While the original Valkyria Chronicles may be ten years old now, it’s a game that has stuck in the memory of any who played it, and it’s easy to see why with its unique combat, great characters, and impactful story. Since then, fans have had a tricky time: the second one felt like a step back in many regards, while the third was only officially released in Japan (and let us never speak again of that spin-off title.) With Sega CS3’s Valkyria Chronicles 4 being released and (thankfully) localised, I was eager to see if I could rediscover the joy the original provided so long ago.
Valkyria Chronicles 4 takes place in the same context as the original, set on a fictional but familiar world amidst the “Second Europan War,” based loosely around the certain events of World War II. This time, we follow Squad E, a part of the Ranger Corp renowned for particularly effective military strategy and ability, on a mission to the capital of the enemy Empire. While occurring in the same timeframe as the original, the cross-over is minimal, bordering on completely absent, meaning you can safely play this without having experienced the events of the first game.
The tale may be a simple one, but it’s an interesting story nonetheless. While you shouldn’t expect to be shocked by any massive reveals or held in long suspense, there’s enough twists and turns to keep you playing mission after mission. This is further helped by a significant focus on story-based missions: unlike the original, almost all primary missions relate to some development in the story, rarely resorting to a simple throw-away goal, like “This base over here is worth capturing.” Overall, it’s definitely another tale of which the highs and lows will be points I remember for some time to come.
Understandably, any tale about a whole squad invariably contains a large cast, which Valkyria Chronicles has always handled by having a handful of leading characters, with the rest being relegated to optional side stories and having little bearing on the main storyline. The main cast here lives up to the standard set by the original, being a mix of personalities who clash and co-operate in different ways throughout the tale. Unfortunately, the side characters also live up the original in their lack of detail. Even though they’re given their own unique “Side Missions,” these feel like short exposition bursts to explain personality quirks, rather than actual character building.
All that said, what has really defined the series from the get-go is its incredibly unique battle system: turn-based, but where each “turn” is complete freedom of movement for a given unit, making shots and lining up for interception fire. The mix of classes available further complexifies the tactical decisions: your Scouts and Engineers are useful and mobile, but far weaker than the Shocktroopers and missile-wielding Lancers. Deciding where and when to move which soldier is challenging but satisfying, and a ton of fun.
The newer features of combat are a mixed bag, mostly tilted to the positive. The new units, an incredibly practical APC and terrifyingly effective Grenadiers, add a lot more depth to strategy in pre-match setup and on the field. The “Command” feature, allowing small groups to move together, can be used to significant effect, if occasionally a little wonky in practice. The Brave system, allowing a fallen unit the chance to give a last heroic burst of battlefield brilliance, is unfortunately triggered incredibly rarely, but allowed for some very memorable moments from the midst of war.
Another excellent relic from the original that makes its return is the well-designed curve of unit upgrades. Where the early game is characterised by an excess of income and a lack of things to spend them on, by the end-game you’ll find yourself with a wide array of potential upgrades and not nearly enough currency to spend on them. This thematic tie to the feeling of an extended war effort is incredibly powerful: you feel the resources dwindling as you continue to push forward on your mission while reflecting back on the “easy days” when you first headed out on this journey.
While we’re on the topic of equipment development, there’s a definite missed opportunity to have improved the menuing since the original Valkyria Chronicles. Each purchased upgrade is still accompanied by brief stock cutscenes, as is the entry and exit to the training grounds and unit management screens. New orders from the Mess Hall are prefaced by an extended cutscene that can’t be skipped, even if you’ve already seen it before. Simple tweaks could have made this experience a lot smoother, especially on these frequently visited screens.
Getting onto the visuals, the game is absolutely stunning, thanks to its deliberately pencil-drawn style, with a natural diversity of sights with the change in season. While a side-by-side comparison will show the Switch version to be weaker, I had little reason to complain about it in action. A few cutscenes showed heavily pixelated shadows and some of the more dramatic gameplay moments brought the framerate noticeably down, but neither of these elements ruined my experience with the game, and I would still heartily recommend this version to fans of the console.
Some side-thoughts: there’s an odd change in thematic focus between this one and the original, despite taking place in the same war and timeframe. Where the first featured a heavy emphasis on Valkyria, with the primary subplot being the plight of the Darcsen people, both elements are heavily downplayed here. The changed focus is a little unusual from an overall world perspective (Darcsen discrimination suddenly seems to be a non-issue,) but I appreciate that this does mean they can tell a very different story, instead of retreading the same ground.
A final observation to make is regarding the difficulty “curve,” although “roller-coaster” might be a more appropriate term. As you make your way through the main missions, you’ll find absurdly easy goals directly alongside some extremely challenging ones, from start to finish. At the most extreme this can be frustrating and confusing. At best, however, it does provide useful reprieves: brief moments to breathe between intense struggles, that helps push you along. It’s really up to your taste whether this is going to be a problem.
Valkyria Chronicles 4 has all the workings of an excellent tactical RPG, pivoted by an interesting main cast and story, and supported by a refined version of the classic combat of the original game. With some extra benefits, like the change in thematic focus creating a refreshingly new storyline, the overall package is a powerful one. The final result is something that will appeal to the fans, but will still be able to capture a new player without confusion. I sincerely hope we’ll see more from Valkyria Chronicles in the future as I believe there’s still a lot to be explored here.