The PS3, surprisingly enough, has been virtually starved of JRPGs since it hit the market. Square Enix has started developing games for the rival Xbox 360, and some multi-platform games like Eternal Sonata are showing up on Sony’s console late to the party. Even the popular Final Fantasy series, a feather in the PlayStation’s cap since Final Fantasy VII, is no longer a Sony exclusive. Considering that RPGs were in many ways the lifeblood of the PlayStation 2, it’s surprising how few have made a splash on the PS3. Now, though, RPG fans sick of waiting for a decent game for their system of choice have something to play. Valkyria Chronicles is a hybrid strategy role-playing game, similar to popular franchises like Fire Emblem and Disgaea. However, it brings new gameplay mechanics to the table, moving the strategy RPG genre forward with a giant leap, and it also manages to deliver a charming story told with gorgeous graphics.
Valkyria Chronicles takes place in an alternate history, running parallel with events leading up to the second World War. Set in Europa, an obvious allusion to Europe, Valkyria Chronicles tells the tale of a small detachment of soldiers from a town called Bruhl who join the Gallian army in defense against the invading Imperial Forces, a sort of mishmash of Nazi and Communist imagery. The game is presented in a storybook fashion, a narrator reading important story elements to the player and cutscenes taking the form of moving illustrations within the book’s pages. Morality, death, birth, and the justification of war are all touched upon throughout the game, and it’s a surprisingly deep tale in spots. While it’s a common opinion that WWII has been done to death by action games, it’s not an era often exploited by RPGs – another area where Chronicles feels like a breath of fresh air.
The gameplay itself, though, is what really makes for an interesting and unique experience. Battles are initially viewed from an overhead map, allowing the player to choose units to take control of on each turn. The game gives the player dozens of soldiers to pick combat units out of, meaning players can approach each fight as they see fit – whether that means deploying a balance of different unit types or dumping ten Shock Troopers on the field is up to them. So far, this is familiar SRPG territory – but when a unit is selected, it becomes a new beast entirely. Character movement is controlled in real-time, utilizing controls similar to tactical shooters like Ghost Recon.
Instead of forcing players to move units along a grid, characters can run around the battlefield as they please – at least, until their Action Point gauge runs out. Once a soldier is in position, players can take cover, aim, and fire. Each time a character finishes a set of movements – normally moving, getting behind cover, and firing – they are done, and another character must be selected. On each turn, the player is granted a certain amount of Command Points, which deplete each time a soldier makes a move. This means that players can actually use the same character multiple times each turn, as opposed to waiting until the next round to do anything.
Leveling up is also handled against the status quo. While the game provides loads of characters to choose from, they all fall under specific jobs – and it is the jobs that level up, not the people doing them. Characters train as groups, meaning that when players spend experience points on training, if they level up their sniper team, every single sniper is now that level. Likewise, weapon upgrades are handled in bulk. It’s a simple system that eliminates the worry that one character will level too high above another, rendering them useless. The game still provides an incentive to mix and match, however. A system called Potential gives each unit individual strengths and weaknesses to be considered before deploying them. For example, a Scout with a pollen allergy will suffer on maps with lots of grass and flowers around. Conversely, a unit that likes nature will gain a buff if deployed into a grassy field. These personality traits vary – most of the buff heavy weapon carrying Lancers are gay, and will perform well around handsome men – but it’s a great way to counter the leveling system and keeping each unit unique.
Something that adds tremendously to the overall experience is the gorgeous presentation. The visuals are handled by a graphics engine called Canvas, which describes the look of the game well. Valkyria Chronicles looks like a watercolor painting in motion, and the graphics look so flawless in spots that it’s easy to forget one is watching a video game. The cutscenes are well directed, too, filled with rich wartime drama and stylish camera angles. The soundtrack is a bombastic military score, and in spots it’s downright chilling – the first time the title is displayed to relentless snare drum rolls, the camera is showing the two main characters standing on a hill with four dead bodies around them, a destroyed windmill in the background billowing smoke into the air. It’ll send shivers down your spine; the game is so picturesque and intense that it’s hard to avoid being taken aback at times.
It’s a little disappointing, then, that the game sometimes gets its atmosphere into a muddle. In the first twenty minutes of the game, an Imperial patrol attacks civilians, a child is riddled with gunfire, and a pregnant woman is threatened with a rifle at point blank range. Not one level later is the game assaulting the ears with poppy background music and silly conversations about… well, nothing, really. These segments really hurt the otherwise somber and emotional tone of the game, especially the music, which is so completely inappropriate compared to the grand military themes elsewhere in the game it’s almost offensive. Thankfully, these filler scenes are few and far between, and the game retains its sense of purpose even with the detrimental content.
Valkyria Chronicles is a long, sweeping epic of a game that every PS3 owner should play. Its rich story, unique premise, and reimagined sense of strategic role-playing shouldn’t be missed. Released amongst a slew of gaming giants – Gears of War 2, Fable 2, Left 4 Dead, LittleBigPlanet, etc – it is most certainly the underdog this year. However, for those seeking something different, something new – it’s a battle worth joining. It’s a testament to a game’s quality when the only major complaint is a few detriments to the story; most games don’t even have a story good enough to complain about ruining in the first place. The rich atmosphere, amazing art, and inventive gameplay really must be experienced.