Thursday, January 3, 2013

GOT 'IM - Valkyria Chronicles

This is the final game of my 2012 quest.  I didn't beat it until the evening January 1st, but I'm giving myself a pass because of my extremely hectic December, full of overtime work and culminating in my best friend's wedding.  The final completed game on my 2012 list, the venerable Valkyria Chronicles. 

I bought Valkyria Chronicles (VC from here on out) in 2010 when it was on sale for $18, down from $50.  Worth every penny.  Of course, I ended up lending it to two friends and eventually bought a second copy for $20 before I ended up playing it myself, but there ya go.  I played it, and I fucking loved it. 

I've always had a great appreciation for strategy RPGs.  I've been a big fan of Final Fantasy Tactics for 12 years, Disgaea for 8 years, and Fire Emblem for around 7 years, and well, that's a lot of strategy RPGs and a lot of years.  Valkyria Chronicles absolutely belongs in the same category of the best of each of those series. It's that good.  VC has two sequels on the PSP (one worldwide, one only in Japan), and I can tell you for a fact that I will buy VC II for myself sometime in the next four months.

VC blends third-person shooter with strategy RPG, a military strategy game set in a fictional, steampunk version of 1930s Europe ("Europa").  Each map is a sizeable 3D environment with open spaces, buildings, ample cover, and destructible assets.  You first view the map from above, with your units and visible enemies represented by blue and red circles.  Your number of actions per turn (or "phase") is limited by a stat called Command Points, or CP.  You choose a unit, and spend one CP to have it take a turn.  On a turn, a unit can run as far as its Action Points (AP) meter will allow (AP is basically running stamina), and take an action at any time during its turn.  Taking an action is usually firing a weapon or throwing a grenade.

Let me illustrate a typical VC phase.  So let's say I have four units and four CP available (normally I'd have 8-10 units and 12+ CP, but I'll go small for illustration's sake).  A typical turn might be moving a Scout up the map with my first turn and blowing up some cover bunkers with a grenade to expose enemy units, then darting back into cover and ending the turn (1 CP).  Then I'll move a Shocktrooper up the map and shoot one of the exposed enemies, but not quite kill him (2 CP).  Then I'll choose the Shocktrooper again, move him further up the map to better accommodate his shorter-range machine gun and wipe out the enemy I softened up before and try to use my remaining AP to get into cover with the Scout (3 CP).  If you have a unit take multiple turns within a phase, they have less AP to work with but can still take an action if they have available ammo (regular rifles and machine guns have unlimited ammo, unlike grenades, lances, and sniper rifles).  Then, with only one CP left, I'll activate a sniper and have it, well, snipe another exposed enemy (4 CP).

So the CP management in VC is pretty crucial.  Your CP is limited for each phase, but you can spend it among your units as evenly or unevenly as you like.  Infantry units each take one CP per turn, but moving a tank requires two CP.  Tanks are extremely powerful, with multiple weapons, heavy armor that can provide cover infantry units, and a ton of AP for long moves, but you need to use them sparingly.  CP and AP management is a major focus on success in combat in Valkyria Chronicles.  Your five main story characters (who can't permanently die and are quite useful on their own) each provide a bonus CP just from being on the field.  Even if a map doesn't call for using a Lancer at all, having Largo just hanging out on the back lines to provide an extra CP is both viable and totally sensible. 

Now, there are six classes in Valkyria Chronicles, with the Tank Commander class limited to just Welkin, your main character, and a second story character that joins much later.  Tank Commanders, well, control your tanks (one that you get early, and a second that joins roughly halfway through the game).  They're important, and your available tank commander(s) is/are a mandatory part of your team in almost every mission.  Next are Scouts, which are low in armor and firepower, but feature a large visual arc (great for spotting hidden enemies) and the highest movement of any class by far.  You use Scouts to move across the map quickly and to, well, scout out your opponents.  Next are Shocktroopers, probably the backbone of your team.  Troopers have much better HP and armor than Scouts, and are armed with machine guns and flamethrowers that are excellent mid-range and short-range damage weapons, respectively.  Troopers are your best units for taking out enemy infantry short of a big tank mortar round, and are probably my favorite class overall.  Lancers are heavy artillery, with heavy armor and anti-tank weapons.  Their Lance weapons can take out enemy tanks and other armored units as well as a tank's anti-armor shell, but Lancers are hindered by low AP and low accuracy.  Engineers are utility classes, with more AP than Troopers but less than Scouts, and they can disarm landmines and refill Tank, Lancer, and Sniper ammo rounds without using an Action!  Engineers also carry more grenades than other classes, are better healers than other classes, and can repair damaged tanks.  Last is Snipers, with the lowest AP, lowest HP, and worst armor of any of the classes, but possess sniper rifles whose range can span the entire map.  Snipers are all about landing that boom-headshot.

Your cast of playable characters starts with those five story characters and then draws from a pool of an additional 35-40 enlisted characters.  You unlock additional characters as the story progresses (or, er, you draft them), and eventually you'll have several of each class to choose from to make a roster of 20.  Your non-story characters each have a distinctive look, individual voice work, and a mini-bio that grows the more you use the character, but they never have direct story dialog or take an active role in the story.  For the record, my favorite non-story characters were Skies of Arcadia cameos Vyse and Aika (a Trooper and a Scout, respectively), the sadistic Jane (another Trooper), the ice queen Marina (a Sniper), and the flamboyantly gay Jann (a Lancer).  This cast reminded me of Fire Emblem in a lot of ways - you get a large cast of varied characters with a lot of uniqueness and personality, but the story dialog only moves through a few specific characters.

The characters are further made unique by their individual abilities, or Potentials. Each character has three or four Personal Potentials, which can be good or bad and are unlocked as you use the character more often.  For example, Aika, my favorite recruited Scout, starts with Pollen Allergy (she loses HP if she is surrounded by flowers or grasses) and eventually learns Runner's High (her defense increases if her AP bar is below half).  So that's one negative potential and one positive (Scouts will move around a lot and are vulnerable to gunfire, so Runner's High is quite good).  In addition to Personal Potentials, each character has four Battle Potentials, which are always positive and are unlocked by leveling up classes.  That's right - when you gain EXP after battles, you don't give it to individual characters, you level up entire classes.  It makes switching characters in and out easier, with only Personal Potentials needing to be unlocked.  Aika's Battle Potentials include Nocturnal (both aiming and awareness are undiminished in nighttime maps) and Double Movement (randomly allowed to move twice as far when taking a turn).  Aika's skills are perfectly suited to a Scout; it's not all because I love Skies of Arcadia. 

So when you have 35+ characters with all these different classes and potentials, you have a good amount of diversity available to your team.  Now let's talk strategy - Valkyria Chronicles always has the odds against you, but is rarely "unfair" with overpowered enemy units and always gives you a route to victory.  Trying to get an A-rank on every mission (a factor only of mission completion time) is extremely challenging and sometimes requires a very specific strategy, but generally there is more than one path to victory.  My only beefs with the mission and map selection are a few of the more gimmicky maps, which are less strategic and more "don't fuck up and get caught by this searchlight or that landmine" sequences. 

Combat's other big aspect is, well, the active part of it.  When a character takes a turn, you control the running and shooting like you would in a 3rd-person shooter.  There's a semblance of a cover system involved (nothing quite like Uncharted or Gears of War, but a little bit of that), but mostly it's about avoiding HAILS of cover fire from the enemy and aiming intelligently.  There's an element of chance involved in accuracy, but it's only occasionally really frustrating when you miss a target - if/when that happens, it's usually because of the hilarious inaccurate early-game Lances trying to fire at a distance. 

So the gameplay's great.  I alluded to A-ranking battles and leveling classes via EXP earlier, and both of those are things that happen.  After every battle you receive a rank, and based on that rank you get a bunch of EXP and money ("ducats", which made me laugh the first few time I saw it written down).  You use EXP to level up classes and learn new Orders, which are basically special temporary bonuses that you can use by spending CP.  The easiest way to defeat some bosses is to get a unit in position, load them up with powerful Orders, and then let them unload on the boss.  Money lets you upgrade weapons, armor, or tank parts, or donate to the local newspaper to unlock cutscenes about your troops.  Some of those newspaper donations also unlock special battle maps called Reports.

If you find yourself getting behind in the EXP or money department, you can complete Reports or replay certain chapters of the main story in Skirmish mode, in which the selection of playable chapters is identical except for replacing bosses with regular enemies.  You can grind if you want or need to, but it's perfectly possible to beat the game without doing a single Skirmish (though getting high ranks on story battles helps a lot).  There's a fair amount of customization to be found in VC, and a smattering of optional content.  Not so bad.  There are even a few DLC missions, but I haven't tried any of those.

So that's enough gameplay, let's talk narrative.  VC has totally adequate dialog (good at times, normal-RPG at others), an imaginative storyline (steampunk version of World War II), and some really likeable character designs.  I got really attached to the main crew of Welkin, Alicia, Rosie,  Largo, and even some of the recruits by game's end, especially since many of them are involved in adorable in-game romances and have lots of codex material going into backstory.  Some of the recruits even have their Potentials play into their personality, with the aloof Marina having no friends in the army (Marina's a loner, and friendship status in your squad gives you occasional cover fire bonuses) and getting higher stats when she fights alone. Characters each have a distinct look and strong voice work that enhances the overall appearance of a large, diverse, likeable cast.

The story is pretty interesting as far as RPG contrivance and cliches work.  You have a trans-continental ongoing war, with the tiny nation of Gallia caught in the middle.  Using the WW II analogy some more, the eastern Imperials are squared off against the western Alliance (the Imperials are clearly the evil aggressors, but the Alliance aren't exactly the good guys here), and Gallia is a neutral nation like Holland or Belgium.  Gallia is under Imperial occupation, as it has rich resources of Ragnite, a catch-all power source material.  Your central characters are all part of the civilian Gallian Militia, which is an overlooked organization that the Regular Army uses as cannon fodder at times and for undesirable missions at other times.  Of course, the Militia commander is a voice of reason to the ignorant Army generals, but your team (Squad 7 of the Militia) always seems to be in key encounters that decide the fate of the war (go figure).

Also of note in the storyline are Darcsens and Valkyrians, the oppressed race (i.e. Jews) and mythical "master race" (i.e.... modern white-washed Christian religious figures?  I guess?) of Valkyria Chronicles.  Racism and discrimination against the Darcsens is a major element of VC's world-building, and is responsible for a number of plot events and character turns, all of them interesting and appropriate.  Several of the game's villains are layered and even sympathetic at times, and I was honestly sad to see one of them in particular fall.  Basically, VC has great characters and an interesting storyline that made me care.  Can't say that about every RPG.

Now visuals and audio are also way strong.  VC uses an almost hand-drawn aesthetic that is extremely successful.  In clear conditions (no smoke or fog in the scenery), characters look great, with bold colors that have a certain softness, like colored pencils.  When things fade out or if a character is walking through fog, things fade between color and black and white pencil - it's a really astonishing feat.  At the artistic level, the only better-looking games I played in 2012 were Okami HD and *maybe* Mass Effect 3.  Valkyria Chronicles might be 4 or 5 years old, but it still looks awesome. Cutscenes are every bit as good as the in-battle visuals as well, giving everything a very smooth, contiguous look.  The soundtrack to VC is also excellent, composed by Hitoshi Sakimoto, who also did Final Fantasy Tactics.  Strong orchestral themes that are particularly good at evoking tense dread and soaring triumph.  Really good audio overall, and good enough to make me pause and just listen in for awhile, or even view the opening menu cinematic multiple times in succession.  That's more than I can say about a lot of RPG music. 

So look, with a few hangups aside (some obtuse menu navigation, some maps that rely on gimmicks, a few characters with annoying voices), I really loved Valkyria Chronicles.  Definitely one of my favorite games played this year.  My biggest complaint is that at 18 episodes and perhaps 25-28 maps, I wish the game were longer.  That's a pretty good "biggest complaint."

Games Beaten: 2012 Edition
1. Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins
2. Radiant Historia
3. Mass Effect
4. Mass Effect 2
5. Breath of Death VII: The Beginning (Hard mode)
6. Grandia II
7. On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness - Episode 2
8. Mass Effect 3
9. Journey
10. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker
11. Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP
12. Star Ocean: Second Evolution
13. Red Dead Redemption
14. On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 3
15. Persona 3 FES
16. Final Fantasy XII
17. DeathSpank: Thongs of Virtue
18. Super Mario Galaxy
19. The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess
20. Fire Emblem: Fuuin no Tsurugi
21. Torchlight II
22. Rogue Galaxy 
23. Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana
24. Okami
25. Civilization V: Gods & Kings
26. Valkyria Chronicles

Targets: 11/12


So that's that.  I had to take an extra day, but I beat Valkyria Chronicles and ended with eleven of my twelve targets completed for 2012.  That's not bad.  I did better than expected.  But I'm not done with my weird game-scheduling tendencies, oh no.  After I get home from work today interested readers (all five of you) will get acquainted with my newest game-playing project: 13 in '13.  

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