Developer: Sega WOW

Publisher: Sega [2008]

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For those of us not strategically minded, Final Fantasy Tactics came as an unexpected, bitter experience that sullied the once impeccable stamp of quality the FF namesake held in our fanboy hearts.  The way it distilled elements of JRPGs into a minimal world with a politically focused story and a battle system that focused on pre-battle micromanagement and grinding as much as strategic maneuvers are the things that Strategy-RPGs have been made of since.  In the past 12 months, you’ve probably heard enough about Valkyria Chronicles that you’d expect me to say something like along the lines of “an SRPG that finally rewrites the book” but no.  If these are the things that make an SRPG then VC has no intention of leaving it.  What it does do is trim the fat off micromanagement and offer a refreshing take on the genre’s core elements enough to make a believer out of a SRPG-hater, like myself.

Valkyria’s character design follow the more restrained, well-proportioned style of 70s anime and Studio Ghbili.

[video:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BHWib5DXal0 100×50]

VC starts with a book opening and every following sequence in the game is a chapter within.  It’s as if Sega Wow are reassuring the player that the game will proceed at a relaxed yet quick pace within the linear chapters of a great tale.  This is significant when one is reminded of how SRPGs’ gameplay, more than any other genre, often mystifies player feedback when it comes to strategy vs. outside elements.  How many times have you died in FFT and wondered whether you failed because of a bad move or because you just haven’t leveled enough, obtained the right armor, or sent out the right troops into the battle?  VC’s greatest contribution to the genre, when it comes to gameplay, is that it obliterates the grind and streamlines micromanaging; you can still level-up in skirmishes on previously explored areas, but its never necessary.  In the end, it makes for a game that plays a lot more like chess than getting a degree in accounting.

For starters, you level up your troops by squad type instead of individual units within.  If a lvl 11 sniper dies then you spend some xp to hire another lvl 11 sniper.  The experience tree is so linear that it’s almost laughable that it’s there as you only have 1 option for weapon choices until the 2nd half of the game opens the player up to a couple more options.  This wouldn’t be such a bad thing if it weren’t for how time consuming navigating the menus are.  What can be settled with a quick question at the end of a match (“Auto-spend your xp?”) turns into a 20 minute menu purgatory that follows every battle.  It’s not so bad, especially when compared to past titles in the genre, but it is an unnecessary road bump that breaks up the story and battles that could have been alleviated with smarter design.

[video:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yVnEvc8ZilY 100×50]

No one reads anymore, so VC resembles a picture book if any.  Each battle is padded with heavy story segments that are broken up by scenes that the player triggers within the game’s main menu.  It’s a little detail that helps lift the weight of “do I have time for a  30 minute cutscene?”  As for the story itself, it follows the genres tropes of civil war, backstabbing, and exploring the personal stories of your units that you expect from an SRPG.  What should be a rather tired story of political gobbledygook has a heart thanks to being informed by Miyazaki’s films just as much as its gorgeous art style and score.  There is a warmth and attention to detail within the story that feels awfully mature for a Japanese game, but all its good will can’t save it from a cliche final act that forgets its characters’ inner-conflicts and focuses on a nation’s dispute instead.  Also, there is a pig with wings.  Don’t do that, Japanese developers.

The real time control you have over your units gives the battles a sense of urgency.

You know the game looks stunning and you can click on the audio clips for a taste of Sakimoto’s score, so lets get back to the gameplay.  Valkyria Chronicles might avoid a lot of the unnecessary pre-battle decisions, but the battles themselves are all about micromanaging.  Fans of PC strategy games such as Company of Heroes, Jagged Alliance, and Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel will find much to like in VC as it shares a lot in common.  You focus on only a handful of units (2-10 depending on the mission), and the strategy all relies on positioning and knowing your units’ weaknesses and strengths.  It helps you feel in control of the playing field, which is accentuated by the hands-on movement and aiming of every unit in 3D space.  Just know that your headshot, if not completely within the radial crosshair (which becomes more definitive with upgrades to accuracy), are chalked up to a dice roll.  

[video:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GfSh5bXq0iM 100×50]

The missions structure is what truly makes VC more than a mere face-lift for the SRPG genre, as it switches up goals and environmental factors mission-to-mission.  Just as soon as you get your bearings with a new ability, an unforeseen environmental factor or enemy changes how you need to proceed in battle.  This gives the wash-and-repeat grind of SRPGs a necessary update that will appeal to the spoiled action/FPSs fan.  Sadly, the game runs out of ideas by its half-point and ramps the difficulty in ways that feel cheap.  That this downward progression happens right when the story gets good is a shame, because once you stop caring about the story there isn’t much left to return to.  

For a genre that many have written off as being niche, VC comes out swinging in a big way.  Make no mistake, this is a triple-A PS3 exclusive with great graphics, original gameplay, and a pretty good story.  It falls short in the end, but that doesn’t make the game any less essential to both SRPG-fans and the non-strategically minded gamer.  It’s wonderfully accessible and realized for the better part of its length, and should make for a welcome pallet cleanser before you jump into God of War III or Final Fantasy XIII later this year.  It might not be the SRPG messiah, but we finally have a proper template to build on.