Monday, 7 March 2016

Valkyria Chronicles (PC)

Developer:SEGA|Release Date:2014|Systems:Windows, PS3, PS4

Last week on Super Adventures, I took a break. But this week I'm taking a look at turn based real time tactical shooter Valkyria Chronicles! I keep accidentally typing Valkyrie Chronicles, but that's not its name so I should quit that.

I've written 'Release Date: 2014' under the title screen, but it originally came out in 2008 as one of those pesky PlayStation 3 exclusives. It finally escaped to the PC after 6 years of exclusivity captivity, but Xbox 360 and Wii U owners are sadly still missing out to this day. Unless they also own a PC or PS3, then they're not. I've never liked how games are divided up between consoles like this... especially when it's between consoles I don't own.

Anyway, this was actually a gift from a friend, so I'm kind of hoping I'll be able to I liked it. Trouble is, I don't actually enjoy strategy games for the most part, even when they've got an 80+ score on Metacritic. XCOM and Disgaea hooked me for multiple playthroughs, so there's still hope, but generally I don't have the patience for these kinds of games.




Oh, here's another fact about Valkyria Chronicles: it's one of the few games on Steam which feels the need to have a ™ after its name in the games list.

It drives me mad sometimes that I can't edit the entries in my library to add a bit more consistency to them. MURDERED: SOUL SUSPECT doesn't need to be in all caps, the Dungeon Siege series needs to get some Roman numerals on the second game, and what the hell is this:

That's just... scruffy looking.

Meanwhile, I'm playing a game about tanks! I'll have to wait for the artist to finish painting the intro sequence first though, but it looks like it'll be pretty awesome when it's done.

The Second Europan War huh? This is all very familiar somehow...

The year is 1935 and the Empire has begun to invade Federation countries. They want to get their hands on their dwindling sources of a precious rare mineral called Ragnite, that seems to have taken the place of oil in this universe.

But then the Empire goes a step too far when they try to take on the tiny county of Gallia, on the coast of what is literally called the North Sea. At least I'm hoping it's a step too far, as I get the feeling these are the guys I'm playing as and it'll suck if it turns out we lose this war.


PROLOGUE: GALLIA, TO ARMS!


I've given games shit in the past for having the word 'Chronicles' in the title (especially when they follow it with 'of Riddick') but seeing as this menu screen is literally a book (called 'On the Gallian Front') and I'm on the 'Chronicle' tab, looking at a historical record of events arranged in chronological order, I pretty much have to give this one a pass. 

In fact the music for this bit is called Chronicles of the Gallian War and I might as well make that a YouTube link so you can suffer just like I am right now. I'm really growing to hate this song... but it's by Final Fantasy Tactics composer Hitoshi Sakimoto, so I get the feeling I might be alone on this one.

Alright, a new episode has been added to the page, apparently. I suppose I’ll view it then, seeing as it's either that or watch the intro video again. Or sit here and listen to this music some more, which I don't really feel inclined to do.

Huh, the 'Enter' key isn't working. It seems to want me to press 'Space' to select things. I think I'll just grab my Xbox 360 controller instead.

The next episode is a cutscene of a guy called Welkin getting taken away by a Gallian soldier called Alicia for suspicious fish sketching. She thinks he might be an Imperial spy, as they often skulk around streams writing notes.

I'm not sure if this is being rendered in real time, but seeing as 15gb of the 20gb install is videos, I'm thinking it's probably not. Looks good either way.

After that tiny episode I was kicked right back to the book, but I've earned another clip to watch.

Well things have gone from bad to worse for our fish-sketching protagonist.

His sister saw him being dragged off down the road and got him off the hook by revealing he's a famous general's son, but then there was a bit of gunfire and suddenly everyone around them started falling over and bleeding out.

Alicia hands Welkin a gun and... now I’m back to the book again. Wow, this really likes to drip feed its story. Shame I can't make out what the text in the book says or I could just read what happens next.

Actually it turns out that what's happening next is gameplay, as I'm actually getting to play a mission!

Whoa, I'm commanding my units on a map? I'm genuinely surprised, as I thought I'd be doing everything on the 3D level. Not that this map isn't 3D, as there's a subtle parallax effect when I pan the camera across the buildings.

I’ve got 3 command points (those badges at the top) which apparently means I get to move three units per turn. Fortunately the Imperial scouts seem to have wandered apart since the last cutscene so I get to focus all my attention on this guy on my side of the bridge.

To win I just have to eliminate the three Imperial scouts approaching the town of Bruhl, but if Welkin or Alicia dies it's all over. Also I've only got a 20 turn time limit, but I think even I can kill a few scouts in less than 7 turns each, so I'm not that worried.

I selected to move Welkin and now the game's got me controlling him directly with the analogue stick! I can't run around in real time forever though, as movement burns through his orange AP bar at the bottom of the screen. Shame there's no circle on screen showing his max range, so I know if I can make it to cover.

I'm trying to mentally compare this to all the other turn-based tactical games where you control units directly, but I'm coming up blank. Seems like a fairly original idea! It also seems that the watercolour filter is sticking around. It’s a clever effect but I’m not sure how long I can last before that unfinished border drives me crazy.

Anyhow, I moved Welkin up behind some nice safe sandbags and then hit the right bumper to activate Target Mode.

This mode's fantastic because it means enemies stop shooting at me for a while and I can have a go at putting a bullet into them (or 5 according to the box on the top of the screen).

There's no moving in Target Mode, so the analogue stick has been repurposed to control my aim. Though I'm finding it easier to use the mouse or D-Pad to carefully fine tune my shot instead (the game switches between mouse and controller seamlessly).

Time freezes in Target Mode so I can spend as long as I like lining my crosshair up with his head (for massive damage). The tutorial has warned me that this guy gets a counter-attack if he's still alive at the end of the turn, but Welkin fires 5 times each action and I only need half those shots to land on target to kill him outright.

And the Imperial scout goes down!

I can't choose to shoot any more this move (not that there's anyone around to shoot at), but I've still got enough AP to run around a bit if I really feel like moving away from the nice safe sandbags. Nah, I'll end this action and go back to the map.

I think I'll save my progress as well. Wouldn't want to have to go through all that again.

Unlimited mid-battle saves kind of feel like cheating to me, but I've heard the game gets bastard hard at times so I'll accept any advantage I can get. Especially when my advantage looks a lot like a typical PlayStation 3 save screen, except with Xbox 360 buttons... on the PC! The best of both consoles.


Annoyingly though it doesn’t say "Save complete!" when it’s done, so I can't be sure I didn't press 'Back' by mistake. Even on my modest rig the save times are are a lot like the loading times, in that there aren't any, so there's no indication that anything's happened.


TWO MOVES LATER.


I used up all my CP points to move my other two units up and now the music's turned sinister as it enters the Enemy Phase.

Now I get to watch those two scouts run around in the far yonder and make their way closer to my heroes. They're not dumb enough to take shots at me from this distance though.

Then when they're done it’s my turn again. The tutorial explains that I can use my CP to order the same unit around 3 times instead of using 3 separate units, though they’ll get tired and have less AP on each consecutive run. I nod my head at the monitor screen and then write that info down here.


ONE TURN LATER.


Huh, that’s interesting. I only used one character last turn (who emptied all 5 rounds into a wooden post) so now I’ve got 5 CP points to spare on this phase instead of 3. I bet I still can’t hit anyone though.

Okay I'm going to leave my troops exactly where they are and hope that there's an overwatch function that'll have my team automatically murder all the enemies when they pop out of hiding and come across the bridge to get me.


ANOTHER TURN LATER.


Well the cunning Imperials had the sense to stay put (the bastards), so I have to be the one to rush out. Thing is, while I'm standing in their line of sight they get the advantage of overwatch too, so they're both firing at me during my turn!

Uh… I'll end turn now and get back to the map! Quickly, while Alicia still has some health left!

Oh crap, I left Alicia standing in the open, so now the Imperials will probably be shooting at her all through my next character's turn as well! I didn’t think this through. Hmm... I know! I'll spend my next CP point playing as her again. She'll get a little bit of AP back so I can run for cover, and I'll have a second chance to shoot that guy across the river.

Some bullets missed, enough didn’t. So that's two Imperials down, one left. Now I can move my other units up and get all three safely behind a tree.

Actually, I’ve got a ton of CP left, so why I don’t I just spend them all moving Welkin right up to the enemy’s face and then blow him away at point blank range?

Yep, that worked. Look at that beautiful 'RATTA' text, this is basically the XIII of turn-based tactical games. In a good way.

So that's the fight over then.

And my report says that I’m officially shit. It doesn’t go into detail why my result is so poor, but I imagine it’s because I took a bunch of damage and used 4 whole turns. 4 is considerably less than 20 though, I feel I should point out.

I did will enough to get a little bit of EXP and DCT at least, but they don't seem to do anything yet.

Now that's all done with it’s back to the book for another set of cutscenes.


CHAPTER 2: ESCAPE FROM BRUHL.


Well some stuff's happened and now the Empire and Gallia are officially at war.

Meanwhile Welkin’s sister Isara and his pregnant former nanny Martha are being threatened in their home by Steve Blum, who I believe takes offence at her ethnicity. He actually says something like "we've got a fat one and a stinky one", and then utterly fails to react when Isara dives down and grabs a rifle. Then he utterly fails to react again when Welkin bursts in and swings a fence post at him. The other guy comes very close to reacting, but Isara pulls a Han Solo and shoots him first. Yay, they killed the irredeemable monsters!

But now Martha's going into labour and they're kind of stuck in the middle of a full blown invasion.

Fortunately it turns out they have a prototype tank in their garage and Isara's been fixing it up! She’s just installed a new turbine engine in fact. So that’s… amazingly convenient. Then again if you’re going to pick one group of villagers to tell a story about, it makes sense to pick the folks with their own tank.

They get Martha inside and then roll out to help Alicia defend the town gate.

These cutscenes are both entirely skippable and entirely re-watchable, which is a great combination. They're also really earnest and low key, to match the watercolour visuals. I feel like the characters could all sit down together and enjoy some sandwiches at any moment. Don't get me wrong, the game's so anime they literally made an anime series of it, but it's not the kind that comes with exaggerated expressions or over the top comedy. Yet.

After a page or so of switching from book to cutscene to book to cutscene I've hit another mission. Now I’m back as Alicia, fighting to keep an enemy tank from destroying the town gate until Welkin’s tank arrives to blast it to pieces.

Seems that enemies have a row of sandbags to hide behind as they run along the left side of the street to attack the gate, but Alicia's carrying sandbag destroying grenades this time so I may be able to do something about that. Guns have unlimited ammo, grenades not so much, but the tutorial claims I'll get one back from out of nowhere each phase so I won't run permanently dry.

Well this would certainly be a lot easier if it was possible to damage this thing. Tanks seem to have a an obvious glowing weak point at the back, but I ain't running up there to shoot it. Not with all these enemy soldiers running down the street. They've got shocktroopers that take 22 shots to kill! That's a ridiculous number of shots.

I'm just really lucky that tank's focused on blasting the gate or else I'd be dead in a couple of turns instead of slightly more turns. I get a little health back each turn but it's hard to heal from a direct shell to the gut.

The game tutorial's teaching me about Ragnaid now, which is a healing item I'm going to be needing really soon if this keeps up. This Ragnite ore is definitely turning out to be the 'mass effect fields' of the game; the sci-fi element that explains anything impossible like instant health kits.


SOON.


Shame Ragnite isn't going to make my grenade go a little further. My dreams of sandbag destruction have been torn asunder.
 
You know, I'm kind of regretting even taking a turn here, as that scout's gotten so shot up on his travels that Alicia would've ended him with overwatch during his next phase. Instead I'm I'm giving the tank's machine gunner an easy target as I walk up and down trying to find the best place to lob a grenade from.


A COUPLE OF TURNS LATER.


Well I’m bad at games.

So what did I do wrong here? Well I guess I should've been less stingy with the Ragnaid. Also next time I'll waste time cycling through my weapons after going into Targeting Mode. Alicia lasted just seconds under sustained machine gun fire from that tank, and this was during her own turn!

The smart thing would be for me to get back in there and give it another try, but I’m feeling more miserable than smart right now so I’m going to replay that first tutorial mission instead to make myself feel better (and maybe get enough XP for a level up).

Wait, I can't replay levels yet? That only works in New Game+? Well that sucks.


EVENTUALLY.


This time I managed to hold out until Welkin arrived in his own tank, and then blasted my nemesis to pieces! Well, I took out his treads at least, so he can't go anywhere. Not that he wanted to go anywhere; he's sitting exactly where he needs to be in order to destroy the town gate and give me another GAME OVER. I really need to get into the habit of saving mid-mission.

Tanks have a few disadvantages, like costing two CP points to move and not regenerating health between turns, but they're also basically unstoppable against regular firearms. So this is probably the last mission without anti-tank RPG snipers all over the rooftops.

Hey, Martha gave birth during the fight! Inside our tank. Welkin's reaction is pretty much perfect.

"Sh-she gave birth in Dad's tank?!"

Poor dopey Welkin.

The game likes to alternate between telling its story through talking heads and text boxes, and using proper cutscenes like earlier. It's all voiced either way through, and the voice acting is rock solid. Though the game was made this millennium so you probably guessed that already.

I only got a C rank for that one in the end though, as the birth didn’t give me bonus points. Interestingly getting one of my nameless grunts killed didn’t lose me any points either. Seems that what the game really cares about is speed. Gotta rush through quick as you can to get the big bucks.


CHAPTER 3: VASEL URBAN WARFARE.


A short while later and our two heroes have been conscripted into the army, which means they get proper uniforms! Though Alicia's less than impressed when Welkin says she looks like a beetle. He actually meant it as a compliment; dude really likes his bugs.

Welkin has been promoted to Lieutenant, in command of Squad 7, with Alicia as his Sergeant. I guess that’s what happens when you turn up with your own tank. Oh damn I hope they haven't given his tank away to another unit.

Valkyria Chronicles R&D Facility Edelweiss
Nope, there it is, and I get to upgrade it as well. With my own money. I also get to spend cash on upgrading my weapons, boosting their accuracy etc.

Valkyria Chronicles Command Room screen
I can manage my team as well, looking through the list of recruits and checking their traits to see which of them are good enough to assign into Squad 7. 'Born Leader' is a good trait, 'Chatty Cathy', 'Bad Back' and 'Panicky' are less good. I'm also leaving the racists behind, as I think I can live without squadmates hating on Welkin's sister for being Darcsen. It's so weird that's an actual trait in this.

Hang on, isn't that Vyse from Skies of Arcadia? Seems that someone at SEGA still remembers the game! Characters each belong to one of five classes, with Vyse here being a well armoured shocktrooper.

Valkyria Chronicles Training Field screen level up
Turns out that I don't level up individual characters though. Instead I get to manually invest my Exp points into their entire class. My units unlock new traits at higher levels and probably better stats too, so I'm going to want to get as much Exp as I can. It's interesting then, that I've just unlocked the 'Skirmishes' option too.

Skirmishes are non-plot side missions that can be replayed as often as I like. So if I ever get hopelessly stuck in the main campaign I can just run away and go play skirmishes for a bit... you know, for practice! Plus getting tons of money and Exp probably won't hurt either.


SOON.


Holy shit, okay, enough already!

The game can fuck off if it expects me to write about what all those do, I've already written enough words. Not that I'm complaining about about having more features! Especially when one of them...

... is a model viewer! Hey, Aika Thompson's in this as well as a scout!

I love model viewers in games, though this isn't really the best of them, seeing as it's stuck in such a small window. It does however show off how clever SEGA's CANVAS engine is, with it giving her a pencil shaded look in real time. Or at least giving her an outline and superimposing shimmering pencil lines over the top.

I kept playing for a bit longer after this, learning about capturing base camps, and ammo replenishment, and reinforcements, and etc. But the most important thing I've learned so far is...

... always save mid-mission. Because the game loves to throw surprises at you, and battles can go from great to failure in one lucky shot. R.I.P Edelweiss.

Also the game really is all about speed. Every level's got a damn turn limit and I've been very much encouraged to move my units forwards as quickly as possible. It's the kind of game that gives you 10 turns to finish a map and then gives you a B grade when you took more than 2. So it doesn't help that half the classes can't move for shit.

Plus to make things even more stressful, even when I lose someone who isn't vital to the timeline, I'm still in trouble as they can die for good if I'm not careful.


EVENTUALLY.


Okay when the flying pigs turn up I think that's definitely my cue to turn this off. He's even acting like he understands what they're saying to him and he's 'moink'ing right back at them. This is horrible!


CONCLUSION

Valkyria Chronicles isn't an easy game. After my hours of detailed study, this much I'm sure about.

Well I've found it easy to like, but hard to really get into and enjoy. It's taken me forever to make even a small amount of progress in the game because I was always feeling the need to take a quick break to check twitter, or grab a drink, or go through a stack of 30 old backup CDs and then consolidate and transfer the files to DVD (those old discs won't last forever!) That's part of the reason this article is so late; my attention just slips right off the game. But like I said, I'm not really into strategy games as a rule, so that's not necessarily Valkyria Chronicles' fault.

It does look fantastic though even 8 years on, thanks to the art style and watercolour filter. I was worried the unfinished border would be a distraction, but I stopped noticing it entirely after 30 seconds of gameplay. It's good thing that the characters are so expressive too, as the game features a relentless onslaught of charming laid-back cutscenes. That's not to say any kind of momentum's built up in the story though, as every time something happens it kicks you right back to the book again. It left me felt very detached from the world, which I suppose makes sense seeing as it's meant to be a historical chronicle.

Despite the real time movement the game's more about planning out your tactics than skilfully executing them, especially as all of the aiming takes place while the game is paused. Trouble is that the game really pressures you to keep moving forward, despite the fact that half the units are so slow they get left way behind. Then your scouts move ahead of the group and inadvertently trigger an event and suddenly you've got enemy reinforcements or a surprise boss fight to deal with as well. Plus there's snipers taking pieces out of your troops from out of your range, and enemy tanks are closing in, and whoops you've just lost the Edelweiss to a lucky shot from behind. I never managed to get to a place where the combat clicked with me and I was comfortable with my tactics, and that stopped me from really enjoying it.

But you should probably ignore my negativity, as people who are more into World War II documentaries, Final Fantasy Tactics and watercolours than I am will find a lot here to like. It's a well put together product and the PC port's rock solid, so if you want a challenge this is a good place to look.


Super Adventures will return (hopefully in a week this time). But until then you should drop some thoughts and feedback into the comment box below. In fact leave comments on any article you feel like, it's all good.

7 comments:

  1. You take a break without notification? Got to admit you know how to make me suffer
    As for VC, i only watch it anime and play the 2nd series on psp.
    It's gameplay quite remind me of Silent Storm (PC) albeit more to turn based instead real time
    I think scouts is best because their longer AP and accurate shooting

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    1. Oh man, Silent Storm. I can't recommend you play it, but it's a squad-based turn-based combat game with destructible environments and a dash of Hollywood physics, so that if you have a machine gun walls become less of a problem.

      It's also infamous for featuring a good variety of World War II-era equipment and weapons, then screaming "fuck it" halfway through the campaign and bringing in the powered armor and lasers. The first casualty of the Commando Comics invasion was the difficulty curve, but the madness carried the rest of the game for me.

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    2. Yeah Panzerkleins is really game breaking.
      Once you have them, you can tell them go forward without worry
      Rest of squad can do tea break or chit-chating leisurely

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  2. I'm trying to mentally compare this to all the other turn-based tactical games where you control units directly, but I'm coming up blank.

    I think the newish Mordheim PC game does this, but I'm not certain.

    I've had Valkyria Chronicles on PS3 for a couple of years but I haven't got around to playing it yet, because I'm a little afraid of how difficult it is.

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  3. I still would like to see an article about Veil of Darkness .. =)

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    1. Find the search box and type 'Veil of Darkness'. It's not the best writing on the site as I played it 5 years ago, but I did play it!

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  4. This game had the same impact on me. It's incredible well done and polished, and the graphics are also very appealing, but i didn't found it that much fun.

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