There really aren't enough words to help me begin this introduction to my Valkyria Chronicle's playtest. It had seemed for quite some time that Sega had completely forgotten the SRPG (or RPG in general) genre completely, what with its Shining Force titles now being Action RPGs and the last "real" Shining Force being Shining Force III Scenarios I-III. Though it generally had more success with fans of Phantasy Star Online because of its strong online component, Phantasy Star Universe's single player campaign was a poor attempt at recreating the magic and feel the previous Phantasy Star games had, easily standing as a good competitor to Final Fantasy. With Valkyria Chronicles, it seems that Sega has managed to capture the magic once more by providing gamers with an interesting take on the SRPG genre and amping things up. In short, Sega may just be back.
Valkyria Chronicles' prologue begins with the small nation of Gallia under attack from the Empire because the Empire wishes to seize control of Gallia in their on-going effort to conquer the rest of Europe in the game's fictional war, European War II. As soon as you start up the game and wade through its cinematic introduction of what the European War II is all about and exactly why the war is happening, the game opens up with Welkin sitting near a streamline and drawing fish in a small sketchbook only to be mistakenly arrested by Alicia. Once Alicia apologizes for arresting Welkin and making small talk, the Empire begins its attack on Gallia with Alicia's village under attack; and it is here where the game thrusts you into your first, albeit bite sized, mission. From this point on, though, the game's plot unfolds through an interesting plot device; a history book that is, obviously, a historical account of all the game's events broken into chapters complete with narrative portions and battle portions. Does the game's story get better? You bet. Obviously the most striking feature about Valkyria Chronicles is its watercolor look and feel from the game's own Canvas Engine, giving it a huge artistic vibe and providing many with gorgeous eye candy and looks great in motion. There are a few jaggies here and there, but they aren't unbearable. If you're wondering whether or not the game looks good on an HDTV, you can rest assured knowing that it does. It also makes you think how much anime can benefit from being in HD.
The other striking feature is the one I'm sure many are wanting to know about. Exactly how is it that Valkyria Chronicles hybridizes the elements of a shooter game and confines them in the real and scope of an SRPG? More so to the point, does such a hybridization of two genres really work? As originally mentioned in a small post a while back, the game really does make you forget you're playing an SRPG because of how immersing the shooter elements are. Even if the game does function as an SRPG in principle (units taking turns being selected, player and enemy phases), it does a good job at blurring the line between the two genres it combines, providing the gamer with a unique experience that offers tactile efficiency, strategic planning, and complete and total patience. Once you've passed through the prologue and a few chapters that serve as a tutorial of the game's necessary mechanics, you will be able to assemble the units you need (Snipers, Recon, Infantry, Anti-Tank, Support) through the course of the game with Vyse and Aika (and Fina the Field Medic) of Skies of Arcadia fame able to join your cause.
Prior to the beginning of each battle, you'll be given an assessment of your current situation and what the objective of your mission is. Afterwards, you'll assemble your units (most missions have a limit of 9 units while some have limits) and place them anywhere on the field they can be placed. The amount of times both your units can move in a turn is all determined by the amount of CP (Command Points) available at your disposal during Command Mode, where you select the unit you want to move. Each of the game's units have their own amount of AP (Action Points), shown at the bottom middle of the screen, that determines just how far they can move freely on the field before the meter runs out.
The interesting thing about Action Mode and Command Mode is you are free to select the same unit you moved as many times as you want within the amount of CP you have and move them again on the field; but the more you select that unit to move, the less amount of AP there will be at his or her own disposal each time. Action Mode is also where the entire battlefield turns into real time combat against the enemy. If and when any of your units are in the enemy's view, the enemy and any surrounding enemy units will begin attacking at you until you initiate an attack with your unit's weapon, throw a grenade, or use a healing device to heal yourself or a comrade. Your units can only do one of the three per their turn; and when you initiate an attack against an enemy Infantry, Recon, and Support unit, he will immediately counterattack and receive cover assistance from any of the listed three units near him. When you're introduced to the cover system in later parts of the game, your Infantry, Recon, and Support units can cover each other when counterattacking an enemy during Enemy Phase or assist you in taking down an enemy during Player Phase. Unit classes can be leveled up in the training grounds where EXP earned in battle is used to level up a class, and weapon upgrades can be purchased in the armory.
Battles do get intense, and its this intensity that really brings out the better shooter elements in Valkyria Chronicles. The enemy AI is very, very good at wanting to eliminate your team and it shows when you don't bother to hide your units behind sand bags, walls, or anywhere out of enemy sight. When you do hide your units, the enemy will still go on a trek to find you and attack you when discovered. Because of this, a vast majority of battles do end up bordering on the 1.5-2 hour mark; and considering the enemy has more units at his disposal compared to you, it's no wonder most missions take that long. As lengthy as they may be, though, all missions have a limit to how many turns you can take to complete them (something similar to Jeanne d'Arc); if you don't finish the mission within the given turn limit, you lose. Welkin or Alicia (more so Welkin) dies? You lose. Fail to meet an objective? You lose.
These kinds of conditions combined with the limitation of turn set really makes you require the need to efficiently plan out an effective strategy while playing close attention to your tactics. Like Fire Emblem, your units can permanently die; unlike Fire Emblem, however, they don't permanently die when they're down. You have three turns to rescue them before they permanently die. Even then, going out of your way to rescue fallen allies presents a detour in the game's overall need to complete objectives and attention to efficiency. If you really aren't careful about how you arrange your units and how you use your turns and aimlessly send your units to their doom, you could end up being defeated. Any unused CP you have carries over to your next turn. Orders also help strengthen your entire unit or single units, allowing them to have increased stats, better accuracy, and the like.
Overall, though, Valkyria Chronicles is the RPG fix many PS3 owners have been clamoring to have and will want to continue having even after completion. Even if presented with challenges, the game allows you to train via skirmishes to earn more EXP and Gold and improve your battle tactics and strategy a bit. The game is a multi-hit package that provides an excellently well crafted battle mechanic complete with high production values and an engrossing story that goes from simple to deep and the opportunity to play the game once more in a challenging yet difficult hard mode. If you aren't too keen on waiting a few months before its North American release, you can easily import Valkyria Chronicles and familiarize yourself with the game's battle system very easily. Of course you may not be able to understand the story or what parts to equip when upgrading the Edelweiss (Welkin's tank) or even the advantages certain new weapon upgrades may have, but you get to play the game ahead of time.
Just don't be alarmed when you find yourself at a crossroads when thinking about how to take out the enemy. The great thing about Valkyria Chronicles is just how aware the game makes you of things going on.
Images courtesy of Sega.