Digital war is hell, man.
Both of my grandpas served in World War II, and I occasionally picked their brains about their time as officers before the Air Force became its own branch. For the most part, they were open about their roles since they never (to the best of my knowledge) experienced frontline combat. One of my grandma’s friends even compiled a bunch of letters, pictures, and other memorabilia into a book that featured some cameos from my grandparents. However, there is one event during the Great War that nobody in my family wanted to talk about: the Battle for Gallia. Whenever I tried to bring up an event that history often omits—an important World War II milestone that featured Emperor Maximilian and Norse Valkyries—my grandpas would go silent, often changing the subject to school or baseball. As I grew older, curiosity finally got the better of me. I needed to know what, exactly, happened. I carefully confronted one of my grandpas while he was watching the Golf Channel and said, “Grandpa, tell me how important the Battle for Gallia was.” He stared blankly at the screen for several seconds before letting out a long, exhausted sigh. He took a sip from his Old Crow on ice, his bourbon of choice, and looked me in the eyes. “Son. We dodged a Goddamn bullet.”
Now that I have your attention, my relationship with Valkyria Chronicles is much less cool. In 2014, somewhere between getting accepting to and leaving for grad school, I wanted to play a PlayStation 3 strategy RPG. The game that actually introduced me to the genre was Shining Force II for the Sega Genesis, a game that still ranks among the best in my collection (I spent four years of my youth looking for a cartridge of the game, but that’s a story for another time). In any event, I like Sega games, someone suggested Valkyria Chronicles, I found it for cheap, and it proceeded to sit on my shelf once I moved. I played it in spurts here and there, but this marks the first time I finally devoted several hours of my time to complete it. Eventually, the CF Chatterbox Discord community staged an intervention and forced me to play the game in its entirety before I could join them in Valkyria Chronicles 4. How’d I feel about my time with the game? Let’s dive into that now.
If my tongue-in-cheek intro didn’t give it away, Valkyria Chronicles is a World War II-inspired drama set within a fantasy world with Valkyries. Think Ancient Aliens except it’s more fun and makes more sense. Essentially, Gallia is a small nation with the misfortune of being located between two larger warring powers: the Atlantic Federation and the East Europan Imperial Alliance. Gallia could be any number of possible smaller countries during World War I or World War II. The story follows a young college student named Welkin Gunther who returns to his hometown of Bruhl just in time to see it invaded by the nefarious Empire. Welkin is actually the son of a famous general and, with the help of his adopted kid sister Isara, becomes the commander of a tank named the Edelweiss. Alicia Melchiott, a member of Bruhl’s town watch, escapes with him. The two join Squad 7 of the Gallian Militia and the game is off to the races. The story unfolds via eighteen book chapters starting with the escape from Bruhl to the final battle with
German Emperor Maximilian’s forces. Although the game is set in a fictional universe, the enemies generally bear less-than-subtle similarities with powers like the Nazis, so the game generally stays away from displaying sympathetic sides of the Empire. Ultimately, the game does a great job of portraying the cacophony and hellscape of total war, including atrocities, racism, tough decisions, usurping smaller countries, casualties, grief, and malaise (more on that one later).
As for its artistic style, Valkyria Chronicles is known for its sleek cel shaded designs, which reminded me of Wild Arms 3. The story is told through a combination of visual novel aesthetics, character portraits, and full-scale cutscenes. Sound effects also appear on the screen as words like “Kaboom,” “Pow,” or “Smash” would appear in a comic book. Finally, the game features full voice acting to boot.
Gameplay: A Genre-Melder of SRPGs
You know me. I’m all about those genre-melders! Fortunately, Valkyria Chronicles integrated a lot of features to pique my interest. In addition to its art design, Valkyria Chronicles blends several gameplay mechanics together. A defining characteristic of the SRPG genre is that combat is generally turn-based and arranged on a grid. Unlike typical RPGs that feature any number between one and six party members (I’m looking at you, Suikoden), SRPG teams are generally quite larger and a turn does not end until each character has moved. Then the opponent moves and so forth. This is the first manner in which the game melds two distinct genres together as the gamer has considerable freedom about where to position their troops on the battle map. Instead of moving via grid boxes, Squad 7 recruits move through Action Points (AP) that allow any character to move around until their AP bar depletes. Since they are not restricted by grids, these characters can walk/run straight, diagonally, backwards (which I unfortunately did a few times), stutter around (I also did this a bit more than I should have), and even stand right smack dab in the battlefield as they wait to get sniped (that too…). What’s cool about this feature is that any character (provided they have resources like ammo) can go as many times as the gamer wishes, although their AP bar will decrease with each subsequent move. In theory, depending on the class, a player-controlled character can annihilate multiple enemies on the screen in quick succession. This brings up the classes in the game, which is another standard convention of the genre. In addition to tanks, there are five distinct classes: Scouts, Shocktroopers, Anti-Tank Lancers, Engineers, and Snipers. I won’t spend any time explaining their strengths and weaknesses as you can figure those out yourselves, but each class has distinct AP levels. For example, Scouts can run across some battle maps in one turn by the end of the game while Snipers will have to wait in the rear due to their long-range shots and low HP. What’s also unique about this battle system is that each shot requires aiming like an action-adventure or first-person shooter. This means that while some actions like a headshot will be randomized in another SRPG, the gamer actually has to aim and work for them in Valkyria Chronicles. As a nerd who spent a lot of time researching and writing about perceptions of freedom and control in video game genres, Valkyria Chronicles is a gem because I can’t think of any other SRPG that combines turn-based combat, the free-roaming of action-adventure (albeit with limitations), the ability to aim, and even stealth mechanics for good measure.
Anything to Dislike?
Despite the game’s credentials, there were a few things that I noticed during my (long) journey. First, the game does have a leveling up system like most SRPGs. Characters can equip class-specific items purchased or pillaged along the way, which will increase combat readiness. Each character also has certain “Personality Potentials” and “Battle Potentials” that will unlock up to four attributes per category (although it is worth noting that not all of these are positive). Classes also technically become eligible for promotion (i.e. like Shining Force and Fire Emblem) once they reach Level 11, becoming “elite” versions of their extant classes. Aside from certain perks, orders, AP increases, and modest HP increases, that’s about it when it comes to leveling up. As a personal preference, I typically like it when my characters level up based on how much I use them individually and not so much which class they belong to. It’s been a preference ever since Shining Force II allowed me to have a phoenix and a ninja rat in my party, and it's one I don’t see ending any time soon.
In addition, the game may have benefited from battle checkpoints as some events brought about massive levels of frustration. This can be overridden by saving during battle, but that could also be a risky strategy if characters are arranged in precarious positions on the map. Ultimately, it’s more or less a minor gripe, and I perhaps should have known better since I grew up with JRPGs and understand the importance of not only saving, but demonstrating caution during turn-based combat. Still, this minor inconvenience sort of ties into a larger point I’ll make about the game.
Like Leg Day, This Game Is Exhausting
Today was leg day, so I couldn’t think of a more appropriate comparison for my experience with Valkyria Chronicles. Whether or not you go into leg day pumped or lethargic, you know that the workout is probably going to be taxing. I was similarly exhausted while playing Valkyria Chronicles. First, the narrative is emotionally-charged since it depicts the horrors of war. It’s certainly not the cruelest game I have ever played, but there are moments that quickly get heavy. Second, and more to the point, battles became progressively more difficult, but the challenge never really seemed to amplify beyond my threshold...until Chapter 7. Around that time, the game started to throw in big-ass tanks, invulnerable foes, and “Luke, remember your training” voiceovers that would have been much more helpful if I paid attention in class rather than doodling on some sweet Trapper Keeper folders. After holding my hand for the first six chapters, the game threw me to the wolves, which I understand was a common realization for many who played it. I suddenly had to use “strategy,” as I reminded myself what the “S” actually stood for.
Shining Force II was the catalyst that initiated my love for RPGs. However, it also taught me an important lesson in gaming: patience. For those of you who have already played it, you’ll remember that there is a unique Chess battle about halfway through the game that you needed to prepare for in advance since you are stuck in a land without item shops or any ability to farm gold if you need it. Somehow, when I first reached that point in 6th grade, I beat it on my first try. Pretty impressive, huh? Unfortunately, I tried to replicate that a second time a few weeks later, but died repeatedly. I became so frustrated that I had to work my way up slowly in order to finally win after several hours. Thanks to Shining Force II, I’m now conditioned to grind in SRPGs, meaning I am generally patient with this approach as it means I probably won’t be slaughtered in battle. It’s a good strategy for the most part, although two exceptions I discovered are XCOM that becomes harder the longer you drift away from the mission and Valkyria Chronicles that doesn’t necessarily level with you if you grind, but definitely becomes a slog when you try to stack battles repeatedly. Long battles are expected in SRPGs, but there were moments when I felt like I wasted my time. On one such occasion, I timed how long the fourth skirmish took on my first try. After 40 minutes when things were looking bleak towards the end, I said, “Am I about to die?” I somehow got out of it, but barely.
That example was about halfway through the game. Things would only get more ridiculous. Reflecting on Shining Force II, I’d like to think that I learned patience with the genre after that epic Chess battle. I was reminded of that battle during Valkyria Chronicles as it had an uncanny ability to force me to say, “I shouldn’t have done that…” immediately after a move I knew was poor. Towards the later chapters, I realized my grinding strategy wasn’t actually working out that well. Hell, I even stayed up until 1 AM the other night, only to learn that I severely messed up and wasted more than two hours of my time. Such missions were my breaking point. I was exhausted and opted to find ways to cheese the game. Despite my patient playing style, that’s when it dawned on me that the game rewards you for finding these loopholes. I wasn’t exactly seeking “A” or “B” mission grades when I was looking for help, but they certainly saved me a ton of time as well as my sanity. In a way, these approaches remind me of when I studied for the LSAT during a time I thought I wanted to practice law. Logic games can be difficult, but once you find a way to cheese them, perhaps they become fun (no, the LSAT isn’t fun). Ultimately, for as frustrating as Valkyria Chronicles is at times, the game seems to revel in its self-awareness and rewards you for finding the quickest path from Point A to Point B. To some extent, solving that path can be pretty fun, and it was interesting to stumble across the various ways to win, provided the gamer has the tolerance to stick around until the end. I wish I knew this in advance before I tried to grind repeatedly in the side missions.
If leg day is a proper analogy for my time with Valkyria Chronicles, it is also worth noting that one generally feels quite accomplished after exercising those large muscle groups. You’re gassed, hungry, and sweaty, but you did it! Congrats! Similarly, I felt very accomplished when I gutted out the game and finished it, knowing it was one I had to play several years later. It boasts a gripping story and it’s one of the most original SRPGs I’ve played. Thus, it deserves recognition and its accolades for its generic fusions. Having said that, despite the high score, I can’t see myself playing Valkyria Chronicles again. It became such a huge time commitment that I haven’t had time to play my other games. I don’t mind playing games for hours on end, but this was a time suck that tested my will and often took every ounce of fortitude to continue. Even though I am happy I played it and can finally contribute to its discussion, it’s time to move on. I might have to take a break from SRPGs altogether after this one. Huh? What’s that? My Discord group is making me play Valkyria Chronicles 4 with them? Ah, damnit…