Sega drove a sketchy tank onto the rather barren field of PlayStation 3 RPGs with Valkyria Chronicles, the turn-based strategy affair that's been turning heads ever since the Japanese debut trailer hit the web last year. With the extremely attractive CANVAS graphics engine giving the game it's distinctive look and the team behind Sakura Wars and Skies of Arcadia responsible for the gameplay, PlayStation 3 JRPG fans devoured every screenshot and gameplay video, eagerly awaiting the day the title would finally fall into their hands.
Now that day has arrived, and while the urge to rush out and purchase anything remotely resembling an RPG for the PS3 is incredibly strong among hungry fans of the genre, we figured we'd see what the critics had to say before dropping everything and heading for the game store.
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.
Once the player's chin has been lifted off the ground, it's time to work the numerous episodes of each chapter of "the book"; the mechanism through which level selection works. The gameplay is based around an interesting concept known as BLiTZ, a mixture of both a top-down strategic command mode and third-person action sequences; here the player takes direct control of a unit. This sounds like a horrible mishmash, but in reality it works very well and gives a massive sense of involvement in the battles.
To make each character unique since they do not advance individually, a clever system of 'potentials' has been added to each character. The potentials reflect each character's personality. For example, some female characters fight better around a group of men. Welkin...gains an advantage when fighting in natural settings. Some characters have allergies, and their stats are lowered when they crawl through grass. There are dozens of different potentials for each character, and on top of that, characters have affinities towards different members. A high affinity between members means that they will often fire together and protect each other in combat. While good tactics can allow you to beat the game and ignore this system, it's another cool thing you can take advantage of if you really study the terrain and battle environment.
I could go on about the many strengths of Valkyria Chronicles, but there's no reason to do so — this is simply an outstanding game where both the story and gameplay come together to form an incredibly rewarding experience. There are lots of extras to enjoy aside from the main story mode and progressing through the game unlocks Skirmish battles that you can play as many times as you wish for experience and war funds. To make matters even better, Valkyria Chronicles also has great loading times, especially after the optional install (which takes a little over nine minutes) and you can opt to listen to the original Japanese language track, which I always appreciate.
Valkyria Chronicles is a powerful reason for role-playing gamers to spend the next few weeks on the PlayStation 3. Having seen the game in action some time ago, we expected something visually stunning, but we were impressed by the strength of the game's storyline and gameplay. It's easily one of the best looking games we've played this year, but thankfully there's plenty of strategic depth and engrossing gameplay to back it up.
Okay, you can drop everything and head to your local game store now.