If you have even a passing interest in the RPG genre, it can't have escaped your notice that Microsoft has been going crazy nuts loopy trying to woo as many Japanese developers as possible into bringing their skills - and fanbases - to the 360. Some argue this has left the PS3 bereft of the games that helped make its predecessor such an enduring hit in the East.
To this I say pish, tosh and piffle. The traditional JRPG may have spread its buttery pleasures more evenly across multiple formats but there's one sub-genre, beloved by the Japanese, where the PS3 is still dominant - and that's the tactical RPG. September brought Disgaea 3 (in America, at least) and now SEGA has upped the ante with Valkyria Chronicles, a lovingly rendered turn-based strategy role-playing game that oozes style and nimbly somersaults over the more common pitfalls of the genre.
Our setting is 1935, and a world similar to our own yet obviously different. Gallia is a peaceful and neutral country, the Switzerland equivalent, trapped in between the Atlantic Federation and the East Europan Imperial Alliance. These two superpowers are warring over ragnite, a miracle mineral that can be used for everything from medicine to powering vehicles. Gallia happens to be sitting on top of a major ragnite deposit, and the fiendish Imperials waste no time in crossing its borders with ruthless domination in mind.
Our hero is Welkin, and he's a cut above the usual Japanese RPG leads. For one thing, he's not some long lost amnesiac warrior following a cosmic destiny. He's an ordinary 22-year-old, returning to his home in a time of crisis. He's not a fighter - he loves nature and wants to be a teacher - but he has no qualms about taking up arms to defend his country. And he doesn't do this as part of some ragtag gang of rebels - he's drafted into the militia, along with every other youngster capable of holding a rifle.
What follows is a surprisingly low-key introduction to a fairly realistic world. It's a war story, rather than an epic personal quest, and the game is at its strongest - narratively speaking - as it follows Welkin and his squad through the sorts of battles you'd expect to see in Saving Private Ryan rather than Final Fantasy. The tone is perhaps a little too whimsical at times, but the characters are likeable and well-rounded. That the game inevitably introduces an ancient race with special powers - the Valkyria of the title - therefore comes as something of a disappointment.
It's the combat where Valkyria Chronicles really distinguishes itself, however. It's a turn-based strategy game, but fighting is also played out as a real-time third-person action game. It sounds confusing, but the system used to pull off this juggling act is wonderfully simply and intuitive that what sounds daunting in theory becomes second nature almost immediately.
From relatively small beginnings, the game soon finds you in charge of a large squad, which you can chop and change as you see fit, and there are five character classes to draw from. Scouts have longer range, but weak armour and weaponry. Shocktroopers can deliver - and take - more punishment, but their machine-guns are useless over long distance. Lancers are your heavy-weapons troops, armed with bazooka lances capable of damaging tanks. Snipers are fairly self-explanatory, while Engineers can disarm mines, fix defences and restock ammo.
Battles start with an overhead map view. From here you position and deploy your troops, drawn from a constantly topped up pool of new recruits. Select a soldier and the view swoops down to ground level, giving you full control of the character in question. You're free to move them around in real-time, though each step uses up some of their finite Action Points.