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Valkyria Chronicles 4 does the impossible and makes war beautiful

The draw to outsmart and outplay is one of the best things going for Valkyria Chronicles 4.

It might sound ridiculous to you, but it was only until this fourth entry in Valkyria Chronicles that the very first one finally got a true sequel. Up until now, ever since 2008’s Valkyria Chronicles for the PlayStation 3, the series has seemingly done its best to distance itself from what made that game so special. And by doing that, each new game worse and worse, until last year’s by Valkyria Revolution, which was by all regards a disaster. So it’s a good thing that Valkyria Chronicles 4 gets so much right. In fact, it plays so closely to the first game that it even manages to replicate some of that game’s worst quirks too, but all in all, the pros outweigh the cons, making this one of the best tactical war games that I’ve played in a while.

Valkyria Chronicles 4 tells the tale of Squad E, a plucky group of soldiers led by Claude, a timid but extremely intelligent country kid, who along with his childhood friends is sent to the front lines in the war between the Federation and the Empire. Both sides of the conflict have pretty generic names that could very well point towards the fact of just how blurred the line between the ‘good’ guys and the ‘bad’ ones, but considering you’re fighting on the side of the Federation, we’ll consider them the lesser of the evils. On the way, you’ll find more squaddies and train them in the art of war, as well as interact with them in all sorts of high jinks. After all, this game, like the first, is incredibly anime, but at the same time manages to tell interesting inter squad stories between your fighters, including Claude’s cloudy past, where he was considered a coward for escaping the encroaching conflict that eventually engulfed his hometown.

It plays pretty much exactly like the original, that is, before each mission, you’re given the layout of the map and are allowed to place different units from your squad into the battlefield. Each of the levels carries a certain number of command spots you can take over from the enemy and deploy your own units mid-battle, so it’s usually a good idea not to max out the number of soldiers you initially bring to battle. These encounters are split between turns, with a certain number of actions attributed to each side. You burn an action every time you directly move a unit, and for every move, you’re allowed to attack in case you get into range. There’s also the possibility of burning an extra command on a single unit during the same turn, allowing them to attack and move again, the latter increasingly limited the more you continuously use them.

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Although you directly control unit movement, the attacks are mostly tied to dice rolls, the infamous random number generator (RNG), or better put, the bane of my video game existence. Similarly to XCOM, your shots can suffer the most ridiculous of misses sometimes, but thankfully you can be a cheater like me and save scum your way through fights. Then again, after a while, you’re bound to get into a groove and start getting where exactly are the best positions to attack from depending on the class you’re controlling, and regardless of the results of your shots, you might find yourself wanting to live with your mistakes in place of trying to hit perfection.

The most fascinating part of building a party is balancing it with a variety of unit types, and in that regard, Valkyria Chronicles 4 really shines, because aside from bringing back all of the ones from the original game, it also adds the grenadier, which is one of the most powerful classes you’re likely to run with from early to mid-game, or at least until you start leveling your other unit types. They allow you to bombard mid-distance to far away enemies with a surprising amount of precision, which includes tanks and their comically obvious weak points in the back. Although I generally stuck to lancers, heavy, slow moving infantry that’s armed with close to mid-range rocket-propelled grenade spears as the main bulk of my tank-busting team, a smartly placed grenadier at the enemy’s flank proved to be deadly too. Then there are the other foot units like scouts, which unlike their name suggests, can prove to be incredibly powerful in hit and run situations, counterposing the troopers, which are shorter range, machine gun-toting powerhouses that I usually rather keep close to offensively weaker classes with engineers, who are vital for keeping Claude’s tank running. That tank, differently from the one from the first game, doesn’t play as strong of a part in the composition of your team, but it’s still a formidable unit that when paired up with a second or even third armored vehicle, can help distract enemy forces long enough for your weaker units to slip in unnoticed.   

Leveling your classes spends experience points that’s earned by completing missions, be them main story content or side activities. In between levels that carry the story forward, you’re dealt a lot of exposition as Claude’s journal gets filled with pictures and notes, and it’s by interacting with his notebook that the game unfolds. The aforementioned level-ups take place in your command center, and that’s also where new equipment can be developed, new orders — special commands you can give at during combat that give your units a host of different effects — can be learned, and where your squad can be customized with items given as prizes for missions, or the guns and armor that you upgrade. There’s only so much you can do between missions, though, because aside from the limitations on the amount of points you can spend, new items are gated by story and level progression, which sometimes works to the game’s detriment, forcing you to grind the side content in order to power up your soldiers for a particularly tough assignment.

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Like I mentioned before, even though Valkyria Chronicles 4 is through and through a war game, it’s really during the relationships between your soldiers that the game really shines. Even though this is an incredibly anime-heavy game, with enough character tropes and clichés to come out of the wazoo, their development comes off as surprisingly deep and coherent. And if you manage to keep your characters alive long enough, you’re bound to see them interacting and forming bonds that go beyond mere story beats, but also give added benefits during fights, thanks to the kinship built during these segments that give extra abilities during combat. These trigger when units that like one another are deployed together and can proc at any time, giving a number of bonuses, such as increased accuracy and extra ammunition. It’s a cool incentive to experiment with group compositions, as well as for keeping everyone breathing at the end of levels. When shot down, your units only have a certain number of turns before permanently dying, but it’s easy enough to rescue them in that case by moving a friendly soldier and helping them retreat.

This is a heck of a long game. Thankfully, missions and situations have been fun and varied so far in my campaign. I’ve yet to run into a battle I’ve completely wiped out, but there have been quite a few tight spots. For these, it helped going back and training up a little, or even better, I came up with different team compositions that took into account the enemy forces that showed up as the battle unfurled, which is really rewarding, so don’t expect to do well in every single mission the first time through.

Later on in the game you start running into side story bits that eventually give you extra missions to partake in, and those are incredibly worth diving into. Not just because they give you valuable experience points, but also due to the possibility of unlocking even more soldiers and options at gear upgrades and even traits that would otherwise be hidden away. For instance, there’s a certain one of these that involves a nosy engineer that simply loves tanks, but starts out with a quirk that makes him a klutz when near an armored unit during battle. By doing his mission, he eventually develops into a deadly unit, granting extra armor to tanks every time he repairs them in battle. These special missions are also a good way to learn new approaches to team composition and tactics, pitting you against the enemy in smaller maps that can be conquered much quicker than the actual main missions.

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It goes without saying that Valkyria Chronicles 4 looks absolutely beautiful. The first game was already a looker ten years ago, and the watercolor approach is just as pretty this time around. It’s easy to mistake this with that game thanks to the similar art direction between the two. The storybook approach to the cutscenes works really well with the look of the game, and even though the character animations are limited when it comes to expressions, the little of it that there is works well in giving them plenty of personality.  Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about the voice acting, which is mixed at best. It’s grating to a fault in menus, where the same lines are repeated over and over again as you navigate options in order to upgrade, organize and interact with the many systems over the course of the game. I would’ve much preferred to be able to skip these lines, but unlike the actual story dialog deliveries, you can’t do so with these, which is quite annoying.

I’m still some missions away from finishing the game’s campaign, but I’m already impressed with what I’ve seen up to this point. Valkyria Chronicles 4 manages to be beautiful and fun, but also frustrating at times, so much so that I felt like quitting for a while before coming back. Still, I feel compelled to come back to it time and time again, regardless of how badly I do, I’m always thinking up of different approaches. That draw to outsmart and outplay is one of the best things going for Valkyria Chronicles 4. Add to that its surprisingly captivating cast and story and you get one of the better war games to come out in a while, a suitable follow-up to the original Valkyria Chronicles.  

 

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