Valkyria Chronicles 4 Review
As I discussed in my hands-on impressions during Anime Expo 2018, I have a lot of passion for the Valkyria Chronicles series. Sure, things were a little rough at the start thanks in no part to the rather bland demo of the original Valkyria Chronicles put out by Sega for the PlayStation 3, but I knew shortly after beginning my (fictional) military service that there was something really special to be had in its ranks.i
There was nothing quite like the original Valkyria Chronicles at that time, especially in terms of the combat system. I remembered reading so many outlets heaping praise upon that facet alone, which alone piqued my interest -- but nothing would prepare me for the incredible experience that the overall package delivered when I finally got my hands on the game so many years ago.
I never gave its sequel, Valkyria Chronicles 2, a fair shake. Despite owning a PlayStation Portable at the time, the same level of interest wasn't there. Maybe it's because I was turned off from the premise of a younger, more immature squad making their way into battle from a classroom setting. While that course had seemed to have been corrected with the stellar Valkyria Chronicles 3, a game which hit all the bullet points from what I would want from a strategy RPG, insult was added to injury when slowed PSP sales contributed to a decision to not localize the game for the west.
Fortunately, a group of fans didn't give up, and a few years ago, an English fan translation was released for Valkyria Chronicles 3. I had an absolute blast making my way through a game that featured not only the strategy gameplay unique to the series, but also an impressive cast of characters along with branching story paths in the form of two romance options. I enjoyed the game thoroughly and you bet I played through both story paths, even if only a few cutscenes differentiated the two.
Regrettably, for series' fans, it had been in a bit of a downward spiral since then. Sega figured they could try something completely different with last year's Valkyria Revolution, (wrongfully) assuming that fans weren't into the type of gameplay the series was known for and opted to go for an action RPG style in a woefully misdirected design decision.
It was clear even from the early public testing that the stalwarts were having none of it. Sega attempted some preemptive damage control by repeatedly reminding people that the game wasn't Valkyria Chronicles 4, but rather something very different, but didn't change the fact that Revolution wasn't the sort of game that fans spent years waiting for. The title that hit the bargain bin as fast as anyone could have expected.
This brings us to what we're going to talk about today. Late last year, Sega launched a teaser site for a new entry in the Valkyria series. Understandably, people were wary of the news considering the aforementioned Valkyria Revolution along with how so many beloved properties have been regulated to mobile platforms as nostalgic cash grabs. All that worrying was for naught, however, as they officially revealed Valkyria Chronicles 4.
Media.Vision was given a break from their main development duties (though they're still assisting) in favor of an in-house production with a drive to bring everything back to the series' roots. But is Valkyria Chronicles 4 able to accomplish everything that it sets out to do, and revitalize what was once a powerful license that garnered so much acclaim? Well, it sort of depends on what you were really looking to get out of a new entry, but speaking for myself, it's all I could have ever asked for and more.
The story takes place concurrently with the rest of the series (save for VC2). You, as Claude Wallace, lead a group of elite rangers who are a part of Squad E with a highly dangerous goal in their sights - striking at the very core of the imperials and finally bring the Second Europan War to an end. This entire conflict is being waged over a precious mineral resource known as ragnite, which has the power to do everything from creating weapons of destruction to healing the populace.
Above all else, ragnite is pushing the advancement of human innovation ever forward, and as such, mankind is fighting every ounce of it. Rather than focusing on the plight of the once-neutral country of Gallia, Valkyria Chronicles 4 instead changes the optics to the fight between the Atlantic Federation and the East European Imperial Alliance. Standing in their way is an incredibly powerful force that includes a legendary figure once spoken of in myths and legends. Not only that, but the ethics of being a soldier and the numerous dilemmas of fighting for what one considers to be "good" will also come into frame. More specifically, whether it is right to use weapons of war to end all hostilities.
While Welkin Gunther represented someone who utilized his natural leadership skills and knowledge of nature to navigate the field of combat and make up for his lack of experience, Claude Wallace, much like Zhuge Liang, has a deep intuition when it comes to fluctuations in weather and climate to alter the flow of battle. Once his "Scaredy-Claude" stigma is set aside early on, we find out how passionate and determined he is to see his fellow soldiers survive through an excursion, which puts him more in line with Valkyria Chronicles 3's Kurt Irvine.
Claude's headstrong behavior and mindfulness make him a more interesting character than Welkin at times, especially when Welkin got a little too preachy for my tastes. Here, Claude is far more grounded - more attuned to reality (aka he's not completely oblivious to those around him like Welkin and Kurt both were). Sure, it's hard to make the argument for "realism" in a game featuring winged lance maidens and psychic abilities, but this is what I appreciate. Also, there's a fearless Shiba Inu named Ragnarok who acts as the mascot and that makes him instantly better than a flying pig. I rest my case.
Regardless, it seems that every single Valkyria Chronicles game (save for VC2) goes through the exact same plot routine -- a new commander shows up, the rest of the units are unhappy about a rookie commanding officer for one reason or another, so the new leader shuts them up by using actions, not words. He gains the respect of the squad, and everyone moves on stronger for it.
While this may sound highly reductive (and it is in some part), that's how things go here as well. But it's how that story is presented that makes all the difference. I felt myself becoming emotionally invested in their plight, and the voice acting performances are nothing short of incredible. They really sold their characters well, and I dare say it is one of the best ensembles Sega has put together.
But let's move on to the more minute details. Anyone who has played the original Valkyria Chronicles will be instantly familiar with practically every mechanic in Valkyria Chronicles 4, aside from some quality of life changes such as color indicators when units trigger rare potentials. Even the Headquarters closely mirrors the original - everything from gaining recruits to training your troops and purchasing upgrades through the R&D facility has made their return. For the most part, these areas are just given different names. There are some important unlockables once you have completed the game, but I'll save that for those who want to find out for themselves. Needless to say, it certainly adds a fair level of additional features to enjoy.
I will say the only real shame in expressing this is that they took out perhaps one of the coolest features introduced in Valkyria Chronicles 3, and that is the Master Table. You see, in Valkyria Chronicles, there are six different classes are that are present: the Scout, Shocktrooper, Lancer, Engineer, Sniper, and now, the Grenadier. In VC3, you could become any class you wanted to at any point while sharing the same Battle Potentials which also include High Potentials and Super Potentials. Most beneficial of all were the Class Potentials which, as the name shows, are exclusive to that particular class.
For example, if you have a Shocktrooper, you can make them become a Scout. Doing so gives you the chance to unlock a special class potential where, once your AP drains, there's a chance for it to automatically refill. There's another perk where your AP meter doubles in size, making you a moving death machine that can sprint across large portions of the map. It's sort of like the job/subjob system in some of the Final Fantasy games. It was easily one of the best features in VC3, but it isn't present here because the cast of characters is far greater than in VC3 which allowed this system to exist in the first place.
It makes a lot of sense, but is still a bit of a letdown, all things considered. Even so, many of those characters are at least voiced here and chime in during many of the story cutscenes, so it's nice to see that despite the large pool, they're at least given some degree of personality. And that's really the entire cast - while I may not consider them better as Valkyria Chronicles 3's due to how character-driven that entry is, I still enjoyed a good amount of them to the point where choosing which units I brought with me into battle through sheer favoritism was a challenge at times since everyone's so personable.
Nowhere is this better represented than through Squad Stories, sub-episodes that appear after you deploy certain units together often enough, especially those who like each other. They also unlock higher level potentials, along with additional experience and money. It's a win-win situation all around, in my opinion, and a fantastic addition to the series.
There are a couple other noteworthy changes to combat. For one thing, tanks now only use up 1 CP instead of the typical 2, which can make a world of difference in combat (though I tend to just use Lancers to run behind tanks). While I'm glad they at least didn't bring back the annoying mechanic where your tank's treads could be destroyed, leaving you disabled until an engineer was able to approach you, this does make it easier to exploit the game. If people came into this game thinking they removed the loophole of charging your Scout across the map to an enemy's flag, it's not quite the same.
The maps are a lot larger and far more varied than they were in earlier entries thanks to the advancement in game technology, so it's not as easy to do as it once was - at least, when it comes to main story missions, as skirmishes tend to be on much smaller maps. There's also far more verticality as you'll be climbing up ladders, crossing over roofs, and using the terrain against the enemy far more than ever before. It certainly makes for a far more dynamic experience especially on the harder difficulties where enemies could be lying in wait anywhere.
On that same note, there are difficulty modes you get to choose from when starting the game. Those who were unable to handle some of the difficulty spikes in the earlier games can opt for the Easy mode which makes everything a bit of a cakewalk. I personally went with Normal mode, the default setting, and you can really tell the difference.
Here, there are far more enemies in general, including additional tanks, anti-tank cannons, gatling guns, and other special units that had me biting my nails after every round, hoping my entire squad wouldn't get decimated by the time I took control once again. Enemies also hit a lot harder on the higher difficulties, so planning a proper strategy ahead of time can make all the difference. This makes the comment about map scale all the more pertinent since Scouts are squishy targets.
Speaking of which, a new class has also joined the fray in this entry - the Grenadier, mortar units who can fire at enemies who may be hiding behind cover or are bunkered high above the field of combat. One nice perk is that, unlike Lancers, they will fire upon any enemy units who come within their range of fire which can be incredibly useful in later encounters (Snipers have finally been given the chance to perform interception fire and counterattacks).
Another neat little detail is that when Grenadiers fire in your vicinity, there's a chance you will get knocked off your feet, leaving you completely dazed with a ringing sound in your ears. You will also be inflicted with a Slow Down ailment, so you have to be extra careful when dealing with this class.
Also worth noting is Ship Orders. Later on in the campaign, you will gain access to your own snow cruiser that you can command to either gain reconnaissance or fire upon enemy territory, among other capabilities. It's a neat feature, though to be honest, I kept forgetting that was an option (I wasn't one to use many Orders in any of the games).
Finally, there's the Last Stand. When one of your soldiers is about to go out of commission, you can have them Stand Up, which has your unit move invincibly to deliver one last attack; Counter, which fires back at the soldier that put you in critical condition to begin with; or Inspire, which buffs the nearest ally while giving the squad an additional CP. Any of these options must be chosen before a timer runs out, and Stand Up can be very useful if you happen to die near an opposing flag near an enemy who is either near death or easy to kill.
Valkyria Chronicles 4 epitomizes the notion that "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." Honestly, that's what so many fans wanted all along. Sure, Sega ends up playing it safe in many areas in order to please the fanbase, but to me, there's nothing really wrong with that. After all, the only thing that hurt the original Valkyria Chronicles was its pacing, and the fourth entry does a far better job with the onboarding experience (though the first couple missions still feel a little bland).
From here, Sega can go in a variety of directions while keeping with the same core formula that made the franchise so successful in the first place. With any luck, they'll take a few risks in the process (though please, nothing on the scale of Valkyria Revolution). As a modern take on a fantastic formula, Valkyria Chronicles 4 is an easy title to recommend for strategy RPG fans everywhere.