[Traveling games journalist Quintin Smith looks at over-the-shoulder strategy in Sega's sleeper PlayStation 3 title Valkyria Chronicles, exploring the title's little-publicized depth and charm.]
A few weeks back an acquaintance of mine who used to work for Edge dropped out of games journalism. You can read his exit letter here,
where he expresses his frustration that what he calls the most interesting game of last year, Valkyria Chronicles
, got scant coverage. I've got a load of problems with Valkyria Chronicles
, but I can put them to one side. This one's for you, dude!
A small note for any of you who ignored this game because of what's implied by the anime art direction- Valkyria Chronicles
' closest relatives are in fact small-scale strategy games like Jagged Alliance
and Freedom Force
. You know, that mythical genre that lets everyone have fun asking "Why does nobody make games like that these days?"
The only significant difference between Valkyria Chronicles
and those classics is that instead of trapping you twenty metres above the action in an isometric camera Valkyria Chronicles
prefers to drop you into the thick of things. When you're giving orders to a unit the camera sits behind them in a 3rd person perspective, and you steer them around just like you would in a third person shooter with enemies taking shots at you.
When you're done the game zooms back out to a hand-drawn paper map, allowing you to select the next unit. After you've moved all your guys it's then time for the AI to move theirs in the same style, meaning it's time for you to take what's coming to you like a man. Or, you know, time for you to go get a cup of tea while humming loud enough that you can't hear the screams of your troops.
If you're thinking that makes Valkyria Chronicles
worth playing because it's a really clever hybrid of real-time and turn-based strategy touched by the immersion and excitement that comes from a third person shooter, well, you'd be right. And you'd probably creep me out a bit too since those are the exact words I'd have used. But there's another side to the design of Valkyria Chronicles
that I consider far more important than its experimentation with controls, timing and camera angles.
You first encounter it after the tutorial missions, when botanist protagonist Welkin Gunther finally finds himself captaining your rag-tag militia squad. Welkin's called into the office of his superior officer, given a sheaf of personal profiles and told to pick out who's going to be in Squad 7.
Each profile consists of a picture, a portrait, a brief bio and some known facets of their character, and when you look at profiles in more detail you get a short cutscene of that would-be soldier coming in and introducing themselves to you. This was easily my favourite gaming moment of 2008, just because of the immediate impression that Welkin arrived very, very late to the troop roster.
A game hasn't made me laugh so hard in ages. There's Ted Ustinov, who likes making people laugh but is allergic to most metals. There's Wavy, who doesn't have a second name but everyone agrees is very kind. Nancy Dufour is a renowned klutz. Theold's a racist. This guy's a misogynist. That guy can't stand getting his uniform dirty. This guy has a single trait which just reads "Lonely".
There's one thing all these personalities have in common though. They signed up to defend their home.
Inglorious Nice People
This is where the subtleties of the game start to reveal themselves to you. Whether someone's a chatterbox, flirt or has a temper, all of it affects their performance in combat. To get the most out of your Squad 7 you need to get the most out of each individual, and that means getting to know them.
Aside from this being a really fun system it consciously pushes what's often everyone's favourite aspect of this genre- getting emotionally attached to your soldiers. Not only do the characters in your squad have a ton of colour to start off with, as they cut their teeth in battle they gain more and more traits for you to keep in mind, and as you use specific people over and over their biographies become fleshed out in the game's menu.
You learn where Oscar got his scar, or that Nadine is penning a novel. Even with Valkyria Chronicles
's lightweight writing and family-friendly interpretation of war (and, eventually, its borderline callous treatment of concentration camps) you'll find yourself wrapped up in the personalities of your team (three of which, incidentally, are characters from Skies of Arcadia
The neat twist of this system is that it makes natural at least some of the slow increase in complexity we expect from games. As a squad commander, of course you're going to get to know your men and women better as you lead them from mission to mission. That Valkyria Chronicles
demands you take these personalities into account when deciding your next move means the more time you spend with your squad, the more factors you have to take into every decision.
The other achievement here is how overwhelmingly human and engaging this system makes strategy. Say you're controlling famed ladies man Hermes Kissinger (though you've recently found out he's actually bisexual). If Hermes achieves something incredible, some snap shot or mission-winning dodge, you become that much more fascinated by him. Whereas in most RTS games that emotional response would have been applied to luck or yourself and quickly dissipated, in Valkyria Chronicles
it's harnessed and applied to the character, sucking you into the game and the action further.
The Big Red One
Now, sometimes when you're playing a small-scale strategy game like this there can be a dark, bloodcurdling core to it. I'm talking about permanent character death, the agonising kiss of which anyone who played X-Com
or the original Final Fantasy Tactics
will be familiar with. I'm all for this system because it makes combat that much more exciting, but it can potentially hurt your devotion to the game so badly that you might never pick it up again. There's always the option to replay the mission and try and best it without losing anybody, but that smacks of tedium and being a sore loser.
The developers at Sega Wow have come up with a way around this, and it's simple enough that I'm comfortable calling it genius. So, on rare occasions you can lose people in Valkyria Chronicles.
It happens if one of your troops gets put down and you fail to get another soldier over to them in time to call for a medic.
The simple fix present here is unique dialogue which has been written and recorded for every single soldier for this eventuality. When you lose somebody you get a small cutscene turning the event from a miserable failure on your part into a full-blown emotional moment that you remember and become touched by, dialogue you'd never have heard otherwise. Through very little effort on the part of the developers an irritation in the game design becomes smoothed into part of the story.
Thinking about it, it's staggering that we've been playing strategy games for so long and so few have tried to simulate the human elements of being a squad commander. Lord knows I'd play a game that in between missions gave you the run of wherever you camped that night, expecting you to gauge and improve the morale of your boys, break up fights, predict and counter mutinies, give speeches and punish desertion, with your invisible performance in these segments affecting how each subsequent mission plays out.
Until that game, though, there's Valkyria Chronicles,
and next year there'll be Valkyria Chronicles 2
on PSP. As much as sequels in Japan have a nasty tendency to play it safe, that might end up being interesting too. It's vying for the Persona
buck, with protagonists who are all students at a military academy and have to juggle warfare with their studies. Could be interesting! Could be trite. But after the original game I'll be more than happy to suck it and see.
[Quinns is a freelance journalist who has fun working for Eurogamer, contributing to Rock Paper Shotgun and reading Action Button. You can currently find him in the damp Irish city of Galway or at gmail dot com.]