The screenshots don't do it justice. It's a common enough refrain, but it's become increasingly popular as new console hardware has offered us ever more lavish visual feasts. As the arts and sciences of animation, lighting, special effects and visual filters come into their own, there's less and less to be gleaned about how a game actually looks from a still image.
So it's understandable that "god, the screenshots don't do this justice" might be your first response when you get to play Valkyria Chronicles, SEGA's upcoming PS3 strategy game. In a sense, maybe it's ironic that so much 3D processing power is required to make 2D look so convincing - but irony be damned, this is a game which looks uncannily like every frame has been lavishly hand-animated.
We've had cel-shaded games for around a decade, of course, but never before have we stepped back from the screen and realised that the graphics wouldn't look out of place in a high-budget animated movie. For fans of Hayao Miyazaki's films (such as Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle), the comparisons are fairly obvious, especially with the glorious Old Europe-themed backdrops. For the uninitiated, it's simply a visual feast.
Small details abound, and impress at every turn. Shadows aren't darkened blocks - they're pencil-shaded areas. Hair and cloth animate fluidly and realistically, yet maintain the feeling of being 2D, hand-drawn layers. Comic-book style "sound effects" accompany many actions, yet feel like a proper part of the world you inhabit rather than simply a gimmicky graphical extra. The manga art style won't sit well with everyone, of course, but the artistic accomplishment of the game is undeniable even to those who can't get past the big eyes and spiky hair.
Thankfully, from what we've seen thus far, it's also got plenty of gaming brains behind its pretty face. Valkyria Chronicles is a turn-based strategy game. It's very strongly story-driven, and you do get to run your characters around in real-time (sort of), but the parentage is very clear: Final Fantasy Tactics, Advance Wars and Nippon Ichi's excellent turn-based repertoire.
Set in an alternate history (and geographically muddled about) version of Europe, you play Welkin Gunther, a young man whose dad was a war hero in the First European War. When the forces of the Empire (the USSR, sort of) invade Welkin's neutral country, Gallia, he's drawn into the conflict when he attempts to evacuate his younger sister from their home in a border town. Helpfully, it transpires that Welkin's dad's old tank is still in a shed outside the house, and his sister has learned how to service and drive it. Good old videogames.
After a few missions around the border town, which essentially serve as scene-setting and tutorials, you're recruited by the Militia and pressed into service as the Lieutenant in charge of a unit of soldiers - and that's where the game really kicks off.
Valkyria Chronicles' main hook, visuals aside, is the fact that it completely eschews the grid layout of most turn-based strategy games, instead giving you a realistic, complex chunk of town or countryside in which to fight. Rather than moving units by issuing orders, then, you select which unit you want to move next - and can then run them around in a third-person view until their AP bar has been depleted.
Each unit can also attack once while you're commanding it (either firing their weapon, which brings up crosshairs for you to aim, throwing a grenade, which gives you a ranging arc to position, or using a healing item), and they can interact with the world around them. They can climb ladders to get to higher vantage points, for instance, or crouch behind sandbags to take cover - or even hide in long grass to avoid detection.
In each player turn, you've got a certain number of Command Points to use. Selecting an infantry unit and moving it around uses up a single command point - doing the same with a tank uses two points, so relying too heavily on armour can be a mistake. You don't have to move all of your units every turn, and in some cases, you won't have enough command points to do so anyway. In fact, you can even move the same unit twice, if you want - although their AP will be lower on each subsequent movement in the same turn, as they grow increasingly fatigued.
The third-person movement and FPS-style aiming give Valkyria Chronicles the feel of an action game - but in reality, it doesn't stray too far from its turn-based strategy roots. Getting a bead on an enemy soldier's head from a good position will help, of course, but how accurately your soldiers shoot, and the damage they do, is still determined by their level, their class and the stats of the weapon they've got.
The game does offer plenty of numbers for stat fans to obsess over. There are a number of core classes to command - Scouts, who can move long distances but are lightly armed, Shock Troopers, who are heavily armed but less mobile, Snipers, Engineers, and Lancers - the latter being essentially rocket launcher-armed troops, for taking on enemy armour. By "spending" experience points at the Boot Camp in your barracks, you can level up the classes at your command - every soldier in the class levels up simultaneously, which does simplify things somewhat.
Each of those soldiers, however, has a different set of stats, strengths, weaknesses, likes and dislikes. They can be further customised by outfitting them with new weapons, stolen from the enemy in battle. The degree of customisation falls far short of some other strategy titles - you won't be decking them out in all sorts of different gear, like in Final Fantasy Tactics, for example - but given that you've also got a tank to fit out and upgrade, we don't see lack of depth being a big problem in this regard.
Besides, even half a dozen "chapters" into the game, we feel like we're barely scratching the surface of the tactical possibilities. There's a scissors-paper-stone quality to the combat - so a combined arms approach will be your basic strategy - but the complexity of the environments and richness of the game systems bring some really fresh ideas. Tanks, for example, can knock down walls and some obstacles. Engineers can build cover. Carefully calculated runs can allow you to strike deep in enemy territory, and then run back before your AP is used up.
Also crucial to the game's complexity is the idea of reactive fire. Unlike most turn-based games, just because it isn't a unit's turn doesn't mean it's a lifeless statue. Soldiers will still shoot at anything that comes into their line of fire, which means that setting your units up to have overlapping fields of fire at the end of your turn can result in the enemy being mown down as they advance.
Outside the battlefield, the game follows a cut-scene-heavy storyline, which can at times feel a little overplayed. It may be a symptom of the early game (many games seem to be story-heavy at the beginning, after all), but we did find ourselves wishing Welkin would shut up and let us get to the fighting. That said, the cut-scenes are undeniably beautiful, and the storyline is by no means bad. There's also a fairly comprehensive set of skirmish encounters that you can pop into at any time to improve your unit's stats or earn money to upgrade equipment, which means you're never more than a couple of button presses from a battle.
As well as being absolutely beautiful, the game sounds great too. The soundtrack is instantly reminiscent of genre classic Final Fantasy Tactics - unsurprisingly, since Hitoshi Sakimoto composed the music for both. On a similar note, Valkyria Chronicles' development team has significant overlap with the team that made Skies of Arcadia, and there are cameo appearances from a couple of Skies characters in your party roster.
Turn-based strategy is never going to be everyone's cup of tea, but Valkyria Chronicles' healthy dose of third-person control might be just the thing to attract newcomers to the genre - while old hands can rest assured that beneath the gorgeous exterior beats the heart of a great turn-based game. We're looking forward to getting our teeth more deeply into this one, especially to find out how the battle system develops and whether the cut-scenes ease off as you progress. We'll let you know how we got on with the finished game in our review later this month.
Valkyria Chronicles is due out for PS3 on 31st October.