Valkyria Chronicles

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Valkyria Chronicles is a pretty old game, dating to the PS3 era, and only recently ported to the PC. It is perhaps because of its relative age and the fact that it’s a ported game that Valkyria Chronicles’ mechanics feel clunky and unbalanced. Yet, the overall experience is weirdly addictive in a Civilisations-style, just-one-more-turn kind of way.

At its core, Valkyria Chronicles is an XCOM-esque, tactical turn-based RPG. In it, you control a squad of troops and spend action points to move your units around the battlefield and engage the enemy to fulfill a variety of objectives. The game is essentially a long single-player campaign set in a fictionalised, fantasy version of Europe, spread out over a number of “episodes”, each with its own mission or two. The game puts you in the position of a young tank commander, Welkin Gunther, defending his small homeland of Gallia from the depredations of a large, land-hungry Empire. The story campaign itself is doggedly mediocre, however, a cliche-riddled, utterly predictable medley of common anime tropes and maudlin platitudes about the horrors of war. Attempts at high drama and tragedy occur, but they feel marched out as part of a checklist of emotionally-charged scenarios that befit the game’s subject matter. The characters are cardboard: the protagonists boring do-gooders and the villains bombastic prattlers in the most unironic sense. It’s  a by-the-numbers attempt at storytelling that feels backward and simplistic when compared to the more sophisticated forms of video game narratives of today.

And it’s a shame, because orthogonal to the plot, the game’s worldbuilding and background history is actually quite well-done. The alternate world Europa feels both fresh and grounded in plausibility, and the flavour text scattered around the game adds a layer of interest to the macro-developments in the story. The game’s world is compelling enough for me to kind of want to see it used as a setting to tell better stories.

Valkyria Chronicle’s game mechanics also suffer from uneven execution. The game is fun, no doubt, but it’s fun in ways that are often frustrating in that could have been executed much better. There are two main design decisions that I think cripple the game’s overall quality. The first is the mission performance ranking system that is based purely on speed of mission accomplishment, and the second is an AI that feels deliberately nerfed.

The first decision grades the player’s performance in a mission based only on how many turns it took them to accomplish the objective. This creates a distortionary effect on the player’s gameplay decisions, causing the player to prioritize rushing over more tactical forms of gameplay. It also doesn’t reward players who choose to take their time and clear the map of enemies, or players who play cautiously to ensure that their squadmates don’t die, which I would’ve liked to have had as viable alternative strategies to fit different play-styles. It doesn’t help that the better you do in these rankings, the more money and experience points you have to improve your units and purchase better equipment for them, so it’s not like it’s just something you do for bragging rights – it actually has implications for your progress in the game.

The time-sensitive nature of reward also encourages another un-fun practice – save-scumming. That’s because many game elements are chance-based: accuracy, likelihood of evasion, etc. To get a good grade means that everything must occur perfectly – there must be no misses, no false moves. So, before you have your sniper take that shot, you save; then if he misses, you re-load and try again. Sometimes, this can be necessary to minimise frustration even when not trying for a good score – like in the final battle, where you must take down (regenerating) secondary targets every turn to grind at the final boss, except those targets are tiny and can only be taken down by lancers with poor accuracy that can miss even when they’re right next to the target. In those circumstances, save-scumming is less frustrating than playing it clean and having all your lancers miss and restarting the whole, tedious mission if something goes wrong.

The second, and possibly also somewhat more immersion-breaking aspect of gameplay, is the way in which the game seems to try to establish balance through intentionally making its AI less-than-brilliant. There were a lot of times when the AI could have pressed their advantage and killed me, but chose instead to do something else, often completely useless. Overpowered enemy tanks with infinite ammo could just roll up to mine and destroy it in a few hits if they so chose, but instead they choose to dither around and hit multiple targets. This is one way to achieve game balance, but it’s not a good one, because of two things: it denies the game a sense of legitimate challenge, and it takes you out of the story. The game’s battle scenarios give the player a sense of awe through spectacle – you fight giant city-sized tanks, mysterious invincible warriors, hordes of faceless gooks – but in order that these outsize threats don’t decimate your squad at first turn’s end with their inherent natural advantages, their AI needs to be barely functional. And it takes you out of the story, because the enemy’s brilliant commanders and Machiavellian plotters are revealed to actually just be battlefield dunces, which you can easily manipulate by capitalising on their peculiar limitations. I would have liked to see game balance established in a more adept way than just having an AI disparity, like limiting the enemy’s number of action points – which actually would also make the game go a lot faster.

All that said, however, I did enjoy Valkyria Chronicles for the gameplay and the worldbuilding, if not for its hackneyed story. There’s just something so innately appealing about the turn-based battle process that manages to overcome the design flaws and insipid plot and turn the overall experience into one that feels satisfying and addictive to pursue, for the most part. I think Valkyria Chronicles exemplifies the march of game design – in many ways, it hails from an era of games that were clunky but fun, their flaws and frustrations part of the holistic experience, a game that didn’t quite respect the player’s time but showed them loads of fun as long as players didn’t mind going along for the ride.

I give this game: 3.5 out of 5 Ruhms

 

 

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