3/22/2013

Catching up: Valkyria Chronicles


Valkyria Chronicles was recommended to me when I talked to one of my colleagues about jRPG's. Although not strictly an RPG itself, VC was supposed to get me on my knees to praise SEGA. And well, one of my knees certainly did bend, almost touching the floor. However, I find many elements of the game disputable, and that's why I would recommend it the most, but more on that later.


The game uses very stylised, anime graphics. Which is a huge plus in my opinion. Seeing the same gameplay with generic photorealistic approach would take the majority of the charm away. Also, it did let the developers focus a bit more on the gameplay and the story. On the other hand, the decission to invest less in graphical assets shows very clearly in dialogues. Imagine a static image of a location, pretty much a wallpaper. On this wallpaper a window with a face pops up. It says something. The other window pops up and says something else. Sometimes these kind of dialogues can last up to three minutes. All the time you have to press a button to hear/read the next line. It's hard to imagine a more oldschool way to present dialogues. It reminds me of all these generic hentai games, there's just less boobs. 

Cutscenes tell a story. A pretty damn good one for game standards, really. Good enough to make anime TV series and three manga adaptations out ot it. The characters are well built, some are a little cliche, but to the extent that makes them easier to understand, but not boringly predictable. Every single one of your soldiers (there's dozens of them) has different personality. You get lots of dialogues, that help you get to know the main characters, learn more about the plot, about the military situation on the front - everything. Some dialogues make you laugh, others make you cry and surprisingly few annoy you with being naive or generic. Again, there is a downside. Since the game is so story-heavy, you get tons of cutscenes and dialogues before you can get into another fight. After initial excitement with the story, you are left with 19 chapters of the game where for every battle you get at least six cutscenes or dialogues. Mostly dialogues. Cutscenes you can just view, but the dialogues mentioned above you have to click through. That really gets tedious.


That brings us to another element - the whole game is in so called "book mode". Since it is so story-heavy, it seriously makes sense. We see 2 pages for every chapter. Very clean and intuitive menu. On every page we have pictures we can choose to see. Every chapter has 6-10 pictures. In vast majority of the chapters, only one of the pictures directs you to the battle. The rest are cutscenes and dialogues. The decission to focus so much on the story leads to a ridiculous result: you actually end up clicking on the pictures to read/listen through the dialogues that, although well-written, are just being fed to you without any relevant action from your side. And the longer I played the more uneasy I was with the "click for a cutscene" approach and on one hand I really wanted to see more of the story, but I wanted it to be told in more interactive way. What we get here is the story almost completely separated from gameplay.

Where the game shines is the battle system. It is a turn-based strategy. You control a variety of unit types. Foot soldiers can be levelled up and equipped with weapons that give different bonuses. The tanks can be upgraded and outfitted with add-ons. Furthermore, every character has up to eight potentials boosting or decreasing his or her battle abilities depending on the situation they are in (type of ground, proximity of other units, amount of health, etc.). Imagine controlling 9 members of your squad in every battle and spice it all up with the parameters like range, accuracy, damage and effectiveness against armor types. What you get is an impressive amount of possibilities and play styles available. To make it even more engaging, you get to actually run with your soldiers instead of pointing them in some direction. Drawback? Of course there is. Every mission just takes soooo much time! If you want to use all your mobility points in the current turn it takes at least 5 minutes to finish your turn and then, when the enemy is moving, you can just go make yourself a coffee. A whole battle can easily last for over an hour. The designers of course tried to remedy that by adding some scripts to the enemy behavior. The result? Either you trigger the enemies, causing them all to move and make you wait until the end of their ridiculously long turn or you trigger just a few, causing them to attack you head on while the whole army of their mates doesn't react to the massacre in front of them.

Don't get me wrong - I really enjoyed the game and I found it greatly entertaining regardless of quite many annoyances. But it's not why I would recommend it. I would mostly encourage you to play this game just to see these tiny defects. I think every designer or designer wannabe should play it to see how much every element affects the whole game like a double-edged sword. How choosing the narrative means affects pacing. How the battle system can be incredibly engaging when we are in control and utterly boring when you are just watching the other side's move. It makes for an excellent case study.


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