Videogames have found a wealth of inspiration from the first and second world wars, often adding their own quirky takes on the stories of hope and tragedy that emerge from these seismic historical events. (I’m curious to play the Shadow Hearts series, for instance!) Valkyria Chronicles riffs heavily on WWII – it is set in an alternative universe where you fight as the small country of Gallia, stuck between two warring world powers…
What is impressive about Valkyria Chronicles is that is never makes light of the issues it deals with. I was concerned that the European setting in Valkyria Chronicles was going to be handled poorly, or even be quite cringey. But, let me assure you, the subject matter is handled sensitively and movingly.
As I mentioned, you play as the small neutral country of Gallia (Switzerland), stuck between the Autocratic East Europan Imperial Alliance (Germany) and a commonwealth of loosely allied democracies known as the Atlantic Federation in the west (everyone else). At first, Gallia doesn’t want to be dragged into the conflict at all, but because of its rich Ragnite mines (an element which acts as fuel in the game) plus some supernatural elements, it has no choice. It’s a little distracting at first, this mishmash of history and fantasy, but the writing is excellent and the characters are engaging (although one of the main characters’ life goals is to be a baker…yeah).
What about the gameplay? Well, it’s a turn-based strategy RPG with cover-based shooter mechanics. Quite a mouthful, and an almost unique one too! There are a number of character classes who comprise your squad: scouts, snipers, lancers, heavies, engineers and a tank – yes, you are in control of an actual TANK! (It plays as awesomely as it sounds.) Every team member has his/her own individual weaknesses and character qualities, plus generic class attributes e.g. heavies can cause serious damage, but they can’t cover ground quickly.
In general the battles play out along the lines of turn-based strategy RPGs like the Advance Wars/Fire Emblem series, but Valkyria Chronicles also has strong action elements. You take direct control of your squad members one at a time, combatting the enemy however you please, be it moving forward into enemy territory or defending your own. A constant fog of war means even on the overhead map you only see things in your team members’ line of sight. Your team will fire at enemies moving in their line of sight, but the opposite is also true – enemies will shoot you when you appear in front of them. It’s a little like X-Com, but I’d say it’s more elegantly executed.
The combined action and strategy elements are thoroughly explored over the course of the game’s solo campaign, and over time these systems reveal themselves as deep and satisfying. You’re graded based on how few turns you can complete a stage in, so speed and efficiency are of the essence. The game encourages you (although it’s never absolutely necessary) to go back and retry earlier stages, which it turns out is a great way to gauge how you’re developing as a tactician over time. First time through a stage, the idea of completing the mission within a single turn will seem impossible… rest assured though that smart thinking and an obsessive personality will allow you to do so!
The game’s greatest success is the way it melds the setting with its gamplay – the developers focused on creating scenarios similar to that of WWII, like creeping through forests, crossing rivers, fighting in harsh desert-like environments, which brings out the best elements of strategy and action genres. Unfortunately there are a few spots in the game where this design ethos goes away. Most notably this occurs in boss battles, some of which are borderline sadistic. How are you supposed to survive four turns against an invincible, super-enemy, without permanently losing any members of your squad? Pure blind luck, that’s how.
A few quick observations: the art style is beautiful and distinctive – the muted tones and sketchy outlines really suit the era they were going for. Much of the music is unmemorable, but this small tune in particular is utterly fantastic.
The music was composed by Hitoshi Sakimoto, who has done rather excellent work previously for the Final Fantasy Tactics games, as well as old-school shmups including Radiant Silvergun and Gradius V. It’s an interesting career but what’s great is that Valkyria Chronicles, being one part strategy and one part action, brings together the two big strands of Sakimoto’s game soundtrack history!
If you’re looking for something different, something memorable and innovative, I wholeheartedly recommend this game.