Every holiday season there's one game that's buried in the onslaught of juggernaut releases that deserves more attention than it ultimately gets. This year, Sega is hoping to avoid that fate with its strategy RPG, Valkyria Chronicles. Combining elements of strategy RPGs and real-time tactics games with a refreshing presentation, Valkyria Chronicles places its hopes in bucking trends.
Set in an alternate history of 1935, Valkyria Chronicles is a deep and powerful tale about war, love, and revenge. As war breaks out across Europa between the Atlantic Federation and the Empire, the small neutral country of Gallia is caught in the crossfire. The story focuses on Welkin Gunther, the son of a highly decorated general, who suddenly finds himself in the thick of combat. After his early exploits gain him notoriety, he becomes a lieutenant in the militia and commands squad 7, backed by a lively crew with their own distinct backgrounds. The Empire, aided by a descendant of the Valkyria, seeks an ancient power hidden within Gallia to complete their domination of the world, and it's up to squad 7 to put a halt to their evil ambitions.
The story unfurls in small episodes within each chapter, and through mid-battle cutscenes. While the narratives in many RPGs tend to pound you over the head with their themes, the story in Valkyria Chronicles never gets bogged down. Its episodic nature of the game allows for deeper subplots, makes the storytelling feel more like a well-planned anime series, and keeps things moving all the way up to a rewarding conclusion.
It initially seems like Valkyria Chronicles borrows many elements from previous strategy RPGs and real-time tactics games, but it's an entirely different beast thanks to its third-person shooting mechanics.
Missions begin with an overhead view of the battlefield, with enemy and ally units represented by icons. When a unit is selected to move, the game shifts into third-person. Battles are won by either obliterating all enemy forces or meeting certain conditions such as capturing the enemy's base. Unlike most strategy RPGs, movement during each turn is not limited to one per unit. Instead, your squad is assigned command points to spend on any one unit's turn, and once all command points are used up, the phase shifts to the enemy side. It gives you a lot more flexibility.
Players have the option between missions to recruit various cadets, including Aika and Vyse from Skies of Arcadia. Each member has a distinct personality and inherent traits. You can also swap out units freely between each mission as much as you like. While it may not appear to matter which members join your squad, paying careful attention to their unique skills and relationships with other squad members can pay off down the road.
There are several different paths and strategies that can yield a winning result, and battle conditions change dynamically--throwing new objectives at the player mid-battle that often toss a wrench into plans. It really succeeds in capturing the chaotic nature of war without making it nerve-wracking.
Players are rewarded for their prowess on the battlefield with both money and experience. Experience is spent on leveling up one of your five classes - scout, shock troopers, lancers, engineers, and snipers-instead of specific characters. It makes things far more balanced, with the option to grind there for those who want it. Experience can also be spent on learning new orders, which enhance units during battle.
Money is spent on enhancing weaponry and purchasing new equipment for your tank. New gear can then be equipped to units, and tank parts can be applied to customize the tank. Money can also be used to unlock special side missions that help fill in some gaps to the overall story.
Once the game is completed, the optional skirmishes can be attempted on a new hard mode for additional difficulty, and the standard missions can be replayed over as many times to improve rankings. There are over 30 hours of tactical play in the main campaign, and an extra 30 in options. There's no online mode, but you won't miss it.
While in combat, the primary focus is on controlling the individual units in your squad. While controlling any single member, enemy units will react in real time as they approach, typically with gunfire. At the same time, allies will also react, sometimes joining together to perform a team attack or provide cover fire. These automated reactions give it a realistic feel.
The action point meter will drain as your unit moves. Once the meter is empty, the unit can no longer move, yet can still take certain actions. Using a unit too often will wear it out as the meter refills less and less with each successive turn, but it will refill completely during the following phase. With option to crouch, anticipating your unit's stamina is important so that they can get to cover before being attacked.
Players begin an assault by using the aiming reticule to target the enemy, which will then prompt a small chart to appear. The chart displays various statistics and gives the player insight into the potential outcome of the gunfight. Attacking weak points will do more damage, but they have a lower percentage of connecting. Weak spots for certain targets like tanks are a little too obvious and the enemy AI can be rather dumb. Units can also execute counterattacks, or outright dodge an oncoming attack.
Various weapons are at your disposal, such as rifles, machine guns, and rocket launchers. Some weapons have unlimited ammo, but many contain only a few rounds. Players can either wait for the next phase to receive a reload, or an engineer can approach the unit to replenish their supply. Two tanks with their own unique artillery are also at your command. Selecting the right unit for the right situations is always crucial thanks to rock-paper-scissors system.
In addition to fighting traditional forces such as tanks and ground troops, several missions revolve around taking out a boss-like unit. Many of these encounters require a combination of attacks from your various squad members, upping the strategy level and emphasizing the need for team work.
If the situation gets too intense, squad members can fall back or call for reinforcements. Units will recover some HP after each phase, or you can use healing items. Team members that fall in battle must be rescued within three phases. If they are neglected or an enemy reaches them first, they will permanently perish, adding an additional layer of tension and challenge.
Valkyria Chronicles is very challenging, well-balanced and incredibly deep. There's a lot to keep track of, but if you do, the rewards are many.
From the opening sequence to the final credits, the visuals in Valkyria Chronicles never disappoint. Utilizing a unique cel-shading technique to create a wonderful watercolor, sketch book effect, there's no other game that looks like it. The cutscenes feature both CG and in-engine work, but the difference is so minuscule that the style's never compromised. It's impressive, but not flawless, as the ragdoll physics are a bit overdone.
Comic book text appears to punctuate some of the authentic sound effects, and there's wall-to-wall voice acting that really nails the script. Sega's even included the Japanese dub. The score sets the tone, with several compositions standing out as some of the finer in the medium.
If you're looking for an RPG that strays off the beaten path, go buy Valkyria Chronicles. From the gameplay to the visuals, it's one of a kind. It has appeal for both strategy heads and role-players who find high fantasy to be low on their interest scale.