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Valkyria Chronicles
  opened by paleface at 23:20:24 12/23/08  
  last modified by paleface at 23:21:20 12/23/08  
  paleface [sys=PS3; cat=Strategy; loc=NA]
Unique semi-real-time, turn-based, third-person, alternate WWII strategy game from what may be the Sega team behind Skies of Arcadia (see entry 751); it has something of that game's direct, plucky spirit, and even includes the two main Skies characters as potential members of your squad of soldiers.
VC follows the tale of Welkin Gunther, a young nature-lover who returns home to his picturesque town in Gallia (a quasi-France) just as a prince of the Empire (quasi-Axis) has launched an invasion of Europa (take a guess :p). Turns out Welkin's dad and eh I guess this other girl's dad were big honchos in the First Europan War (or whatever they call their version of WWI), and Welkin pulls dad's old tank out of the garage to defend his home. That doesn't work, but he meets up with the Gallian militia, is given command of a squad right off the bat, and then goes and fights the Empire in a series of a bit over twenty battles, culminating of course in a showdown with the stuck-up Imperial princeling.
An extensive story, told through game-engine (only a few are rendered CGI), fully-voiced cutscenes, binds these battles together, showing the development of Welkin, his love interest, strange magical powers, a mysterious hidden backstory to Gallia, and so forth, in fairly typical Japanese RPG fashion. There's at twist or two along the way, but the characters, while very well-designed, aren't particularly surprising, deep, or unique; Welkin, for instance, is big on botany, really nice, and extremely dedicated to ending the war as quickly and humanely as possible, but that about sums up the total of his character that we see--and he's by far the most developed. As you go along, a Personnel screen is updated with little bios of the hundred or so characters in the game--most of whom you can use as squad-mates in battle--but still, most of their personality is left up to your imagination.
To amuse myself, I decided to limit my recruiting to women-only, although I had to amend that a bit when my female anti-tank soldier got killed, and the only other female anti-tankers left had negative personality traits; each soldier starts with a few traits, and gets more as they stay in your squad and you level up that soldier type--these are usually bonuses or debuffs that kick in in certain situations, and I tried to avoid picking "haters" (a certain anti-tank soldier, for instance, might "hate" scouts, and would have one of their battle statistics reduced for a turn, randomly, when in proximity to a friendly scout).
The difference in soldier types is one of the main ways in which the lovely strategic design of the game shows itself: each type has distinct strengths and limitations that will be needed at particular times in battle. There are the highly mobile Scouts, the tough close-range Shocktroopers, the plodding anti-tank Lancers, the deadly long-range Snipers, the constructive Engineers, and a few Tank Commanders, such as Welkin, who wheels around in his dad's rustbucket; even the tank has its drawbacks, though: while impervious to small-arms fire, and packing heavy weapons, it takes two "command points" to move, vs one for all other unit types, and can't travel in many areas in which regular soldiers can squeeze.
Having read about the classes, at first I thought I'd go heavy on Shocktroopers, adding some Snipers when they'd become available, but it turns out that the game is weighed somewhat toward Scouts rather than Shocktroopers as your bread and butter; although they can't take many hits, Scouts can move two or three times further than most of the other soldier classes per turn, and mobility is a massive advantage.
Although I like how the strategic balance works, battles in Valkyria Chronicles, you see, have their quirks, at least against the AI (there is no multiplayer). Most of the time, the most reliable strategy is to rush up to the enemy soldier and shoot them point-blank in the head: this generally results in a kill, unless a random chance derived from the difference between your accuracy and their defense (which you can't really see) allows them to dodge. Although rushing up for head shots all the time is kind of fun, it also seems kind of odd, and definitely prevents any battles from developing into any real kind of prolonged exchange of gunfire; against soldiers, the most you might have to do is take one turn to blast the sandbags they're crouching at (because you can't headshot someone while they're crouching--it's just a rule), and then take the next turn to rush them and pop them in the noggin.
I'm using "turn" a little loosely, though. Each actual game turn is divided into your move and the AI's move. During your phase, you have a certain number of Command Points at your disposal. Viewing an overhead map of the field, your soldiers, and any enemy units then can see, you select one of your soldiers, consuming a Command Point for that turn (or two, if it's a tank). You can then move them a certain distance based on their class (Scouts can move far, for instance), and take one action, such as firing, lobbing a grenade, or healing. Once you're done with their movement and action, you can keep picking them or other soldiers (re-picking the same soldier will yield less and less movement range each time) until you've spent all your Command Points. You can also, though, save some of them, and they'll add to your total in the next turn.
Finally, you can spend Command Points on "Orders." Orders give bonuses to individuals or your whole squad: a bonus to accuracy, or defense, or whatnot. Because Command Points are extremely precious, I very rarely used Command Points; really only in one battle, in fact, to give an accuracy boost in order to counter a defense boost the enemy commander had given his troops with his own Order: without it, I just didn't have much of a chance to hit them in that turn. Anyway, I think that Orders are largely a wasted effort, because Command Points are better spent killing enemy units (rush+head shot), and Orders only last for a single turn (and actually, only for your own phase of that turn).
When you move, aim, and fire, you do it in the third-person (or first, in the case of a sniper using their rifle scope), and in semi-real-time: if you cross an enemy's line of fire, depending on their unit type, they have a chance to do an automatic defensive counter-fire at you. This gives the game a very real-time element, and gives you a much more intimate interaction with the environment than most turn-based strategy games can manage; it is, in short, really cool, and something like dashing through a line of fire, up a ladder, and into prime rooftop position with your sniper, from which vantage you can proceed to spend your saved-up three shots (in three separate Command Point moves) in zooming in and popping off head shots on three distant unsuspecting enemy soldiers is oh-so-satisfying.
You can get more advanced than that, too, because an Engineer can refill another soldier's ammo stock. So have an Engineer standing by, use your Sniper's three shots, then have the Engineer run up to them and give them three more shots; asl long as you have enough Command Points left, you can keep knocking people off with that sniper. Love.
One early turn-off to the battles, unfortunately, is that you start off with low accuracy; you'll line up sweet tank or sniper shots, only to see them badly misfire, wasting your turn. This is tremendously frustrating, and all I can say is that by the end, the accuracy of most of your soldier types is much better, and you learn the ways to use them that will help avoid wasteful misses.
Anti-tank combat is another major arena in these battles. Tanks have rather conspicuous glowing blue radiators (powered by the eh magic rocks that run everything) in their caboose, so if you can get around behind one of them with a Lancer, you've got a potential one-shot kill with your rocket launcher on that big nasty tank--of course, that can happen to Welkin, too, in which case you lose the battle.
This is all great and makes for some extremely interesting battles, where you're forming complex strategies to maximize your Combat Points each turn in order to take down the most possible enemies with the fewest losses or potential losses (don't leave 'em stranded in view of the enemy) to your own squad. It isn't generally very hard, because your squad members aren't actually dead when they're shot dead: get another soldier up to them, and they're automatically recalled by the medic to the base camp, from which they can be redeployed in another turn. The only time they actually die permanently (excepf for the few who are main story characters) is if they're touched by an enemy soldier, or three turns pass, before you get to them. This is sad, but it does give a sense of finality to the proceedings.
Fortunately, the enemy soldiers don't intentionally step on your fallen comrades. Unfortunately, this is merely an aspect of general AI stupidity: they don't formulate strategies beyond very limited, obviously custom-scripted ones, and generally just run or gun straight for any enemy they can see. There's nothing particularly wrong with that, except that it makes them very easy to deal with; what VC's battle designers should have done to counter this would have been to put you at a numeric disadvantage, where your avenues of approach (ie rush + headshot) would have been guarded by multiple foes combining their firepower to form an effective barrier, but this in fact rarely happens.
Instead, the battle designers settled for screwing you over with scripted sequences. For instance, you might have a battle where you have to stop an armored car from escaping at the south end of the map, but you can't shoot the car with heavy weapons, because it will instantly explode, killing the princess inside, and you can't block it with your tank, because all the road sections by which you could reach the car's route extemely inconveniently just happen to be too narrow for your tank to fit through; so the car follow a path around the perimeter, and you have to rush your soldiers up behind it, while it sprays them with a machine-gun, and spawns in soldiers who rush at you down the side-streets between your turns. Yay.
The worst, though (aside from the final battle--UGH... Let's just say that the game loves to pit you against invulnerable foes and respawning things), happened to me midway through a very difficult battle in a cool trench-warfare map: the orders had said to take out the enemy base in the middle of their line, quickly, so I did, and that stopped the mortar, "allowing" my tank to enter the battle--Yay! Right? No, because it spawned my tank at the far end of No Man's Land, right in front of a hostile anti-tank turret that I hadn't bothered to take out, because it wasn't a threat...until my tank was spawned right in front of it, radiator exposed. BOOM. Battle lost.
The other problem is that very often gimmicky objectives aren't clear, and, like the gimmicky scripted enemy spawns or whatever, will take painful trial and error to discover, often while you're being shot at by a heavily-armed enemy boss who's invulnerable until you figure out what you have to do to be able to damage them. This is really not that fun. As much as I enjoy the normal battle strategy involving the base class types in VC, I really hate the gimmick parts of the battles, and these get worse as the game progresses. They weren't enough to make me not enjoy the game as a whole, but I'm really not tempted to try going back through on my "game plus" now in order to try to max out my scores in each battle or whatnot.
The "game plus" you can do after beating the game the first time is also kind of a downer, because while you keep all the training and equipment you bought between battles the first time through, the enemy starts at the beginning, and are now like gnats to you; there's a harder difficulty that's made available in the generic "Skirmish" battle mode, but although Skirmish battles are pretty fun (and mostly gimmick-free), they have no connection to story or game progression aside from letting you do some levelling of your troops.
Aside from that "game plus" disappointment (I never really play much "game plus" anyway, though, so I guess it isn't a big deal for me), levelling works pretty well. Based on your performance (seems to be how quickly you finish, mostly--which is unfortunate, because I really only care about killing everything ;), each battle awards you experience and money points, which you can use to raise the levels of individual soldier classes, and to research new gear, respectively. Levelling a class is kind of neat because it can unlock more character traits for them, but researching new gear is kind of a drag; the gear follows pretty predictable paths (a few alternate weapon types you get later don't seem that effective, although I didn't really give them a great try--they just weren't in line with my BOOM! head shot strategy), you have to shuffle "parts" around to fit in a box puzzle to upgrade your tanks, and, worst of all, you have to hear from the terribly irritating engineer and his same moronic comments over and over.
I suppose it's to make you do some level grinding to extend play time, but fortunately the advancement is balanced out pretty generously; I just did the story battles and then one play per each new map made available as a Skirmish map (was eight or so of those, maybe, that I got), and I got through okay. The stat screen shows spaces for five or six other story battles that I seem to have skipped, so I think maybe you need to get high scores in certain battles to get to those, but really the only way I think you could reliably get the top score in some of the battles would be by taking advantage of the upgrade imbalance you get in "game plus" (for instance, I earned an A in the first battle under "game plus," because I charged straight through it in a single turn with one character, who took many hits from the enemies, that did almost no damage to her).
Oh, that reminds me: the between-battle UI is kind of clunky. It's supposed to be like a "book," but switching to the different screens you have to access takes more button presses than it should, the UI isn't really cohesive between them, and which buttons do what is sometimes unintuitive. The battle UI, on the other hand, works really well.
Hm I should mention sound and graphics. I'm not a voice-acting nit-picker, but the English voiceovers are lame: flat and dull, or irritating. Fortunately, you can play with the much more vivacious Japanese voiceovers, plus subtitles. Still, that seems more and more to be the excuse these days for bad (ie cheap) English voice acting. There are people who are perfectly capable of putting together quality English voice acting, and it's sad to see that aspect of production continually neglected.
The graphics only go up to 720p, but look kind of neat in their "pencil shading" style; it washes the contrast out and makes things sort of light and watercolorish, which doesn't really look like a grim battlefield, but the game as a whole is pretty light in that carefree Japanese design way, so, it works, as long as you don't insist your battle games be all muscled out and muddy. A few of the stages look just plain washed over and dull, though, and sometimes you'll get near the edge of a map and just see weird blodgy yuck over the edge.
Finishing the game through the first time took me over 40 hours, and it went by surprisingly quickly, aside from the last battle (grrr). Despite the gimmicks to which they resorted in order to generate a challenge, and despite the somewhat cliched story, I really did like the solid, if unusual, strategic system invented here, and most of the characters were pleasant enough. I don't think I'll play through it any more, but I'll enjoy mostly fond memories.
· Skies of Arcadia (DC)

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