December 13, 2009

Review – Valkyria Chronicles

Filed under: Reviews — Tags: , , , , , , — Jamie Love @ 11:45 am

Review Valkyria Chronicles
Not long ago I began to view Sega as a failed state.

Certainly the name would remain a cherished memory for gamers, but as a company Sega has squandered any notion of serious relevance in the current market. In my defence, I still argue that showing up at E3 with Sonic Unleashed, Golden Axe : Beast Rider, and a serious face, demonstrates that Sega suffers from a deficit of direction. And yet with Sega’s release of Valkyria Chronicles, I’ve found myself eating many of my words while experiencing a solid strategy RPG that titans of the genre could learn from, should they ever grow tired of cash grab ports and increasingly lacklustre sequels.

Equally as surprising that Sega has delivered such a well-crafted title is that the game emerges from a hurricane of restructuring that has seen several key names leave the company. Valkyria Chronicles was developed by Sega WOW, itself a new studio resulting from the merger of WOW Entertainment (House of the Dead, Vampire Night) and Overworks – WHICH… Wait for it – used to travel by the moniker of AM7 (Streets of Rage, Phantasy Star, Skies of Arcadia). And despite the time passed since the appearance of such titles and the great deal of changes Sega has undergone, Valkyria Chronicles’ overall design and unique charm strongly acknowledge that pedigree. The game simply shines with a character reminiscent of Skies of Arcadia, presented with the polish and core design gamers are expecting from current releases.

Review Valkyria Chronicles
Valkyria Chronicles offers players the experience of both a turn-based RPG as well as a third-person battle system via an invitingly simplistic interface labelled BLiTZ (Battle of Live Tactical Zones). Monitoring the location of both your squad members and enemy units on the battlefield is handled through an overhead map – Command Mode. As units are moved or engaged in combat, that perspective changes, zooming inward to a real time third-person Action Mode. Command Points issued at the start of each turn are used to move units. Each unit selected is allowed a set amount of movement and actions based on gauges that recharge while other units are in use and at the beginning of each subsequent turn. The strategy gaming enthusiast could think in terms of a more developed Ring of Red, while others might want to imagine a next-gen realization of Risk.

The initial game-play is accessible to strategy veterans and newcomers alike. It’s easy enough to assemble a squad and charge into battle with some measured success. The introductory missions accommodate the learning curve of specific unit roles before layering more complex aspects of character personality traits and environmental factors on the battlefield. A certain amount of patience is required as the game progresses, encouraged by the absence of time restrictions. Players in a rush to complete later missions will find many of their units ambushed or overrun by the enemy and spend much of their time rushing in medics to save favoured characters. The enemy AI isn’t merciless, and is guilty of wasting several turns driving tanks in circles, but will certainly exploit obvious flaws in one’s strategy, requiring the player to dig deeper into the advantages offered by specific character bonuses and drawbacks, exploring the battlefield more fully, and capitalizing on captured command posts more strategically for the movement of troops and reinforcements.

Review Valkyria Chronicles
All aspects of battles are wrapped in a military bow for those who prefer the precious few titles that favour tanks over goblins. Scouts, Assault Infantry (ShockTroopers), Anti-Tank Specialists (Lancers), Snipers, Engineers, and the Tank Commander, all perform predictable but necessary roles. The differences between abilities are as expected, measured in firepower and mobility. Heavily armed ShockTroopers are allotted less movement per turn than the recon Scout for instance, and the overall balance is well tuned – with the exception of my snipers, who couldn’t follow through on a headshot if their lives depended on it. And guess what? It did, and they died. Repeatedly!

RPG matters are managed via a visit to headquarters, where an entire class of soldier can level up from gained experience rather than just specific characters. This enables squad members to be swapped from a constantly updating list of recruits without loss to the player. Visiting the War Cemetery is another way experience can be dispersed, gaining players more advanced commands for future battles. Money earned from victories is spent at the R&D facility. Unit weaponry and tank augmentations can be purchased via a mercenary flavoured economic system reminiscent of U.N. Squadron (Area 88).

That comparison is made more apt considering that the story and aesthetics of Valkyria Chronicles are rooted in the tradition of anime (which) Area 88 proved a foundation for. The visual presentation of the game is powered by Sega’s latest buzz – the CANVAS Engine – which “[breathes] life into stunningly unique visuals similar to hand-drawn illustrations…” The effect is caught between comic inspired battlefield actions and a world resembling a watercolour painting, and is exactly the type of additional level of presentation that doesn’t settle on merely adding to the strategy genre, choosing instead to accomplish what Sega has long been capable of.

Review Valkyria Chronicles
To suit this stylistic direction the game adopts the anime sensibilities that so many RPGs do. Many of the genre trappings are at play, including effeminate males, humourless authoritarians, jaded villains, and a baby winged pig that “MOINKS.” Yet again Sega has made several choices that avoid common faults found in similar titles and enhance the experience. Voice work is performed admirably for instance, with none of the hysterical voices or flat performances that plague so many games. The aesthetics of the characters and their world borrow from European inspirations, presenting an alternative anime Europa suddenly caught in a second Great War.

The final product resembles the level of quality found in such anime series’ as Last Exile and Escaflowne. That isn’t to say that the story of Valkyria Chronicles strikes the same level of originality, but that it follows several habits of the genre with enough uniqueness and imagination to at least follow in that tradition rather than evolve and push the boundaries set by such work. Players follow Welkin Gunther, who has just been met by his adopted sister Isara and new acquaintance Alicia Melchiott exactly as their homeland of Gallia is being invaded by the Imperial Alliance. Europa’s primary source of energy is a substance called Ragnite, which of course happens to be plentiful in Gallia, a country now caught between two super powers. But the invasion of the Imperial Alliance involves more than Ragnite as the story progresses and the search to possess the great mythical power of the Valkyria takes center stage. As the son of a great General, Welkin inherits his father’s tank, the Edelweiss, and along with Isara and Alicia he takes control of the militia’s Squad 7 in an attempt to liberate Gallia.

There are great moments of naivety in the story, particularly in the horror of war reflections common to many anime titles. And yet the style of the characters and their world enhance the believability of the narrative. Awkward moments, humorous exchanges, depictions of grief, losses and gains, are all strengthened by the design of the game and the aesthetic choices made. I found myself attached to these characters, each with a unique style and voice, even the lesser units that held no importance to the over-arching narrative. The decision to give each their own look and feel, likes and dislikes, made their fictional world more real than any grizzled photo-realistic space marine will ever achieve. Every subtle nuance of character creates people with lives beyond the war they are fighting. This narrative is bound together by a storybook that chronicles the epic tale of their struggle and ties the game’s numerous features together seamlessly.

Review Valkyria Chronicles
Valkyria Chronicles achieves a seldom seen balance of game-play depth and overall presentation. In addition to the story mode there are skirmish missions where players can both practice their strategy prowess and earn additional experience – though the addition of competitive online play for this feature would have further expanded the game’s longevity. Additionally, although the storybook structure frames the game adequately, the act of selecting chapters can grow tedious, as six chapters might purely advance the story in small sections while only one serves as the mission proper.

Still, Valkyria Chronicles is the type of uniquely designed and polished game that Dreamcast owners once bragged about. Sega has proved capable of delivering a title that takes all aspects of game design into account. For Sony RPG fans it is exactly the type of under-hyped release that is easily one of the best for 2008.

As a PS3 exclusive it certainly joins other gems that the console’s predecessors found cult success with and connoisseurs add to their must-play lists. Valkyria Chronicles is a game Sega has long owed to loyalists. For those who remember the company’s past achievements it is nothing short of magnificent to see such a title bearing their logo, leaving me cautiously optimistic for future releases. Simply put, if you were ever a fan of Sega as an institution, you owe it to yourself to play this game.

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