Sometimes, games make a trip across from console to PC. Many times these games are plagued with bad interfaces, poor optimization, and bugs that show a rushed porting job done by a team not experienced in it.
Then sometimes you get ports that take years to happen but when they do, the care and work put into them is obvious. Valkyria Chronicles was originally released in 2008 for the PS3 with critical success, though its sales were more mixed on the whole. Two sequels were done for PSP with more mixed reviews on some (particularly 2), and 3 never officially came across to the West. Then, in early November this year, Sega released an updated PC version containing all the DLC and other enhancements for $20.
This was the first time the game was on PC and in general the game does great with it as a port. The visuals were updated to allow it to run at 1080p and 60 frames per second, while not losing any of the beautiful aesthetics that are wonderfully realized on the computer. The game looks beautiful, like a painting in motion in many ways, and it uses that at times to be both more grounded at appropriate moments and to be almost more surreal in moments that call for that. It may not capture the realism perfectly as some games, but its choice of art direction and style perfectly fit the tone of the game and give it a beautiful and distinct appearance.
Hitoshi Sakimoto is responsible for the games music and does his usual excellent job, blending his normal style to a more militant bent to fit the games themes and story. The music takes the normal more fantasy themed work he’s done and gives it what you would expect from a war focused movie to help bring it together, without ever becoming too loud or domineering. Different scenes will have different music for them of course, and the enemy themes help provide a useful audio reminder of who you’re fighting against. They also tend to be more energetic, likely because that’s not the time when you are going to be trying to plan and fight.
Valkyria chronicles walks an odd line in both story and gameplay, taking what is a traditional strategy game setup and marrying in some JRPG elements. In story this is noticeable with the themes, characters and linear story, while the gameplay is impacted many times by those things with the character potentials and similar bits.
The combat system in Valkyria Chronicles isn’t one I’ve ever seen elsewhere. Its BLiTZ (Battle of LIve Tactical Zones) system continues Valkyria Chronicles tendency to mix styles. It works on an AP system with each team having its own turn, much like a turn-based strategy would. However, when you go to take an action, you move into that character and act in real time, with live fire zones, blockades and a set amount of action points you can use for moving about. You are also responsible for aiming your shots, though this is also driven by the games stats and what weapon you’re wielding, managing to mix both player and character skill.
The Blitz system works wonderfully in this type of squad level focused combat, to both promote thoughtful, tactical decisions, and to give a sense of urgency and reality to the situation. You have to find the path to get through the intercept fire, you have to line up the shots and it brings you into the game itself at a more personal level. In the game there are 5 main ‘classes’, in addition to Tanks. You have Scouts, who are mid-ranged lightly armored and highly mobile troops with the ability to spot hidden enemies, Shocktroopers who are more run of the mill troopers with automatic weaponry and shorter ranges, Lancers who specialize in anti-tank, Engineers who refill lancer/tank ammunition and repair things, and Snipers who… snipe. Without other things getting in, you end up with more or less a situation of rock/paper/scissors of AntiTanks (Like Lancers) taking out Tanks, who take out Infantry, who take out Anti-tanks.
The game though does go deeper than that, and there’s where the fact that it is a strategy game first, and only using jrpg elements becomes really evident. Games like Suikoden are RPGs first with a strategy element added on, and are happy to stop at the rock/paper/scissors level as that’s not the heart of the game – it is the heart of Valkyria Chronicles. Different classes can get different weapons and the tanks in particular are very customizable, especially the second one that you get. Scouts and Shocktroopers can use grenades to stop a tanks movement, or with correct positioning and teamwork take one out.
Cover is of high importance in the game, as is knowing a unit’s strengths and weaknesses. These go beyond just the class and what specific weapon you’ve given them as each character has a set of Potentials. These are game mechanics that reflect the person behind it and come up some of the time. Some of them are pretty gamey (Lancers are especially guilty here) with things like Super-Anti Armor, but many of them are things such as Country Bred, Desert Allergy, or in a few cases Darcsen Hater. These types of ones help reflect the character, as do the likes from it which help them often form team work attacks when standing near each other or some of the potentials that rely on close friends.
Despite the high praise I have for the mechanics, they aren’t perfect by any means. There are a couple of odd settings in the keybindings, though they are completely customizable as part of the good work of porting it that was done. The Tank piloting is the one part that particularly feels like it really still wants a controller, with the tank not being as responsive as one would like to be driven about by mouse and keyboard.
The AI also sometimes has cases of artificial stupidity where it wastes time or actions for no real reason. Difficulty curve is another issue with the game at times, as it has several really big spikes that can seem to come out of nowhere if you aren’t expecting it and can make some parts of the later game a challenge to pass. Last, there is still some issues with balance and Orders which can cause issues with the game when Scouts at the right position and an Order can take out most (any-non boss tank though the game won’t tell you that sadly), tanks or some characters get insanely powerful with Awaken Potential.
The story is another big strength for Valkyria Chronicles, as is the writing for it in general. Valkyria Chronicles is set in an alternate earth-like planet and on a continent called Europa – and no, there are no points for guessing which continent that is most like on Earth. It has some alternate technologies, but the two important things to note on that front are Ragnite is the primary power source for a lot of things like electricity, tanks or special healing, and there aren’t any real planes.
The game takes place in Europan War 2, which analogues closely to World War 2 with some simplification. Namely, all the allies are the Europa Federation and all the more authoritarian regimes (Germany, Italy, Russia), are The Empire. The Federation though is not what you are playing as, and in fact is shown to have some real issues itself. Gallia, is a small nation that punches above its weight economically and militarily, has rich reserves of Ragnite that make it a target for The Empire. This, the Gallia Front, is where the game takes place and of World War 2, it most closely mirrors The Winter War.
Valkyria Chronicles is a game that isn’t afraid to deal with adult themes and does a good job of addressing them mostly. Themes of war, bigotry, friendship, among others are throughout the game and it does so for the most pat in a grounded manner. The game shows wars cost in lost dreams, lost cities, cancelled plans, deaths, and doesn’t forget, some of the time at least, to show that both sides in a fight are human beings. The themes and the characters are why the blitz system bringing you into the action are so important as they work together to make it all hit closer to home if you choose to leave a teammate to die to accomplish a goal.
The main focus of the story is on 6 members of Squad 7 of the Gallian militia under Lieutenant Welkin Gunther. The son of a war hero of the first Europan War, Welkin wanted to be a teacher and studied nature when the war arrived to his home town. Escaping with his adopted sister, Isara, Welkin ends up leading a crew of green soldiers and malcontents that he has to work with.
The scenes in the game show the personal dynamics of Squad 7 in many cases, as well as some scenes that look at the leaders of The Empire, to humanize them. It manages to both be a very personal story to the squad and retain scope by balancing things. To help focus on the Squad, the personnel files tell you a bit about every person, but as you play more with a character, you get more information unlocked to go with more potential’s for them. Additionally there are the special episodes that are between them that you buy from the journalist covering the squad which help let you see the squad in quieter, more personal moments, or in battles that are further away from the main front.
To help retain scope, the game does several things well. The first is it makes it clear you are far from the only ones – and you see another squad leader from time to time, as well as the main army general. While at times it does seem your squad is getting sent far and wide on its own (and then limited by game mechanics in a case of story and gameplay segregation in how many can fight in a fight) in the biggest events there is a sense that you are only fighting in a part of a larger battle. The second thing it does, is through story make it clear what else is going on. Some of the news you read will be about little things, like a fair getting cancelled, people raising prices due to war worries or similar things that while not hugely important give the game a sense of scope and realism it might have otherwise troubles realizing.
There are a few issues with it at times where the game undermines itself on the story front, but not to a huge degree. There are several fridge logic moments that when you spend a little thinking on it, don’t really make any sense despite the other value it might have to the story. As a game with a jrpg style story, it does get a little over sappy in a few times, but it balances out for the most part well. More painful is that several times the game feels the need to both show and tell an event. Show, don’t tell is the classic rule of storytelling, and, in my opinion, applies even more to video games because of the fact that they are an interactive media. However if that’s the rule, it is especially important to not show and tell, which feels heavy handed at a few points with the game.
If it feels that there, I’m nitpicking the story – to some extent it’s true. This is a very good story, and so I’m treating it as I would any other piece of fiction that I read or participate in and those are things I would call out there. It does get a little heavy handed at times in the story, and does show and tell several times which hurts the story and assumes the player isn’t paying attention.
On the whole though, I have to say that Valkyria Chronicles is one of the best games I’ve played in a good while. It has an excellent combat system, paired with a wonderful, and well realized story. I strongly recommend it if you are a fan of strategy or RPG games on the PC.
Disclosure: The author bought this game via Greenman Gaming for Steam to review.
A tale of war, bigotry, friendship, and the human condition Valkyria Chronicles manages to combine a captivating story with a unique combat system!