BDTB: Valkyria Chronicles
Valkyria Chronicles combines the aesthetics of World War Two, Anime and a fairly robust turn-based combat system on top with tremendous success. It is a recipe that could’ve easily gone wrong, it might’ve become too tactically punishing, the cell-shading could get in way of any emotional or mechanical depth and the maudlin nature of the subject matter could bring the whole thing down to a screeching halt. But no, the game is just an absolute blast to play and I just love its style. It has some minor issues, but nothing that is unforgivable.
What immediately drew me to Valkyria was the graphics. The entire game, and I do mean all of it, has this wonderful water colour cell-shading that evokes both the beauty of nature and the horrors/drama of war with equal aplomb. Most importantly, it doesn’t undercut the latter in favour of the former. The dark parts are grim and gritty, whilst the more pastoral moments are always heavily romanticised. The characters are unique and have their own small details, the tanks you control look both rickety and yet imposing and the evil-doers are suitably ostentatious and dark. It really gives the impression that you are a group of rag-tag group brought together by a love of the country against an arrogant evil empire. The water-colouring gives Valkyria a mature art-style that reminds me of a straight up piece of artwork as opposed to a manga. It fits the sort of story the game is trying to tell like a glove and I never tired of looking at it.
Now, I am not going to sit here and say that the narrative in Valkyria Chronicles is particularly nuanced or surprising. What it does have, however, is a story that is exceedingly well told and truly enjoyable from beginning to end. Yes, it can descend into a bit of fan service and cloying sentimentality, but I felt that it didn’t detract from the overall story. It takes liberal use of the Second World War with the “Imperials” being the bad guys (a mixture of Russia and Nazi Germany) and the Gallia being the impossibly rural and good-natured – think Hobbiton – version of Switzerland. It begins with everything being tense, but fairly happy as the main character Welkin waltzing into town after being away at University studying botany. He stops to look at some flowers but is interrupted by a head of the town militia and extraordinarily good baker, Alicia. So begins one of the constant themes of Valkyria, the interruption and destruction of nature by war. It is something that comes up throughout the story. There are lingering shots on flowers which are destroyed by tank treads, discussions on how cyclical nature is after it is ruined by war and you even save a pig from being hunted by the Imperials. Their home town is attacked by said bad guys, so they fight back and eventually flee with Isara, Welkin’s adopted sister and his father’s tank (his dad was a general). They then join the Gallian Militia.
Valkria touches upon some very serious subjects when it comes to the things you have to sacrifice in war, how to make sense of the atrocities that occur, can love bloom on the battlefield and the general philosophy of how to win. Alicia, it turns out, is a Valkyira – a being of immense power that can take out entire armies. This is discovered after one of the supporting characters shoots her and her previously hidden abilities save her life. Welkin, as leader, has to decide whether or not to use her to win. It reminded me of how I imagine leaders debate the use of nuclear weapons (and, of course, the Imperials use a Valkyria without a second thought). The Darcens, anyone with dark hair, are an analogy for the Jewish people. Not only are they distrusted by several characters to begin with, but they are literally rounded up into camps by the Imperials to be killed at a later date. Isara is the main focal point for this and leads to some nice character development for a few of the Militia as they gradually come to terms with their prejudices. The other big analogy, shared with The Lord of the Rings, is basically twofold: ‘small’ people can make a big difference and technology doesn’t trump the human spirit. All of the Militia are a bunch of nobodies, Rosie was a lounge singer for example, whilst the Imperials are all hilariously ostentatious in both clothing and weapons. I mean, they have a tank the size of a mansion and something that is essentially a battleship on legs. But they are always destroyed by human ingenuity and leadership. Ultimately, the game is one of positivity and comradeship. I was left pretty uplifted by the end, something that is rare to feel after finishing a game.
As you can probably imagine in a game centred around a team of people fighting against Nazi stand-ins, it is essentially a turn-based tactical game. Not like Final Fantasy or other Japanese Role-Playing games, it is more akin to the Fire Emblem series. You activate each unit using a set amount of ‘command points’ each turn (which can vary depending on who is currently in the team/not KO’d), then that unit can move a set amount in any direction until their ‘energy’ runs out and shoot once. You can then activate that unit again to move/shoot a second – or third or forth – time but with a penalty to the amount of ‘energy’ they have. Some units are faster than others, like Scouts, whilst others have limited ammo, like Snipers. Each unit has their own strengths and weaknesses, Scouts are crazy fast but are made of paper whilst Lancers are fantastic against tanks but have limited ammo. You also control a tank, which makes mincemeat out of most things but is vulnerable to other tanks, lancers and generally getting hit in the back. It isn’t necessarily a “Rock Paper Scissors” style of game like Fire Emblem, but you certainly try to avoid certain match-ups if possible.
Each class and character in the game, all the units have a trope or style that to give them some flavour, has their own special “potentials” that can activate whilst you are controlling them. These are pseudo-random as even if you get a unit in the perfect place for one to activate, it may not. For instance, Alicia has the “Maternal” potential. So when she is within a certain distance of characters she likes (Welkin, for instance) she gets a bonus to defence or whatever. Potentials can also be negative, however. Noce, another Scout, you infer is in love with Alicia as he has the potential “Welkin Hater” so when he is around Welkin, he has lower Attack Damage. It is an interesting system that is either fist-pumpingly awesome when a unit triggers a great potential or rage-enducing when someone gets an awful potential occur. One character can sometimes become a pacifist and refuse to fire, so needless to say once I removed my fist from the television I took her out of my team and never used her again. It is an interesting risk-reward system.
The fact that it is turn-based is perhaps Valkyria Chronicles’ biggest issue, for me. You have to watch the enemy take their turn and it can go on forever. There is no ‘interrupt’ mechanic beyond your units firing at anyone in range, which leaves me sitting there watching the poor A.I. do its best to kill my units. Sometimes it can be tense, especially if I have done something risky, but nine times out of ten it is just boring. I understand it is important, but if there was a fast forward mechanic or perhaps some interactivity it would be less egregious. I was disappointed by the lack of characterisation with the units that aren’t the main cast. Welkin, Alicia, Largo and Rosie are all given extra depth and complexities as the game continues but none of the other characters are given so much as a minor vignette beyond a few paragraphs in their bio. I wanted to know if there was a proper reason why Noce loved Alicia, why Nils was a misogynist or what was Jann’s reaction when Largo got married. I guess, when I saw all the units having names and unique designs, I was expecting a game closer to Fire Emblem in how it gives each character their own story or a story that you have some input in. Alas, I was mistaken. And the less said about the backwards representation of the gay/queer characters, the better.
These, however, are fairly minor quibbles. I can’t blame Valkyria Chronicles for not being the game I expected, especially because it is just over a decade old. It was a really fun game that was a real challenge in spots (especially a when it came to the bosses). Sure, the story is very broad and has a sickly sweet ending, but it is a worthwhile game that I would recommend to everyone.
Next up on Breaking Down The Backlog: Wonderful 101