I’ve never finished Valkyria Chronicles. Back in 2008, when it first came out, I could barely get very far at all, but I thought this time would be different. I had hoped that Valkyria Chronicles Remastered would include some sort of easy mode, but even failing that, I thought that with an extra eight years of game experience and maybe a quarter of that in intellectual growth, I’d be up to the task.
I am not. I’ve gotten about halfway through the game – much further than I did eight years ago! – but actually finishing it might be too much for me. Maybe, one day, I’ll get there, but for now, I have failed Squad 7, I’ve failed Gallia, and the Imperial Alliance has won.
The conflict in all of this is that Valkyria Chronicles is one of the best games of all time, and its difficulty is an important part of that – not from a “back in my day, games were hard!” perspective, but because the challenge ties into the core themes of the game in such an important way. At the same time, the story is fantastic, important, and I’d say it should be available to everyone, but difficulty is a barrier to that.
Valkyria Chronicles is a story about war, and in the tradition of so many greats in the genre, it has a strong anti-war theme. In an alternate history, the second Europan War is raging between the East European Imperial Alliance and the Atlantic Federation over a resource called ragnite, with the small, ragnite-rich nation Gallia caught in the middle. It’s mostly kept out of the war, but when the Imperial Alliance invades, Gallians have no choice but to take up arms in defence of their homeland.
This is where you come in. As the commander of the Gallian Militia’s Squad 7, Welkin Gunther, it’s up to you to lead your squad to victory in a series of missions that will put your ability to strategize to the test. It’s a turn-based tactical RPG with a lot of depth, with the fantastic BLiTZ (Battle of Live Tactical Zones) battle system that combines turn-based and real-time combat, an extensive range of upgrade options for your squad’s equipment, and complex missions balanced around intricate level designs. That all means there are a great many ways to approach any given situation, but it also means a whole lot of ways to fail.
But that’s kind of the point. War isn’t pretty, war isn’t fun, and people will die. In Valkyria Chronicles, people will die, and aside from a few key players in the story, a soldier killed in combat is dead forever unless you can evacuate their body within three turns. Given the aforementioned difficulty, recovery is often not an option, things will go wrong, and people will die. Because this is war.
When those soldiers die it will hurt, because they aren’t just nameless minions. Each and every character in Valkyria Chronicles, even the minor ones, has their own personality that shows up in the way they talk, the way they dress, and the perks they’ll unlock as they level up. Characters who fight alongside one another will become friendly with one another, and a side effect of that is that you, the player, will grow fond of the folks in Squad 7.
So when they die, it hurts. As much as it feels like cheating, if someone particularly special dies, like Dallas, I’ll reload my save because it’s just too much. Through the design of the combat and the challenge contained within, Valkyria Chronicles elegantly critiques the pointless losses of war while at the same time celebrating the camaraderie that is built among squadmates.
This duality is a theme that runs throughout the game’s story. It’s unflinching in its criticism of war, and it uses all the tricks in the book to highlight the pointlessness of war, demonstrate the emotional impact on those involved, and muddy the waters of “good” and “evil”. But at the same time, there’s a lot of focus on the silver linings to war: the relationships that develop on the battlefield, the honour in defending one’s home, and the way people will rally together in times of strife.
Instead of trying to bash a point home with grit, Valkyria Chronicles allows plenty of time for fun and lightheartedness, which is such an important tool for letting the player build a relationship with the characters. This means that when the war does show its ugly side, be it in a cutscene or with the untimely death of your favourite unit on the battlefield, it hits hard – far harder than any overwrought edginess ever could.
It’s a beautiful tale and a haunting one, and the move to PlayStation 4 means that Valkyria Chronicles is now open to a wider audience than ever before. The remaster doesn’t change much – a higher native resolution, trophies, dual audio, and all DLC bundled in – but that’s only because it doesn’t really need to. Valkyria Chronicles has a cartoon shaded style that’s timeless in a way more realistic aesthetics aren’t. It looked amazing back in 2008, so it doesn’t really matter that the remaster doesn’t make any drastic changes.
The one thing I would have liked to see is some sort of easy mode. As much as the challenge contributes to the subtext, it becomes moot when a player is unable to see the game through to the end. There are balances that can be struck between impactful challenge and accessibility, like the temporary lowering of difficulty after failing too many times – you still get that feeling of struggle and loss, but at least you have a means of progressing if you get truly stuck.
Valkyria Chronicles, in both its original and Remastered form, tells such a beautiful, moving, and important story that the thought of people being unable to witness it in full is upsetting. If you’re on fence, don’t let that put you off, because this is a truly wonderful game and your mileage may vary. Just be prepared to get stuck and frustrated and, if the worst comes to the worst, to have to YouTube any remaining cutscenes, like I did.
Valkyria Chronicles Remastered is developed and published by SEGA, and will be available for PlayStation 4 on 17 May 2016.
A press copy was supplied by SEGA for this review.