A breathlessly brilliant tactical RPG, it's just a shame that Valkyria Chronicles isn't quite as assured off the battlefield.
We've become accustomed to a singular artistic illustration of war. Chaotic cinematics that leap from one shocked face to the next, bodies - and body parts - strewn around, sinking into the mud. There's sometimes an accompanying chorus of plaintive strings, as though the visuals alone aren't enough to convey the horror, but it's usually all but drowned out by a competing soundtrack of screams and explosions.
Valkyria Chronicles 4 on the other hand? Well, it takes a very different view. While big hitters like Battlefield and Call of Duty ramp up the shock and confusion of war, delightfully detailing the blood and the bullets, Chronicles paints it with a soft watercolour brush.
Even the darkest days in Valkyria Chronicles 4 are conveyed with an air of romance and optimism, your daily duties accompanied with jaunty tunes and soft giggles. Militia costumes are bright and bold, and your squadron flighty and flirtatious. I'm trying not to be distracted by this window dressing as I know full well that beneath this squishy exterior beats the stone cold heart of a challenging tactical JRPG... but my eyes keep being pulled back to Raz's snazzy cravat and matching hairband. And not in a good way, either.
Valkyria Chronicles 4 fuses a character-driven storyline with a robust and granular tactical RPG. On one hand, we follow the trials and tribulations of Squadron E, a merry band of misfits and friends forced to unite on the battlefield. Progression unfolds by way of leader Claude's diary, in which he records the visual-novel-esque character interactions (called episodes) and then the operations (battles) are scrapbooked in, too. In between those you'll get flashbacks - imaginatively called sub episodes - to times past that strengthen the backstories of your main cast, and bolster your understanding of how, and why, they act - and interact - the way they do.
For the most part, delivering the off-combat story this way gives a welcome reprieve from the war, but the visual novel style forces unnatural pauses into the story-driven segments, making the conversations peculiarly stilted and stale.
But while it's sometimes hard to reconcile the story with its pretty visual novel aesthetic, let there be no mistake: when it comes to the tactical RPG mechanics, this is breathlessly brilliant. Even if you're new to the series (which - full disclosure - I am, and if you want a veteran's take Martin had a look earlier this year), it's easy to see why the franchise has such an ardent following. Yes, it's going to be a little overwhelming, at least at first, but the entire menu system - as detailed as it is - is meticulously designed, and most things are intuitively in the right place. Even when the game introduces new mechanics and systems - R&D, training, Potentials (the game's unique take on buffs and debuffs) - to Sega's credit, they never feel laboured or forced.
Valkyria Chronicles 4 offers turn-based tactics with the kind of granular control that's distilled to not just individual tweaks on guns and tanks, but also down to the very friendships scattered throughout Squad E. Friendly troops are more likely to engage in co-operative attacks; those passive Potential abilities come to life in combat, affected by HP, terrain type, and other factors on the battlefield.
CP - which represents the numbers of moves you get before the enemy phase begins - is boosted by adorning your team with leaders, and what you don't use can be banked for your next turn. Each phase requires forward planning and careful strategy to make the most of your limited manoeuvres. It rarely feels easy, particularly as each operation offers its own unique set of issues to overcome, but it's not unnecessarily brutal, either. When I lose ground, it's inevitably due to a tactical misstep on my part.
While thematically similar, there's no story continuity between this fourth instalment and the previous games. And once you find a tactic that works best for your preferred style of play - be that frontloading your scouts, sniping from the back, or ensuring there's plenty of grenadiers making surprise attacks - it's hard to shake off early habits and experiment with the entirety of your squad. In some ways, there's almost too much choice, but given you're rewarded bonus CP for using particular characters - most of whom, unsurprisingly, sit within the main ensemble - it feels a little arbitrary.
Off the battlefield, though, it can be hard to care about this cast. Well publicised chauvinism aside, Raz is an absolute bellend, while Minerva blows so hot and cold, she's difficult to understand, let alone begin to like. There's an unmistakable camaraderie, yes, and I love the detailed stories afforded to each character - details that elevate those names on a screen to individual personalities that each have their own quirks and perks - but at the same time, it's hard to ever feel close to them, especially as the story features so heavily on the leading cast.
The dialogue is affectionate, cheesy, and nauseating in equal measures, and your troops will recycle the same old tired cliches over and over again whilst in battle. What's that Raz? "Here comes the pain"? Yes, I heard you perfectly well the first fourteen times you said it. And while I appreciate it's raining, my friends, and you want to get warmed up, I'm finding it difficult to comprehend why troops would be chattering on about catching colds as they stand beside the still-warm corpse of a purported pal.
It's slow, too. You can save scum (lord knows I did, especially in later battles where I was less confident of my newb tactical decisions), but don't expect to jump on for ten minutes here and there. And there are some real-time quirks that really irritated me, particularly as I progressed. Running enemy troops over with your tanks, for instance - even head-on - won't kill them, and your soldiers can be exceptionally poor shots head-on, too, even when the odds are stacked in your favour. RNG's all well and good when Lady Luck smiles on you, but it's maddeningly frustrating when she doesn't.
As you might expect, the lengthy battles - not to mention the plentiful episodes sprinkled throughout - means there are dozens and dozens of hours of playtime here, and that's not including the numerous hours you can lose to tweaking stuff inside the command room, too.
But no matter how perfect the mechanics or how good the value for money, it's difficult to unreservedly recommend Valkyria Chronicles 4 when the brilliant turn-based action is self-sabotaged by a lacklustre cast and lukewarm jokes about the female squaddies' knickers.