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Getting It Right: Valkyria Chronicles

4:00 PM on 06.28.2012 // Allistair Pinsof

[Getting It Right is a monthly series in which I take a look at the elements that make up a classic game. What were the key ingredients that set it apart and make it hold up to this day? Read on to find out.]

Upon its release in 2008, I felt Valkyria Chronicles would be the closest we’d ever come to having an X-Com sequel. And now, with an honest-to-goodness X-Com on the way, I wish we were getting a full-fledged Valkyria Chronicles sequel for consoles. Though both games are masterpieces in their own right, Valkyria’s world and potential continue to excite me in a way that marines battling space men doesn't.

In every aspect, Valkyria is a game that stands out within its publisher’s catalog, genre, and even medium. What other game blends action and strategy as fluidly as Valkyria? What other game has a female protagonist and antagonist, both of which are non-sexualized, well-realized characters? With a visual look that’s all its own and art direction that breathes much-needed life into the tired World War II setting, Valkyria is a game that will remain as timeless as X-Com. I just think I’d prefer to play another Valkyria is all.

Valkyria Chronicles (PS3)
Developer: SEGA WOW
Publisher: SEGA
Originally released: November 4, 2008

In a nutshell: The year is 1935 and war has broken out in Europe Europa. The world's primary energy source, ragnite, is becoming increasingly hard to come by and the Imperial Alliance is growing increasingly greedy. The small neutral nation of Gallia, which happens to sit upon a pile of ragnite, is thrown into the conflict between two much larger nations. Intense strategical combat follows, naturally.

New challenges that require you to adapt

Don’t be fooled by the pastel colors and jovial characters, war is hell in Valkyria Chronicles. You adapt or you die in battle. In most strategy games, you face the same conflicts with only slightly altered enemies and locations. But, in Valkyria, a wrench is constantly being thrown into your plans. What worked one mission before may never work in your favor again.

In Chapter 5, your team must infiltrate a fortress in the woods, taking down enemies that are blocking your tank from progressing before moving forward. Doing some recon work with your scouts is the key to success in this mission. The map is full of sharp turns and shrubbery, where enemy gunners remain hidden. Jump one mission later and you’ll have to completely alter your strategy.

In Chapter 6, your team must progress through a wide-open desert with few spots for cover. Due to the map’s layout and the group of enemy snipers above, sending in scouts for recon will only end in tears. Instead, you’ll need to use your tank as cover and deploy your own army of snipers to fight from afar. It’s not the most enjoyable mission, but I love how it demanded a new approach to combat.

Later missions introduce new enemies, new gear, new environmental factors, and other obstacles that constantly force you to change your strategy. It can be admittingly frustrating at times. Valkyira is no cakewalk, in this respect, but being a thoughtful commander, instead of using brute force, can be greatly rewarding in this game. By challenging players in new ways, you'll feel an equal amount of dread and curiosity creep upon you before each mission.

Timeless visual style

Sometimes I wonder whether every game should be cel-shaded. Jet Set Radio still looks amazing for a Dreamcast game. Has any Gamecube game aged better than Wind Waker? Is there a current-gen game I enjoy looking at more than Valkyria Chronicles? No, not really. Yet, there are many cel-shaded games that are easily forgotten despite riding on this trend (my apologies to the one Drake of the 99 Dragons fan out there!) To say Valkyria’s timeless visuals come from simply adopting a cel-shaded look would ignore all the work that went into creating the game’s world.

Though Sega’s CANVAS engine gave Valkyria a striking, painterly look through its filters and shading tech, it wouldn’t matter much if the art direction wasn’t so deserving.  The first thing that drew me into Valkyria were the characters and their incredible costumes. Artist Raita Honjou walks a thin line, presenting an innocent version of war without completely forgoing the human element. You can see the Studio Ghibli influence all over Valkyria, but the art direction reaches beyond the world of anime for some of its most striking details.

Taking part in an interpretation of Europe – imaginatively called Europa --  Valkyria builds its cities upon scenic early-20th century European country towns.  The starting town of Bruhl is a quaint area, surrounded by small farms, with a tall windmill being its centerpiece. Anthold on the other hand is a sleepy port town that wouldn’t be out of place in Porco Rosso. Though most of Valkyria takes place on battlefields far from the city, these deserts, woodlands, and fortresses have their own attractive landscapes and artistic touches that make them memorable locations in their own right.

Soldiers are unified by their uniform. It's kind of in the name, right? While this serves a practical purpose on the battlefield and a psychological one when off it, it makes telling characters apart very difficult in war stories.  It took me a good three or so episodes to start recognizing characters in Band of Brothers, for instance.  Yet, every character and faction in Valkyira are so stylized that I never had this problem. Each member of Gallia’s Squad 7 has their own stand-out features:  Largo’s amazing sideburns, Rosie’s weird, stylish haircut, Welkin’s cap, and so on. I especially love how some of the enemies uniforms are modeled after German uniforms in World War II. Every character is so well designed, as if it was adapted from a popular manga/anime. Instead, it's the other way around!

Vignettes give depth to plot and characters

Valkyria doesn’t entirely shy away from the melodrama and absurdity that you expect from Japan, but flying pigs seem to be the exception to the game’s grounded yet compelling story, not the rule.
For the most part, Valkyria tells a story of unrest across a country and a brave, unlikely bunch of heroes that stand up against a suppressive empire. This is the stuff boring epics are made out of, yet Valkyria retains a personal touch throughout that brings heart and soul out of the characters and world. Between boardroom and battlefield conflicts, the game contains numerous scenes of the day-to-day life of Gallia’s Squad 7. These scenes give background to characters, establish their relationships, and present more information on what is going on politically in Europa.

These scenes don’t always hit the mark, but -- in a stroke of brilliance -- the game doesn’t force them on the player. Instead, much of the game’s cutscenes are optional and often independent from the main plot. If you are enjoying the game’s world, you’ll likely appreciate the depth that these vignettes give to the plot. And if you don’t, you can easily skip them and still be able to follow the main plot.

Vignettes and optional cutscenes are something we don’t see often enough in games. Then again, not too many games have a world as rich and imaginative as Europa. I can’t imagine vignettes working in Max Payne, but they’d be a perfect fit for an adventure game. As Valkyria proves, when this style of storytelling is successfully pulled off it can give the plot and characters more depth, all while altering the tone of the adventure.  Don’t fret: Hans , the winged pig that Alicia watches over, keeps the game from ever being too smart and not-at-all embarrassing. So, thank God for that!

Total control over the battlefield

Here’s my problem with strategy games: I like battles to feel out of control while I feel completely in control as the player. Here’s my other problem with strategy games: pathfinding. Valkyria’s brilliant battle system -- called BLiTZ or Battle of Live Tactical Zones because every Japanese developer needs a stupid term to put in press releases -- manages to walk a fine line between real-time and turn-based combat. Even stranger, it is as much an action game as it a strategy game. But, above all, it’s a strategy game that immerses you and makes you feel completely in control at all times.

While Valkyria is a game with great strategic depth, it is also an easily accessible game for people not into strategy games. At the start of every battle and in-between every turn, you are shown a map displaying the battlefield's parameter, your troops positioning, and positions of known enemies. From this view, you choose individuals and control them on the battlefield for as long as their action gauge will allow. 

It’s in these moments that the game ceases being turn-based. You can freely move with the thumbstick, enemies can fire at you, and you can return fire. Once you pull out your weapon, you enter target mode in which enemies cease fire and you get to take aim with your crosshair.  Sounds kind of nuts, right? But it works seamlessly and maintains a terrific flow that most strategy games lack. More importantly, it gives you a level of control rarely seen in strategy games. Though movement can be awkward at times, at least you’ll never deal with troublesome pathfinding during the entirety of Valkyria. You feel you are on the battlefield, but you also get to play God from above. 

Feeling like you are part of a group on a mission

I’ve always loved Secret of Mana, but building an appreciation for The Legend of Zelda series took some effort and time for me. The main factor that separates the two is the group dynamic. In Zelda, you are almost always alone, seeing friendly faces only briefly outside dungeons with a couple exceptions. However, in Secret of Mana you always have two buddies – whether they are controlled by your friends on the couch or the game’s capable AI – which makes your journey feel a bit more lighthearted, even when you are up against some devilish enemies in some unsavory palace while creepy-ass music plays.

The group dynamic of RPGs is a huge draw for me. I love adventure films like Stars Wars and The Goonies. These films wouldn’t be the same if it weren’t for the group of heroes at the center. Likewise, going through Valkyria Chronicles with your squadmates is part of the appeal. Whenever I lost one on the field, I forced myself to restart a mission. Getting to know each character’s likes, dislikes, friends, enemies, and skills makes the members of Squad 7 feel real. There are conflicts built between squadmates in cutscenes, and you’ll make up your own stories between characters when you pair two together on the battlefield. Having good company can make a long, dangerous trek a lot less lonely.

I want my old Sega back and, no, I’m not talking about Sonic. I want that Dreamcast-era Sega that gave us colorful, original gems like Jet Set Radio and Skies of Arcadia. In 2008, we got one last gem out of the increasingly misguided, disappointing developer. Shuntaro Tanaka, director of Skies of Arcadia and Valkyria Chronicles, is now limited to making PSP Valkyria sequels with a quarter of the orginal’s budget, if even that.

From what I played of VC2, he’s making the most of the hardware and budget but it just isn’t the same as seeing an epic come to life in HD. Even the battles are smaller and needlessly complicated by adding in a new melee-based class. I’m not complaining, though. I’m happy to have any new Valkyria, even an anime series I will in all likelihood never watch.

In addition to being one of greatest strategy games of all-time, Valkyria Chronicles is one of the few inspired and welcoming worlds to come out of the past decade. I’m happy to see the world of Valkyria expanded despite the platform and medium chosen. Though, for me, the world of Valkyria will always live within the PS3 original that continues to impress me nearly four years later.

Allistair Pinsof,
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