair and transparent for players. On each turn you have a set number of “command points” which you can spend to take control of one of your soldiers, who can then move within a fixed range based on the size of their “action point” bar (scouts have the most AP while snipers have the least). Units can attack once per action, and you can use the same unit multiple times in a turn (though they’ll incur AP penalties each time). You can also spend varying amounts of CP issuing “orders” with effects that range from boosting a unit’s defense to calling down mortar strikes. Some of your units are “leaders” that increase your CP pool as long as they’re alive, so you’ll want to keep them protected to make the most efficient possible use of your turns. On the other hand killing enemy leaders will reduce the CP they have available, and a lot of the game’s high-level strategy revolves around forcing the AI to spend their turns inefficiently. Interception fire plays a large role in this.

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In Valkyria Chronicles soldiers are always on “overwatch,” so they’ll automatically fire on any enemy that enters their range outside their own turn. If you’re smart you can set up ambushes on the enemy’s turn, taking soldiers down before they have a chance to attack and costing the computer an action in the process. Of course if you’re careless the same thing can happen to you. This dynamic makes each of your turns feel almost like an action game. You have to zig-zag from cover to cover to minimize damage, moving when enemies reload and staying out of their line of sight whenever possible. Having a good sense of timing is vital, which can’t really be said for any other SRPG on the market. Enemies will stop firing when you take aim, allowing you to line up your shots, but they’ll also reload in that time so you have to be quick about ending your turn or finding cover after making your kill

Fortunately you won’t always have to find cover, because Squad 7’s tank, the Eidelweiss, can bring it to you. Tanks are pricey – moving one costs 2 CP – but they’re the most powerful units at either army’s disposal. Between anti-armor shells and anti-personnel mortars they can take out nearly any kind of enemy efficiently, and their interception firepower is immense. The Eidelweiss in particular is capable of decimating imperial infantry, and moving it up will often be the cornerstone of your offensive strategy, but you will lose instantly if you let it get destroyed. Tanks are vulnerable to attacks from the rear, where their exposed ragnite exhaust port creates a convenient glowing one-hit weak point, so you’ll want to focus on using your lancers to flank enemy tanks while preventing their soldiers from doing the same.

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Anyone who’s played XCOM knows how aggravating it can be to open fire on an alien with a 95% hit chance only to miss entirely. Valkyria Chronicles handles accuracy by putting a circle around your crosshairs representing margin of error, and on top of being more intuitive this creates a wider potential range for success and failure. Instead of assigning a binary hit/miss condition to an entire burst of gunfire, Valkyria calculates each shot individually, so even if you don’t hit enough times to take an enemy down you’ll probably take a chunk out of their health. This creates a really interesting risk/reward dynamic when it comes to deciding between a head or body shot, especially with snipers who can only fire one bullet per action.

You can increase your odds of taking down an enemy with body shots by keeping your soldiers close together, as they’ll automatically assist whenever an ally opens fire. These team attacks become even more effective when a soldier is paired with one of their friends. It’s this element of camaraderie that elevates Valkyria Chronicles’ already multifaceted tactical gameplay to transcendent heights.  Every one of the 53 potential squad members in the game has their own name, personality, and backstory, and aside from the core cast every one of them can die permanently if they fall in battle. This isn’t just set-dressing, either – when you lose a soldier, you really feel the loss.

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During training your soldiers level up as classes rather than individuals, so you won’t be left behind the curve if one of them dies, but don’t take that to mean they’re interchangeable. Each character’s personality quirks are systemized as “potentials” that influence their combat performance in good and bad ways. A character might have overwhelming confidence in their abilities that raises their accuracy against enemies of the same class, but they might also have a crippling fear of heights that makes them next to useless. As you take these characters into battle you’ll unlock more of their backstories, and in turn as they develop you’ll see them gain new potentials or even change old ones. You will find yourself picking favorites as the game progresses, though because the game’s main characters are tied to your CP pool, you only really have five slots out of nine in which to build your dream team. It would be nice if you could assign leader status to different characters, but the main cast is so likeable that this is a minor complaint.

Painstaking effort has gone into crafting every aspect of Valkyria Chronicles’ world. This comes across in obvious ways, like the pages upon pages of lore in the glossary that flesh out the setting’s ecology, cultures, and economy, but it also deeply informs the mission design. Every single level is full of little details that help to sell the reality of the world – amenities that soldiers put in their camps for comfort, or wear marks on machinery that’s clearly been in use for a long time. This isn’t all that surprising considering that the same team created Skies of Arcadia (Vyse and Aika even appear in a playable cameo) – a landmark game for environmental storytelling – but it’s appreciated nonetheless. The enemy placement in each mission is also very well-thought-out.  Every encounter provides a meaty strategic challenge with plenty of room for tactical creativity. Moreover, varying troop placement gives you a sense that each enemy commander has their own strategic quirks, which further helps to convey the notion that you’re fighting against real individuals rather than a faceless entity.

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When you actually do face off against one of the generals leading the invasion, things can get pretty crazy. Valkyria Chronicles’ boss fights pit you against Gustav-like rail cannons and tanks the size of office buildings, and they are HARD. Regular missions and skirmishes are no cakewalk, but when you take on the likes of Selvaria Bles or the colossal Marmotta, you will see members of your squad go down, and it will often be next-to-impossible to reach them in time to call a medic. Every fight in the game can be beaten without losing a single soldier, but doing so will require sound tactics and a high capacity for improvisation. Unfortunately, the ranking at the end of each mission only grades you based on completion time, so those skills are disregarded in favor of save-scumming and memorization. It can be fun to treat each level like a puzzle in an effort to earn the greatest possible reward, but for my money the game is at its best when you improvise your way through a mission and pull through by the skin of your teeth.

Valkyria Chronicles’ militaristic score, composed by Hitoshi Sakimoto and Daisuke Kawaguchi, is sweeping and majestic from beginning to end (I think it’s a good sign that I’m starting to run out of hyperbolistic words with which to praise this game). Set against a backdrop of flickering embers, the first few notes of this brief fanfare make my chest swell with pride for a nation that doesn’t even exist. In battle a thrilling anthem spurs your soldiers to action on your turn, while an oppressive dirge descends over the field as the empire makes their moves. A moment later on that involves a certain character singing is one of the most powerful story beats I have ever experienced in any game.

Acting and sound design are just as great as the music. More strict fans of JRPGs will be happy to know that the game includes both English and Japanese voices, but this is one of the few games where the option doesn’t feel needed.  The performances for every member of the cast – including all 49 unique, non plot-essential members of Squad 7 – are of the same caliber as you’d expect from the core cast of an Atlus game.  Sound effects always make it clear what’s going on and where it’s happening, even if you can’t see it. When you can see whatever’s making the noise, visual onomatopoeia pops up alongside it to create a manga-like atmosphere. This is also reflected in the art style, which you’ve probably noticed while taking in all these gorgeous screenshots.

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I really don’t know how to talk about Valkyria Chronicles’ art style without sounding like I’m gushing. Taken together, all of the neat visual tricks the game employs to bring its world to life are mind-blowing. We’ve all seen cel-shading before (in fact it was Sega that pioneered real-time use of the technique), but never like this. A washed-out palette is used to emulate watercolors, and the screen is overlaid with a transparent canvas texture that gives the impression that the graphics are being painted onto the screen. Toward the edges the color actually fades out, leaving only the sketchy vector outlines of the models. Visual effects are used to give the impression of living manga, and the effect is driven home with a clever filter that makes every shadow look as though it’s been crosshatched.

The resulting art style isn’t just beautiful, it’s enduring. Valkyria Chronicles has aged remarkably well, and in a world where computer graphics advance every other month and even Crysis is starting to look dated, that’s quite an accomplishment. Another big contributing factor is the game’s animations, which are smooth and very well-crafted, conveying personality through subtle body-language and facial expressions while giving every object and character a correct sense of weight and presence in the world. It’s rare to see a game where the characters actually breathe and fidget as they talk, and that goes a long way toward making them feel human – even the soldiers with faces obscured by helmets. Characters only look wrong when they die and turn into ragdolls, but that’s the case with pretty much every game, and with such an open-ended combat system Sega didn’t have much choice but to procedurally generate death animations.

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Closing Comments:

In its music, writing, art and acting ,Valkyria Chronicles is brimming with the emotional potency to bring a man to tears. It would make an excellent movie if that were all it had going for it, but the story is told in a way that could only work in a video game, and built on a rock-solid framework of deep and challenging tactical gameplay. The way the game systemizes character growth and loss is ingenious, and it’s shocking that so few games have aped those innovations since its initial release. Valkyria Chronicles is a timeless classic, and this exceptional PC port only manages to improve upon it.