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Valkyria Chronicles: Great Game, Great Anime

I’m going to do a full review of this once I’ve finished it, but I’ve been playing through slowly with friends, and figured I wanted to make some notes along the way.

If you asked me what the best anime I’d seen recently was, Valkyria Chronicles would be in the running. “But wait,” I hear, “that’s a video game, not anime.”

True, and not. Yes, it’s a PS3 game, but one of the only two legitimate complaints I’ve heard about it happens to make it good anime. Essentially the game is set up thusly: In each of the roghly 18 chapters you watch a series of a few medium-to-long cinematic scenes that lay out the story. You spend some time fine-tuning your squad of conscripts and their gear, then enter a battle; these can take over an hour to complete (and that’s if you don’t lose several times due to poor planning or strategy), and are large, creative, and not even slightly repetitive. Then you watch the next series of cinematics showing the aftermath of the battle and the lead up to the next.

People complain about there being too much talking; I say you get a half hour of quality anime between your strategy sessions. In fact (and I tested this on Akemi, who wasn’t interested in the game part) you can go back and watch through the cinematics in order and it plays like about a decent TV-season’s worth of war drama, just without most of the action scenes (which would be the battles you’re playing). You won’t have quite the attachment to the characters, but they’re still interesting and likable.

The cinematics themselves are split between “big” scenes, which are fully acted out visually and scored appropriately, and the “talking” scenes, which are closer to an illustrated radio drama—they’re fully voiced, but the game waits for you to hit a button after each bit of dialogue and there’s only a headshot of the character talking and emoting. The radio parts are actually plenty interesting even by themselves; the fully acted scenes just kick it up a notch in the visual department. They also include the only time I can think of in a game where what is effectively a boss fight is shown in a cinematic and I had no complaints at all (in the game’s defense, it is a “cool” fight, not a strategic one, and wouldn’t have worked in the strategy setup anyway).
The visuals are just plain gorgeous; the game uses a rendering engine that looks like hand-drawn lineart with pencil coloring and watercolor backgrounds, and it is so good that for the most part any still from the game would pass for hand-drawn if you didn’t look closely. It looks just as good in motion—like quality hand-drawn-style animation. The gameplay portions use exactly the same engine and style, so there’s no transition at all between the two. The only things that I can even count as flaws are a few annoying clipping issues during the game itself and maybe (maybe) that the insides of the characters’ mouths can look a little too detailed in the cinematics. If you’re paying attention and nitpicking.

Bottom line is, it’s flat-out, no-holds-barred beautiful.

The acting in Japanese is uniformly good and well-cast. The English is a lot more spotty; the writing isn’t too bad, but the acting is uneven and I didn’t like some of the casting in as much as I listened to. On the fortunate side, it’s easy to switch to Japanese dialogue, and that switches everything, including character voices during the action sections. On the down side, it feels a little like an afterthought, in that the subtitles are transcriptions of the English dialogue, which differs significantly in the details from the Japanese, and there are no subtitles at all for the comments the characters make during battles (none of which are important to the plot, but they’re colorful and provide most of the personality of the dozens of characters in the squad who don’t have roles in the central plot).

As far as the game portions go, also all kinds of fun. The battles play out as an interesting combination of real-time-strategy and not-real-time strategy; each side takes a turn during which they can spend their supply of command points to move their units or issue stat-boosting orders. You have all the time you want to think, and once you’ve selected a unit to move you have live control of them. They can move a set distance and fire once per action (if they have the ammo), and you can take as long as you want to do this… but if they’re within range of enemy units, they WILL return fire. Meaning that when you’re in the thick of it you need to move fast and stay under cover. Likewise, if you position your units appropriately you can make it deadly for the enemy to approach even on your turn. Thankfully, once you enter “firing” mode, you can take all the time you want to aim (enemies “pause”), so you can rush in and then carefully pick your target; to me, this was the perfect balance of action and “take your time” strategy.

There are dozens of characters with colorful personalities to put in your squad (every one visually unique and with their own voice and written backstory), and for once it makes sense why they’re a random group of misfits—Gallia has universal conscription, and you’re in charge of a militia group of whoever you get, not the professional army (who you have something of an antagonistic relationship with, in fact). As the war drags on you get closer and closer to the bottom of the barrel. Some of them have useful talents, as well as varying degrees of negative traits. This makes for an interesting choice because there are people who just plain aren’t cut out to fight—one pacifist, for example, who can’t act after she shoots an enemy soldier. You aren’t likely to use these characters (some will in fact thank you if you don’t), and it makes sense that you wouldn’t, but you can, if you feel like it.

The variety of personalities to chose from makes every battle and slot filled unique, and since the characters level up as classes there’s no penalty for swapping your squad around to have fun or bring in people with specialized traits for a particular mission. It’s also interesting in that if somebody gets taken out during a battle and you fail to get a medic to them in a few turns, they’re dead, permanently. It’s not game-breaking, since there are still plenty of other characters to chose from, but you’ve likely become attached enough to that character as an individual that you won’t want to lose them.

There’s also the fact that some of the character traits are just plain awesome—for example Jane the flower shop girl who, it turns out, likes killing people; she’s scary and extremely effective on the front lines. Or an angel-faced engineer with a masochistic streak who gets more effective once he’s been injured. Reading their backstories and seeing the in-game effects of these (what they do in terms of game mechanics is spelled out relatively clearly) is a significant part of the fun, and makes the standard optimization grind a lot more interesting and colorful than it usually would be. Incidentally, these effects can kick in in all sorts of situations during a battle, encouraging you to put characters in situations appropriate to their strengths or weaknesses.

The game also has a huge amount of backstory in the way of written text on history, countries, culture, hardware, etc; none of it is necessary to follow the plot or enjoy the game, but if you like the setting it’s there to enjoy.

Oh, and it even has a nice mechanic built in if you end up in need of more experience or money than you’ve gained; there are “skirmishes” unlocked along the way that are essentially simplified versions of past battles that you can play as many times as you like (once you’ve won a major battle, you can’t go back to it without reverting to a previous save); this lets you hone your skills, build up experience and research funds (your rewards for good performance on the battlefield), and also try to get that scenario “just right” for an A ranking, which can be quite challenging (grinding out a victory is relatively easy; winning quickly and efficiently can be quite difficult).

As a game there is really only one minus, if you don’t consider the lengthy plot scenes to be a negative: The AI can be funky. It’s not usually outright stupid, but it will occasionally make obvious mistakes or do things that don’t make much sense, and while it can give you a welcome edge in the sometimes vicious battles where you’re badly outnumbered and outgunned, it’s a little unsatisfying. Other times, weirdly, it can be brutally effective.

I’m a few missions from the end now, and I have to say this is easily among the most all-around satisfying games I’ve played in recent memory. It’s moderately challenging and not at all frustrating—if you’re careful and plan well, you can probably hammer out a victory in any of the missions on the first try. It’s fun, it’s dramatic, it grabs you from a story standpoint, it’s full of likable characters, and the gameplay is as solid as the top-quality anime-style cinematic sequences.

Really, it’s just plain good stuff. If you’re even slightly into strategy games, or alternately want to watch a neat anime show about an alternate WWII Europe with just a touch of magic (actually, more accurately, magic-like abilities), this is the game to play.

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