I think it’s safe to say that late-2018 is a dangerous time to release a game.
Spider-Man is happily swinging across PS4s the world over, Destiny 2 Forsaken and the Battlefield V Beta have the shooter crowd spoken for and Red Dead Redemption 2, a new Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed Odyssey are still to come.
Oh, and Tomb Raider too!
So why is it then that I’m writing a review for a tactical Japanese RPG in late-2018?
Because Valkyria Chronicles is one of those series that stands proudly in the face of opposition. It looks bigger games dead in the eyes and says “sure, I’m not all that fast-paced, I don’t have glory kills or carjackings, but sit down and let me tell you a story and we’ll see where it ends up.”
Valkyria Chronicles 4 Review
Valkyria Chronicles 4 is a sequel through-and-through. It tries to bring a somewhat overlooked franchise into the public eye on modern consoles and does so with confidence. It’s a determined, story-driven strategy JRPG that has a story to tell, and it’s going to tell that story whether you’re along for the ride or not.
No apologies, no short version – but damn it’s worth the ride.
I’d wager that for a lot of Australian gamers, this might be their first Valkyria Chronicles game. That’s not because it’s an obscure series, but because the series has had a really weird release schedule.
Valkyria Chronicles (the first one) was released on the PS3 back in 2008. Yes, a decade ago.
The sequel was released on the PSP in 2010, so you wouldn’t have played it if you weren’t on board with Sony’s portable console.
Then Valkyria Chronicles 3 never made it out of Japan, so good luck playing that in Australia (there was a fan translation if you’re keen). That’s just the mainline games, there have been some spin-offs but we won’t get too bogged down here.
So here we are, the fourth game in a series and you’re reading this wondering if you should pick it up, well let me run it down for you.
In the broadest sense, Valkyria Chronicles is a series about war. It’s about ordinary people who are thrown into a battle to defend their homes, fight for their friends and defeat a big evil nation. If you squint you’ll see allegories of World War 2 Europe in the mix, as well as a good deal of 1940sinspired technology, with a healthy dose of RPG magic/technology thrown in for good measure.
Each Valkyria Chronicles game has focused on a different group of soldiers, and all of them take place in or around the Second Europan War between the Atlantic Federation and the Eastern Imperial Alliance. But this is back-story that’s given to you in the intro of VC4, and you don’t really need to know anything about the other games to jump straight into this one, they just add different perspectives to the same conflict.
Valkyria Chronicles 4 centres around a small group of friends from the same hometown in Gallia called Hafen. Each of them enlisted to fight the empire for different reasons, and of course, there are a few dramatic secrets to reveal along the way.
There’s Claude, the idealistic lieutenant and tank commander who leads the group – the whole story is told through his war diary. Miles is Claude’s tank driver, and Ragnarok (Rags) is the squad’s K-9 unit. Then there’s Raz, the hot-headed Shocktrooper who gets in way over his head more than once throughout the story.
“Dead-Eye” Kai is the Sniper, she’s stoic and loyal. And last of the core team is Riley, she’s the engineer who ushers in the new Grenadier class. You meet an extensive list of others as the game progresses and your squad will swell far beyond the core group, but these are the guys you’ll see the most in cutscenes.
They’re the spearhead of a strike deep into imperial territory that takes up most of the story. It’s a hail-mary play that the Federation brass think might just be crazy enough to work.
The game itself has this wonderful watercolour style to it that makes its anime-ness really stand out. The colours are all bright and bold, and the characters all have that hyper-expressive quality that you’d get in My Hero Academia or a Studio Ghibli film.
Side-note – big props to the English voice actors, I thought they did an awesome job with a huge amount of dialogue, and nearly all of the game has voice-overs for cutscenes, in battle and ordinary text, so kudos on that one.
Keep Calm and Fight
Into the nitty-gritty of each battle, Valkyria Chronicles 4 is a tactical RPG, think Fire Emblem or Final Fantasy Tactics, but instead of auto-battles, you have to control each unit in over-the-shoulder third-person combat.
So if you select Raz from the tactical map, the camera will sweep down onto the battlefield and snap to his shoulder. He’s got a machine gun, so you need to get him close to the enemy. At the bottom of the screen you’ve got an AP gauge, which basically tells you how far you can move.
When you run Raz into the battle you might see an enemy Shock Trooper crouched behind some sandbags. You toss a grenade to blow up the sandbags, sending the trooper flying and you end your turn.
Each phase you can select and control a number of your own units (broader abilities, perks and characters can give you more actions) before your turn is over.
You might select Kai next and run her up a hill to overlook the battlefield. From there you can see that around the next blind corner from Raz there’s a gun turret that would rip him to shreds if he stepped in front of it. But being a sniper Kai can snap into her scope, zoom in and take the shot – dropping the gunner easily.
When you aim at the enemy, you see the chance to hit, the number of shots you’ll take and the enemy’s key stats. Different classes have different weapons, and different weapons do more or less damage in the right circumstances. There’s an element of randomness as well, as there’s always a chance you’ll miss a shot, and need to bring in back up.
You see, in Valkyria Chronicles 4, no character can win a battle on their own, and even though you’ll likely develop favourites over the course of the game, you’ll need a steady variety to beat the hardest missions.
One memorable mission took place when Raz had overreached and he and Kai were being pinned down at the far end of a trench. Claude as the dutiful commander couldn’t leave his friends out to die and sent the remaining squad after them.
At the same time, a new battalion of tanks rolled in behind me. I needed to split my units, sending a small group (in my case a gunner, a sniper and a scout) down the trench after Raz and Kai, while the remaining units went along the top of the trench looking out for snipers, mortars or gunners that could pick off the rescue team. Oh, and watch out for the tank squad coming in behind.
Each map in Valkyria Chronicles is a little different to the last, and yes these are all hand-crafted affairs, no random map generation here. Throughout the campaign I never really felt like I’d “been there, done that.” One mission I was rescuing my teammates, another had me sneaking through a foggy village to identify enemy tanks, and there are more than a few that set you behind enemy lines with overwhelming numbers ahead of you.
What I’m saying is that this tactical RPG consistently finds new ways to ramp up the pressure and force you to use old tools in new ways. Each battle felt like its own set piece, and that sort of care is awesome to see.
Away On Leave
I won’t sugar-coat this next statement: between battles, you’re going to spend a lot of time either watching cutscenes or listening to dialogue. There’s no wonder Valkyria Chronicles has a spin-off anime and manga.
That can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on who you are. For me, I played through VC4 mostly while I was travelling for work, so I spent hours waiting in airports, on planes and in taxis. When I was sitting down for an extended period of time, I could happily sit through twenty-five to thirty minutes of cutscenes before getting into a battle.
Valkyria Chronicles 4 is a game that sits you down and says “I’m here to tell a story, and you’re either in or you’re out,” so you won’t find customisable characters, skill trees or dialogue options here. That being said I enjoyed the story it had to tell, it’s pretty much an anime-teen-drama filled with revenge plots, a will-they-won’t-they romance, and a good number of hidden pasts that are telegraphed a mile away.
But I enjoyed it. I can definitely see how some of the characters will get on people’s nerves (Raz, in particular, has a few misogynistic moments that will likely land on Twitter), but it’s a good soap-opera tale that had plenty of ups and downs to keep me invested.
And since Valkyria Chronicles 4 spends a lot of time behind enemy lines in Imperial territory, it does cover how the main cast might actually be villains in the land they’re “saving” from the empire, and that balance showed a lot of consideration for a real-world war scenario that I appreciated.
All this being said, I’d love a quick button at the end of each cutscene to jump straight into the next. As it stands you finish a scene, load back to the story-book menu, select the next scene and load in.
I remember I said the same thing in my Overcooked 2 review earlier this year. Maybe I’m spoilt by big games like God of War hiding or avoiding load screens. But damn I’m seeing a lot of unnecessary loading screens at the moment.
Apart from watching a whole load of cutscenes about the main characters, you’ll spend a lot of time outfitting and training your squad for upcoming battles. There are huge research trees of weapon upgrades, tank parts, new global orders to issue mid-battle and each character can change and evolve as the game goes on.
You do all this from the squad’s base of operations, a menu where you select what you want to research, which classes get training, and who gets new guns.
Every map or two Claude will pop up on screen and introduce new members who’re joining the squad and each of them gets a little moment to say hi. Every one of them has their own stories that you can unlock by playing as them and pairing them with certain characters they get along with.
These new recruits can be Scouts, Engineers, Snipers, Shock Troopers, Lancers, or Grenadiers. Every new character who comes in has a selection of “Potentials” that make them better or worse in certain circumstances and trigger in battle.
For instance, I had a sniper who was bald, so his evasion was lowered when hiding because of his big shiny head. Another character fought better while surrounded by nature, while a third was terrified of women and suffered from reduced performance when they were around (not a euphemism… maybe a euphemism).
War, War Never Changes
As the game progresses, some characters will get new Potentials, while others will get over their most debilitating ones. A character who was previously pretty tough to use can lose their crippling handicap by investing time and following their sub-quests.
All this is to say that there’s a lot to do outside of battles, but there’s not a whole lot that’s new here. The Grenadier class is new and they bring a welcome threat to the battlefield by lobbing volleys of explosives over obstacles and across the map.
But from the story side, I couldn’t shake the feeling that Claude from Valkyria Chronicles 4 is strikingly similar to the protagonist Welkin from the original game. I also missed some of the more management-focused elements of Valkyria Chronicles 2 that had you managing a military academy and broadened the basic classes a lot more.
Many of the ways the in-between games experimented have been lost in what seems like an attempt to bring Valkyria Chronicles to a new audience on the PS4, PC, Switch and Xbox. Veterans might wonder what happened to some of the great innovations in the other games.
Valkyria Chronicles 4 does feel very similar to the original Valkyria Chronicles, that’s not inherently a bad thing but does stand out.
So what is Valkyria Chronicles 4? It’s a human story about people stuck on a battlefield. Some days are full of action, while other days you’ll sit in the trenches and tell stories. It doesn’t always try and shove explosions in your face, but when I’m stuck in an airport waiting for a flight, Valkyria Chronicles 4 is just what I need.
Valkyria Chronicles 4 was reviewed on Nintendo Switch with a code provided by the publisher.
Game Title: Valkyria Chronicles 4