War is merciless and devastating, and no doubt that visceral grit is what gamers with a military bloodlust usually look for in their strategy games. To that end, the blue skies and anime cuteness of Valkyria Chronicles’ fictionalised version of World War II might stick out for the wrong reasons. In fact, it’s arguably the reason the first game was so massively overlooked when it released on PS3 in 2008, causing one of its sequels to skip the Western market altogether.
Now, after an ill-advised action game spin-off and a lengthy absence, it looks like the series is truly back. It turns out that the fourth time’s the charm for Sega’s unique strategy RPG series.
Like its predecessor, Valkyria Chronicles 4 takes place during the Second Europan War between the Atlantic Federation and the Eastern Empire. But where the original game focused on ordinary people who felt compelled to join the militia in order to fight back against their invaders, this time we follow the seasoned (albeit still young) recruits of Squad E, led by the idealistic, sensitive, and well-kempt commander Claude Wallace. In a last-ditch attempt to end the war, the Federation sends these youthful soldiers off on a seemingly impossible campaign to capture the Imperial capital.
It’s a very different story to what’s come before, but yet, the way it’s told is largely the same as it was in the decade-old original. Anyone who’s played the first game will feel right at home here, with the 18-chapter campaign told once again through a journal of cutscenes littered in between missions that also have the style of a comic book, from the talking head panels right down to the onomatopoeia accompanying the shuffle of enemy footsteps or a RATATATTAT of machine gun fire. But opting for the anime character design rendered with Sega’s proprietary “Canvas” engine layers the cel-shaded visuals with a beautiful watercolour aesthetic, which hasn’t aged at all — and conveniently makes it not too graphically demanding for Nintendo’s Switch hardware.
Boots on the Ground
The combat is a hybrid of turn-based and real-time, where you select a unit from a top-down map before the action zooms in to control your character like a third-person shooter. Each action spent in a turn is governed by CP while a unit also has an orange AP gauge showing how far they can move. Taking the shot reverts to RNG and stats as intercepting fire pauses, and you can take your time lining up your crosshairs, although a large reticle still means there’s a chance your shots won’t always land.
It’s essentially the same as the original’s battle system, but given there’s nothing else like it, that’s not a bad thing at all. There are a few welcome additions, however, which thankfully make marshalling your troops a bit easier. The first appreciated tweak is the addition of an APC vehicle that’s weaker than a tank but can transport up to two units, with the second being the fist-pump-worthy, new option of being able to delegate some of the tactical decisions to leader units, who can now command up to two teammates for you, letting the AI do a bit of the heavy lifting.
Adding another layer to the rock-paper-scissors dynamic between class units is the introduction of the grenadier, whose portable mortar can launch powerful artillery shells at targets over long distances. Watching them set up their machines with the satisfying “clatter” and “kachunk” is also a source of tension, as this extra time also makes them vulnerable to enemy attack, but the good news is that they can still get an accurate shot at enemies indirectly, so long as another of your units has the target in sight. The bad news is that the enemy can also deploy grenadiers, so staying out of sight lines and taking them out first is a priority.
If there’s one bugbear to the difficulty, it’s when you start encountering “boss” units in later missions, around the same time the story evolves from its grounded WWII analog to the more fantastical. While they’re not technically impossible to defeat, when you’re up against opponents with a ridiculously high health pool and evasion rate, it threatens to unfairly tip the scales of battle.
Winter Is Coming
Compared to just moving your units like pawns on a chessboard, just like in its predecessors, there’s once again a greater personal touch to battles here than you usually find in the genre. In this strategy series, you take control of your troops’ every action in real time. However, the fact that you’re managing the real-time actions of about ten units per turn, as well as then having to watch the enemy’s turn (though the latter’s animations can be sped up) does mean battles have a tendency to last a long time, making this less suited for pick-up-and-play sessions like say, Fire Emblem or Into The Breach. Still, you can save whenever thankfully, so being called away by real life mid-battle doesn’t have to be a frustrating experience.
But even if some missions drag out longer than expected, there’s at least always some variety to them. In fact, it’s quite common for objectives to change halfway, or for a surprise element to throw a proverbial spanner in the works, forcing you to adapt your strategy. It’s rarely a case of simply routing the enemy or capturing their base.
Similarly, Squad E’s journey northward as winter approaches takes you to new and perilous environments away from the more familiar fields and towns you begin with. Being aware of — and adapting to — terrain and weather conditions becomes a key part of battle, whether that’s navigating snowy mountains with risks of avalanches or fighting deep in a glacial crevasse.
Although the relationships between Claude and his childhood friends in Squad E make up the emotional core of the story, it’s perhaps easy to overlook the constantly expanding roster of squadmates in your command. But despite the list of squadmates getting longer than your list of weird uncles seemingly every second, it’s worth getting to know every soldier, as they each have their own unique personalities that can grant either buffs or debuffs during battle. If that wasn’t enough to worry about, you’ve got to carefully consider who they share the battlefield with too, as their preferences of teammates can also affect their performance. It’s not particularly easy to discern who you’d rather deploy in battle, while some have traits making them seem more of a liability, from the mechanic with an unhealthy fixation with tanks to the trooper who sounds like she’s drunk all the time.
You are, however, rewarded for your persistence as deploying a soldier, and making use of them enough times will unlock their side stories, which not only flesh out their backstories but also turn a previously negative trait into a positive one with extra perks. So, there’s that. But as you’d probably expect, doing so requires a grind either by repeating story missions or taking part in optional skirmishes — it’s fair to say that it will take longer than the main campaign to see every side story and awaken every character’s full potential. But even if you’re not a completionist, a progression system where leveling up and upgrading gear applies to a whole class rather than individual soldiers, fortunately, means that no one gets left behind.
As Squad E grows, there’s always the threat of losing a unit for good. That said, the threat of permadeath is far more lenient than in XCOM or Fire Emblem, since you have a chance to evacuate downed soldiers. Better still, your trusty tank-fixing and mine-disarming engineers can also fully revive units, while a late combat mechanic also grants downed leader units the chance for a “last stand,” such as buffing a nearby teammate or going out in a blaze of glory to get one last shot at an enemy.
Is Valkyria Chronicles 4 Any Good?
The Valkyria Chronicles series is a strange but wonderful blend of contradictions. A Japanese turn-based strategy RPG that borrows third-person shooter elements more popular in the West. These are games about war — where both men and women fight alongside one another in a time when having female soldiers in a Triple-A shooter is causing a ruckus amongst certain types of people. Complemented by a story that not only reflects on the human sacrifices of war but somehow still manages to find that classically anime kawaii side of life — it’s hard not to fall for Valkyria Chronicles 4 in all its wonderfully kooky charm.
Sure there are certainly bigger and more sophisticated looking military-themed games vying for your attention this year, but there’s not anything quite that looks or plays like Valkyria Chronicles 4.
Despite some technical blemishes on the Switch version, including notable frame drops in busier sections, it’s another great addition to a growing roster of quality JRPGs for Nintendo’s system. And, of course, this will also serve as a great way to fill the gaping hole in our hearts left by a lack of Switch Fire Emblem, which isn’t due until 2019. In short, if you’re looking for a new portable strategy game on Switch — look no further.