It’s taken three games to get there – but Valkyria Chronicles 4 finally recaptures the addictive and bizarrely positive magic of the first game. Sam Brooks reviews.
When Valkyria Chronicles debuted on the Playstation 3 nearly ten years ago, it was a different time. Marion Cotillard was reigning Best Actress, George Bush was President, and the PS3 was lagging behind the Xbox 360 in terms of exclusives and good press. Valkyria Chronicles was a strange shining light for the console – it wasn’t a huge blockbuster, but it came with enthusiastic reviews and an even more enthusiastic fanbase.
Ten years later, the reputation of the original game has held, even though the series’ journey since then has been rocky. The second game was a portable, the third game never made its way out of Japan, and the spinoff Revolution came out last year, was a completely different genre and everybody forgot about it a week after it came out. On the flipside, the first game was ported to Steam a mere four years ago and managed to beat out legitimate sales giants like Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed.
So Valkyria Chronicles 4 being a simple return to form, in terms of genre and quality, is in itself a success.
But what is that form, exactly?
The closest point of comparison I can provide you is Sakura Wars, which is of no use to the general reader, given that series has only had one release make it out of Japan, onto the Wii, about three years after the console was successful – with the gamer-repellant subtitle So Long, My Love. If that comparison means anything to you, chances are you not only know what Valkyria Chronicles is, but you already own every single one of them, even the ones in languages you don’t understand.
Valkryia Chronicles is a tactical-strategy game mixed with a third-person shooter. It combines the tactical gameplay of something like XCom with the in-depth character building of something like Fire Emblem. And we’re talking peak Fire Emblem here, like the huge amount of characters that you will get inappropriately emotionally involved in, despite the fact that they’re written to a series of anime tropes and there’s too many of them to provide a huge amount of depth.
Then there’s the gameplay. You choose your characters, each coming from one of six classes (stormtrooper, scout, lancer, sniper, engineer, grenadier), and you place them on a battlefield. With each turn, you get a number of command points to command them with, each unit has a set distance they can move, eventually you run through enough points and movements to win a battle. It doesn’t sound addictive, because I’m not making it sound addictive, but it’s an extremely compelling and engaging battle system.
What makes Valkryia Chronicles special is the way it marries these two systems. Each character has specific traits that might make them better at one particular thing and worse at one particular these – and these will come up in not necessarily subtle ways in the narrative or optional scenes, like Shocktrooper Ferrier’s flaw being her lack of vision, because she has a full helmet covering her face. It sounds silly, and it is a little, but its also a way of building personality for these virtual soldiers you’re sending into battle, and therefore a player-game relationship so you’re not just sending pretty cel-shaded graphics into war to shoot other cel-shaded graphics.
Oh, it’s also set in a lightly fictional and vaguely steampunky version of World War 2. Yes, Holocaust World War 2.
Yeah, buried the lede, huh? So does the game, kind of.
For while Valkyria Chronicles 4 remains as almost inexplicably compelling as the series’ originator, it only deepens the extreme tonal dissonance that exists at the heart of it. This is a game set in World War 2 that has an art style that is more reminiscent of your mother’s finest china than Saving Private Ryan. It is a game where you will be murdering people by the hundred, and potentially losing soldiers by the dozens (if you’re bad at the game, which is possible, because even on Easy, it requires a lot of dedicated thought to get through).
It is also a game where one of your main characters spends a lot of time perving on his female teammate, sometimes in the same conversation where they mention that an entire village has been burned down or raided by the enemy. The plot of the game follows a loosely-veiled version of the Allies fighting a loosely-veiled version of the Axis, with the primary difference being a little bit of extra technology here and there. It gets pretty dark at times, which stands as a distinct, and occasionally jarring, contrast to the hi-jinks of your crew.
The strange thing is that it… works. Like a piece of South Korean cinema, the tonal dissonance is not a detriment, it’s the duct tape holding the whole ramshackle thing together.
One reason is because the actual game is not a ramshackle thing, but a mechanically sound ship that sails smoothly. There’s genuine satisfaction in figuring out the quirks in the game, the characters and the system and in making them work for you. It’s in figuring out which of your literal dozens of teammates work together amongst their quirks and classes, and using them to absolute wipe out the Not!Nazis. In my game, I settled on the trio of Godwin, Rosetta and Nico: the Darcsen (the game’s unsubtle and mildly problematic parallel to Jewish people) mercenary, the kind-hearted but steely trans woman, and the even more kind-hearted orphan – to slaughter their way through legions of men.
As their friendship grew, they gained new skills that complemented each other, and my time spent building them as a team was rewarded by them occasionally providing fire support for each other at random. This system is the backbone of the game, and it allows the player to build their own heartwarming, and engrossing, narrative – which is important when the game is busy building its own epic one that isn’t as involving as it could be.
War is a popular, and easy, thing to turn into a narrative. The stakes are inherently high and varied – stories that tackle war, deal with the fate of nations, civilizations and people are ones that are immediately clear to an audience. There’s a victor, there’s a loser, there are people who die, and people who live. When war forms the foundation of your narrative, you’ve got a baker’s dozen worth of toys to play with as a writer, and they’re well-trodden ones.
In a similar sense, war is also easy to gamify. At some point, a certain point of the gaming industry turned down combat simulator road and never looked back. Games about war set up very clear parameters for success and failure – you shoot someone, they die, if you get shot enough times, you die – and have the added bonus of desensitizing their audience to the everyday violence that goes on in the world. (A little bit of editorializing there on my part.)
If nothing else, Valkyria Chronicles is a small attempt to put a little bit of humanity back into the way the gaming industry depicts – and gamifies – war. You’re given a vivid (if not deep) cast of characters and invited to spend time with them and develop relationships with them. Sure, there’s the occasional bikini-filled episode that takes away the stakes entirely, but for the most part the game nails the idea that war involves humans, and is often quite shitty to those humans.
And, most amazingly, this is built into a game that is engaging as hell, fun to play, and doesn’t have you staring at shit-browns and apocalypse-greys for twenty hours on end. Which is… just what the first Valkyria Chronicles was. More the same isn’t a bad thing when the same is this good, and stands as a notable point of difference to the rest of the market.
Valkyria Chronicles 4 is out from today on PS4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.