The soon to be released Valkyria Chronicles for the PS3 has gathered much attention for both its charming visual design and the way its central gameplay innovation, the ability to directly control units in battle, injects action into a genre that often limits the player to issuing orders from afar as they position their units on a rigid grid.
To be sure, both of these factors are worthy of praise. Its watercolor aesthetic is refreshing compared to the endless sea of brown that plagues games on the most recent generation of consoles. And it’s true that having to dodge bullet fire to rescue a downed teammate or crawl through the grass to sneak into an enemy base is infinitely more exciting than grid-based movement. However, lost in the mix, I believe, is how having direct control over units in a 3D environment enhances the game’s strategic possibilities by fundamentally changing the way players interact with the game space.
Playing through the Japanese release of Valkyria Chronicles was not only the most fun I’ve ever had with the SRPG genre since Final Fantasy Tactics, but it was also the first time I’ve ever felt that an SRPG game contained anything remotely resembling strategy.
[[image:homerbullets.jpg:Homer is a masochist. No, seriously. It’s written in his stats and everything.:center:0]]
To put it simply: In Valkyria Chronicles, space matters. While battles in SRPGs like FFT and Disgaea are won or lost based on whether or not you’ve built characters with game breaking ability set-ups, success in Valkyria Chronicles is determined by your understanding of the map and your ability to use strategy to control the space. The maps in this game are extremely well-designed, and some of the best would not seem out of place if they were used in, say, Metal Gear Online. In fact, while playing this, I often felt that I was playing a turn-based version of that very game; there are sniper points, secret paths to set up an ambush, barriers to hide behind, and enemy bases to capture. If you’ve ever played an multiplayer online action game and thought that it would be a lot more interesting and involve actual strategy if you could just control all the characters yourself, this might be the game for you.
The need to understand and control space on the battlefield to win is made even more important because there is little to no character customization beyond a limited number of special weapons. Even those few weapons could probably be ignored by all but the most min-max-obsessed players, as they tend to offer complex trade-offs like additional attack power at the cost of significantly decreased accuracy. Also, while some story-based characters do seem to have slight advantages, no one unit can simply bulldoze through the game. This is not to say that the characters are not unique, however, as there are no “generics.” Every character you control has a unique backstory and strengths and weaknesses related to their personality that affect gameplay. There are characters who want to show off in front of women, who hold grudges against other specific characters, who work especially well with their friends, who have allergies, who give up easily, who are masochists, and who work best alone. Rather than trying to turn a couple characters into game-breaking gods, you need to find units with the right set of strengths and weaknesses to make a team that fits your own strategy and play style.
[[image:cg_nightorders.jpg:Fight! For everlasting peace!:center:0]]
Describing some of the best examples of the use of space in this game would spoil the Valkyria Chronicles’ incredibly well-scripted story battles. However, to give a general idea of the importance of controlling the map, let’s talk about tanks. Early on in the game, a tank is added to the units you control. It is incredibly powerful and takes very little damage unless attacked on its weak point from behind. A good strategy for moving your units through heavy enemy fire is to use this tank as a shield, putting it between your units and the opposing army, allowing you to slowly but surely advance through a dangerous area. However, if you overreach by going too far without providing adequate defense for the tank’s delicate parts, you leave it open to being taken out in one shot by an anti-tank unit waiting in ambush, resulting in a Game Over due to the death of the story-essential characters who pilot it. While the tank is stronger than any other unit, its fragile weak point makes it essential to think about the map and defend it from behind even as it carves a path forward into enemy territory. Interestingly, this kind of complex strategy and well thought out unit balance is made possible precisely because of the action-oriented gameplay.
[[image:christopher_081006_sniper_01.jpg:Obligatory brown stage for official designation as next gen game.:center:0]]
This is not to say that there are no problems with the game. At its core, it remains a traditional SRPG, and the contrast between the visceral excitement of controlling units running through a dangerous battlefield and a turn-based system can be jarring. It occasionally creates moments in the game that seem bizarrely artificial, something like the uncanny valley between action and strategy. For example, the game has a headshot system where attacking someone in a vital area takes him out instantly. However, if someone is hiding in the grass, even if you stand right next to him and aim for a vital area, he’ll only take minor damage because the game gives anyone hiding an enormous defense bonus. The solution here is to throw a grenade or other explosive to expose him first, but it’s a bizarrely counterintuitive element of an otherwise incredibly elegant system. To be fair, it’s only because everything else feels so natural that this even stands out as a problem, since bonuses for taking an advantageous position are fairly standard in most SRPGs.
Regardless of its minor flaws, this game’s innovations represent an enormous step forward for console SRPGs. Hopefully, the best parts of this game will be imitated and improved upon by future games in the genre, adding real strategy back into a group of games now best known as a thankless grind for bigger and bigger numbers.