Valkyria Chronicles takes place in 1935 in a world not unlike ours before WWII, but with several unique twists. The continent of Europa, which replaces Europe in our world, is divided into two major powers: the Atlantic Federation in the west and the Empire to the east. Caught in the middle is the small principality of Gallia, home to simple folk and an abundance of ragnite ore, which is used as a powerful fuel. When the Empire decides to invade and initiates the Second Europan War, all that stands between them and total conquest are the exploits of a ragtag militia group, Squad 7, and its leader, Welkin Gunther, as they risk all to save everything they hold dear. It's not a serious, gritty, war story, and it includes magic as a part of its narrative, but everything blends together into one of Sega's best titles yet.
Ryutaro Nonaka and his team have used Valkyria Chronicles' colorful, and often melodramatic, aspects to great effect in telling the story without making it seem too obvious. It can be predictable in places, and some things aren't explained as well as I would have liked, but the overall tale exudes the kind of charm and adventurous thrill that makes it fun. You know certain characters will act a certain way and you can see the twists coming, but when they do, the story manages to make them feel as if it were the first to make them great.
Purists and anime otaku may prefer to listen to the Japanese voice track instead, but the English track is just as solid. In a trend that should be standard for localized imports that insist on having English actors, both language tracks are expertly performed and can be switched from the main menu before playing or reloading a new game. The credits read like a who's who of voice acting, with names such as Hedy Burress, Colleen O'Shaughnessey, Dwight Schultz, Fred Tatasciore and Dave Wittenberg topping the list. Even the bit players, such as the new recruits that eventually join up, can be expected to share a bit of their personalities when they're selected to fight or when potential abilities awaken within them.
Sega's CANVAS graphics system made it feel as if I were watching a graphic novel on-screen in much the same way that Okami's painted appearance made using a brush fit with the action, or Dragon Quest VIII made it feel like an anime fairy tale come to life. The effect is breathtakingly demonstrated with the introduction, as it draws and colors in the opening scene before launching into a cinematic; it's emphasized with little touches, such as sound effect words that follow tanks as they rumble around. This also makes it all the more disarming when it touches on subjects that seem at odds with its Disney-styled charm, such as racial prejudice and the toll of war.
An encyclopedic glossary and character list provide even more minutiae on everything from the politics dividing Europa to Largo's obsession over vegetables, demonstrating the kind of close attention to detail that's typical of the developers whose ranks are made up of veterans from Sega's Sakura Taisen game franchise in Japan and the JRPG classic, Skies of Arcadia. Throughout the campaign and the optional side missions, these get updated with additional entries that eager RPGers can pore over whenever they feel the need to.
Hitoshi Sakimoto's prolific expertise is responsible for the stirring orchestral soundtrack that thunders a mix of military-styled anthems and quiet, introspective pieces for when the action dies down and the story turns a page. There's no mistaking when it's the Empire's turn to move and feeling relief when Gallia's theme opens up the next phase of the attack, and I was surprised by a sung performance as a part of the story.
The game is divided into several chapters, and the interface is presented as a storybook so you can flip pages and select picture panels to move the story ahead, which can feel a little clunky. When a panel is picked, the characters talk in windows focused on their faces and actions; instead of full-screen cinematics are served up whenever a major event demands one. Getting through each scene opens up the next, until you arrive at the battle, at which point not every scene is required watching; certain scenes offer optional insights that flesh out the story of what's going on elsewhere. As the game progresses from chapter to chapter, more options open up in the book, such as the all-important Headquarters tab.
In as much as there is to see and hear, Valkyria Chronicles easily provides plenty to do across its 30- to 40-hour campaign. Surviving and doing well in battle earns experience points and money, which can be spent at Headquarters to train troop classes and improve weapon types, respectively. Leveling is handled by spending experience points, and instead of focusing on specific characters, you will be leveling an entire class instead. These aren't dramatic changes in skill or ability, either, so you won't have characters running around with thousands of hit points on the battlefield, but earning levels unlocks special abilities within each class that can awaken under certain conditions or reveal new orders that Welkin can use to back them up.
The Scout class has a huge movement range at the expense of firepower and durability, while Shocktroopers can take punishment while dishing it out. Lancers are tank-killing experts, while Snipers can take out distant targets but have the worst movement range of any of the classes. Then you have Engineers that can fix barricades, "heal" tanks, supply ammo by simply being near needy characters, or use large doses of ragnite to heal serious wounds. As the main campaign progresses, more recruits will make themselves available, including Skies of Arcadia's Vyse and Aika.
Each trooper also has certain core attributes called "potentials" that, when randomly triggered, can improve their abilities or hurt their chances of survival. Some characters may get along well with certain ones, and having them close can boost their abilities during their movement phase. Others may love the feel of grass beneath their feet or be allergic to the same, causing their hit points to drop a bit. Some hate the Empire with a passion, turning them into killing machines when face-to-face with the enemy, while another's accuracy may get worse as he panics in the face of danger.
Saving the game can be done from the book interface, but Valkyria Chronicles also allows you to save your progress in battle. Since many of them can easily take up to an hour or more to complete, especially when a twist is thrown in that can easily trash carefully laid plans with one misstep, it's an advantage that isn't simply a cheap option if you have a life outside of being an armchair general or want to avoid repeating an hour's worth of work because an enemy sniper made short work of the troops that you'd sent out. Permadeath is a part of the game for the recruits, although story-based characters will either be evacuated from the battlefield or see the mission fail. When one of the "regular" soldiers goes down, you only have so much time to get a medic to evacuate him to safety … unless an enemy soldier gets to him first. Failing to save them means you'll have a new reason to visit the cemetery.
The Edelweiss, the main tank that Welkin uses as a second home, is also another member of the team. Upgrades for it appear over time, but while most of them are made part of the tank, other upgrades can be added on if there's enough space to configure them. The squad can also be individually equipped with the weapons you develop (or have been awarded, if you've had an audience with Her Highness, Cordelia, for a job well done). What this means is that you can have one sniper outfitted with a rifle that can lower an enemy's accuracy while at the same time, you have another sniper who's equipped for range and damage, creating a one-two punch.
But the strategic meat of the title is where the formula kicks Valkyria Chronicles into high gear. Battles are handled in phases, where one side makes its move before the next and each phase is divided into so many movement points, forcing you to think ahead so as not to squander your chances. One point is used to move a soldier and have him perform one action during the time you control him, such as throwing a grenade or shooting an enemy, while two are used for tanks, and you can always select the same soldier over and over again as long as you have the points. However, the movement gauge for used characters won't replenish until your next turn, and while most classes have unlimited ammo, grenades, rockets, and sniper bullets are in short supply. If you run out, though, every new phase replenishes your stores with one item until you can get resupplied by hanging around your base or by an Engineer. And you can always stock up on command points by ending your phase early, which can give you a big boost in your next turn.
Story-related battles can't be repeated for experience and cash and are at a set difficulty, but there are Skirmishes, where it can be earned. Skirmishes follow the same rules as the main battles, in which taking the flag of the enemy camp is almost always the goal, and is one of the main ways that you will be able to develop Squad 7's abilities so as to avoid getting killed in the later, far more harrowing, battles.
As easy as it is to get a grasp on the mechanics of the fight, the gameplay does have a few rough edges that can make it unexpectedly frustrating. Troops can take cover behind sandbags by kneeling behind them or lying down in tall grass, giving them a huge defensive bonus that can seem a little unreal for when you find a hiding foe, fire at him point-blank, and do minuscule damage. Sandbags are also the only things that soldiers can kneel behind. Crates, stacks of wood, or other obstructions that I wanted them to use were useless, as my squad would simply stand behind would-be cover, asking to be shot. Collision boxes around certain obstacles can also be "sticky" and force you to waste your movement gauge in trying to get around a broken barrier. Although the cursor indicates that you can hit a target, don't always rely on it if you're trying to aim above a mound of stone or a corner ? an invisible collision edge might eat your ammo instead. While I learned my way around some of these, I couldn't help but feel how much better Valkyria Chronicles could have been if the combat gameplay were a bit more fleshed out and a few interface options had been streamlined.
Finishing the game using the Cleared Data that it saves unlocks several bonuses, such as being able to keep everything you've earned and upgraded for another playthrough, especially if you are trying to get an "A" ranking in every mission or are trying to finish your medal collection. Story missions can now be replayed after completing them, a new Hard difficulty level for Skirmishes is also unlocked, a Statistics tab is now available to track your grades across each mission, and the Music tab allows you to listen to any of the tracks in the game including the sung theme, "A Love Passed On," performed by Hedy Burress, and the Japanese version (known as "Succeeded Wish" but apparently renamed for the game as part of the localization) performed by Megumi Toyoguchi. Unfortunately, if you're looking for Trophy support, the game has none, although at the time of this review, Sega had announced localized DLC for the game, so that might change.
There's something about a Sega game that makes it "Sega," and Valkyria Chronicles has that unmistakable touch to it that the Shining Force titles on the Genesis and Dragon Force for the Saturn have had. It's one of the best games that I've played for the current generation, and strategy-minded JRPG fanatics might want to book a trip to Gallia for a unique experience on the PS3. Challenging, frustrating, but every bit as rewarding, Valkyria Chronicles is proof that Sega can create something new while wrapping it within the familiar feel of a classic.
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