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Review – Valkyria Chronicles

posted on March 16th, 2009 by tyson

Strategy games have proven to be a bitter mistress for me. It is an unfortunate genre because it is home to one of my all-time favorite games, X-Com. When I first boot up a strategy game, especially one that has a similar mechanic to X-Com, I find myself comparing whatever game I may be playing to the venial alien blasting classic. When this happens, almost all games fail and I end up ditching the discs in one of my many binders, never to play it again.

It was with a great amount of trepidation that I purchased Valkyria Chronicles. I loved what I had seen of the game, the story is set in an alternate WWII universe, it is graphically an anime-styled game, and you get to run over people with a big ass tank. I really wanted this game to work out; I strove to fall in love with it. And in the end, I did. It is an event on par with the appearance of Haley’s comet when a video game meets or exceeds all of my expectations but I can safely proclaim to the world that I am in love with Valkyria Chronicles and if the law allows, I may indeed marry it someday.

As I mentioned above, Valkyria Chonicles is set in a Japanized, World War II era Europe. The names are different and topography of the countries are not as they exist in the real world but if I were to guess, you take the role of a strapping young lieutenant from Switzerland. No, the country is not called Switzerland but its politics and country-side definitely remind me of the land of Swiss Miss hot chocolate and Ricolla cough drops.

The story is a pretty traditional war tale. You are a kid coming back from college only to find yourself caught in the middle of an enemy invasion of your pristine alpine homeland. You also happen to be the son of a legendary general who thought it was a good idea to keep his massive tank in the barn as a souvenir…and to keep pesky stray dogs off the lawn. Once you realize the enemy is closing in and you have to do something, you decide to jump in the tank with your sister and start blowing up invading foot soldiers. As the story unfolds you gain experience and become the leader of a ragtag bunch of soldiers who find themselves in the middle of every pivotal battle of the war. Actually, the game is kind of like HBO’s “Band of Brothers” in that sense. The story is presented to the player as a book that the player is reading and each illustration in the book can be clicked on to see a cut scene or fight a battle.

Graphically the game is something to behold…if you like anime. In fact, this game looks so good and the story is such that after Valkyria Chronicles was released in Japan, it was also licensed as a full-blown anime series that will air very soon in the land of the rising sun. The way this game blends still frames into animated ones is slick. This game looks like all PS3 games should. The sound effects are pretty average and what you would expect from a war game. It is worth noting that the voice-overs for all of the characters is pretty well done and I found them all tolerable enough to leave the English language on during gameplay.

Speaking of which, one thing Valkria Chronicles does that I wish all Japanese games did is to give players the option to play with the original Japanese audio track with English subtitles instead of having to listen to a half-assed dub put together by some anime geeks at a convention somewhere. Fortunately, the English audio track for the game is done well enough not to warrant the Japanese one.

Where Valkyria Chronicles really shines is in its mechanics. Gameplay is superb and there is very little I would change about it. Once I started playing the game in earnest, I did find myself comparing it to X-Com and the similarities between the two titles abound. Actually, if you were to play the game and walk away from a battle saying it was basically X-Com with way better graphics and a different story, you would not be too far off base. The one thing I wish Valkyria Chronicles would have done that X-Com did do was to give the player the ability to customized each individual soldier’s weaponry and armor.

Unfortunately, Valkyria Chronicles is set up so each kind of soldier class has their own specific set of weapons. You can upgrade and modify them but if you are working on the sniper class and decide to tweak the sniper rifle, those tweaks apply to all snipers that you have under your command. I am sure that this was done in an attempt to streamline gameplay and when you look at it from that standpoint, it works. However, I am one of those sadistic guys who took great joy in giving all of my rookies in X-Com stun batons and nothing else to take on their initial mission. If they survived the ensuing bloodbath, they were rewarded with pistols. It is creepy how much I catch myself wishing I could do the same thing in Valkyria Chronicles.

The one thing that befuddles me about the title is why it got such a limited release in the United States. It is an excellent game and would appeal to all strategy lovers but when it is all said and done, this will be one of those niche games that only a handful of people know about. Which is good for those who own it because it will keep its value fairly well as it ages, I have already seen it marked higher than MSRP at a couple of stores in my area. If this is on your “get it later” list, bump it on to your “get it now” list.

Valkyria Chronicles is an excellent game that will only get better with the three DLC packs that are coming out for it in the next few months. An “extra hard” mode is being added in which you get the opportunity to play through the game without your tank, which is the biggest and most useful unit in the game. The normal game gets fairly easy as the battles go on so the DLC will be a welcome addition for veteran players. Which I expect everyone who reads this to be because I expect you all to go out and get this friggin’ game – I want a sequel!

Buy from Amazon: Valkyria Chronicles

14 Comments

  1. christian said on March 17, 2009:

    I approve of this game with only two hours of it under my belt since november.

    I really should play it more. I’m putting it on the backlog in favor of worse product.

  2. Spyder Mayhem said on March 17, 2009:

    Admittedly, I’m not too far in, so my opinion may change but…

    Any comparisons to X-Com are, in my opinion, off base. Yes, it uses something like X-Com’s combat system. But unless you immediately jump into aiming mode, the bad guys just keep shooting and shooting at you. I would assume that they are limited in Action Points, much like your own soldiers, but since people can only shoot once per command, everyone ends up flooded with extra points to shoot until the end of time with their rifles when it isn’t their turn. Most of the maps I have seen are pretty tiny. Once the combat starts everyone hides behind sandbags and shoots and shoots. I am sure this will change, and I’ve already seen such actions as “hiding behind a tank.”

    It also suffers from its love of “Rock-Paper-Scissors”. Machine gunners kill anti-tank teams. Anti-tank teams kill tanks. Tanks kill machine gunners. X-Com was not limited by this gameplay mechanic. In X-Com, Rocket launchers kill everyone. Civilians, nearby allies, aliens, buildings, gas stations, tanks, fences, everything. Rocket launchers were weak because rocket launchers were uncaring area-effect weapons and ammo was always limited. Further, the amount of points needed to shoot the rocket launcher was high, so shots were limited and needed to be planned carefully.

    Yes, it has something like X-Com’s research system. But with the class system in place, all you are doing is basically leveling up equipment that you have to take. Realizing in X-Com that certain sets of gear were better for house clearing and certain sets were better for battling out in the open was an amazing moment for me. I had scouts, I had heavy weapons teams, I had generic rifle teams and I had snipers, but I wasn’t forced into these roles, and my teams probably differed greatly from other players. I am sure that the branching research system in VC will eventually allow that, but it doesn’t seem the same.

    X-Com was also terrifying. Death is permanent, always lurking in the darkness and shadows. One tiny mistake can lead to Sergeant Johnson forever being gone. In VC, anime graphics kill any sense of dread for me. War is a lighthearted cartoon for my amusement. Yup, people die, but they die in a corny way.

    And then there is the “show vs. tell” argument. In X-Com, nothing was told to you. Sergeant Johnson never had a cutscene to let you know that he likes to draw fish. Sergeant Johnson never had another cutscene right after that one to tell you that he is a general’s son and important. Sergeant Johnson surely didn’t have another cutscene immediately after those two that plants the seeds to a love story between himself and Captain Reinhardt. Aliens invaded, your guys have to stop them. Sergeant Johnson becomes important to you because that one time you made him finish clearing the grocery store by himself after Private Smith got offed by deadly plamsa doom, and Johnson totally smoked those four aliens with nothing more than two hand grenades and a pistol. Johnson matters to you, the player, because of what he did under your control, not because of what he does in endless, endless cutscenes where all you can do is push X to keep it going.

    And oh, those cutscenes. Right after someone dies at the beginning of the game, the girl in charge of the town watch releases a bunch of flower seeds into the wind in hopes of “having this war mean something beyond destruction.” The dead town watchman who JUST DIED IN THE CUTSCENE BEFORE is never mentioned again, even though everyone is from a small town and the girl in charge of the watch probably went to a barbeque with that guy and his kids. In this way, VC is also nothing like Band of Brothers. BoB is not about the philisophical underpinnings of conflict, it is about the bonds forged between people who go through hell with one another. Yes, soldiers spend a lot of time wondering what the hell it all means, but they tend to only get to that point some time after the first five minutes of armed conflict. I am sure that as I delve deeper into the battles that someone’s death will mean something to someone else, but as of right now it hasn’t happened.

    I’m not giving up on it, though, and I look forward to things getting better as time goes by. I am sure that the strategy aspects will get better and that when I lose the guy who is wearing makeup and loves both the men and the ladies, I will feel upset. But, in the end, I don’t think any of them will matter more than poor, personality-free Sergeant Johnson and his brave actions inside of that grocery store oh so long ago.

  3. Mike Dierickx said on March 17, 2009:

    Nice review of a great game – I’m at about mission 12. It’s good – I particularly appreciate the LACK of individual equipping; micromanagement of units is better-suited for a PC game, IMO. I like the quick equipping and universal-leveling of unit types because it eliminates the obnoxious mechanic of trying to get kills with your under-leveled characters (Shining Force, I’m looking at you).

    As a guy who is growing up a little and becoming more of a normal nerd and a little less “nerdcore,” this is welcome.

  4. christian said on March 17, 2009:

    Spyder, your penultimate paragraph has a lot of interesting, and accurate observations, which are all reasons why I don’t like much anime. The main characters are always special and rather insular, not caring much about the death of random soldiers, or simply pretending to for a brief moment before the writers move on to something else.

    That being said, I know it is a ridiculous anime story, and from that perspective I think it is still fairly entertaining. Call it “Anime Band of Brothers” – it has some very general similarities that are taken to a much different, less realistic conclusion.

  5. Spyder Mayhem said on March 17, 2009:

    Any game that generates discussion is a game worth the time, and I plan to invest more into this little gem from Sega. And I concede the point that micromanaging just doesn’t work on console systems and that VC’s way of handling it is probably a much better answer.

    As for the leveling thing, I always loved the fact that in X-Com a Colonel’s death meant so much to the player because the Colonel should have never reached Colonel inside of the confines of the Alien/Human war without mercy. Replacing such a monumentous man with a weakling private hurt so badly. Mistakes had dire, bitter concequences. I fear that the generalized leveling system will remove some of that.

    Also, I hate that certain characters are so important that they cannot die or the mission fails. X-Com captured the “nobody is irreplacable” aspect of war, and indeed life, much better.

  6. jay said on March 17, 2009:

    It’s a little bizarre that this discussion revolves around comparing a PC strategy game to a Japanese SRPG. Maybe we should compare this to Super Mario Brothers instead.

  7. Spyder Mayhem said on March 17, 2009:

    “When I first boot up a strategy game, especially one that has a similar mechanic to X-Com, I find myself comparing whatever game I may be playing to the venial alien blasting classic.”
    -Tyson, “Review- Valkyria Chronicles”

    This seems to happen to a lot of us old-schoolers. To act like VC is not trying to capture some of X-Com’s magic is to treat it like a successor to Super Mario Brothers. I’m not so sure that this is okay. X-Com was also released for the Playstation… The comparison is maybe more of Golden Delicious apples-to-Honeycrisp apples than it is apples-to-oranges…

    Conversely, you are correct in stating that it is unfair to take the anime game elements and compare them to X-Com. VC is definitely not “X-Com: Nazi Zombies Riding Dinosaurs”. I haven’t gotten far enough into it to say whether, in fact, FINAL FANTASY 7 SPOILERS AHOY VC-Sephiroth kills VC-Aeris, but I go into it expecting such a thing to occur. And that may make it a fine JRPG indeed, but on those issues I am not so familiar.

    VERY SLOW DAY AT WORK, fyi.

  8. christian said on March 17, 2009:

    Of course anyone can compare this game to X-Com. Do you know how many games I’ve judged compared to Fallout?

  9. Spyder Mayhem said on March 17, 2009:

    Similarly, I haven’t played Bioshock yet at all because I would just spend all of my time comparing it to System Shock 2. This would not be fair to Bioshock, a game that I’ve heard many positive things about. If I like VC as I dive into it more, I’ll give Bioshock a chance, too.

    I just typed Bioshock as “Boishock”, an excellent parody porno video name if I have ever heard one.

  10. christian said on March 17, 2009:

    Make it “Sk8ter Boishock” in order to synergize with youth trends years after they are relevant. We can get GoTY

  11. Tyson said on March 18, 2009:

    “Nazi Zombies Riding Dinosaurs” – Did you really need to pull an Apples to Apples trump card in this discussion? Did you? 😛

    I agree with most of your observations on how VC is not X-Com. I guess I should have not used such a broad sweeping comparison of the two games, or maybe I just don’t read deep enough into a game to come up with that kind of analysis. Either way, I am right there with you in saying that the two games are not exactly alike.

    Having said that, VC feels like X-Com to me in the sense that you have a squad of people you move around the map and they kill stuff. You definitely do not die as much in VC as you do in X-Com, in fact, while playing through VC I only lost two people. I am looking forward to “extra hard” mode.

    As for the Band of Brothers comparison, I am sticking by that one. Once you get through a good chunk of the game you start to see a bond form between the characters in the unit and the side stories between them are usually more interesting than the main plot, at least they were for me.

    I think what this discussion really means is that X-Com was way too prevalent in Spyder and I’s formative years. Oh hell, it is on my system still and I played it a few days ago. Damn you, X-Com!

    And Christian, the Fallout series is also one of my gold standards by which to judge most RPGs. This is probably why I don’t play many RPGs these days either…

  12. Spyder Mayhem said on March 18, 2009:

    Having played some more last night, I do think I was a little too harsh on it. It is a good time. And the medic system is much better than permadeath, I think. It gives a reason to not just leave the dead lying, and it has a cost in wasted actions.

    I have a daunting wall of cutscenes ahead of me, though. I do not look forward to all of the talking to come.

  13. ls said on April 5, 2009:

    No customization? Not once you get far enough into the game. The weapons have branching trees; some special weapons can become available; units can be individually equipped. Most of the variation isn’t that great, but the difference between the lancer mortars and anti-tank lances are very significant, as are the differences between some the captured imperial weapons and the Gallian weapons (the former sacrifice a lot of range for a lot firepower).

  14. ls said on April 5, 2009:

    Typo city. Should be differences and some of the captured…

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