Key markets, target demographics, market trends and other such analyst jargon rules a large portion of the games industry today. So it's rare to see a game come along that simply wants to tell you a heartfelt story as Valkyria does. Right from the very beginning, the game is presented to you as a story book "On the Gallian Front" a war story about the second europan war which is somewhat similar to World War 2. The storybook theme is carried throughout the game, with different sections of the book such as the glossary of terms at the back being a source of background information about the world. All this background information serves to really flesh out the game world and suck you into its unique alternate reality.
What a beautiful world it is too. Continuing the storybook theme, the graphics are rendered in a unique graphics engine called CANVAS, making the entire game look like an old pencil and watercolour painting on old, faded at the edges, well worn paper. Hidden under the unique artistic style is a solid engine that never suffers from draw distance issues or framerate drops no matter how vast the map, number of enemies or even under the weight of massive map dominating set pieces.
At its heart the game is a strategy RPG, though it reinvents the genre in so many ways and melds together so many gameplay aspects you'd be forgiven for not knowing it. The original BLiTZ (Battlefield of Live Tactical Zones) battle system combines aspects of Third Person shooters, squad based shooters, real time strategy and strategy RPG together in a surprisingly compelling way. You begin by choosing what characters you want to deploy at the start of battle and positioning them around your base camp on an overhead tactical map showing your units and the enemy units that you know of. When you select one of your units from this tactical map, the magic really begins. You're given a pool of command points every turn, you can increase this number by deploying your officers, Alicia, Largo and Rosie, more on them later. Selecting a character uses up one of those command points and your turn usually ends when you run out of CP, though you can choose to end your turn before that and carry over CP to the next turn.
Unlike most SRPGs there are no tiles or grids in Valkyria. When you select a character the camera swings down to ground level behind them and you're given direct control over them. You can run them around the map much as you would in any third person shooter, crouching behind sandbags, lying in grass, climbing ladders to get to advantageous sniping positions and so on. A characters movement is constrained by an Action Point bar which depletes as they move. With its world war style setting you wont be using swords and sorcery in this game, instead you have rifles, machineguns, grenades, flamethrowers and the original rocket lances that act as rocket launchers to take out tanks, bridges sandbags and other forms of cover.
Enemies with rifles or machineguns will fire at you in realtime if you come within range and sight as you move around the map, adding a real sense of visceral danger to the tactical gameplay. Thankfully when you choose to attack, everything pauses, giving you time to aim your shot very carefully. Naturally headshots do more damage than body shots, but they're more likely to miss. Some enemies will even dive behind cover or to the ground when you fire, making it even harder to hurt them. You can use multiple CP to use the same character several times, if you need to get them to cover or finish off an enemy, but they get tired and each time they have less and less AP to move with.
There are five character classes in the game, Scout, Shocktrooper, Lancer, Sniper and Engineer. Scouts have very high movement and moderate attack power, but they can be mowed down by enemy interception fire if you make a bad move while exploring. Shocktroopers have high defense and high attack power but fairly limited movement range. Lancers have high defense, high attack power and are immune to mines, but their awful aim makes them mostly only useful for taking out tanks. Snipers, as you'd expect, are useful for uh, sniping. They can attack from huge distances and take enemies out with a single headshot. Their movement distance is tiny though and their defense is pitiful, so they cant go roaming around maps willy nilly.
Both Lancers and Snipers have limited ammo, only 3 rounds, though they regain a round each turn. Shocktroopers and Scouts have unlimited ammo for their guns, but only one grenade each. The final and most complicated class is the engineer, they can carry out a huge number of support tasks. Removing mines, repairing sandbag defenses, supplying ammo to Lancers and Snipers and grenades to Scouts and Shocktroopers. They also carry out one other vital role; Repairing your tank.
Squad 7's tank, the Edelweiss, is the backbone of the team. It can be used to shield the group from enemy interception fire, knock down walls, barriers, obstacles and enemy cover. It cannon can take out enemy tanks, its mortar can take out groups of imperial troops and its machinegun can even lay down some heavy interception fire. Of course all this comes at a cost, your tank takes 2 CP per use. The tank once belonged to a hero of the first europan war and now has been handed down to his son, Welkin Gunther, the hero of this war story.
Welkin is an odd hero for a war story and indeed for an RPG at that. There's no spiky hair, amnesia or brooding in sight. Instead we have an absentminded university student with a love for nature who was drafted into the war and given a commanding position simply because of his education. Naturally some of the more experienced soldiers added to squad 7 are none too pleased about that and initial relations between the main characters are quite frosty, with Rosie and Largo insisting they'll never follow Welkin into battle. Friendships soon develop though and the cast grow on you as much as they grow on each other.The other main character, Alicia Melchiott, is from Welkin's home town of Bruhl. Before the war began she was in training to become a baker. As the war began, she joined the Bruhl town watch, on the lookout for empire spies and at the very start of the game, she and Welkin strike up a friendship, which then blooms on the battlefield, in defense of their home. Who could fail to love a girl with lines like "I'm the one with the gun!" and "I'm not his girlfriend, I'm just his hero" Welkin's younger sister, Isara is almost as strange as he is, but her love is for machines instead of nature. She operates the tank with her brother, she takes care of the driving while he operates the weapons. She isn't related to Welkin by blood however and her Darcsen heritage results in her being hated by many racists, even among your own troops.
Strong as this main cast is, when you're finally given command of Squad 7, the roster expands to nearly 50 characters, from which you can select a squad of 20. Unlike so many other SRPGs, these secondary characters are actually well fleshed out with well defined personalities, backstories and relationships with the rest of the cast. With such a varied cast, everyone will find a group they love and a few favourite characters. Whether it's the anti-social lone wolf Marina, the man-hating Alicia-loving female engineer Dallas or the Veggie loving loyal team-mate Largo, each characters personality has an impact on the battlefield in the form of Potentials. Each character has their own personal set of potentials defined by their personality. They activate under certain conditions and offer varied benefits, for example, Rosie's Strong-Willed potential operates when she comes under interception fire and increases her defense. Not all the potentials are good either, Marina's Lone Wolf potential activates when she's near allies and decreases her attack power. This element adds an extra element to the strategy in terms of who you choose to work with who in your squad. Characters also have hidden potentials that are unlocked by using them in combat, sometimes you'll find an unexpected star in the squad and some characters will turn out to be shiftless duds. You needn't worry about wasting experience leveling up these dud characters though, instead of leveling each character individually, each class of characters level as a group, so you can chop and change your squad without fear.
Of course there are two sides to every story and there's a strong opposing force in this one. Selvaria, the titular (no jokes, please) Valkyria is at first a terrifying enigmatic foe, but as the story unfolds you come to respect her bravery and loyalty and perhaps even pity her and regret that you're enemies. Jaeger, the tank commander is a character you cant help but relate to when sucked into this world, as much as you're fighting to protect you're home, he's fighting to protect his too.
There's a lot of political wrangling behind the scenes in Valkyria, between glory hogs sending the little people to die for their own pride and militaries trying to conquer countries to control their resources. However the game doesn't concern itself to deeply with these things, instead choosing to concentrate on how these things effect the people. Darcsen concentration camps, Darcsen hunts to kill those who escape, torture of war prisoners, the war crimes in Valkyria are a little too close to reality to casually ignore compared to other RPGs.
Valkyria matches a beautiful art style with a well developed world, likeable character designs with a loveable cast and a unique addictive battle system with a well told if not original story. RPG fans should pick this up without question and every PS3 owner should at least give it a look, even if they hate RPGs with a passion, this game is unique enough and charming enough to win them over