Valkyria Chronicles 4
Valkyria Chronicles 4 arrives to not only bring the franchise back to the West, but to its roots as well. While it takes a bit of time to get going, it's an engaging sequel that will keep you playing mission after mission. Come inside for my full review!
Valkyria Chronicles is back to form with the fourth entry in the franchise. The first game launched ten years ago and fans have been waiting a long time to see another game just like it. Yes, there was a Valkyria Chronicles 2 and 3, but they only launched on the PSP (and 3 never arrived in the West) and changed enough to feel distinctly different. Then there’s Valkyria Revolution, a recently failed attempt to take the franchise on a generic action-RPG route.
As such, VC4 feels like exactly the sequel fans have been waiting for. This is both good and bad, however, as it also feels like a game trapped by its predecessor. Let’s dive into it:
The basics of Valkyria Chronicles 4 is pretty simple, you're engaged in an alternate history version of World War II. This is much like the previous games in the franchise and actually takes place during the same time period as the first game (just following a different part of the war and new characters). It's billed as being a previously "unknown story" of the war, so it fits firmly within the previous games while still being able to tell a new story.
This is both a good and bad thing. It's great because aside from the setting, the connections to the other games are fairly tenuous. Your characters hail from Gallia, the same country you're working to liberate in the first Valkyria Chronicles...but that's about all the connection you have. That information isn't used much, and the story puts the focus on your team, Squad E, working behind enemy lines to survive and push back against the villainous Empire.
While some fans may not like this, it makes this game highly accessible to new players. If you've never played a Valkyria Chronicles game before, you can dive right into VC4 without feeling lost. Even if it's been a while since you've played the last game, you won't need a refresher before playing the new game.
The bad part of this, however, is the story doesn't have close to the same emotional impact as the others. Being that it sits within the context of the other games, there's not the same sense of resolution to the story. It's harder to become attached to the characters as well, mostly due to how they tell the story this time around.
You jump right into the action, with a crew of soldiers who've clearly been working together for a while and have a history. Even as new crewmembers show up with deep connections to the primary character, Claude, you're not given a whole lot of information to go on.
It's not until much later in the game that you're given more backstory on characters. Up until that point, the characters seem to fill out typical anime cliches, with all the melodrama that implies. Once the shift happens, though, the game steps up a notch and I found myself much more invested in the story being told. It's a really odd storytelling decision to hold off on key character details until so late in the game. While I was interested enough in the story to keep going and see what happened next, it was more because of the WAR story being told, rather than any connection to the characters.
Addictive Tactical Gameplay
If you played the original Valkyria Chronicles (or its remastered version), the gameplay will be instantly familiar. It plays out in the same fashion as you take control of your squad in a couple different ways. Each mission starts off in Command Mode, giving you an overview of the map. While it's a simplistic map of the battlefield, with your characters represented by tiny symbols (notating a soldier’s class), it offers a chance to plan out your next move and see the routes you need to take.
You use Combat Points (CP) to move your soldiers one at a time. Once selected, the game zooms you into a third-person mode, allowing you to take direct control of your units. You move about the map, but you're limited by the action meter which drains as you move. You attack enemies directly, having to aim, and then take cover. It's an odd mix of mechanics that, on paper, seem like they shouldn't mesh well together...but they do. The combination makes for a satisfying blend of strategy and real-world play that's highly addictive.
Once all your Command Points are used up (and you can use them multiple times on the same unit), your turn ends and the enemy has a chance to move/attack. This is where thinking ahead comes into play. If you’ve left units out in the open, instead of behind some sort of cover, they’re more vulnerable. You also want to make sure you leave units in a good spot to make it easier to reach objectives in the next turn. Finding this balance between safety and maneuverability is all part of the fun strategy.
There are a couple new things thrown into the mix, like the Grenadier class soldiers. These units can attack from a distance with powerful mortar attacks, allowing you to reach enemies that may otherwise be inaccessible, or hitting tank weak spots from other angles. They added a new layer of strategy to the mix and were pretty much always part of my squad in battle (they REALLY came in handy for some boss battles).
Other new things include orders you can make from Command Mode, as well as the ability radio in support from nearby battleships, who can reign down destruction on enemy positions. These are neat and, when used at the right moment, can completely turn the tide of battle. Like all things within the game, however, planning ahead pays off more than trying to strategize on the fly.
There's also a "Last Stand" ability where dying units can make one more action to attack enemies or sacrifice themselves in order to give you back Command Points to use in the same turn. Frankly, I tried to use this as little as possible, since I hate having units die on me. But hey, it's still a nifty option to have available.
On the whole, however, not much as changed in terms of gameplay from the original game. The new additions are fun to play around with, but like the story not picking up until halfway through, the new stuff doesn't come in until much later. It makes for a refreshing change of pace when they come in, but it still seems a bit odd to save for later.
Valkyria Chronicles 4 is very much a JRPG, and much of the story plays out in the same tradition of over dramatic anime. Much like the first game, the story is told via "chapters" out of Claude's personal journal of the events throughout the war. Many of the cutscenes are like watching a visual novel with talking heads going back and forth. These are interspersed with more traditional 3D cutscenes, but there doesn't seem to be much reasoning between when, and why, they happen.
If you're a fan of JRPGs this isn't all that surprising or unexpected, but it does have some issues attached to it. Namely, the problem is pacing. Each mission can take anywhere between 20 minutes to a little over an hour to complete (depending on the win conditions), while the story that follows can give you 20-25 minutes of cutscenes. While I love story in games, sitting there holding down the next button on dialog boxes for the length of a TV show felt a little frustrating.
It's more frustrating that the game continually forces you back to "Book Mode" to select the next chapter before finishing the cutscene. This is a holdover from the original game, where everything is broken up via these chapters. I can understand the choice from a style perspective (it's Claude's journal which he would write in when he had breaks during the war), but for practical purposes it's very frustrating.
It feels like an unnecessary break in the cutscene as, more often than not, the next "chapter" picks up exactly where the last one did. Sure, you can take the break to hit up the skirmish mode for some practice battles, but there's no advancing the story without clicking on the next cutscene. At that point it's just another button to push as you wait to get back to the gameplay.
Oh, but that's not where the button pushing stops either. Like the first VC game, and many other JRPGs, there are a plethora of menus/sub-menus to sift through as you play. Getting to the minutiae of the game's leveling system, squad management, and tank/equipment changes can be a bit of a chore. While they're fun ways to improve your team and overall battle prowess, the endless amounts of menus to cycle through feels overly tedious (an XCOM-style setup would feel much more streamlined).
What's Old Is New
I know it sounds like there are a lot of complaints I seem to be listing, but they're more...disappointments. Valkyria Chronicles 4 does an excellent job of bringing the series back to its origins, but perhaps it does so too well. Many of the issues I've discussed are pulled straight from the first game. It's almost as though the developers were so intent on recapturing the original game, they brought over all its flaws as well.
While I love the first game (which I played as the remaster), it's clearly a 10 year old game and newer games in the same genre have found ways to streamline certain aspects. Valkyria Chronicles 4 ignores these updates and sticks with the formula from the original; thus feeling more like Valkyria Chronicles 1.5 rather than an entirely new entry.
Don't get me wrong, there's a LOT of game to be had (roughly 35-40 hours for the primary story) and it's still addictive. I found myself compelled onward through the story, eager to get to the next battle and see what tactics I would need to win the day. I can't help but imagine, however, how much more engaging it would be if they'd taken advantage of newer systems to make things a bit more efficient.
The gameplay is fun, capturing all that made the original a classic, while adding in some new stuff for gamers to play around with. Even though it's technically the fourth game in the franchise, it's highly accessible and newcomers won't be lost. If you're looking for a new JRPG or strategy game to play, Valkyria Chronicles 4 is a no brainer.