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Thursday, August 19, 2021

Valkyria Chronicles

Valkyria Chronicles debuted on the Playstation 3 as a new IP from Sega and it did surprisingly well, selling over one million copies worldwide on PS3 and another 500,000 on Steam within a year of its launch there (even briefly becoming the top-selling game on the platform), getting high marks from critics and gamers alike and kicking off a franchise that continues to this day.  But is this blend of real-time and turn-based combat in a low-fantasy world still worth a play today, or is it just lost in a sea of modern tactical combat sims? 

The Playstation 3 was a tough sell in its early days for many gamers, myself included; its ridiculously high price point, paired with a serious dearth of high quality exclusive titles owing to its cell processor being notoriously difficult to develop games for, had many people taking their chances with the likes of the Xbox 360 and its serious hardware issues instead.  It was also because of this that many of our favorite Playstation 1 and 2 RPG franchises wouldn't see a proper HD release on the Playstation, usually getting a downgraded port/sequel to DS or PSP instead. 

Valkyria Chronicles was one of the games that made believers out of some, though - an original IP by a well-regarded company on an HD platform was something Japanese RPG fans had seen surprisingly little of to that point. It was certainly one of the first PS3 games that really caught my eye as well, and it became one of the first I picked up when I finally got a PS3 myself circa 2010 or so. 

The game was certainly a pretty original concept at the time of its debut, taking place in a war-torn continent with many parallels to real-life events (in particular the second World War) and a dash of low fantasy on top - supernatural powers and forgotten civilizations playing prominent roles. Gameplay-wise, Valkyria Chronicles is a fairly unique blend of turn-based strategy and real-time action elements - when you activate a unit, they move around and evade enemy fire in real time, though pressing a button will stop the action (after a short delay) and allow them to take aim at the enemy; once they take a shot, their turn ends.  Additionally, you're allotted a number of actions each turn, and while you can move the same unit more than once in a round, their movement range will decrease each time you do.  Still, it's often worth it, particularly if a unit is in a good place to take out a dangerous enemy target (like a tank) but will require multiple shots to do so. 

Being a tactical game at its core, your characters are divided into five types of units, each of which serves a particular purpose in battle.  Scouts have long move and sight range but relatively weak weaponry and armor (making them good at outmaneuvering and picking off vulnerable units, but they get taken out easily by Shocktroopers and tanks), Shocktroopers are slower but carry heavier weaponry and are sturdy enough to withstand much more gunfire, Lancers wear heavy anti-blast armor and carry powerful anti-tank weapons but are extremely slow and vulnerable to bullets, Snipers can pick off enemies from afar but are sitting ducks at close range, and Engineers are weak fighters (light armor, low stats in general, though their move range is second to only the Scout) but disarm mines, replenish ammo and repair tanks and barricades, as well as carrying more grenades than any other class (able to use three per round rather than just one) .  Finally, Welkin (the game's protagonist) and one later character command tanks; as you'd expect they can shrug off damage from most firearms, deal heavy damage and roll right over barriers, but are vulnerable to mines and their engines are exposed from behind, requiring that you escort them with infantry to ensure their safety.  They also use two turn icons per move, so relying on them too much is a detriment.  The player can also spend multiple action points on "Orders" which give their units a powerful bonus for the rest of the turn - resisting interception fire, boosting accuracy, dealing extra damage to infantry or tanks, or even fully healing injured units; more of these are earned as the story progresses and the player levels up their classes, but also by visiting the graveyard between missions and paying the "Aged Gentlemen" to unlock them.

Adding another layer of strategy to the game, each character the player commands also has a unique set of advantages and disadvantages (called "potentials") that can activate under certain circumstances - being near another character, on a specific type of terrain, when their health falls below a certain threshold, and so forth.  Some of these can be quite powerful - getting a significant boost to aim or damage on a particular terrain type on a map that has a lot of them will definitely give you an edge. Thus, the strategy for each mission is not just in picking the right mix of classes, but the characters who will have the most advantages (and least disadvantages) on that particular map. Fortunately, this is made easier by the fact that classes, not characters, level up - spending points to upgrade the Scout class, for example, will cause all of your Scouts to power up.  Likewise, buying upgrades for weapons and armor will give them to all characters of that class, not just one. 

It is important to not fall into the trap of thinking the game is too easy, though; sure, you can win most by slowly advancing forward and taking few to no risks with your units, but your rank will also suffer for it and you'll get significantly less experience, money and items once you're done.  Finishing missions efficiently - using as few turns as possible - is key to getting a high rank and maximizing your rewards.  This starts to show itself at roughly a third of the way through the game, where lacking in money and squad levels will quickly begin to bite you - enemy troops become very difficult to overcome, shrugging off multiple headshots and taking out your units almost instantly once they enter firing range.  However, while you cannot replay story missions, you can undertake side missions ("skirmishes") to earn more experience points and money, so fortunately it never becomes impossible to progress; you may have to stop and grind for a while at times to catch up, though.

Like any good war epic, Valkyria Chronicles also has quite a solid story to enjoy, with a well-defined and memorable cast of characters, some surprisingly good voiceover and more than a few creative twists, which in turn lend themselves to creative missions (such as a stealth mission where you have to sneak out of enemy-occupied woods, or prevent a would-be kidnapper from escaping the city).  Seeing all the main cast interact, as well as go through some interpersonal strife (racism and manipulated history being prominent elements in the story) adds a lot of weight and some positive messaging to the game.

In short, it's easy to see why Valkyria Chronicles was so highly regarded, especially on a platform that had a severe shortage of quality Japanese RPGs during its early years.  With gameplay that blends real-time and turn-based strategy in a pretty innovative and fun way, a solid storyline and quite a lot of side content to experience, it stood as proof that the genre still had a foothold in the west that wasn't going to go away.  While its sequels and spinoffs had their ups and downs (with the third game never being officially localized, though a fan translation exists), the original game is a well-regarded classic whose popularity has only grown over the years.  Most gamers swore by Mass Effect or Dark Souls as the big definitive console RPGs of the 7th Generation; neither of those did very much for me, but Valkyria Chronicles is one I'd heartily recommend.

Developer: Sega, Media.Vision (Remasters)
Publisher: Sega
Platform: Playstation 3, PC, Playstation 4, Switch
Released: 2008, 2014, 2016, 2018
Recommended version: The remasters of the game (PC and later) run at higher resolutions and have all the content that was paid DLC on the Playstation 3 version, so any of those are good.  As ever, though, I would also recommend the PC version for some player-based mods that give balance tweaks or additional challenge if that's something that tickles your fancy.