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Valkyria Chronicles is stunningly unique in both visuals and strategic game design. A blend of calligraphy, Manga and war-time show reels, it looks like it plays - like nothing else on the PlayStation 3. But it was Valkyria Chronicles ability to make me care about each character that really hooked me in, and created some frightful decisions to make.
Valkyria Chronicles is a largely overlooked 2007 PlayStation 3 exclusive. Despite its age it remains about the best looking titles on the system thanks to its wonderful art direction that blends Japanese Manga with a faux World War 2 Europe backdrop. Due to its aesthetic and being one of the few designed-for-console strategy experiences this generation it stands as something unique in a market dominated by gritty action.
Set against a heavy-handed reinterpretation of the Second World War, my opening impressions of Valkyria Chronicles were somewhat mixed. Skeptical that the story could drag itself above the cliche's of the world it placed me in. I watched as the two warring factions of the good Federation and the evil Empire were introduced. Yet despite my misgivings the stylish visual design and novel play mechanics enticed me enough to persevere.
My initial skepticism was not easily shaken though as one cloying Japanese stereotype after another was encountered. From the intellectual hero to the tough girl with a heart of gold, all were out in full force, determined to make me feel like I had seen it all somewhere be for.
A game where personality was a much a resource as ammunition, where knowing a troop's interests could turn the tide of an engagement.
I was cast as the intellectual hero Welkin Gunther, a man conscripted into the Principality of Gallian's militia and instantly promoted a position of command thanks to his father previous military victories, and because he was the only new recruit with the presence of mind to bring his own tank. It seemed to bother no one that prior to his military service he had been a botanist. I am aware that this is a common archetype of Japanese story telling, the realisation of youth's potential, but this is often simply a crutch for a lack of substance.
But as if the game sensed my trepidation, it wasn't long before the purpose behind the exposition was revealed. Selecting my own squad from characters whose personalities and traits could be utilised in battle, it struck me that the ceaseless character interaction and cut-scenes had been setting the stage for a game where personality was a much a resource as ammunition, where knowing a troop's interests could turn the tide of an engagement.
Each encounter with the enemy began by allowing me to place my hand picked troops on a map. My opponent and I then took turns to use our prescribed movement points. After selecting a unit the camera switches to third person perspective and control to real time. These mechanics worked in tandem to give me turn based command while also getting me directly involved in the action - and build my burgeoning bond with each of member of my squad.
Decisions started to be forced on me during combat. As some characters who were well suited to a task would suffer thanks to the environment or the construction of my team. My best fighters would suddenly be struck down by hay fever, dramatically reducing their abilities. I would find myself having to choose whether to drop the stalwart members of my team, in favour of other less capable but allergy free counterparts, or hope my star players would pull through.
Decisions became based half on logic and half on emotion as I weight the cost of losing an objective against abandoning a character who had helped me in the past.
I found myself acting as a true commander may. I would tell troops to run into situations that I knew to be suicide in order to achieve my key goals. Decisions became based half on logic and half on emotion as I weight the cost of losing an objective against abandoning a character who had helped me in the past. I could imagine the young idealistic Welkin, forced to make the same choices with his comrades' lives, watching the repercussions and slowly steeling himself against them.
Factors both internal (from the squad make up) and external (from the war raging around us) began to affect our moral, and as I got used to their abilities and personalities my choices began to carry more weight. A constant desire to keep my friends and squad alive created an unexpected tension.
It was from this pressure a depth started to emerge. Every element of the experience combined to develop in me a connection to the world in a way that made the game's sledgehammer narrative beginning a distant memory. And this, for me, is how I fell in love with a game that at times made me make appalling decisions and get a glimpse into the horror of being a real wartime tactician.
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