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Dissection Wednesday: Valkyria Chronicles

Dissection Wednesday is a segment dedicated to looking into games that do things that should really be applauded, whether it be how the story is told, how the game plays, or even both. These are games that either left an incredible mark on the industry or were totally forgotten even though they were brilliant. This is a weekly post that is meant to point out those games that changed or should have changed the way we look at game design in that specific genre or even any genre.

Back in 2008, there were many games that generated tons of hype, more so than almost any other year in recent memory. Gears of War 2, Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, and let's not forget the absolutely planetary release of Grand Theft Auto IV. There was tons to choose from, whether you wanted a music game (Rock Band 2), a strategy game (Sins of a Solar Empire), or even a game were you survive a zombie holocaust with friends in tow (Left 4 Dead). But amongst these giants stirred a voice, that echoed to only a few ears. It was uttered by Valkyria Chronicles, a game that was a welcome change of pace even in a year where it seems every genre was given a gift. Valkyria Chronicles is one of those instantly recognizable games where you say "Wow! That looks fun! Too bad not a soul is going to buy it!", and with that assumption, you'd be correct; in it's first few months of release, it sold only 50,000 copies in the U.S. In Japan, it was a modest success, although this may very well be because of the home field advantage and the fact that the User base for PS3's in Japan is much higher than in the U.S. But even still, the game got some attention; it was given several awards for it's captivating art style, great story, and it's bold, genre-blending gameplay. But even still, it seemed that many people still didn't really "get" Valkyria Chronicles, even those who liked it. So with that, let's talk about why Valkyria Chronicles is such a relevant title in today's over-saturated market.

First, I'd like to discuss how Valkyria Chronicles plays and why it's so effective. The game is a genre blend of Third Person Shooting, Turn-based Strategy, and Real-time Strategy, with some RPG elements thrown in. What this amounts to is that battles revolve around selecting a unit on the map and controlling them in real time in a Third Person Shooter fashion where enemies are still free to fire upon you. You are restricted to a set movement bar, which only allows you to go so far, and for each class it's different, with Scouts having the most and Snipers having the least. What this boils down to is you setting up advantageous cover positions and going into a VATS-esque view that allows you to target a soldier anywhere you like, with headshots being especially effective if a bit harder to pull off consistently. It all depends upon the accuracy of your weapon, which is dictated by the stat upgrades you purchase in the R&D Department, where you purchase upgrades for armor, grenades, guns, and your Tank, which provides the backbone of the team, with it's power and versatility. Caught all of that? What it all amounts to is a unique take on the strategy game that makes a much more personal and exhilarating experience. The Third Person Perspective really adds tons to the game; it is no longer a faceless grunt being pinned down by enemy soldiers, but instead you. It really endears you to your squad, and makes every loss you suffer much more debilitating and every gain that much more gratifying. It's terrific.

However, Valkyria Chronicles's greatest asset is by far it's pacing. Pacing is something that is essential to any gaming experience, but it seems many Japanese developers still have yet to learn this lesson. That's why you have 80 hour JRPG's that you lose interest in after 15 or 20; it's not enough to give you battle after battle, leaking out tidbit pieces of story that should motivate you to continue, but don't. That's why Persona 4 works a lot better than most JRPG's; because it takes the time to keep you interested. Atlus knew people would tire of the same go to school, fight monsters set-up, so they took a lot of time spice up your calender with events like school trips, things that lightened the mood and made the experience much more brisk, rather than the claustrophobic grind that has come to be expected of a JRPG. In Valkyria Chronicles case, they perfect their pacing by abandoning the turn-based strategy misunderstanding that bigger is better. Most Fire Emblems have the same problem, where the difficulty curve is just really about how large the map is and how many enemies are on it. The team at Sega realized this and instead took a much different approach; instead of a larger map and more enemies, why not make every battle a different type of experience?

For example, in one battle, Welkin, the main character, and Alicia, a scout from Welkin's hometown, are stranded by the rest of the team. So the battle is completely focused on two characters; however, Alicia suffered an injury from the fall. She has sprained her ankle, meaning she can't move as far or as fast as Welkin. Also, since the opposing force knows you're somewhere in the area, they have set up mortars which fire on a location close to you, as well as enemy soldiers that are more numerous and better equipped than you two. So you have to navigate the two through the forest as quickly and quietly as possible, all the while taking a route that has an herbal medication for Alicia that slowly makes her movement greater. What you have now instead of a normal "army vs. army" battle is a stealth mission with the stakes raised. It's nail biting to cross spot lights that will alert the mortars to your position, and it's satisfying just to make it through the battle alive and in one piece. It's exhilarating, and it's just one mission in Valkyria Chronicles; every mission has an angle that raises the stakes in ways that are perfect. Another battle tasks you with rescuing a Princess who has been kidnapped by a Spy and is now escaping with her in the vehicle. What this means is that you know have a hostage situation where grenades and tank fire will kill the Princess. This leaves the battle up to regular gunfire to destroy the weak point of the truck, a weakpoint that takes quite a while to destroy. As if this wasn't enough, along with enemy soldiers positioned to prevent you from stopping the kidnapping, you have to use your tank to block potential alleyways and exits for the truck to escape through. This means you have to ferry the truck with your tank into areas that your soldiers can open fire on the weakpoint. Doesn't that sound like something you want to experience rather than "You have an army and so do they, fight"?

Another thing Valkyria Chronicles does is the development of it's characters. There seems to be the idea in almost any story-telling medium that characters change immediately, that character development means that the character is one person at the beginning and after one specific instant, is a changed person at the end. Note the "development" in "character development". In Valkyria Chronicles, a big issue they deal with is prejudice; after all, it's all based upon an alternate universe WWII. In the world of Valkyria Chronicles, the ones being oppressed are called Darcsens, who are called this because of their dark, black hair. Apparently in the past, they may or may not have done bad things, things that won't be discussed in order to not spoil the story, and for this, they are oppressed by the enemy army who set them up in forced labor camps. Welkin's adopted sister just happens to be a Darcsen, and a couple members of the team, specifically Rosie, a machine gunner, is a racist. However, Rosie is not defined by this one characteristic alone; she is not simply "The Racist". I have a big problem with videogames and films that have typecast certain character archetypes that can be only that one characteristic; for example, in almost every movie ever, if there is a gay man in it, they are simply a gay man. They have no depth, charm, or anything else. They are simply gay, and very much so just in case you forgot for a moment that they are sexually attracted to the same sex. It's insulting, ridiculous, and by this point, getting very old. Rosie is not simply defined by her hatred, but instead by things that are also idiosyncratic to her; she's a singer, she's a femme fatale, she has a temper and the appropriately fiery red hair, and she has past relationships with other characters. Also, throughout the story, it shows her to be willing to change, but unable to. She grows close to Isara, the Darcsen in question, but never can give up her feelings that have been with her for years. After certain events occur within the story, she is a changed woman who learned her lesson, and it happens over the course of the story and is developed appropriately. It's refreshing to see this, and we need to see more of it.

Another thing Valkyria Chronicles handles extremely well is it's look; put simply, it looks like no other game that has ever come out. It has a unique watercolor graphical style, that really sets it apart and sells the fact that these are events being told in a book about the war. In an age where graphical excellence is measured by how much brown and gray you can throw at the screen, it's refreshing to see a game wave this off and go for a colorful, beautiful look. This also helps the power of the storytelling, because when the narrative gets dark, you can see it in the world around you; the blue sky turns gray, the green grass turns to mud, and enemy soldiers seem that much more threatening. It's about contrast, and when you're trying to sell the gritty nature of whats going on at the time, it's best to juxtapose it against the lighter nature that the layer has become accustom to so that when the shit hits the fan, you know it. Also, along with the visuals, the story itself steps away from the glorification of violence and warfare that every modern FPS has endeared us to; in Valkyria Chronicles, war is not the place to earn glory, but rather it's a fight for survival against impressive odds. Battles feel like insurmountable walls that must be climbed, and once you look down from the top, you see only your lost comrades and the blood of people in the same situation as you but on the other side. Characters die in Valkyria Chronicles, characters you care about that have been developed before your eyes, and enemy soldiers aren't unfeeling killing machines, their just people. Although that's not to say enemy soldiers are all nice and friendly, after all, we are talking about characters based upon Nazis, so rape, torture, and murder are not below them. But for every monster, there is a scene dedicated to Alicia having to comfort a dying enemy soldier who simply wants to see his Mother. Black and white are not the colors of Valkyria Chronicles, instead it's a world where there are only various shades of gray.

All in all, Valkyria Chronicles is simply a game that is just filled with great ideas that are executed brilliantly, things that developers need to learn a lesson from, whether it be how to pace a game or how develop a character. It's a game that really shows that a delicate touch and genuine new ideas make all the difference, and that just because a game is different doesn't make it any less playable or enjoyable. Haters will cry over every anime-inspired moment of sentimentality or the seemingly joyful tone, but these people are missing the point; not every game needs to be a depressing tale of loss or a testosterone-fueled power fantasy. Games about war can be about more than the futility of violence or the celebration of it; it can be about the spectrum of emotions that evolve from situations, like love and friendship, but also loss and tragedy. It can be about the despair that war will bring and the hope that springs from every little victory, whether it be on the battlefield or in a relationship. This is where Valkyria Chronicles truly makes it's mark; it gives lessons that have been told before, but does it in a way that isn't done very often, with a focus of the juxtaposition of the good and the bad, rather then the focus upon one piece of the spectrum of emotions. We need to see more of this, and while we wait for developers to learn their lesson, we can play games like Valkyria Chronicles, games that teach that for every space marine that is blasting aliens away with glee, there's always a baker with a sniper rifle, fearing that the person on the other end may have a spouse and a child.
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About Canti-samaone of us since 9:47 PM on 08.03.2009

Hello, I'm Trevor Johnson, also known as Canti-sama. I like to write about things including videogames (that should be paramountly obvious at this point...) music, film, and anime, so what you see in this blog is just one part of my pretentiousness! I'm a nit-picky bitch when it comes to basically everything, so excuse me if I seem like kind of an elitist, even though I try not to be. If I had to sum up who I am, I would do it through top 5 lists, so how about we a do a few right now! But before that, since DTOID tends to remove frontpage posts from my c-blog, here's the list of my frontpages, which I thank everyone very much for!

Frontpage Posts:
1. Monthly Musing - I suck At Videogames: Nostalgia's Curse, 8/12/09
2. Promoted Story - Suda 51 and the "Art" of Videogames, 9/6/09
3. Monthly Musing - Nothing is Sacred: Videogames, 10/7/09


Top 5 Favorite Videogames:
5. Fallout 3, PC
4. Mega Man X, SNES
3. Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4, PS2
2. Braid, PC
1. Shadow of the Colossus, PS2

Top 5 Favorite Albums:
5. Death From Above 1979 - You're A Woman, I'm a Machine, 2004
4. Radiohead - O.K. Computer, 1997
3. Aphex Twin - Selected Ambient Works 85-92, 1992
2. Animal Collective - Strawberry Jam, 2007
1. Sonic Youth - Daydream Nation, 1988

Top 5 Films:
5. Brazil, Directed by Terry Gilliam
4. Fargo, Directed by Joel Coen
3. Fight Club, Directed by David Fincher
2. Shaun of the Dead, Directed by Edgar Wright
1. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Directed by Sergio Leone

Top 5 Anime Productions:
5. Spirited Away, Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
4. The Big O, Directed by Kazuyoshi Katayama
3. Cowboy Bebop, Directed by Shinichirō Watanabe
2. Neon Genesis Evangelion, Directed by Hideko Anno
1. Fooly Cooly, Directed by Kazuya Tsurumaki

Avery Island: Musical Opinions From Music Geeks
PSN Name: MetalLink1979
Wii Friend Code - 8089-7286-5497-4717
XBL - Metal Link 904 (Note: My Xbox 360 is in possession of my brother, so this is no longer technically my XBL Tag)
Xbox LIVE:Metal Link 904
Steam ID:MetalLink1979
Mii code:8089-7286-5497-4717


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