Valkyria Chronicles Review: World War II Gets a Girlie MakeoverS

Valkyria Chronicles is a strategy RPG created by the Sega studio behind Skies of Arcadia and Phantasy Star that blends action elements with good ol' fashioned Japanese RPG sap.

The game uses a unique turn-based battle system called "BliTZ" - battle of live tactical zones - and has a sketch-and-watercolor style of art design that looks like something from Studio Ghibli. The plot is set in an alternate reality version of Europe in 1935 where the scarcity of a magical ore called ragnite has spurred the evil Empire (Germany/Russia) to march into the ragnite-rich neutral country of Gallia (Switzerland, if Switzerland grew a pair) and start a war.

As a PS3 exclusive and one of the few original intellectual properties on the shelves this season, Valkyria Chronicles certainly stands out from the crowd. But is it too unique for widespread appeal?

Loved
The Combat System – The BliTZ battle system sounds - and is - complicated, but it's the best part of the game. By switching between the tactical Command Mode view where you can see the map and units from on high, I get the satisfaction of being a godlike commander ordering her armies out to die. But when I spend that command point, switching gameplay to the third person-viewed Action Mode, I feel like I'm actually in the shit - in World War II - and it's pretty intense.

The Art Style – In addition to being amazingly gorgeous (a matter of opinion, I'll admit), the art style in Valkyria Chronicles is also very detailed. Three things really struck me here. First, the decorations on the military uniforms and tanks are so intricate, you might not even see all there is to see in a single cut scene. Second, the sound effects are illustrated both in Command Mode and Action Mode with written effects like "RRRRRR" or "KABOOM" - very kitschy in a comic book sort of way. Lastly, characters' hair and loose-hanging equipment actually moves in the wind; a definite plus.

Plot Twist – I have issues with the plot - but something (no spoilers) happens that almost makes me forget everything I didn't like. A big fault in many RPGs is including a bunch of random side plots or unresolved drama throughout the 30+ hour story. But I think, with this twist, Valkyria Chronicles ties everything together nicely and keeps the story from being typical.

The Characters – In Valkyria Chronicles, you can swap out (or lose in battle) most of your squad, but each meat shield unit feels unique thanks to detailed appearances and voice acting. Some characters also have special back stories that you can unlock throughout the game by paying the annoying journalist to write "reports" on them or by unlocking secret characters in the game. Units also have Potentials – special stat buffs or de-buffs that kick in during combat – and a list of people they like. When positioned with their buddies, the units all join in the attack whenever one of them takes a shot. All of this makes you value units way more than you would if they were generic soldier types – so much so that you might go out of your way to save a downed unit instead of seizing victory in the quickest way possible.

Hated
Mission Grading – Each mission in the game is assigned a letter grade based on how fast you completed the mission; not on how well. A low grade means you earn less XP and money for that mission. This is lame because in many of the missions (even the optional bonus missions and skirmish battles) there are "ace" characters you need to kill to score enemy weapons – but they're usually hard to find and even harder to kill. So if you're bloodthirsty and cautious like me, you'll almost always wind up with a C or D grade ranking because total annihilation takes six turns instead of four.

Fiddly %$&#;ing Controls – The tanks are a bitch to drive, targeting for head shots can be a nightmare unless you get your guns leveled up all the way, and sometimes pressing R1 after a Potential cut scene has been triggered doesn't take and you get gunned down. There also seem to be a fair few collision issues on some of the cover items. You'll be running a unit close to a wall to save on the AP gauge and wind up getting caught on something, which leads to you blowing precious AP to get unstuck. This is especially annoying with the tanks, where losing AP means you won't be able to turn your tank all the way around to protect the vulnerable radiator from fatal butt-shots.

The Difficulty Ramping – Unless you're careful to do all the bonus missions and maybe grind a few skirmishes, the difficulty of the main plot escalates sharply. The odd mission will eat up over an hour and you might find yourself repeating missions as many as three times just to get an idea of what you're up against. (Thank God you can save during missions.) There's a fine line between challenging and controller-flinging frustration. Every so often, Valkyria Chronicles doesn't just cross that line – it drives a tank over it. The last boss? Cheap and annoying. Typical.

The Plot – Mixing World War II with quasi-Norse mythology isn't exactly a winning combination, especially when you're trying to work in concentration camps and widespread anti-Semitism in an age-appropriate way. Sure, it's unique to make WWII fantasy, but it adds a layer of levity to the topic that I'm not sure is appropriate. And when Valkyria Chronicles isn't coming off as ham-handed on the racism issue, it's making an ass of itself with the angst and the mascot pig and the flowers.

Oversexed Uniforms – The decorations on the uniforms are cool, but seriously - who wears mini skirts to war?! And why, if women wear eight layers of armor and a cape, can't they wear a bra?!

I'm biased; I love JRPGs, I love SRPGs and I love girlie things like flowers, sparkly particle effects and Valkyries. I also enjoy hour-long battles and overwrought emotional scenes (even if I do cringe at the anti-Semitism analogy). So I highly recommend Valkyria Chronicles to anyone with a PS3. But I admit that for all its beauty, uniqueness and charm, Valkyria is first a foremost a strategy game. If that's not your bag, this won't be the game to convert you. Although you might at least download to the demo to get an idea of what everyone is gushing about.

Valkyria Chronicles was developed by Sega WOW's Overworks studio and published by Sega. It hit shelves on November 4, 2008 in North America and retails for $59.99. Completed all Chapters, three reports, and six skirmish battles on Normal difficulty. Played to Chapter 2 on Cleared Mode.

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