Valkyria Chronicles 4 Review
A great turn-based RPG for both fans and newcomers alike
2018 has been a rather good year for Japanese titles making their way to the West. Dragon Ball Z, Fire Emblem, Yakuza, Dragon Quest, and Monster Hunter are just a few games that have continued to gather momentum on the other side of the pond. The latest game to make the journey is the turn-based WW2-inspired tactical roleplaying game Valkyria Chronicles 4.
You'd be forgiven for thinking the previous games in the series have passed you by, given that Valkyria Chronicles (PS3) was not that popular in the West. Throw in that fact its two sequels were released on the PlayStation Portable and it's easy to see why the franchise flew under the radar for many. To combat this, SEGA released a remastered version of the first game on the PlayStation 4 a couple of years ago.
Valkyria Chronicles 4 arrives with a bit of tweaking from the more high-school-focused conceit of the previous two entries. Like the rest of the series, its base of operations is the fictional region of Europa, modeled after WW2 Europe. Best classed as a tactical roleplaying game, similar to XCOM or Fire Emblem, you take control of different units on a variety of battlefields. Your objective is, predominantly, to capture an enemy base, take out foes, rescue a stranded comrade, or reach an escape point.
True to VK4's roleplaying nature, you occupy the shoes of tank commander and leader of Squad E, Claude Wallace, who are part of the Federation Army - the good guys. After his hometown was attacked by the Empire during the Second Europa War, he joined the army with his friends in order to protect his country. From a broad standpoint, the plot's simple: stop the Empire from taking over the world. You're the underdogs, forced to rely on your sharp wits and superior tactics. Along the way, you'll learn more about the individual characters under Claude's command, as well as the man himself, the enemies you're battling and overall effects of the war.
As it has been awhile since I played the original, I'd forgotten how truly engaging the stories in this franchise can be, including the characters. The people in your unit all have their own backgrounds and ambitions, which you explore as the story progresses. It's easy to get invested in Claude, his reckless pal Raz, Leena who has replaced her brother after he mysteriously disappeared, as well as Riley, a childhood friend who has some trust issues with Claude. It gave me flashes of the Suikoden series, which always had a lot of characters but never let relatability fall by the wayside, and VK4 makes it easy to get invested in everyone's journey.
While story does constitute a fair chunk of the game, the turn-based combat is what everything revolves around. Battles typically begin with a briefing period where you'll learn of your objective, which, more often than not, is found at the other end of the map. To get there, you have to plow through the enemies. On the battlefield, you control units via a typical third-person action camera, and use the overhead map to get a better view of the positioning. As such, it often feels like an action game. After deploying, you control each one and have a set amount of CP to use. Upon commanding a unit, you have a movement bar (AP), which depletes as you traverse the map. Each unit can take as many actions per turn as you see fit, whether that is attacking, healing, repairing, or nothing at all. After you have expended all your CP, it's then time for the enemy's turn.
There are several unit types you can utilize to stomp the evil Empire. Scouts act as their name implies: they can travel the furthest, used to identify the enemy and pick off a few weaker foes along the way. Shocktroopers are your heavy-duty damage dealers. Equipped with machineguns and strong armor, you can run up to the enemy and turn them into Swiss cheese. Lancers come equipped with anti-tank rockets and, you guessed it, are best used against them or to destroy enemy fortifications. Our main man Claude drives his tank around the battlefield; what it lacks in maneuverability it makes up for with firepower. Engineers fix people, machines, and can rebuild fortifications and pathways. Snipers shoot things that are far away. Artillery shoot mortars up in the air to land on unsuspecting troops and can pretty much clean out anything in their way. You also have APCs that are particularly effective for moving units around the battlefield; as well as backup in the form of a ship (which comes later) .
The first tactical predicament shows itself right at the briefing screen. You only have a certain number of slots that your units can occupy. While you can request backup from your main camp or those you capture, it takes an additional turn to arrive. Within this, there are different positions to deploy into – closer to the frontlines, further back, etc. Add into the mix only a vague knowledge of the unit types you may encounter, from foot soldiers to tanks, snipers in watchtowers to Gatling guns, means you have to plan ahead. A good rule of thumb I found was to typically have one of each type, and then, through the use of the tactical command posts you capture (and have from the start) to order in new troops as the situation demands.
Each character in the game also come equipped with certain Potentials. These are buffs and de-buffs that activate in certain situations. Raz, for example, has a Potential that lowers his accuracy when around a large group of people; conversely, if he's by himself and low on health, his defense and evasion get a buff. It's an interesting addition but, as you'd expect, can be laughably frustrating in some situations. Say, when you need to lob a grenade as part one of your twelve-step plan, only for a Potential to activate, reducing your ammo, and causing everyone to perish. Goodbye, team.
Out of all the units in the game, I found the Lancers to be the most annoying. In theory, someone with what amounts to a rocket launcher should be a good asset to any army. In practice, the unit's short travel distance combined with wildly inaccurate weapons made them painful to use because to one-shot a tank, you need to strike its rear. I found it much easier to simply utilize my artillery units who could one-shot them from afar. The same issue exists with tanks, too. Unless you're shoving the barrel right up a tank's rear end, you can miss some stupidly short-range shots. I'm well aware the accuracy of tanks can be a widely variable thing, I just wish I had some agency in determining that - a skill check of some kind, perhaps. Like lancers, it took a good amount of time for tanks to become a more viable option.
Levels (or Chapters as the game calls them) can vary in length. Typically, each battle can take a good 30 mins if not more, because you're so unfamiliar with the best route of attack and how the battle progresses. More often than not, these levels are divided into stages. These can take the form of: go to Point A and upon reaching it, the situation then morphs into another stage with inventive use of the space. You'll traverse a number of diverse locations that affect combat. Fog of war or blizzards can descend, obscuring your view or making it so your units have to be rescued swiftly if they fall in battle. Explosions and fires can warp village landscapes and sever your routes; avalanches can sweep away friend or foe alike, forcing you through treacherous and narrow pathways. No two levels and scenarios are quite the same.
Now, I'd like to think that I'm a little better than alright at turn-based tactical games, but I found VK4 on normal difficulty will whip your backside if you let it. If you're not familiar with the genre or haven't played one for a while, I'd take things slow. As you trudge along each battlefield scenario, you never know what can be around the corner, causing you to adjust tactics on the fly. One of the most satisfying feelings in VK4 is finally finishing a level that was a real pain, only to instantly know what you should have done upon reflection, making it a breeze the next time. It's a facet that offers real incentive to replay the levels and the game itself on a harsher difficulty.
All units are diverse enough so that you clearly know which battlefield scenario requires which troops. You have a large roster on your hands, and what I found with games like this, is that you become attached to the little characters as they clutch a battle. What's more is that even these characters get time in the spotlight. The more you play with certain characters that have an affinity to each other, the higher chance a "sub story" will open. These offer a deeper view at character relationships and come with their own battle, too.
All that fighting's gotta be worth something in the end, right? The freedom of your land? Countless lives saved? Nah. It's EXP and DCT (in-game currency). The former is used to improve individual units, one level at a time. Their stats will increase and they will have the chance to learn new battle Potentials. EXP can also be used to unlock new Commands, special actions used in-battle that will buff defense, evasion, etc. DCT is used to upgrade weapons, Claude's tank, and armor. The rate at which you unlock new items to upgrade feels like a bit of a deluge after each chapter.
VK4 uses the CANVAS graphics engine, which lends its characters and environments a cel-shaded quality. It's not a game gunning for realism, but more of a visual style analogous to anime, which it pulls off with aplomb. Despite the overall gloominess of the subject matter, levels are vibrant (when not centered around trench warfare). However, it is VK4's characters that stand out most of all. Each one feels uniquely crafted and imbued with personality and charm. The voice acting and translation also deserves a nod, both of which are exceptionally done. Thankfully, this high bar of quality is par the course for SEGA's games, and people may recognize a few voice actors from the publisher's other titles.
VK4 had a neat idea in its menu design that sounds nice - a scrapbook/journal kept by Claude - but it really does not lend itself to intuitive operation. You progress through chapters by turning pages, where you can select different pictures to view scenes that, for some reason are split up into different time segments. I'd rather have just watched the whole scene, which then updated the pictures, rather than being kicked back to the book after a few seconds.
Another issue is the fact you have over half-a-dozen different options once you open up your main menu. To upgrade a weapon, I have to open the menu, select the HQ, which takes me to the HQ page, where I click to load the HQ menu, where I then select equipment, and then there are still more steps involved, in upgrading one weapon. The idea was nice but it isn't practical. If you're at the HQ then you may as well stick around. Here you can upgrade and outfit different units, choosing which ones will be part of the upcoming battle. You can socialize in the Mess Hall, head to your private barracks to check the glossary and various medals you're awarded after battle.
Despite a few issues and the slow progression curve which thankfully evens out around the halfway point, Valkyria Chronicles 4 is a quality turn-based romp with a lot of heart. Its great characterization and story, which does not shy away from the realities of war, gives the illusion that you're right in the trenches with your fellow comrades in arms. Its thoughtful approach to combat offers many opportunities to perfect your tactics and refreshingly takes no prisoners.