Friday, April 8, 2016

Valkyria Chronicles

Valkyria Chronicles was only available on the PS3 when originally launched back in 2008. I liked what I read about it, though, so I've kept an eye out for a PC version. That was made available a couple of years ago, and a few weeks ago I finally picked it up.
The game is a hybrid of a visual novel and squad-based tactics. The story is told through voice-overs on mostly-static images. It's mostly linear with very little in the way of decision-making, and feels very much like reading a story rather than participating in one. On a regular basis, the story puts you in a position to go fight some enemies, which drops your squad into a tactical battle. Win the battle and move ahead in the story; lose and your only option is to try again until you win. There's no open-world, choose-your-path-to-victory aspect to this game.

I liked the story in Valkyria Chronicles, though I wouldn't call it groundbreaking. The setting is a fictionalized version of Europe in the World War II era. You play a militia soldier who is defending his country from invasion by a neighboring empire, leading a squad into various battles around the country while fighting off the invaders. The cast of characters is fairly extensive: every member of your squad has at least minor background details in their biography, and several have recurring roles in the story. There's plenty of small details to poke into, such as the relationships of the people in your squad or parts of the history leading up to the current war. The general arc of the story will be familiar to most gamers or readers of historical fantasy - evil empire vs underdog militia, semi-magical ancient powers, love story against the backdrop of war - but that doesn't keep it from being interesting.

Whenever the story reaches the point of a battle, you're sent to the tactical battle system. You choose your squad at the start of each battle, allowing some level of customization based on the map and mission. Each turn, you're given a limited number of command points to use in moving and attacking. You can choose to spread those points out to keep multiple units in the fight, or focus them to get high performance out of a smaller group. The maps have terrain features to take into account, some of which certain squad members may handle better than others. Each action puts you directly into control of the acting unit, so moving and attacking (and getting yourself killed) feels immediate, not just a matter of moving a piece on a board.

Between battles, you can upgrade the abilities and equipment for your various soldier classes and tank. You might also learn new special "orders" that can be used for temporary bonuses on the battlefield. If the story missions are getting too difficult, you can also do repeatable "skirmish" battles to gain more experience and upgrades before moving ahead. Those skirmishes are mostly just repeats of the story missions you've already completed. I didn't spend a lot of time in this portion of the game, just enough to buy a few upgrades after each battle. Progression in the story missions didn't seem to depend too much on gear and experience level; it was more about learning the quirks of each specific scenario.

The tactical battles have some issues. For one thing, they take forever to complete. I spent more than an hour on several of them, more if you count all the times I had to reload. Controlling your characters isn't always easy - several times I ran into invisible walls when the terrain looked clear, or was unable to move out of ditches or around obstacles. And the battles are designed to force you into using specific tactics, limiting your choices of troops and gear. Want to use your experience and weapons upgrades to specialize in using snipers or shocktroopers? Too bad, the next battle will be unwinnable without heavy use of lancers. Or vice versa. The system appears to be customizable at first glance, but there's really not a lot of options in how to progress. I think the game would have worked just as well if they'd simply made your troops a bit stronger after each battle, without bothering with the whole leveling/upgrade system.

The worst part of the tactical battles is when the story changes the rules while you're in the middle of fighting. You might be moving steadily toward claiming an enemy supply depot, when suddenly a enemy general teleports in to block your path with his heavy tank for a few turns. Or you're advancing across the desert when a sandstorm springs up out of nowhere. I get that changing conditions is part of battle, but these feel arbitrary and designed to cause mission failures (which you then must repeat, with knowledge of what's coming). I did a whole lot of reloading of saved games about halfway through a battle, when some twist was thrown at me that made my original squad selection and tactics obsolete. None of the battles were especially difficult once you discovered the details of that particular scenario and started over, taking advantage of your future knowledge. It often took a good long time to get to that point, though, with several reloads and lots of frustration. My save game file says 32 hours of playtime, but Steam says 47 hours, which gives you some idea of how much I had to re-load and re-try the battles.

Despite its weaknesses, I enjoyed the majority of my time with Valkyria Chronicles. It's a fun story with enjoyable characters, and while the battle system has its issues, it works well enough. I don't have any desire for another play-through, though, now that I've seen the whole story.

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