Having finally finished 戦場のヴァルキュリア/Valkyria Chronicles, I am in a position to review and recommend it; my earlier impressions also still stand, view them here and here for additional detail and more screenshots. Valkyria Chronicles is really one of the first truly next generation games for the PS3, and probably heralds the maturation of the platform. It is easy to recommend, in fact difficult not to recommend, on every level; for anyone who is a fan of wargames, RPGs or anime, it is a game which is absolutely indispensible. Enough with the general impressions – what of the game proper? What of Alicia’s swimsuit? Read on for both.
Regarding the story, without providing any spoilers I can say it is an engrossingly executed war drama with fantastic elements; pacing and course of the story are all enjoyable, though at times it can be a little conventional, and some aspects came across as being somewhat trite.
Characters (including antagonists) are all well realised, and likable, with each having a convincing background and motivations, though the focus on the military developments naturally tends to prevent the kind of character detail you might find in, say, a Tales game. I got the impression that the story was somewhat conservatively executed; not an impediment to enjoyment, just something that prevents much contemplation after the campaign is over. Odin Sphere it is not. More dialogue could probably have been added to good effect.
Notably, even the non-storyline squad members each have their own unique characters, rather than being mere drones, and some are really quite charming – attention to detail is never lacking. All the various news reports, biographical entries, etc, are also present, lending much depth even if they are not essential reading.
The story and gameplay both seem to possess a sophisticated treatment of the setting – I never felt like the objectives where meaningless or that the story was failing to respect the carefully crafted alternative European history and character motivations. The fantastic elements seem to blend well with the story, and Ragnite is sensibly handled. The military objectives and course of the war all seemed impressively plausible and logical.
The sense of fighting an overpowering adversary and only succeeding through careful tactics and teamwork is strong throughout. I couldn’t fail to mention the that 1930’s industrial warfare aesthetic is really carried off well, with armoured soldiers and war machines all contributing to the atmosphere of climactic conflict between powers. Uniforms and weapons also help to create a convincing setting.
The story is well executed with excellent characters then, if not itself departing from the norms. What of the mechanics of the game?
The game is presented as a written chronicle of the Gallian campaign; the book motif is very nicely done, although I would prefer not to be able to see the pictures of the unwatched cutscenes since they rather give the game away. Replaying the cutscenes is easy and much appreciated as they are worth watching, although some parts can only be seen in the actual battles, which are only repeatable in a second play through.
I have already described some of the game mechanics, and there is little to add on that front. It is a tactically complex game which manages to combine hands on action with meaningful tactics and strategy, always requiring planning and care whilst remaining exciting in the execution of things. Though the missions are frequently quite linear (some being close to Disgaea style puzzles), how you go about achieving your objectives is always flexible, and in later missions a thorough understanding of how to combine the strengths of the different classes becomes essential. This is much more a game of tactics than of level and gear, although adequate level and equipment certainly helps.
Subtle tactics like using a scout’s grenade launcher to blast enemies out of cover so a storm trooper can finish them, or ending turns with your troops in mutually supporting overwatch positions are there a plenty, in addition to more obvious ones like flanking tanks to get a one shot kill on their Ragnite radiator (which the enemy will also use on you), or aiming for tank tracks, heads, legs, etc, for different results. Probably a perfect balance is achieved – it really succeeds in matching superb, deep gameplay with beautiful visuals and a compelling story.
The AI is generally good – it will use a lot of the more advanced tactics on you, though usually I felt I was definitely attacking it rather than being attacked, even when defending. It is usually effective, and the scripting aids this, and never was it consistently weak. Let your guard down and it will punish you most harshly.
There are some minor shortcomings to the gameplay side of things; in particular the difficulty is quite uneven – often I found myself going from an S-Ranked mission on first play through to ones that required repeated attempts and much reloading and restarting, then back to S-Rank, though usually this was an enjoyable challenge rather than simply being frustrating; still it seems an oversight.
Being able to save and reload at any time like in a PC game is quite refreshing and does a lot to relieve frustrations which might otherwise accrue over longer and more complex missions. I have to admit I was quite far through the game before I realised this was possible, and it certainly came as a relief considering how difficult and complex things can get.
Woe betide you if you bring the wrong types of soldier or place them in the wrong starting location, as these can require a restart in the harsher missions. A related problem was that telling what is going on from the briefing map (in particular high vantage points and barriers to progress are badly displayed), and even the briefing itself, can be difficult, so you are often going in to missions effectively blind, or at least with somewhat vague orders.
The least appealing parts of the game are those which involve managing invincible or infinitely spawning enemies, or dodging searchlights and the like, although these aspects are uncommon enough. Usually sound tactics and forethought take precedence.
The game is long enough – it took me at least 40 hours to play through the game, and also there are a number of side-missions and diversions, though none really compel in the same way as the main story.
It is however a little disappointing that not everything that could be done was done to preserve the replayability of what is a very enjoyable game. The main problem is both normal scenarios, and skirmish, have unchanging enemy layouts and so become little more than a matter of honing your score.
The only real change after first play through is the addition of hard mode – enemy placement and level is the same whilst you carry over everything, so it isn’t too interesting; perhaps more effort could have been put into this.
It is understandable that heavily scripted storyline missions couldn’t really be made more replayable, but for skirmish mode to not have any different objectives, enemy placement, etc, and to take place on the same maps as in normal mode, is rather weak. Collecting medals and S-Ranks is only going to last so long, but the game is quite long, so I am not about to complain too much.
The graphics really speak for themselves; the game really rivals a well put together anime in this regard, and not just in the cutscenes. The visual style employed is exceptionally well carried off, and character, vehicle and scenery designs are frequently inspired – character and soldier designs in particular are very well done.
Characters are also properly motion captured, and so look appropriately good in motion. It is probably not necessary to enthuse too much about the graphics to anyone who can see the screenshots or videos – a new benchmark has clearly been set, especially so for anime styled games.
I noticed one or two slowdowns where the camera found its way into odd angles, but this only occurred on a handful of occasions, so I am happy to dismiss it. In all other respects the graphics can unreservedly be called perfect, given the limitations of the platform. Seeing more games like this, and improving on this, will be something to look forward to indeed.
Where sound is concerned, the game does not disappoint, although I would stop short of saying it is fantastic. The music is good, and so are the sound effects, but they do not stand out. The music is a little bland for this kind of martial/orchestral music, but is good enough. The voice acting is, however, fantastic, with an all star cast which will be familiar to anime lovers, all delivering a convincing performance. The game is fully voiced – even bit part characters are properly voiced – most impressive.
A few words about the game on the PS3 are in order. A lengthy install, taking a lot of HDD space, is coupled with fairly long loading times, although only when loading game stages – there is no loading in battles. The game displays beautifully in 1080P, so an HDMI TV or monitor is certainly desirable. As far as net access goes, I suppose we can but hope for additional content, but as it stands HDD space and a good display are all that are really needed.
Valkyria Chronicles has perhaps singlehandedly destroyed one of the barriers between games as an interactive medium and anime as a story telling medium – now both can be presented in the same visual style, in this case the perfectly executed cel shaded 3D graphics.
Throughout, in both game and cutscenes, the graphics are superior to all but the best anime, a truly impressive accomplishment, especially when one realises that now both game and narrative can be presented seamlessly. Combining this aspect with the superb gameplay, beautifully crafted story, and uniformly high production values and it emerges as a landmark in the development of the genre, which anyone would do well to own.