Was it really four years ago now that the Second Europan War began? Is the PlayStation 3 really supposed to be six years old? I refuse to believe it. It's just not possible. Whenever I slip the Valkyria Chronicles Blu-ray into a console that's supposed to be at the end of its life cycle I get no sense of age, no feeling of a looming obsolescence or an imminent loss of status. No; time stops.
I have a theory: each Valkyria Chronicles disc holds some special, secret power within it, and that power is the ability to make any PS3, no matter how old, battered or weary, immediately look its very best. It's like pouring an elixir into your disc drive. Valkyria Chronicles is a very special game and when we look back on the history of this console, when we write our retrospectives and compose our memoirs, we will cite it as one of the finest titles to grace the platform. This is not something I predict. This is something I know.
And yet the game is also nuts. I mean, it's just barmy. Valkyria Chronicles remains an excellent tactical wargame with all the finest traditions of squad selection and small-arms tactics, a rarity on any console and something that prefigured the new XCOM. Though that's not all it is. It's also chirpy, cheesy and downright daft. One moment you find the plot has weaved its way through a fantasy interpretation of World War II to suddenly present you with a sombre labour camp and the game's analogy for national anti-Semitism. Then, your sergeant is suddenly yelling at you about his love for vegetables, and with good reason, since his spontaneous passion for potatoes has just granted him special powers.
Your squad members babble away to one another, sneering or smiling according to who likes who, before stumbling their way into another brutally difficult battle punctuated by onomatopoeic captions like BLAM, RATTA and RUSTLE RUSTLE. You read another one of their cheery biographies before a battle, discover one of them is only fifteen, then find yourself watching as the kid is caught by the incandescent tongue of a flamethrower and moans their last words into the dirt, slipping away before a medic can reach them, alone on some corner of a far battlefield that will be forever Gallia.
But you don't mind the eccentric duality that so characterises Valkyria Chronicles because it's all part of what gives this game so much life. Built around a series of increasingly difficult battles, some of which can be brutally difficult, is a melodramatic story of love, war and flying pigs, populated by some of the most naïve characters I've ever seen in a videogame. For all the blood that's spilled, there's somehow not a drop of cynicism to be found anywhere. As those battles become tougher and tougher, the story grows ever sillier to keep pace.
As your squad fills out, you quickly discover that certain members have taken a shine to others or, in the case of one soldier, simply fancy everyone they're serving with. In the heat of battle, some soldiers start to manifest pollen allergies. One ageing conscript tells you their back has gone. A scout “just can't help” but stop to chat to their friends even in a firefight. Then the plot introduces you to a reporter who documents your progress and, if you fund her work, will unlock more battles and several additional cutscenes. One of these tells the story of your squad going on holiday to the beach. With their tank. Which they park under a parasol.
"I have a theory: each Valkyria Chronicles disc holds some special, secret power within it, and that power is the ability to make any PS3 anywhere, no matter how old, battered or weary, immediately look its very best."
Continued success has you invited to the royal palace ostensibly to receive awards and decorations, but more often than not the princess presents you with another of what seems to be an endless supply of firearms for your squad to use. It's never explained why the princess has so many rifles, machineguns and rocket launchers, nor where they come from. She just does.
Though Valkyria Chronicles is riddled with these eccentricities, is bubbling over with character, it never lets any of this get in the way of the game itself. And there is so much game to enjoy, much of it outside of the battles. Your squad roster slowly increases as you play, giving you more soldiers to choose from, and regular visits to the armoury offer the chance to try out new weapon upgrades or reconfigure your tanks. Stopping by the barracks has you spending experience to train your troops (a process that sees a progress bar stretch out to the strangest sounds of straining) and a selection of side missions let you replay old battles in new ways. Whenever you're not in a fight, the game always has something else for you to do, to buy, to check up on, to watch, to tinker with.
And those battles themselves? Each one has a gimmick or a twist, and some are as much a puzzle as they are a skirmish. With each new battle, you find yourself up against ever-growing numbers of enemy troops, increasingly reliant on the esoteric powers that your soldiers possess and backing them up with the occasional special order from their commander.
I think it's fair to say that, although it presents all sorts of tactical challenges, Valkyria Chronicles' battle engine is just as peculiar as the rest of the game. Each turn, you have a limited number of orders that you can give and these are divided between your squad as you see fit. Issuing an order to a soldier lets you take direct control of them in a sort of quasi-real time mode, granting a certain amount of movement and a single chance to shoot while the rest of the world remains immobile. Or almost immobile.
The moment you take control, enemy soldiers get a chance to fire at you for as long as you remain in their line of sight, though their feet remain firmly rooted to the floor. This can lead to some unusual situations where not moving exposed soldiers away from enemies can be preferable, since refusing to run this gauntlet of gunfire denies the AI so many opportunities to shoot. Similarly, when your opponent tries to move their troops this way, your soldiers may well be respond with much more reaction fire than you'd actually be able to order them to perform. If that seems strange to you, then yes, yes it is.
But you get used to this game. You get used to its tactical eccentricities because you come to understand them and see how they present a challenge. You get used to the cheesy story and cornball dialogue because they're part of the charm. You play on because you want to see what comes next. Because Valkyria Chronicles doesn't skip on content, on cut-scenes, or on side-missions and it has something new for you to watch or to try right up to its final moments.
And you also play on because you enjoy the brilliant cel-shaded animation, some of the best seen in any game ever. It's this that helps Valkyria Chronicles stay timeless, evergreen, and I can't possibly guess at what point in the future we might look back on it and be able to say it seems dated. I'm sure I'd be stupid to suggest that time would never come, but hey, I'll suggest that anyway. I'm suggesting it now.
"Valkyria Chronicles stays timeless, evergreen, and I can't possibly guess at what point in the future we might look back on it and be able to say it seems dated."
Since I'm starting to get wistful, let me say one more thing. If I was the guy able to announce launch titles for the next PlayStation (as if!), I'd promise another Valkyria game. The PS3 never saw a sequel, and while two spin-offs titles were made for the PSP, only one of those reached Europe. Those Valkyria Chronicles aren't being told any more and I'm sure I'm not the only one who would like to hear them again. Who wouldn't want to revisit this series with a new console that could realise it in even bigger, even grander terms?
But that's an old gamer's fantasy and I'm sure you've heard enough of my war stories by now. It's time for me to go, since my retrospection is becoming introspection and I feel a sudden desire to load the game up once more, just so I can look over the medals I've won and read the stories of my squadmates. Perhaps I could even start another game and fight that war anew, learning from my mistakes and saving those soldiers I lost last time around. That war stays with me, you know. Some things you never forget.