Defenders of Gallia
Valkyria Chronicles was one of the first games I played on my PS3. I borrowed it from a friend for several years, never beat it, and eventually returned it to him when he wanted to play the DLC. When I saw that the game had been recently ported to PC (all DLC included), I couldn’t help myself and bought it, fully intending to play it once more and make it all the way through.
I gave myself two weeks to play Valkyria Chronicles, intending to make it further than I had gotten before and toyed with giving it two full entries, because I knew going into it that I would love this game. But, life got in the way. Work has been grueling and one of our cats passed away quite suddenly. It’s been a draining few weeks, but for a few moments here and there, I’ve managed to sneak off into the woods of Gallia and spend some time with Welkin Gunther and Squad 7, and boy is this game wonderful.
I’ll get to gushing in a moment, but I want to step back and mention something that stuck with me from the first time I played this game – years ago and with a PS3 controller in my hand. I was in the middle of an offensive and I had sent one of my scouts too far past enemy lines in a cocky show of force. I had backup nearby and was fairly sure I could rescue her if things got bad, but I misjudged the enemy and before I could react, she had been downed and then killed by an enemy soldier. Her name was Juno. I still remember her name so clearly because this game made me care in a way I hadn’t really anticipated. These members of Squad 7 weren’t just the fictional troops being commanded by Welkin Gunther (the nature-loving son of a great historical general, suddenly thrust into war by an aggressive eastern force invading the historically neutral country of Gallia); no, these were my men and women (and boys and girls) and when I failed at protecting them, it haunted me.
How does Valkyria Chronicles do it? It does it by making each character just unique enough to feel different, but not so different that they don’t fit their class archetypes. Every scout has great movement, every shocktrooper has solid firepower, every engineer can fix tanks. But look closer, and each soldier has a story and every story surfaces itself in the game, if ever so briefly.
Take Montley Leonard. He’s aichmophobic – that is, he’s afraid of pointed objects, which makes him lose HP around lancers (because their weapons are pointed, obvi). So, that’s weird, right? And it could affect a battle if Montley is hanging near the lancers all battle and just losing health left and right. It means that you play Montley a little differently than other scouts, but not extraordinarily so. Still, it’s something you notice. And so you dig and you find out that Montley grew up around animals and had an encounter with a stag at a young age that instilled this fear in him. That’s also why he likes being on grass (it raises his defense)! Sure, it’s a bit silly, but it’s a fantastic way of bringing the character backstory into the foreground in a way that isn’t just buried under menus of codex or grimoire or glossary entries that no one ever reads.
Another thing that Valkyria Chronicles excels at is making you feel responsible for the soldiers in your squad, and not just by giving them names and attributes and backstories about stags. It does it by giving you a pool of soldiers and always allowing you to make the call of who to bring. You get to choose, out of all the Gallian recruits, who makes Squad 7. And each mission, you get to decide out of all the Squad 7 members, who goes where and does what. Sure, the game nudges you here and there – you can’t realistically field a squad of all lancers and expect to succeed – but it’s a bit like a schoolyard draft. You remember who’s on your squad because you handpicked each and every one of them.
What’s more, every squad member has just enough personality shine through that it’s hard to forget them entirely. Each soldier has a unique line of dialog that they say when you select them for the squad. They have unique lines of dialog when you score a kill with them. They have unique lines of dialog when they die. Every single one of them feels like a person, a Gallian citizen with parents, with motivation, with dreams for the future. None of them feels like sniper #3.
Here’s the thing – if you’ve played Valkyria Chronicles, you know this. You know the attachment that you feel for your squad and how the game expertly manipulates you into feeling it and feeling it hard.
If you haven’t, there are a few warnings I should give. The game itself is pretty fun. Each turn, you spend command points to move units around. While controlling a unit, you move them in real-time and can aim and fire once per command point. Once you’ve spent all your command points, the enemy AI moves. As the game goes on, there are a few tricks thrown in here and there – level hazards, new unit types – and objectives are often more nuanced than to simply kill every enemy. That said, this gameplay is peppered in between cutscenes upon cutscenes upon cutscenes.
The frame for this game is that you’re playing through the history of the war, presented in a historical textbook of sorts. As you play, pages of the book fill in. See those 8 picture panels on the two pages above? One of those panels is a mission (i.e. “actual” gameplay) while the rest are cutscenes. While the ratio gets a bit better as the story progresses, there’s still a lot of story.
If you’re like me, that’s no problem. The scenes are beautiful, the plot pleasant enough, and the characters likable. But I could see some people getting frustrated with the storytime to gametime ratio, which could exacerbated by the somewhat casual and occasionally goofy tone of the storytelling.
I love it. Playing it again has reminded me of why games that have characters I can really emotionally attach myself to are a rare treat. It makes me want to promise myself that I’ll actually play through all of Valkyria Chronicles before 2016. Maybe this time, Juno can go back to school after this is all over. Maybe this time, she’ll make it.