Anyone familiar with my gaming proclivities knows that one of my absolute, all-time favorite series is the Fire Emblem series. I bought a 3DS solely for Awakening back in 2013 (the limited edition Fire Emblem model, to boot), and it was my game of the year. In fact, as it stands right now, I maintain that Fire Emblem Awakening is my second favorite game of all, right behind Sonic Adventure 2 (which … yeah). I’ve played Fire Emblem Awakening through several times, and I recently grew tired of my attempts at completing it on Lunatic difficulty mode, which lives up to its name. I was searching for a replacement, and I briefly found one in XCOM, though complications involving save files and a rapidly-filling SSD made such endeavors … frustrating. I remembered that a friend of mine had sent me several games I’d put on my Steam wishlist through the years as a Christmas gift, and among them was Valkyria Chronicles. I’d heard great things, and was excited to try it out. It did not disappoint.
To be clear: to imply that Valkyria Chronicles is in the same genre as Fire Emblem would be a misstep; while they are similar in their art styles and presentation, the gameplay of Valkyria Chronicles is different from anything else I’ve ever played, and that works in its favor. A mix of tactical strategy and third-person shooter combined with some really smart resource management mechanics make Valkyria Chronicles perhaps the most challenging and rewarding strategy game I’ve ever played.
The first thing you’ll probably notice about this game is that it’s absolutely gorgeous. The art style of Valkyria Chronicles consistently walks the line between anime and pastel, neither of which I would have expected to like as much as I do. The gameplay and cutscenes both utilize the same beautiful environments and character models, and I could be easily convinced that I was actually playing a long Miyazaki film. Not only is this apt from its appearance, but also from its storytelling and the way, not unlike the Fire Emblem series, you grow close to your various soldiers from their interactions on and off the battlefield.
The main gameplay sections take place on the battlefield, first giving you an aerial view of the map your units, and the enemy’s are inhabiting. The map looks like just that — a map — and a clever cartographic view at your units and their surroundings allows for a surprisingly deep amount of strategy and placement potential. Each turn, you have a set amount of Command Points you can use to move any number of your units in any combination. Your units range from the quick-but-weak Scouts, to the brute-force Stormtroopers (no, not the FN-2187 kind), to the centerpiece of your military: Edelweiss, a massive tank that takes two CPs to move. Proper movement and allocation of these Command Points is the key to victory, and one must be careful to end their turn with everyone in a good position to fire back at the enemy.
Upon selecting a unit to move, you zoom in on their icon on the map and suddenly the whole world comes alive and you’re controlling the actual person with an over-the-should camera reminiscent of a third-person shooter. The game world itself mirrors the map perfectly, with enemy units in stark contrast to the vibrant landscapes, all within the scope of the game’s art style.
Again, like Fire Emblem, these units are by and large real characters with roles in the game’s story, if you choose to delve into the game’s lore a little deeper — and you will. There is a perma-death mechanic, but Valkyria is kind enough to include a Medic mechanic which allows you to emergency evac a fallen unit, just taking them out of the action until the end of the battle at hand. This is a smart way to handle things, and was pleasant in comparison to the constant restarting upon the death of any of my units in a Fire Emblem game. I was still penalized by losing their help (and, in the case of some units, the Command Points they provided me with), but not so much that I felt inclined to restart the battle unless I absolutely had to.
Valkyria Chronicles is a game of constantly weighing the odds, especially where the Edelweiss is concerned. The tank has a massive amount of offensive power, but it can’t move a whole lot on each turn (each unit has a particular amount of Action Points available to it that dictate how far it can move with each Command Point — the tank has very few), and if you happen to leave its backside vulnerable to a nearby tank or Lancer unit, you’re toast. If you lose the tank, it’s game over — the one exception to the Medic rule.
In addition to this need for balance on the battlefield, there’s just as much required off of it. After each battle you get some of two resources — money and experience. Your money can be spent on upgrades to your units’ weapons and armor, and on augmentations for the Edelweiss. The experience can be spent on army-wide upgrades to each specific class. Early on these resources are plentiful, but they become more sparing as the hours go on.
Besides the upgrades is the actual question of who should make up your army proper. You have a set amount of people you can put on active duty, and fewer still you can bring in to each battle from there. It’s up to you how you want to make up your army, but the game itself is again weighed in your favor, allowing any and all upgrades to apply not just to whoever you’re using in a given battle, but to every single unit of that type. It sounds like a cop-out, but I was still grateful to have the ability to pick and choose and switch around between units to find exactly what I wanted without penalty.
All of this is presented in the confines of a fictional book about the struggles of the fictional European country of Gallia. The cutscenes, battles, and upgrade menus are all accessed from this book, and it’s a clever and simple way of tying everything together.
The story in Valkyria Chronicles is endearing and entertaining, but it’s in no way the only draw. Our principle characters are thrown together very quickly, and they’re all likable enough to care about what happens to them in the battles. The story plays out as a sort of fictional retelling of World War II in an alternate history, and it’s actually pretty interesting if you want to pay attention to it. Once again ever-merciful, Valkyria Chronicles also gives you the option to completely ignore the story and get right to the action, which is also nice.
Simply put, Valkyria Chronicles is one of the best games I’ve ever played. It’s a little bit better on its native home, the PlayStation 3, but its PC port is a worthy way to play it as well. If you’ve got a few extra bucks and a decent computer, pick it up. You won’t regret it.