Monday, March 2, 2009

Valkyria Chronicles

This year, I've decided to play more RPGs. I'm certainly looking forward to White Knight Chronicles, and (when I get around to playing it), Persona 4, and of course, on the distant horizon, Final Fantasy 13 and Versus 13. But in the meantime I have Valkyria Chronicles and Final Fantasy 4 to keep me occupied, the former of which has so far proven to be an incredible game, which I consider to be a statement with merit considering the fact I tend to avoid games lacking multiplayer. Indeed, this game is beautiful, in more than one way. And in this industry stuffed with all sorts of concepts and ideas, it rises as a rather unique experience.

Just how unique? Consider this. Valkyria Chronicles is a turn based strategy game, an RPG, and a little bit of a 3rd person shooter. It reminds me heavily of chess, but with many more elements to keep in mind. Skirmishes begin with you positioning your available units around certain areas (usually your base camp), before heading into battle. Turns (known as Phases), are divided by Command Points, which, as the game puts it, are a measure of your commanding ability. You select a unit, and can spend a command point (or two, if its a tank) to take direct control of that unit. At this point, the game dives into the map you are looking at, revealing a vibrant colorful world in which you command your unit. This 3rd person view is known as Action Mode. In Action Mode, you can move the unit freely, until that unit runs out of AP, or Action Points (I think that's what it stands for?). Different units have varying amounts of AP, so its important to not dawdle, and know where you're headed to make efficient use of your AP. Once you've used up your AP, you can no longer move. At any time in Action Mode, you can attack enemy units with your weapon by pressing R1 to move into aiming.

All the units have different strengths and weaknesses, and altogether form a sort of rock-paper-scissors relationship. Scouts have minimal armor and are susceptible to everything, but have an enormous amount of AP, and decent range on their rifles. They aren't meant to engage any units besides other scouts and perhaps Lancers, but are still useful for, as their name implies, scouting ahead. Shocktroopers have a decent amount of AP and have incredibly high defense against bullets, but are fairly vulnerable to explosives, and carry machine guns, making them the bane of all footsoldiers. Lancers are anti-tank infantry, and are fairly susceptible to bullets but highly resilient to explosives. They carry huge rocket launchers for taking on armored vehicles, but nothing else. Snipers have even less defense than scouts, and very little AP, but have incredibly long range with their rifles, making it a good idea to place them at the back of the pack, and use them to pick off particularly troublesome foes. Though they have the same weapon arsenal, Engineers lack what little combat capability the Scouts have. They have the second largest amount of AP (right behind Scouts), and are far more useful supporting your other units than actually attacking. Engineers are the only way to repair your tank besides having it sit near a camp, and can also refill everyone's ammo (especially important for Lancers and Snipers), as well as disable mines. I always like to have an Engineer shadowing my tank, the two sharing a mutual relationship: the tank provides solid cover for the Engineer, and the Engineer relieves the tank of any damage it sustains from acting as cover for him/her.

Tanks are the bane of everyone. They have a decent amount of AP, are basically invulnerable to anything that's not an explosive projectile (i.e. tank shells, Lancer rockets), and come with plenty of anti-personnel weaponry to supplement its main cannon. However, they also have more drawbacks as well. Tanks use two CP to control, and have a large glowing panel on their back that is their weak point. Even standard bullets can do decent damage if you hit this critical spot, and explosives are of course devastating. Tanks have two health bars: the main health bar on the top, and the treads. If you manage to get your treads messed up, it basically screws up your AP, so you won't be able to move much at all. Tanks need AP just to turn around, unlike footsoldiers, so this makes it a simpler matter for them to circle around and batter the weak point. The final and largest drawback is that for a good portion of the game, Welkin, the primary protagonist, controls your only tank. Thus, if it is destroyed, he is killed along with it and you instantly fail the operation. Tanks have three main weapons: The mortar, the machine gun, and the tank cannon.

The tank cannon should be used almost exclusively against other tanks and armored units, as its way too inaccurate to be used on infantry, and the other two are far more effective anyway. The Mortar is terrible beast against everyone but Lancers and armored units, against which it's quite harmless. Launch this thing, and watch as everyone near it is terribly crippled. It not only disregards sandbag cover, but destroys it. Direct hits will almost surely kill off all units (besides the afore mentioned exceptions), and it does major splash damage to anyone nearby, including comrades. The machine gun is a no-frills vulcan cannon, most useful against those pesky Lancers.

Having finished the game, I can say the story is fairly well written. Its not an intricate web of deep discoveries and huge plot twists, but a relatively simple, yet satisfying tale of human emotion, war, and the people who are swept up by both. I came away from it feeling really good.

The story revolves around Lieutenant Welkin Gunther (in an alternate version of Europe, 1935), who arrives in his peaceful hometown of Bruhl, only to be promptly arrested by Alicia Melchiott, the leader of the town watch, who suspects he might be an imperial spy when she sees him crouching down to take notes on a couple of fish in a nearby pond. Welkin and co. reside in Gallia, a neutral country stuck in between two large powers who end up at war over a precious useful resource known as ragnite. Deciding that the Federation was putting up too much of a fight, the aggressive side, the Empire, decides to invade Gallia instead, having heard of the little country's rich store of ragnite.

It isn't long before the war reaches Alicia and Welkin. Imperial soldiers invade Bruhl, leaving it in shambles. Welkin, his adoptive sister Isara, and Alicia manage to escape with the use of the Edelweiss, a tank that had been stored away, built for Welkin's father (a renown war hero) back in EWI (Europan War) by Isara's father. The trio join the Gallian militia, and Welkin is assigned to lead Squad 7 as the Edelweiss's Tank Commander, with Alicia serving as his second in command. They soon meet Rosie and Largo (a shocktrooper and lancer, respectively), among other central characters, and the game follows the squad's exploits as they fight to defend Gallia.

Though you have a handful of central characters, there are about 50 characters available to you for recruitment. You can have 20 characters in your squad at a time, and here's another place where Valkyria Chronicles truely shines. Each character has their own personality, their own voice, their own backstory. Characters like and dislike certain other characters, and have their own unique, innate abilities. One of my favorite characters to use is Jane, a shocktrooper with a genuine hatred for "Imps" (nickname for Imperial soldiers). A former florist, she promises revenge on the Empire for completely trashing her flower shop. She's actually a sadist, and takes joy in riddling enemies with bullets.

There's a bit of micromanaging to be done in Valkyria Chronicles. You'll do well to familiarize yourself with each person's potentials, and who they like and dislike. Allies nearby who like the character you are controlling will often join in when you attack to squeeze off some bullets of their own. In Jane's case, she'll yell "Quit hoggin 'em!" and help out with her machine gun if I'm playing as, say, Hannes or Oscar. Each character also has their own list of potentials (the afore mentioned innate abilities), that have a chance to activate during action mode when certain requirements are fulfilled. Again for example, Jane's Sadist potential has a chance to activate every time she attacks, which boosts her attack power. Rosie has a potential called "Strong Willed", that allows her to charge into heavy crossfire with raised defense, while Largo's craze for vegetables might show itself anytime he's standing on natural ground (grass, soil, etc), raising all his stats temporarily.

I eventually came to care for each and every person in my squad...even the Lancers and their god-awful accuracy. It was interesting, reading up on their backstories, and learning their personalities. So I felt good as the credits rolled and it showed everyone's status as "Living". Yes, you can lose people. Once a unit's health falls to zero, they fall unconcsious. At this point you have three turns to tag him/her with a another unit and get a medic to evacuate that person, or they will die and be gone from your ranks forever. OR if an enemy tags a fallen ally first, they could die immediately that way too. But this is unlikely, as in my experience I've never seen enemies actively seek fallen allies.

Unfortunately, no multiplayer is present, but I've heard DLC is on the way (might already be available in Japan) that might even add trophies. The AI doesn't always make the most creative decisions, however, and tends to be very predictable. In this way, its not always the enemies that pose the biggest challenge, but the combination of the environment and the enemy's set up. Though you can call in troops to replace any that fall on the battlefield, you can't have more than 9-10 units on the field at any time, while the enemy can (and will) call for reinforcements every turn. You are almost always outnumbered, and often outgunned. The game is genuinely difficult at times, but out of the 18+ story missions, only perhaps 2-3 of them feel stupidly frustrating. There's no shame in getting your butt handed to you in later missions, but I usually never felt like I simply couldn't do the mission (granted, I never tried the skirmish missions on Hard mode). A cool thing about this game is that very few missions feel linear. How you go about completing the objective is entirely up to you, and you have the freedom to think up any number of tactics and strategies, though the game will occasionally suggest some to you.

Valkyria Chronicles is presented beautifully. The entire game's graphic engine is designed to look like an animated watercolor painting, and it works to great effect. The touching soundtrack helps to further the emotional tone of the game, and it all wraps together to form an incredibly enticing package.

Valkyria Chronicles is one of those games that's hard to find fault with, unless its simply not your cup of tea. It easily entices you with its gripping tale of grittier aspects of war, while somehow keeping things relatively lighthearted with its colorful graphics and beautiful soundtrack. I don't claim to be much good at strategy games, but I do enjoy them, and I can safely say this one is most certainly a keeper. A 9.0/10

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