Valkyria Chronicles 4 Review
Hit Me With Your Best Shot, Fire Away!
The Valkyria series has seen its share of ups and downs over the years. The original burst onto the scene in 2008 with an eye-catching watercolor art style combined with an interesting marriage of strategic combat with third-person action segments. While it initially failed to take off, Valkyria Chronicles became a cult hit of the PlayStation 3 era, leading Sega to craft a pair of sequels on the hot platform of the day in Japan, the PlayStation Portable. Unfortunately, hardware limitations meant that these portable iterations were saddled with dialed back visuals and maps that were chopped up into smaller sections and stitched together to create a whole. These were good games, but they lost the epic scope that helped Valkyria Chronicles stand out so much. After an unsuccessful attempt at a spin-off last year, Valkyria Chronicles 4 is tasked with recapturing the magic of the first and return the series to a firm footing. In this it mostly succeeds, with exceptionally engaging strategic combat that is a considerable improvement over the original incarnation. However, a straightforward story combined with some late-game stumbling blocks keeps the overall package from rising above the original.
While the art style is striking, the combat is what differentiates Valkyria from other strategy RPGs. Each mission starts with an overhead map showing allied and enemy units as well as the terrain of the battlefield. Players have Command Points, which are spent to move units as well as carry out orders. Once a character is selected to move, the view shifts to a third-person, over-the-shoulder angle where the player directly controls the movement. This is not a simple process as enemies will open up with interception fire at units that move within range and field-of-view. That necessitates careful consideration of enemy positioning, terrain, and cover to keep allies from being slaughtered before even getting the chance to fire a weapon. Each unit has a set amount of action points (AP) which determines how far a unit can move in a single turn. At any point, the player can trigger targeting mode which ends interception fire allowing for careful selection of targets as well as lining up headshots or vehicle weak points (glowing blue radiators) that act as the game’s version of critical hits. An on-screen reticle shows the potential spread of bullets so the randomness that’s inherent in this RPG is expressed in a way that generally feels fair. The added excitement that comes from dodging enemy fire in these action scenes adds a great deal of excitement to what is otherwise a more thoughtful sub-genre.
The classes that units are broken into will be mostly familiar to series veterans, with Scouts, Shocktroopers, Lancers, Engineers, and Snipers all returning. New to the series is the Grenadier class, which can rain mortars on enemy emplacements so long as one allied unit can see the enemy and it’s within mortar range. While adding artillery to the potential options greatly increases the offensive firepower, these units’ slow movement and low health mean quick death in any sort of close-range firefight, balancing their usefulness and requiring careful thought on how best to deploy them. Also, the enemy will use these units to great effect later in the game, especially once the higher-level grenadiers have the status effect of sapping vehicle AP. This means that interception fire from enemy grenadiers can easily throw a wrench into carefully laid tank assault plans.
This sort of careful balance is incorporated into the returning classes of Valkyria Chronicles 4. Scout movement range has been reduced to nullify the common Valkyria Chronicles tactic of taking out a few strategic enemies and crossing a map in a single turn to capture the enemy base. Grenadier interception fire makes Lancers far more important, considering their ability to resist most explosive attacks. Engineers have increased utility with the ability to revive fallen comrades. It means that a balanced party is not only a viable but desirable setup with each unit having strengths and weakness that will be needed to counter the different enemy placement on the maps.
Map design is also an area of improvement with Valkyria Chronicles 4 excelling in creating some devilishly difficult designs. VC4 uses multitudes of pillboxes and machine gun emplacements to discourage leisurely strolling across the map. New to the game are anti-tank guns that engage in interception fire during player movement which prevents tanks from moving across the field with impunity. This added danger heightens the tension and adds to the strategic thought needed for each move, making VC4 a considerably more interesting strategy game.
The variety of mission types has improved as well, with the game also including vastly improved mission briefings to give players a sense of the impending danger waiting in the next mission. Gone are the days of mission after mission of capturing a single strategic enemy base. In VC4, one mission may involve pinpointing tank locations in the fog to call in an artillery strike while the next might be a scouting mission with forces split between two sides of a ravine, and those are followed by securing an escape route and holding it against repeated enemy attacks. These changing mission types and objectives keep the gameplay from falling into a rut and force players to constantly evolve their strategies.
Experience is acquired in a pool upon completing each mission, with more being awarded based upon the speed of completion. The experience can then be spent on leveling up entire classes at a time. Since all the characters in a class level up, it facilitates the easy transfer of units from active to inactive without having to worry about leveling up the new unit. This is important as permadeath returns, with units that aren’t successfully evacuated being forever gone from the party — save for a few story-critical characters.
Character potentials also make a return to differentiate characters within combat. These are abilities, both positive and negative, which occur under certain set conditions during battle such as remaining health, terrain type, or being in proximity to a certain character. Sometimes these are extremely powerful — such as refilling the AP meter or allowing a second attack during a turn — so being aware of them is important when choosing which units to employ and how to use them.
Character and vehicle equipment can be customized using the money earned from successful missions. The branching R&D trees generally break down into a choice between accuracy versus damage or a balance between the two. Unless excessive grinding is employed, the player is forced to choose how to outfit the bulk of their units. However, enemy aces still give unique weapons when killed and now the Federation will also give special weapons for high-ranking performances, allowing for variety in how units are equipped.
While many features have been changed in positive ways, some things remain the same. The enemy AI is still generally passive and, at times, inexplicably dumb. There will be instances of units running back and forth on enemy turns for no apparent reason and suicidal charges by ill-equipped enemies against deadly allied positions. Since most missions involve the player on the offensive attacking enemy positions, the AI works and still provides a challenge without being unfair. However, it does create a false sense of security that’s broken by named enemy units who are aggressive and surprisingly competent. They will make a beeline for allied vehicle radiators. Thankfully, keeping the tank from being destroyed is no longer a key mission objective.
A returning frustration from Valkyria Chronicles is Skirmish Missions. Skirmishes are optional, remixed versions of earlier maps which are available to play again for extra money and experience. These missions are completely divorced from the story but are unfortunately necessary to keep classes leveled up and equipped with the best weaponry. Also, while the worst of the gimmicky massive tank battles are gone — and with them, some incredibly unfair missions — replacing them are late-game bosses that are frustrating bullet sponges. These battles should be tense and exciting, but some are tedious instead.
While most of the mechanics have seen improvements to create an incredibly compelling strategy RPG, the story fails to live up to that same high standard. VC4 is set against the backdrop of a massive, continent-spanning war between the Atlantic Federation, made up of an alliance of democracies, and the totalitarian, brutal East Europan Imperial Alliance — also known as the Empire. The conflict takes place on the continent of Europa as millions of lives are wrapped up in a conflict that will decide the fate of humanity. While having a broad, sweeping backdrop, the focus of the story is considerably more intimate. It stars Claude Wallace, a lieutenant in the Federation army and commander of Squad E. Claude, along with the other main characters from Squad E, hails from Hafen, a small town in Gallia on the border with the Empire. Years ago, the Empire invaded Hafen, ransacked the town and destroyed a factory and research facility run by Riley Miller’s father. Since Gallia, the center of the story in the first three games, has tried to maintain neutrality between its imposing neighbors, Claude and Riley, along with two other friends from the town, Kai and Raz, have joined the Federation army as a means to protect their homeland from the Empire.
VC4 picks up several months into the war. Things are looking bleak for the Federation, as the Empire has quickly pushed deep into their territory. However, the top brass of the Federation has a plan to turn the tide of the war and Squad E will, unsurprisingly, play a key role. Operation Northern Cross is a massive invasion pointed at the heart of the Empire, and if the enemy capital can be captured, surely the Empire will be brought to its knees.
The plot is straightforward for the first half of the game, lacking in the sort of subtleties and complexities that were a part of other Valkyria games. It’s a simple good versus evil tale and only late in the game does that dynamic get subverted. After dealing with racism, genocide, and class struggle in previous entries, this simplistic narrative seems like a missed opportunity. Especially strange is the absence of Darcsen after playing a prominent role in the series up to this point. As the overall conflict is an analog for World War II, the Darcsen are the rough equivalent to Jews in this universe — a minority group subject to racism, brutal repression, and sometimes outright genocide. After setting up the group’s poor treatment across the continent in the previous three games, it’s odd that this isn’t explored at all since the setting has shifted away from Gallia, one of the safer countries for Darcsen. Darcsen still exist and there are racist members of Squad E who have negative potentials for being in proximity to Darcsen, but that is the extent of dealing with this issue in the main game.
However, the smaller, character-specific Squad Stories are quite entertaining. These are small vignettes, each starring a few of the less prominent characters. They are often quirky stories that flesh out the personalities of the squad members beyond the main cast. Squad Stories are unlocked by using characters an unspecified number of times in battle, giving a useful incentive to change the active party members and keep from using the same characters over and over. Completing them also changes the characters’ negative potentials into positive ones, providing a secondary reason to experience them.
Valkyria Chronicles 4 also marks the return of the CANVAS graphics engine and with it the beautiful watercolor artwork in motion. In the decade since its release, nothing quite looks like Valkyria. The action is beautiful to behold, with great little touches like bursts of textual onomatopoeia to punctuate moving tanks and gunshots. The only real negative is that most of the story is reduced to talking heads in boxes and stagnant pieces of art. The beautiful epic cutscenes that open the game turn out to be a touch too rare.
Performance on the Switch is generally good, though there are definitely times when the console is being stretched. Occasional pauses occur when transitioning between the overhead map and the action mode, while a few of the large late-game maps suffer a reduced frame rate. In general, the compromises seem fair in exchange for a portable version of the game.
Hitoshi Sakimoto has returned to craft the score in Valkyria Chronicles 4, and the new tracks are excellent. Of particular note is the Winter Witch theme, a beautiful aria that perfectly matches one of the late-game bosses. However, the soundtrack does rely heavily on tracks from the first game, which provides a comfortable feeling for series veterans in menus and with battle fanfares, but can become a touch repetitive over VC4‘s extended length. The English voice cast is very solid, with even the smaller roles having voices that perfectly fit the character descriptions and increasing the feeling of having a squad made up of dozens of characters.
Valkyria Chronicles is considered one of the greatest RPGs of the last generation, so this true sequel coming ten years later always had some lofty expectations to look up to. The combat significantly improves upon the original and RPGamers that value interesting, strategic battles will be extremely pleased with Valkyria Chronicles 4. However, it doesn’t quite manage to emulate the same interesting, thought-provoking plot that dealt with delicate themes in a mature manner. Nevertheless, while the narrative of VC4 doesn’t reach those same heights, sixty hours quickly disappeared in the course of playing it. Perhaps that’s more indicative of its quality than comparing it to something it’s not.
Combat is better than ever
Squad Stories entertainingly flesh out characters
Those gorgeous cutscenes
Unfortunately cutscenes aren't used anywhere near enough
Grinding on old maps isn't that fun
Story is too straightforward for its own good