You haven't played anything quite like Valkyria Chronicles. At first, you might think this is due to its striking visual design, but this is a case when beauty isn't just skin deep. By usurping elements of third-person shooters, it offers tactical freedom few strategy role-playing games approach and should become instantly appealing to genre fans and newcomers alike. The game has some drawbacks, including some questionable artificial intelligence that may cause you to scratch your head in confusion. Yet for all its small flaws, Valkyria Chronicles is great fun, and likely to charm your pants off to boot.
The land of Europa may not be exactly of our world, but Valkyria Chronicles is a fantasy version of our own familiar Earth and tells a war story culled from multiple real-world conflicts. It is 1930, and the war between the East Europan Imperial Alliance and the Atlantic Federation spills into Gallia, a small, neutral country that, unfortunately, is also overflowing with a resource called ragnite. Our hero is the well-meaning Welkin, a Gallian student who becomes the unwitting hero of Squad 7, a militia unit comprising a few friends--and a few skeptics. The squad's story is told through scenes organized as episodes and chapters in a book, an effective if slightly disjointed narrative device that emphasizes the storybook visuals. It takes a while for the story to get moving, and you'll be eight or nine chapters in before the fantasy elements truly kick in and the plot begins to gather momentum. But this is a subtle journey, and you will eventually grow to appreciate the understated manner in which the plot unfolds. And the most memorable moments, such as one in which Welkin and the bright-eyed Alicia care for a wounded enemy soldier, are genuinely heartfelt.
It only takes a glance to appreciate Valkyria Chronicles' unique visual design, and you will appreciate its beauty the more you play. The game resembles a watercolor painting in motion, but light crosshatching within textures and gentle edges ensure it looks like no game you've seen before. The pastel color palette is soft but vivid, and it all looks brilliantly cohesive and whimsical. This charm is further accentuated by comic-book onomatopoeia that splashes on the screen during certain events. For example, when you gun down an enemy, you may see "rat-a-tat-a-tat" pop up on the screen to accompany the blistering gunfire. But if you look past the strong art, you'll notice some equally slick technology. The impressive transition animation between the overhead strategic map and the fully 3D environs of each character's turn never gets old, and the game maintains a high frame rate no matter how much high-intensity action may be occurring onscreen.
Terrific sound effects and a fantastic, unassuming soundtrack accompany the outstanding visuals. Yet presentation only gets you so far, and fortunately, Valkyria Chronicles follows through with the thoughtful tactics genre fans expect, delivered in a manner so inviting that even those who usually avoid SRPGs will find something to love. Forget the usual staples of map grids and restricted movement. As with most similar turn-based games, you'll begin each turn by selecting the unit you wish to maneuver, but once you've done that, you zoom in on that character and take full control of him or her from a third-person perspective. From here, movement feels much like that of a third-person shooter, though an action bar limits how far you can travel before that move is finished. Of course, this isn't actually a shooter; you can't freely shoot at enemies during this period--rather, you get a single chance to perform a chosen action. Depending on the unit, that might mean sniping an enemy shock trooper, healing a friendly, or repairing the Edelweiss, your ever-important tank.
This system is both unique and liberating, because it retains much of the challenge of traditional RPGs while removing the limitations we've come to expect. Maps are often huge and throw surprises at you like sandstorms and searchlights, which layer complications onto general tactical considerations, such as unit weaknesses (scouts are vulnerable to shock troopers but can traverse great distances, for example) and cover opportunities (you can crouch behind sandbags or hide behind walls). Yet for all its complexities, Valkyria Chronicles is never difficult to interact with, and it's a wonder that some of its user-friendly features are so uncommon in the genre. You can save at almost any time midbattle, and you can reuse the same units within a single turn, though ammo restrictions and reduced movement capabilities will keep you from exploiting this particular facet. And while you can permanently lose a recruit, you have a few turns to revive him or her by calling in a medic, at which point the unit is removed from the battlefield (but can be resummoned or replaced).
But while your lost units can be replaced by others, you'll want to hold on to the ones you have. That isn't because you will lose an experienced unit; you don't level individuals, but rather, an entire class at one time. Every scout, for example, is at the same level regardless of which one you send to battle. Rather, it's because each soldier is incredibly individualized. They are all physically unique, and their oft-amusing voice-overs paint each unit in broad strokes, which will keep you invested in the ones you like the most. It's hard not to get attached to the meek engineer named Homer when he proclaims his loneliness when separated from his peers. Certain units also bring distinctive status effects to the battlefield, and in some cases, you may earn a new weapon after battle and can assign it to a particular favorite. All of these facets elevate your units from being random recruits and help draw you in to the game's slow-starting narrative.
The individual missions are terrific, placing a variety of interesting obstacles in your way and forcing you to use environments to your advantage. Mines may be scattered about, sniper towers allow you to get a bird's-eye view, and trenches might offer makeshift cover. Some of them may take a few tries as you get a feel for the map, but rising to a mission's challenges on the fly is highly satisfying. Maps such as a desert locale swirling with sand and littered with cover opportunities are visually appealing and offer plenty of tactical possibilities. Other levels, such as one in which you must knock down obstacles to delay a tank's slow progress, are clever and fun, while elements that are simply annoying in similar games (such as late-arriving groups of reinforcements) offer additional challenge without feeling cheap.
While it's easy to appreciate Valkyria Chronicles' individuality, it does suffer from a few noticeable issues, the artificial intelligence chief among them. Your AI foe often takes actions that will boggle your mind. Tanks waste entire turns driving ahead, only to return to the exact same spot. The AI will summon a half-dozen reinforcement snipers, which can't return fire during the player's turn, when you have multiple nearby shock troopers ready to take them down in a single turn. Scouts run directly toward entire groups of soldiers. When this issue is prominent, the challenge--and therefore the sense of reward for a completed mission--is somewhat diminished. The sensitive collision detection can also be a bit awkward, so you aren't always able to maneuver a character around with as much freedom as you like, and the camera is an occasional annoyance in close quarters.
But in a game as smart and delightful as Valkyria Chronicles, it's easy to look past these issues and take comfort in its fun and intelligent take on a genre that has plenty of room to grow. Yet while it is a fantastic new step forward for strategy RPGs, it's a lovely and enjoyable game in its own right, and if you own a PlayStation 3, you should also own a copy of Valkyria Chronicles.