Release Date: November 2008
With the announcement that Final Fantasy XIII will be coming to the Xbox 360 in addition to the PS3, things are looking kind of grim for Sony in one of the areas where they used to be the undefeated champ: role-playing games. With titles like Infinite Undiscovery, Star Ocean 4 and now Final Fantasy XIII coming to Microsoft's system, in addition to support from niche companies like Atlus, Sony's lost a lot of its normally unbreakable hold over the RPG gamer market. Yet for all of that, it's worth remembering that there are a few titles that still remain exclusive to the Sony system, and of those, by far the best-looking in Sega's Valkyria Chronicles.
Valkyria Chronicles takes place in an alternate-history version of 1930s Europe. A power super-fuel called ragnite ore has been discovered in the fictional country of Gallia, a fuel that has the power to turn whoever controls the supply of it into the ruler of the entire world. Gallia is promptly set upon by the East European Imperial Alliance, one of the two ruling powers in the world, which eagerly seeks the ragnite ore to help them overcome the Atlantic Federation. The Gallians are not going to take this invasion of their nation and the plundering of their national resources quietly. The people of Gallia take up arms to defend their country, rallying around a baker-turned-soldier named Alicia Melchiott, whose skill in battle may be the only thing that can lead the tiny besieged nation to victory.
In the E3 demo, I was placed in control of Alicia and her squadron and got a chance to see how combat works. It's actually quite interesting. A specific number of Command Points (CP) is issued at the start of each round, one for each officer that you bring into battle. By spending a CP, you can move one of your soldiers, which is done in real time. Once you choose a soldier to move, the game switches to a third-person view, and you can move that soldier around freely, as long as you have Movement Points (MP) remaining.
By moving near certain areas, you can interact with them, such as leaping over barriers or hiding behind cover. Once per turn, you can also perform an action (usually attacking) that doesn't end your turn. You can attack and dash back behind cover, or even attack before moving and then run forward. Even more interesting is that you can use CPs on a character more than once a turn. However, each successive turn given to a character decreases the amount of available MPs and has other ill effects. On the flip side, it's possible to not use your CP at all, and you can carry over up to 20 CPs to the next round. As previously mentioned, CPs come from officers, and that can work for and against you. Kill an enemy officer, and they can move one fewer soldier a turn, but if one of your own officers falls, you lose a CP.
Attacking in Valkyria Chronicles is quite interesting. Once you press the attack button, you look through the sights of your gun. Every attack in the game has a radius in which your attack might hit; a machine gun has a wide radius, while sniper rifles tend to have smaller areas. You aim the control manually and try to decide where to hit the enemy to best balance damage and accuracy. For example, you can aim at an enemy's head, which gives you a high chance of an instant kill or high damage attack, but it also increases the chances that you'll miss. Alternately, you can aim for the enemy's body, which tends to be heavily armored but is an easy target. It's a matter of risk and reward. Risk is a very real factor in Valkyria Chronicles since death can be permanent. Once one of your soldiers falls, you have to reach him or her with one of your soldiers within three rounds. If you fail to do so or if the enemy reaches that soldier first, then say goodbye.
Don't assume that just because it's your turn that it means you're immune to enemy attacks. Every enemy has a radius around him that functions as a danger zone, and if you enter this area, the enemy will begin shooting at you, unless they their ammunition is limited or they're a tank. If you stand still or aren't careful, these enemies can kill you during your turn. Ducking behind cover or moving out of the radius protects you from these automatic attacks. The plus side is that this same feature works for you, so if an enemy walks in range of your characters during his turn, your characters will automatically fire wild shots at them. If you set up an intelligent choke point with your machine gunners, you can even force the enemies into a nasty trap.
There are five classes available in Valkyria Chronicles, each with its own unique set of abilities. Stormtroopers are your basic soldiers, equipped with heavy machine guns and capable of doing solid damage. Tanks are huge, heavily armored and incredibly powerful, but they're also slow, incredibly easy to hit, and have a glowing weak point on their aft side that just begs to be shot. Engineers are your support classes; they're fairly weak in combat and don't deal a lot of damage, but they can repair tanks, fix broken defensive fortifications and replenish spent ammo. Lancers are your bazooka users. They have limited ammunition, but they can take down tanks without even aiming for the tank's core, blow up defensive fortifications, and make an explosive mess out of everything. Lancers aren't very effective against regular troops since their limited ammo and inaccurate missiles make them risky to use against small targets. Finally, snipers, who also have limited ammo, are exactly what you'd expect. They have incredibly powerful long-distance weapons that are capable of one-hit headshot kills, but they're slow, can only carry three rounds of ammo, and aren't very durable, so you'll want to keep them far away from combat.
Far more important than your character's class is his personality. Each of the 48 characters in the game has his or her own personality. Some are friendly and brave, some are lechers, some have bad backs, some prefer the country … the list goes on and on. Each of these attributes has an influence in combat. For example, Maria, the sniper in the demo, has a pollen allergy of which I was unaware. When I moved her into a field, she had a nasty attack, which lowered her hit points and reduced her accuracy — certainly not a good thing for a sniper. One of my soldiers was best friends with one of the characters, and so he gained a huge boost when fighting next to her. He hated another character, though, and when they fought next to each other, their stats took a hit. Managing your character's personalities is going to be very important to winning fights in Valkyria Chronicles, since it's difficult enough to take on an empire with a well-oiled fighting force. Doing so with a bunch of people who bicker and argue or are too sick to fight is suicide.
One element of Valkyria Chronicles that can't be praised enough is the graphics, which are simply beautiful in every way. The characters are all animated in what the developers call the "canvas" style, with a vivid visual flourish that makes everyone look like they've been lifted straight out of a page in a fairy tale book. The cinimatics and in-game actions are all told through the same excellent animation style, and it really is a sight to behold. While it might not be one of the most realistic games on the PS3 system, it is certainly one of the best-looking. The loudness of the E3 floor made it difficult to get a great handle on the audio presentation, but the developers promised that a professional casting director who worked on films such as "Princess Mononoke" was involved with the dub, so we can hopefully look forward to a top-notch presentation there.
Valkyria Chronicles is one of the PS3's last remaining exclusive RPGs and quite possibly the best one coming to the system. The interesting combat system and stunning graphics combine to provide an experience that lends itself to being called a next-generation RPG. Assuming that the entire game matches the high-quality presentation seen at the E3 demo, PS3 RPG fans will want to pick up Valkyria Chronicles the very moment it hits store shelves, and I wouldn't be surprised to see a few hardcore RPG fans picking up a PS3 console just for this title. Losing Final Fantasy XIII as an exclusive was tough, but with games like Valkyria Chronicles coming, Sony isn't out of the game yet.
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