Review by kirbychamp

Reviewed: 03/14/12

I want to love this game, but it just won't let me.

Valkyria Chronicles is really a gem of a game, a rarity, a unique melding of turn-based strategy and third-person shooter with appealing art direction. It has everything it needs to be great, and for a majority of the game, it really is. It seems to play well, and the story has some potential. However, “seems” and “potential” are about as far as it gets; for everything V.C. does right, it finds something innocuous to draw attention away from or outright negate it, and all that’s left at the end is a desire to play the game that it should have been.

The game’s story is presented in a storybook fashion, with literal chapters dividing the action and watercolor art styles encompassing nearly every bit of the gameplay, from unfinished edges around the screen to calligraphy notes on the maps. The story follows country boy Welkin Gunther from Gallia, a neutral province sandwiched between the Federation and the Empire, who has waged war over the stores of mineral resources upon which Gallia rests. Welkin’s hometown is assaulted by Imperial forces, but fortunately for him, his deceased father was a former general and left the family tank sitting in a barn. He excels in combat, mostly for having a tank, and becomes leader of a ragtag militia band that helps the underpowered Gallian military defend their nation. During the myriad battles, secrets are uncovered about the ancient Valkyria race, and the plot thickens with giant tanks, political intrigue, and a sprinkling of social commentary. The plot is fairly underwhelming, although far from forgettable, and while not wholly one-dimensional, the characters are generally hard to relate with. Couple this with the fact that the game won’t force you to watch entire cut-scenes but still requires that each be selected and loaded before proceeding to the actual gameplay, and the story gets a tad frustrating by the end of it all.

Gameplay is generally enjoyable and does a good job making up for the story’s lackluster moments: Each chapter of the story presents one or two battles, with time in between to level up units and purchase new equipment. Each battle has some objective, generally to capture the main enemy base, and several camps controlled by either the player or the enemy. There are five types of units available, from long-range Snipers to machine-gunning Shocktroopers to tank-busting Lancers, plus a few different tanks and some map-specific turrets, bunkers, etc. From a map overview the player can see camps and other important landmarks and any enemy units within line of sight. Both sides receive a certain number of Command Points each turn, which are used for unit movement or issuing universal buffs in the form of Orders. The unit movement is what defines the game: Upon selecting a unit, the perspective shifts and that particular unit is moved around the map in real-time, taking intercepting fire from enemies and interacting with key environment features, with a fixed amount of movement based on the unit type and how many times the unit has moved in that turn. The player can take aim to interrupt the action, line up a shot, and take a number of shots based on the unit’s weapon, or can use an item like a grenade or health pack. Upon taking fire, an enemy has a chance to dodge, then receives a counter-attack if left alive. This mechanic leads to a variety of strategies: Is it best to advance all units and spread the fire across multiple fronts, to carefully place units together behind cover to intercept incoming enemies, or to buff one Scout and rush in to capture a critical enemy camp and call in reinforcements? Couple this with the variety of maps presented, from a series of bridges across a canyon with trains and elevators for movement and occasional mortar fire, to an enemy castle with a powerful machine gun unit but sundry opportunities for cover, to a heated warzone with trenches dug to protect from the persistent missile barrages, and a handful of story events in each to keep the player on his/her toes; and you get a healthy balance of tactics and strategy.

At least, you do for the good maps. While most of the battles are well-designed, some are simply not enjoyable, and all are plagued by several key design flaws: Units under cover gain ludicrous increases in defense unless the cover is blown by explosives or tanks, which can make for some interesting challenges but often just cripples the Snipers, who are otherwise rather overpowered, save for their poor movement. Collision detection is fine in combat but unpolished during unit movement; oftentimes a wall or rock formation will appear such that a unit can go past it but will have an invisible wall, and units can’t go through or past each other in tight quarters. The A.I. tends to be dumb as rocks, running units into intercepting fire and stopping them there or issuing Orders for attack bonuses and not attacking, and the poor A.I. is compensated for by the occasional overwhelming number of units in one place or one enemy with extra health and the uncanny ability to dodge EVERY single incoming attack, even explosives. Plus, while the game gives rankings for each mission that affect the amount of experience and money earned, the rankings are based purely on the number of turns taken to complete the objective. This means that story characters, who can fall in combat but unlike other units cannot actually die, are fodder and can be used to unnecessarily rush base captures or “sacrifice” themselves to defeat a critical enemy. Victory by such recklessness is usually subverted by the level design, but a few battles feel ill-conceived: One can be won in a single turn by dumping all Command Points into two starting units to defeat the requisite enemy tank as it passes instead of using the scattered sniper points and alleyways to sneak up on it. Another is won by waiting for a sandstorm to reduce the vision of the half-dozen enemy tanks and running a single Scout in to headshot the two units guarding the main enemy camp and capture it. While it feels good to win a battle swiftly, it dampens the experience when some battles can be won with so little effort when it seems they should require more strategy, especially when the game encourages haste.

All things considered, Valkyria Chronicles is worth playing but somewhat unsatisfying. It’s not a terribly long game, 25-30 hours, less when considering that about a third of that time is spent watching cut-scenes and navigating menus, nor is it terribly difficult. There is some replay value in the game’s Skirmishes, which are replayable versions of some of the game’s battles, although the story missions themselves can’t be repeated until after the game is over, at which point they can be replayed in order from the beginning with the fully-leveled units the player left off with. It’s refreshing to see a game that mashes up genres and presents itself well, and I recommend Valkyria Chronicles for the things it does well, if you can find it for cheap and don’t mind either skipping or sitting through all of the cut-scenes.

Short version:
Story- 7/10; Not terribly engrossing, but it’s certainly not offensive. It’d be nicer at a quicker pace.
Gameplay- 7/10; Generally good and occasionally great, but bogged down by frustrating design flaws
Graphics- 8/10; Looks nice, with a watercolor/storybook style, although not the best character models
Sound- 7/10; Not bad, but the game’s music grows tiresome, and the voice acting is laughable at times
Replayability- 4/10; There’s no incentive to come back to it except for completionists. Some may not even want play through it the first time.

Overall- 7/10; If all of the minor design problems were addressed, the game would be exceptional.

Rating:   3.5 - Good

Product Release: Valkyria Chronicles (US, 11/04/08)

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