SEGA says, "Once more unto the breach, dear friends!"
Despite having the most prolific console of the last generation that was blessed with JRPGs of every imaginable type, Sony's next-gen platform sadly isn't receiving the same kind of attention. Worse yet, a number of developers have flocked to Microsoft's court and work with the Xbox 360 exclusively, leaving a lot of PS3 owners with their hands in the air in disbelief. If the thought of waiting for Square's upcoming opus, is no longer a consolation for your longing for JRPG goodness on your PS3, then SEGA's got what you've been fiending over with their newest franchise, the PS3 exclusive Valkyria Chronicles. SEGA may have been out of the hardware game for some time now, but with Valkyria Chronicles, they have shown that they are much more than just the faded glory of the past and the sole provider of countless Sonic spin-offs; they have proven that they have the resources and the talents to produce an excellent original game.|
Valkyria Chronicles is set in fictional 1935 Europe (referred to as Europa in the game), during what would have been the years leading up to World War II. A belligerent nation called the East Europan Imperial Alliance or simply the Empire, is on the warpath subjugating nearby territories to aid them in their own war against a rival country (think Hitler and the policy of appeasement). The story begins when the Empire sets its eyes on the neutral nation of Gallia, renowned for its abundance of the valuable commodity ragnite, a resource akin to the real world's petroleum. Not one to lay down in the face of war, the Gallians mobilize to repel the Empire's invasion.
The player takes control of Welkin Gunther, an idealistic university student heading back home to help his family evacuate from their hometown of Bruhl. His strange appearance and behavior attracts the attention of the Town Watch captain, Alicia, who mistakes him for an Imperial spy. Just as the confusion is straightened out, the first wave of Imperial forces make their way into the town and Welkin is forced to fight alongside the Town Watch in order to make their escape. They repel the few advance forces and make their way to the safety of the country's capital, where Welkin makes his decision to fight against the Empire and see his country to freedom. He is given control of militia Squad 7 and with your help, will become a worthwhile adversary to the Empire's legions.
The story is delivered in a very linear style in the form of a book based on the exploits of Squad 7, with several short cutscenes in between the missions. As a fan of the Suikoden games and their epic tales of war, I didn't find it difficult to fall in love with Valkyria Chronicles' story; it's filled with the same intrigue and intensity that keeps you on the edge of your seat. The character development is progressive and well done with the cheesiness kept to an acceptable minimum. The side stories are a nice touch as well, placing the spot light on the game's main characters. Though only the main characters are featured in the game's story, the soldiers that you can recruit are far from generic grunts that we've all grown accustomed to in strategy-RPGs. In fact, they can even be considered minor characters; they have voices, personalities, histories and abilities unique to them, adding that human element into the mix.
Seasoned turn-based strategy gamers will find the gameplay both familiar and refreshing at the same time. Combat units are comprised mostly of infantry divided into five classes: Scouts, used for long range reconnaissance; Shocktroopers, valued for their anti-personnel firepower; Lancers, used exclusively for anti-tank combat; Engineers, for resupplying units and repairing tanks; and Snipers, used for taking out targets from safe distances. Tanks are also thrown in and offer support against armored or entrenched targets. Despite the variety in the unit types, the missions tend to favor the Scout and Shocktrooper units for their versatility in battle. Lancers are really only useful against tanks and Engineers are essentially just scouts with crippled stats while Snipers have far too little HP and are very difficult to position.
In most strategy-RPGs, each unit is allowed to move and act once per player turn. Not so with Valkyria Chronicles, instead each player turn is split into two phases: the command phase and the action phase. The command phase is completely turn based and it is where you can spend your Command Points (CP). Command Points dictate how many decisions you are allowed to make during your turn; selecting an infantry unit to act takes one CP while selecting a tank can take two CP. As the game progresses, you will also be able use CP to issue orders; which can do a variety of things from enhancing your units' fighting ability to healing their wounds. CP not used during your turn carries over to the next turn, so don't use them unless you need them. This system allows the player to utilize two or three units several times in the same turn to accomplish anything from finding better defensive positions to racking up as many kills as possible. Once you've used up a CP and selected a unit to act, then the action phase takes over.
In the action phase, you will be given a third-person view of the battlefield and direct control of the selected unit. The action phase is quasi real-time; friendly units and hostile units cannot move simultaneously during the action phase, but they are allowed to return fire and pepper the opposing units with gunfire if they should cross their line of sight without a cost to CP. Your main concern in the action phase are the appropriately named Action Points (AP), which determine how far a unit can move about in the battlefield. Unlike CP, APs are used exclusively for movement so they have no effect on a unit's actions. Though you can choose to spend a CP and have the same unit act again, their starting APs will progressively get lower each subsequent time they are selected, making it close to impossible to use one unit to move across the entire map and wreak havoc.
Since the war takes place all over Gallia, the mission settings and objectives are fairly varied. SEGA tosses us a few stealth incursions as well as some seemingly impossible missions with clever twists. With a few unique objectives aside, the main goal of the war is to push the invading forces back and as such several operations will require you to take over the enemy's base camp. These missions feature more than one way to complete the objective, but are sadly hampered by a completion rating system that is horribly biased towards rushing and finishing the mission in as little turns as possible. Defeating all of the enemy units or keeping all of your squad mates alive yields a bonus, but will never earn an 'A' rank if you took too long do it. Achieving an 'A' rank is entirely optional, but since the rank does have an effect on how much money and experience you receive after a battle, you can end up in a sort of handicapped situation later in the game if you "underachieve" on every mission. Fortunately, the game does offer a way to grind to make up that lost cash and XP by playing skirmish missions.
The game's difficulty curve is actually well balanced, but there are ways to break that balance. One is to abuse the in-game save system by constantly saving and loading until you make that near impossible shot or the enemy makes the wrong move. The other method is to make creative use of the Orders, specifically the ones that can overpower one unit. With the right combination of Orders and unit potentials, you can literally lay waste to an enemy base in one turn! Thankfully, most players will probably be too busy enjoying the game to take the time to discover these underhanded tactics, but the fact remains that they're free for anyone to exploit.
Off the battlefield, the game is simple and goes easy on the micromanagement. You'll spend most of your time at Headquarters, where you can recruit new units, change equipment, research new upgrades, outfit tanks, etc. Experience gained by completing missions can be applied to a particular type of unit. Unlike many strategy-RPGs, units don't level up individually, but rather as an entire unit so you're not forced to stick with the same soldiers every mission. Leveling up increases HP and unlocks hidden potentials that will provide a certain advantage in battle, should they activate. Money earned after missions can be used to fund technological upgrades for both your infantry and armored units.
The unique brand of gameplay aside, there's no doubt that Valkyria's graphics are one of its biggest assets. Cel shaded graphics are nothing new in the RPG world, but at the HD resolution of 720P, this game is just visually arresting. The graphics reach a level of splendor that will make you forget all about polygon counts and gigaflops and just admire the art in motion. It's like your favorite manga lovingly brought to life with vibrant colors and an attention to detail that borders on the big-budget anime level. From the rifling grooves of a cannon barrel to seeing your newly researched equipment on your troops and vehicles, little is left to the imagination when it comes to details. That's not all, however, as the characters are as much the stars of the graphics engine as they are the engaging storyline. Detailed and varied facial expressions as well as motion captured animations fill the characters with a life-like verve that charge cutscenes with plenty of emotion and adds tremendously to the atmosphere. Though not the most technologically advanced, Valkyria's graphics never fail to put a childish grin on my face and you don't need to be a fan of Japanese anime to appreciate the effort put in to make this game so enchanting.
The game shines in the audio department too, as the magic of Blu-Ray discs have allowed the developers to include both the English and Japanese audio tracks! Normally, I'd go straight for the Japanese voices, but with the quality of voice over work I've experienced lately, I decided to sample the English voices and Valkyria does not disappoint. The voice talent is filled with familiar names such as Laura Bailey and Dave Wittenberg whose latest works include the excellent Persona 4, not to mention Steven Blum whose gut-busting portrayal of the title character of the anime Great Teacher Onizuka is one of my favorite dubs to date. The minor characters are especially a blast to listen to, with their varying personalities and attitudes. From the uber-relaxed slurs of a certain Lancer-ette to the caveman-speak of a battle hardened shocktrooper, these smaller roles do well to showcase the quality of the voice over work. Interestingly enough, the English voices very closely mirror their Japanese counterparts in many aspects, with the English talent even proving to be a better fit for some of the characters.
The music is done by none other than Hitoshi Sakimoto, probably best known for his work on Final Fantasy Tactics and most recently, Final Fantasy XII. The songs are typical Sakimoto; powerful and compelling with the only problem being the repetitive battle music. As you peruse the Headquarters screens you are greeted by Sakimoto's signature style of music and further drawn into Gallia's struggle of freedom; honestly, they couldn't have chosen a better composer.
It's always great to see a new RPG franchise succeed and the fact that it came from SEGA makes it that much sweeter. We all know the rough road that SEGA has had to travel in the past decade and despite their long, storied history of contributing to the electronic entertainment world, things never seem to go their way. With Valkyria Chronicles' success with the critics and its ever increasing popularity, hopefully it serves as the first of many steps in the right direction for SEGA and the PS3's ailing RPG scene as well.
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