Valkyria Chronicles: My Favorite PS3 Game
Posted by Ben Zeigler on January 28, 2009
I bought my PS3 because I was afraid I would never be able to get one with PS2 compatibility (and so far I’m right, the MGS4 bundle was the last one with PS2) but it hasn’t gotten much use yet. MGs4 didn’t do it for me, and Little Big Planet was a bit of a disappointment (and I rented a few other games). However, I recently finished a game that justifies the system: Valkyria Chronicles. It is clearly my favorite PS3 game, and is possibly my favorite game of last year. It’s hard to sum up Valkyria Chronicles (VC) quickly, but I would call it a Military Graphic Novel Action Strategy RPG set in a metaphorical World War 2. There are 3 specifically awesome components about it, presentation, gameplay, and story.
I’m not someone who normally cares a lot about graphics and presentation in my video games, but it’s a key component of what is special in Valkyria Chronicles. It is one of very few current-generation games that really stretch the limits of the hardware, and do it in pursuit of a truly unique aesthetic. Basically, it takes character designs in the style of Japanese Anime and renders them with a much higher level of detail and in the style of handpainted illustrations. It’s somewhat difficult to describe, so you should look at some screenshots. Technically, the coolest thing they do is in the shadows. They put a cross hatching filter on the shadows that really gives it a hand-drawn look. The visual style also ties directly into the overall presentation of the game, which is literally as a graphic/illustrated novel. The game is organized into Chapters, which are either battles, full cut scenes, or comic-book style dialogue sequences. My only complaint about the visuals is that they’re not anti-aliased, which seems to be a PS3 thing. Otherwise, it is the most attractive game I have yet played.
The gameplay is actually fairly innovative. It doesn’t play like a traditional console Strategy-RPG (ie, Final Fantasy Tactics). Instead, the game I’ve played that it’s the most similar to is Jagged Alliance 2, but in 3D. You are first presented with a strategic map and a set of action points. You use your action points to activate a specific unit, who you then control from a 3rd-person over-the-shoulder perspective, in real time. You then move them around using 3D shooter controls, and can fire at any point in your movement, one time per activation. While you (or the enemy) are moving around, the enemy will fire back at you with suppressive fire, and cover is vitally important. Anyway, it works really well, despite sounding complicated.
On top of the Tactical/Action layer, the missions themselves are structured much like a traditional strategy game, and run the gamut from open point-capture maps, to scripted event-trigger maps. My biggest gameplay complaint is that 2-3 of the missions are TWO scripted, and it gets frustrating when invincible enemies show up and destroy your entire team. But, in the other 30 or so missions, the mission design is really excellent, and hit just the right difficulty. In addition to the strategic choice of deciding who to activate when, you can also issue a variety of effective orders (using command points) that effectively mix it up. There are a lot of ways to approach most missions, and figuring out different strategies is a blast.
Then on top of the Strategy layer, the RPG layer is compelling in it’s own right. The key part of the RPG layer is your squad. You get to pick your squad from a variety of unique characters, and they all have unique personalities and abilities. For instance, my squad always included the homosexual anti-tank character, because he really liked being around my most effective anti-tank character (who himself really liked being around vegetables for some reason). In addition to having abilities and personalities, your squad members can permanently die. It’s harder to die then in say Fire Emblem, but I lost two valuable squad members during my campaign and I definitely felt their loss. The RPG elements do a great job of linking together the Strategy gameplay and the Story.
Finally, the story is worth talking about. The setting is very clearly analogous to World War 2, and the main character is a conscripted nature researcher who lives in the equivalent of Switzerland when they are invaded by the equivalent of Germany. It starts out a bit preposterous, with you piloting a tank to battle success while a friend of the family gives birth inside. It doesn’t really gel together until chapter 8 or so, but from them on it actually starts to go in some very interesting directions. What I look for most in stories is when well-developed characters are presented with interesting decisions and then realistically develop. This happens VERY rarely in game plots, but I totally bought into the character development, and the game totally hit me emotionally. A key reason that it works emotionally is the work the artists put into facial expressions and body language. I almost always skip through dialogue in games, but the combination of fairly-good voice acting and great animation meant that I listened to everything, and really started to care about the characters. The best part of the story is that after putting that much effort into making me care about the soldiers in my squad, the game ends in a satisfying and non-cliched way. Heck, even the “party on the beach” scene that seems to be required in all Japanese media sort of made sense. Sort of.
The mark of a great game is that I’m sad to complete it. There’s a full New Game + mode, but without the story hooks the game loses a bit of it’s draw. There’s supposedly some DLC coming (already released in Japan), but the game did not sell very well, so who knows. By the way, I’ve read various reports about the game being VERY hard to find (especially outside of the US) so if you think you MIGHT be interested in Valkyria Chronicles, you should probably buy it now. Because it was released at a horrible time with sort of bad PR (I hadn’t really heard of it until a month after it came out in November) the game had a low print run. If you don’t get it now there’s a good chance you’ll have to pay double price for it on eBay in a year. But, it’s probably worth it even at that price.
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