Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Guest Post: Valkyria Chronicles - If Only Real Chronicles Were This Interesting

This post comes to us courtesy of Pete over at Checkpoint Loaded.  You can view this post and many other reviews of his over there.  If you would like to contribute to The Backlog as well, feel free to ask for details by e-mailing me at  Thanks to Pete, and enjoy!

Hello there!  This is my first review hopefully of many for The Backlog.  Without boring you to tears, I’ll keep this intro short.  Most people come to read about games, not my personal back story.  I’ve been playing video games since I was about 5 years old.  Since then they’ve become a huge part of my life.  I love them.  Each one has something new to offer, and in many cases, they have better stories than Hollywood movies.  Not like that is hard to do.  Like any hardcore gamer has likely experienced, I have a backlog I have never touched or never given a fair chance.  Having the unfortunate “luck” of being laid off at the end of last year, I am taking the time to go through my fairly large backlog.  When I saw the opportunity to write for this website I jumped on it.  Anyhow, enough about me.  Let’s get to the important stuff.  The game!

Right off the bat I’ll say I like role playing games.. Hell, I LOVE a good RPG.  They offer some of the deepest stories, gameplay and characters you’ll find in video games.  That said, I am not a fan of most next gen RPG’s.  Sure there are plenty of them around, but gone are the SNES/PSX days when we had tons of good ones to choose from.  Nowadays you’re lucky if you can find 1 good RPG out of every 20.  A short time ago, I picked up Valkyria Chronicles for Playstation 3.  Because of other things in life, it sank to my backlog like many other forgotten games.  I don’t know what it is about gamers sometimes.  We buy tons and tons of them, and we just never play them.  Some of us hoard them, other sell them without even having played them.  Most times, taking a loss.  I’m guilty of the latter most of the time.  I am trying to change that though and get into my backlog. I still have a ton of games to be played. What got me playing my backlog and this game you ask? What’s known as the 2011 Great Videogame Famine. Usually during this time of year there is not much to play.  So I hit the old backlog.

2011 in Gaming so far.
I’ll be honest with you guys.  When I first heard Sega developed this game I almost didn’t buy it.  Sega in the past number years has pretty much been a let down for me.  A failed system that had potential to be great, content cut from games released in the US, and Sonic the Hedgehog being abused in every form imaginable.  So hearing this game was nothing short of greatness was pretty surprising to me.  I’m a fair person when it comes to games though.  I am able to look past the former failures and give a company’s next game a shot.  Though looking at the studio’s previous work, I am amazed that Valkyria Chronicles is as good as it is.

I don't think Sonic needs to be demoralized even more by my hurtful comments.
Developed by Sega Wow (previously known as about 5 other studios) and published by parent company Sega, Valkyria Chronicles was released in Japan in April of 2008 quickly followed by a North America release date of November 4th 2008 for the Playstation 3.  It is probably one of the most overlooked titles of 2008, as well as one the most overlooked RPG’s of all time.  It met with disappointing numbers, even in Japan.  With a recent price drop however, it has performed better.  I know I will recommend this game to everyone I know that plays role playing games.

I have a tough time classifying what kind of RPG Valkyria Chronicles actually is.  Real time? Strategy? Both mixed with 3rd person shooter elements mixed in? Yeah, probably that one.  It sounds a bit confusing, but surprisingly it all works out very well.  You control a unit of soldier’s, move around in real time on the maps, strategically place them, and try to work out a victory for your squad.  I find it has just the right blend of all these elements to work in a unique way.  

Strategy.  It's what RPGs are all about.

 Set in the fictional country of Europa in the year 1935, I thought it was just going to be an average World War II era.  The country is torn between 2 great superpowers.  There is the Imperial Alliance from the east and the somewhat united group of democracies, The Atlantic Federation in the west.  The stability of both these superpowers depends on a natural resource called Ragnite.   Ragnite is pretty much what fuels all vehicles, war weapons, and serves many other purposes.  Like most natural resources as time passes there is less and less of it available.  So of course this leads to turmoil amongst the nations that have the most of it.  The Imperials declare war the Federation states, starting the Second Europan War.  All for the natural resource they need more of.  The Imperials decide it is in their best interest to invade the neutral country of Gallia who has plentiful amounts of Ragnite.  Sound familiar at all?  It’s almost like our oil of today.  I’m not about to go into politics in a gaming blog, but the nods to today’s issues are prevalent.


Enter the protagonist of the story, Welkin Gunther.  Yeah, what a weird name.  He is coming back to his hometown of Bruhl after spending a while away from it.  Everyone else seems to be leaving the town due to the impending invasion.  He seems to be a nature lover and pacifist.  He sits down to draw some wildlife and is surprised by someone holding a gun to him.  The town guard led by our other protagonist, Alicia Melchiott doesn’t recognize him and things don’t look good.  Out of the blue a small ambush unit of Imperials appears in Bruhl.  Alicia has no choice but to let Welkin help her.  This is our first battle, and we learn the basics of the game.
I don't think Sega quite understood the implications while designing his character.

After successfully helping the town guard, Welkin is being escorted  to the holding cells they run into his sister Isara who can vouch for him.  We find out Welkin is the child of the late Gallian General Belgen Gunther, a major hero from the first Europan War.  Alicia apologizes for her mistake, and Welkin accepts immediately.  The main invasion force starts to come to Bruhl and it is up to the small town guard to defend.  Luckily for Bruhl though, Isara shows Welkin their father’s legacy: a prototype tank named The Edelweiss.  After leading everyone out of the game shifts a few weeks into the future.  Everyone has evacuated to the Gallia capital of Randgriz. 

Because of his actions, Welkin has been made a lieutenant, and Alicia his non-commissioned officer.  Being a lieutenant, Welkin commands a small squad of soldiers simply called Squad 7.  His age is a problem to some of the other squad, with him being so young.  The veterans of the squad don’t think he is capable and is only relying on his father’s name.  He undertakes a surprise attack on a small bridge in order to get the respect of his fellow squad mates.  Needless to say, the mission is a success and Squad 7 becomes a tight knit unit. 

They continue to beat back the Imperials time and time again, proving themselves extremely capable under insane circumstances.  We find that the Imperial crown prince Maximillian is out for the annihilation of Gallia to get the Ragnite supplies.  His motivation is simply that of a dictator.  For the most part, the Imperials are deplorable.  Taking slaves, hostages, and whatever means are necessary to win the war.  It’s pretty easy to dislike them. 

Squad 7’s battles get increasingly difficult but somehow they manage to push Imperials back more and more.  The Imperials have their own secret weapons, none of which I really want to reveal as they are essential plot points, and better left seen than spoiled in a review.  There are also some surprisingly dark themes in the game which might hit a little close to home to some people.  Not done in disrespectful way, but more to serve as a reminder to us. 

Despite the Nazi hand gestures, Welkin is surprisingly likable.

Honestly there are too many characters in this game to go into them in any more depth.  We would be here ages, and I want to get to the gameplay portion of this review. The entire cast of characters is well done and instantly likable.  Except the villains, you either sympathize with or loathe. Some of both.  Like any war, there are people being used.  It is a very rich cast, probably one of my favorites in recent memory.  The game spans a time period of 6 to 8 months, so we get to see Squad 7 grow as a unit, and pretty much a big family. Everyone plays their parts well. 

Graphics & Sound 

Speaking of playing their parts well, the voice acting is top notch in this game.  It offers a very strong translation with voices fitting their characters minus a couple of exceptions.  Children actually sound like children and not an adult doing a high pitched voice.  For anyone that has watched anime or played videogames in the last 10 years, most of the characters voices are recognizable.  Every new character I heard, I automatically associated with a character from another show or game.  Is it a requirement that Steve Blum (known for Spike in Cowboy Bebop) be in every single game made nowadays?  He has no kind of vocal pitch and is instantly recognizable. I am such a nerd for knowing all these characters. Talk about useless knowledge.

Mom, what do you mean I'm going to grow up to be a nerd?
The music and sound effects are just as good.  There is a pretty solid orchestral score.  Some of the tracks are memorable, other stuff just kind of fills the gaps. All in all, the sound is very well done.  Sound effects are typical war sounds.  Gunshots, explosions, tanks moving, and some inventive sounds for the more…unique pieces of equipment.  In case you can’t stand the English voices, there is an option to enable the Japanese voices. I didn’t check those out, so I can’t really comment.  I’m sure it is a fine track though.

Graphically speaking, Valkyria Chronicles is a beautiful game.  It uses an engine Sega developed called  CANVAS.  I don’t know the technical details, but it’s a form of cel shading with a 3 dimensional element.  It’s stated everywhere that they were trying to achieve a watercolor painting in motion.  In my opinion they succeeded.  The game is presented in a book format, complete with borders around the pages to make it look like history.  I guess it’s fitting since it is a chronicle that is being told.  When I first started the game, I found this to be slightly irritating, but after a very short time I grew to love it.  It gives the game a certain flair that many other games lack.  The characters and environments are incredibly detailed and have very fluid motions.  I can’t really complain about anything in the graphics department.  Once in a blue, the frame rate will chug down to a screeching halt, but probably due to error.  This has only happened to me twice in 40+ hours of playing and both times it happened, nothing crazy was going on.

Times are tough.  Even Sega outsources these days.


Sound and graphics aside, let’s get to the gameplay.  Ah the gameplay!  One of the most important parts of any game.  For what good is a game if the actual playing part bores you to tears?  It could have the best story in the world, but if it lacks fun, then it takes away from it as a whole.  Luckily for us, the battle system in Valkyria Chronicles is a good one.  As I said before, you can call the battle system many things.  It’s a blend of 3rd person shooters, turn based strategy, and real time elements.

Essentially the game plays out like a well, chronicle.  As stated before, Valkyria Chronicles is presented in a book format, having chapters separate the next part of the game.  There are 18 main chapters and many bonus chapters, so content wise there is quite a bit.  I’ve easily plunked 40 hours down already.  Each chapter has subchapters.  The majority of these are story pieces.  View a few of these and then go into the battle.  It’s a different take of your average “go here and watch cut scene then fight” format.  Similar though. It’s the definition on linear, but it’s done in such a way where I truly did not mind.  

Aw man, reading?  Pic surprisingly relevant to the story.

After view the story sections of the chapter, you are thrust into your latest mission for the army.  Valkyria Chronicles uses a system called BLITZ to control combat.  At the start of each mission, you are given specific conditions to win the battle.  Most times it is capture the enemy base, but occasionally there is a curveball thrown and you need to destroy a certain unit, activate a specific target, or just last a certain amount of turns.  There are other scenarios in there, but you get the point.  Typical war games kind of strategies. 
After hearing your briefing, you are put on an overhead map where you need to strategically place your units.  Unit placement is more important than just throwing any unit in any spot.  You need to utilize each unit’s combat specialties, instead of blindly charging in.  There are 6 classes in all, but one unit is dismissed as you only get 2 of them the entire game, which is the tank commander (Welkin).   The other 5 units you control are Scouts who specialize in covering long distances and spotting enemies.  Shocktroopers act as your infantry covering less ground but wielding more firepower.  Lancers are your anti-armor units who can take out armored units in as little as one turn.  Engineers can resupply your units, fix your tanks, disarm mines and offer light support fire.  Lastly there are snipers, who cover the least amount of ground, but if they are placed in an ideal spot can be very deadly.

One dot two dot red dot blue dot

So you see there is some planning involved in each mission.  You will need different amounts of units for every one, sometimes not even needing any of one particular unit.  After placing your units, you can select one to go to battle with.  Each time you select a character, you consume Command Points.  You are given a set amount of CP per round, and any that are unused carry over to the next round until you reach the maximum.  All units but the tank commander use one CP.  The tank uses two, as it is much more powerful than your regular units, so it’s kind of a double edged sword.  You can use the unit more than once per turn, but each time it uses 1 CP and a bit more of their Action Point gauge.  They get fatigued as you use them more and more, and can travel less each turn.  Just something to keep in mind.   

You can also use CP to issue orders, which are pretty much the equivalent to the abilities of other RPG’s.  There are things like accuracy bonuses, attack up, healing your units,  mortar support, etc.  I didn’t find myself using these too frequently as some of them are very costly CP wise.  Given the right situation though, they are pretty handy to have around.  

After getting your bearings, you select your unit and go into combat.  Usually you’ll want to start off with a scout and see what you’re dealing with.  How many enemies, what kind, and get familiar with the layout.  They can move the furthest of any unit.  Along the way you may want to pick off the weaker units to clear a way for your other soldiers.  You can take cover in bunkers, behind sandbags, and hide in grass to make your unit take less damage and giving them an advantage by staying hidden.  Basically you’ll want to move up as many units as you can with losing the least amount possible while seizing enemy bases along the way so you can re-deploy your units further up. 

While moving around on the battlefield everything is still going on.  You are being shot at and can take damage.  If enough damage is dealt, you lose that character.  You have 3 turns to get another unit to that character and evacuate them, or else they’re finished for good.  You can heal yourself using the ever useful Ragnite medical shots.  This is why it is very important to stay aware of your surroundings at all times.  This brings the real time and third person play styles into the game.  Dawdle under fire too long, and you’re going to lose your units. 

Not a typical working strategy.

Most battles are pretty direct with simple conditions to win the battle.  Getting to that actual finishing line though can be pretty tough.  I didn’t find anything to be overbearingly hard, just challenging at times.  There was never a point where I wanted to throw my controller down in frustration.  The key for your first time in battle is patience.  Don’t just rush in and try to kill everything.  Other battles have a more trial and error route, which is fine by me as well.  You will learn new strategies as you go on, and you need to remember these for future missions.  As a side note, you CAN save during missions at any time so if you screw up, you can go back and try it a different way without having to replay the entire battle.

After the battle is over, you are awarded a grade based on your performance.  How many turns you took to complete the objective, enemy units taken out, and so on.  This grade directly reflects how much experience and Ducat you get.  Ducat being the games form of currency.  You use both of these things to upgrade your weapons and how your units perform on the battlefield.

At any time during a chapter, you can go back to Headquarters, which is the capital Randgriz.  This is where you will be spending most of your off time.  This base serves as your means of upgrading Squad 7.  You can request more units for your squad, read the local war newspaper, buy and upgrade new firearms for your units, and train your soldiers.  Most of these are very important to give your squad a fighting chance as the missions progress.  While there isn’t a whole ton to do, and everything is accomplished through a couple of button presses, it is nice to add somewhat of a RPG element to the game.  Experience you earned can be allotted to specific unit classes and then ranked up.  Once a class ranks up, all units of that particular class go with it.  This means less grinding.  That is always a good thing. 

Yes, you become this important later in the story.

Reading the local paper will give you some insight of what’s really going on in the country.  The government is trying to be discreet about it, but one reporter insists on writing the truth about the exploits of Squad 7.  The paper also gives you the opportunity to unlock additional bonus chapters which offer more insight on some of the main characters and an occasional extra battle with unique conditions.  These are your side quests of the game, and really there is no reason not to do them.  It costs Ducat to unlock them, but by the end of the game you are swimming in money, so it is not an issue.

Lastly, you can go to the castle and visit the princess.  She will award you with kind words and medals based on your achievements in the battlefield.  There are specific requirements you must meet to unlock these medals.  Finish a battle in a short low amount of turns, kill X amount of enemy soldier, winning story specific battles, etc.  These are really only for show, but it gives you something to aim for.  From time to time, the princess will award with special weapons that do a bit more damage than your normal ones.  I guess it’s something. 

Other than that, there isn’t much more to see. You can read the background of all your units, look up specific terms you may be unfamiliar with in the glossary, and play through Skirmish matches.  Skirmishes are just a way of getting more experience and money by replaying battles you have already completed.  There really isn’t much replay value once you finish other than a New Game + with added hard mode difficulty.  I have yet to try this mode out, but I expect more of the same with some added challenge.  There are no alternate endings. Just a straight up story, and a well told one at that.  

In closing, Valkyria Chronicles is probably one of the best RPG’s I have played in recent years.  Excellent story, characters, gameplay, and graphics provide a very rich experience.  It may not offer the most freedom in any game (okay almost none,) but it is simply one of those games that lives up to all the praise that people have to sing about it.  Sega has definitely made a fan out of me, and I fully intend to pick up the sequel on the PSP very soon.  Apparently a 3rd game is in the works as well, which is also on the PSP.  More people need to buy these games so we can get a proper sequel on the Playstation 3.  I wholly recommend this game to anyone who enjoys any RPG.  It is much underrated and deserves a chance in your library!

I wish I had played this a lot sooner and it was not in my backlog for as long as it was.  Although, I guess that’s relevant to the current situation.  Had I not waited to play this that would be one less game I have to play in the current drought of games we are currently experiencing.  Luckily for all of us RPG fans, next week Dragon Age II comes out for PC, Xbox 360 and Playstation 3.  I fully intend to pick that up and play the ever loving crap out of it. 

Until then however, I have a ton more on my backlog including the next game I want to tackle for this blog, which is some good old fashioned survival horror by the name of Haunting Grounds.  I hope you enjoyed my review, and I hope to see you all again in the near future!

I'm only saluting to look better to the people who run this site.


Jstone said...

VC2 on PSP is somehow better than the original. I don't know how they pulled it off but the depth of characters and the revised class system just makes the game worth it. I'm 80 hours in and I'm not even on the level three difficulty missions.

Peter said...

Guest reviewer here!

Wow, better than part 1 eh? That sounds like a major feat to accomplish. Especially with it being a handheld and all. I'm not discounting the PSP by any means, as it has some great games, but you know what I mean, I'm sure

I'll definitely have to check part 2 out soon.

David Pratt said...

When I first realized this was a WWII game I thought there were some clever, subtle parallels. Then I got to the level where you liberate the death camp . . .