World War II is something of an old hat subject in terms of video games. In fact, the only reason that Valkyria Chronicles 4, and the Valkyria Chronicles series as a whole, manages to get away with it is by not mentioning anything to do with World War II at all. It’s still obvious that the game is about World War II from the fact that the world map is basically just a version of Europe that looks like it was traced by a 5-year-old and all of the weapons and uniforms are oblique references to the different factions of WWII. Oh, and of course, the two faction names don’t help: The Federation and The Empire. With the current history of pop culture, it’s hard to tell which one is supposed to be evil, isn’t it?
Valkyria Chronicles 4 is the latest entry in a series of tactical RPGs published and developed by Sega (mostly). The last 3 entries in the series have followed the exploits of a small militia in a neutral country during the events of not-WWII, but this time the action takes place with a group of young soldiers on the Federation side of the war. Having signed up to defend their home town, the group of friends are thrust into dangerous battles to try and push back the enemy advancement before they can sweep across Europa (see, it’s not Europe, theirs has an ‘a’ at the end).
The first thing that is immediately striking about Valkyria Chronicles 4 is the way that it uses cutscenes. While there are a fair few going around, pretty typical fare for a Japanese game, there aren’t too many, and you get to try out some gameplay pretty damn quickly. As well as being pretty swift to the mark, you also aren’t forced to pay close attention to each second of the cutscenes in case you miss any details. Each cutscene is split up into ‘episodes’, usually running for a minute or two each. If you miss a plot point or accidentally skip one, you just select the cutscene again from the level menu and re-watch until you think you’ve got the idea of what is going on. This feature is especially welcome if you’ve moved from a game that allows you to pause cutscenes to this one that just skips them.
The gameplay in Valkyria Chronicles 4 is a hybrid of action and tactics. You have to think carefully about everything, from your troop deployment position to who gets put into each team and especially what you do with each member of your team on your turn. The game is turn-based, but you get active control over what each person is doing directly. When you select a character to move, you are given a bar that tells you how far they can go, and you have to get them into a good position before the bar empties, or else they’re stuck there. You also actively control each character’s aim, which is a godsend, although there is still a chance that something will go wrong, like a random miss or accidentally hitting a piece of scenery with a strange hit box.
Most of the game’s mechanics are explained to you in the opening chapter, acting as a brief tutorial battle where you learn how to use infantry, vehicle and sniper units. As you progress throughout the game, you get new units and more control until you’re effectively managing an entire unit in combat and beforehand. The tutorial being all spread out means that you don’t really realize how much you’ve picked up until you’re four hours into the game and notice how much thought you’re putting into where your units go because you understand all of their minor features and stats. It feels like you might get a little overloaded if you tried to learn everything all at once.
While the gameplay itself is pretty fun, for the most part, it does have its confusing or frustrating moments. The aforementioned hit boxes rear their ugly heads on several occasions, especially when dealing with snipers. On top of that, there is a certain element of randomness to how much damage you do or take. While the information bar at the top of your screen might tell you that your target will go down in a single hit, it might actually take 3 or 4 if you get unlucky enough. On top of that, there are one or two mechanics that either don’t function like they’re supposed to or aren’t explained very well. For instance, the game says that mortar units are supposed to take time to set up their mortars, but during combat they were ready to go instantly, even after moving first.
Glitches aside, there is more fun than frustration in Valkyria Chronicles 4. When you start your first turn and see the map stretched out before you, your head goes immediately into commander mode. You have to think about where you’re going to best position your different units to prevent them from taking damage while ensuring that they do as much damage as possible. At first it’s easy with few enemies or at least not too many different enemy types, but as time goes by, you have to step up your game to keep your soldiers fighting and things going your way.
It’s possible that you should be invested in the series already before you try ploughing straight into this game, but honestly, it doesn’t seem like it. The game’s story is set during the same time as the first game in the series but follows a different group of characters in a different setting. It feels like the game is something of an attempt to gather some fans of the series in the West where it has been less successful than it has been back home. Indeed, if that is the case, then Valkyria Chronicles 4 is possibly going to do it. With the shorter cutscenes and more bite-sized exposition, there is a lot to appeal to Western gamers, especially since triple A tactical RPGs are pretty thin on the ground these days.
The Valkyria Chronicles series has always been pretty famous for its distinctive visual style, and Valkyria Chronicles 4 is no exception. The game is designed to look like a moving pencil drawing, all construction lines and deep shading. While the visuals are not that impressive from a technical standpoint by today’s standards, they look pretty damn unique, akin to certain indie games that aim at an oil painting style of visual. The hand-drawn style isn’t relegated just to the gameplay either. All of the level selection and a lot of the menus in general take place in the form of a notebook, almost certainly the same notebook that the main character seems to be carrying around. With the pencil visuals and the notebook, it almost feels like the entire story is taking place in the memory of one of the characters, with sketches and notes taking the place of his long gone friends and enemies.
Regardless of how the story ends, the game is a solid entry into a genre that really doesn’t get enough love these days. It manages to pull off tactical RPG gameplay without being either boring and cookie-cutter or too complex and confusing. It manages to be a game that you can pick up and play while still bringing the sort of mechanical depth that a lot of players would demand from a full price release these days. It is something of a triumph that a game manages to tell an allegorical story of World War II without resorting to black and white depictions of the different factions involved, as well as not making the story feel too similar to the hundreds of war stories we’ve experience before.
Platform: PS4, Xbox One, PC, Switch
Release Date: 25th September 2018