Valkyria Chronicles 4 (PlayStation 4 Review)
For me, 2008 felt like a dire year to exclusively own the PlayStation 3. Multiplatform releases were great, but the exclusive titles were far and few between. Sure enough, we had Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, but that was simultaneously exciting and disappointing. And so, Valkyria Chronicles caught my eye. It sat on the shelf with its quiet mix of 3D anime and pencil-sketched artwork and I was instantly attracted to it. There weren’t many other games like it, and the system was starved.
It would be close to a decade before we’d see another Valkyria Chronicles game sitting on the shelves at a retail store, but Valkyria Revolution would play very little like the original and endearing 2008 release. The west may have slept on or missed a couple of releases, but 2018 finally sees a true follow-up hit the shelves with Valkyria Chronicles 4.
Set during the original’s Second Europa War in fantasy Europe, Valkyria Chronicles 4 tells the story of the Atlantic Federation’s Squad E as they set their sights on the Imperial Capital. The empire, previously presented with a German-inspired design, now sports Russian iconography. The world of Valkyria Chronicles is a mixed blend of European history, with typical anime fantasy elements peppered throughout. For the most part, it remains grounded, focusing on Squad E’s struggles on the front lines.
A large focus of the title’s narrative lies on its characters. The war is gruelling, and respite can be found with intimate moments between the Squad E’s cast. The commanding officer, Claude Wallace, is our protagonist alongside his childhood friends. His diary is also the framing device for the narrative, exploring his heroic journey in a war with a conclusion already foretold by the first game. The stakes very much require that we care about the cast, and Valkyria Chronicles 4 is careful to flesh out the characters with flaws and goals that exist outside the war. Even outside the main cast, care is taken to ensure the vast roster of Squad E have their own moments to shine. Squad stories can be unlocked, giving each member an arc to complete. They’ll also not always be relegated to the background, sometimes sharing in important moments with the main cast.
That’s not to say that there aren’t any issues with the squad. While the transgender Rosetta is freely available to play, so too are there elements of sexism and harassment. Valkyria Chronicles 4’s charm lies somewhat in its anime influences, but it can’t escape the baggage. Fan service is still often unnecessarily excessive. In a title with few windows for revealing attire due to the context, Claude’s best friend Raz is left to sexually harass one of his coworkers for fanservice instead. This opens for the tired slapstick between the harasser and victim, but the problem admittedly fades over time. A key component in the title is growth, and even Raz develops into a likeable and reliable character. The cast will gradually change over time, but the war hasn’t changed so much since the original 2008 release.
Valkyria Chronicles’ combat is a turn-based RPG fare, but with strategic elements. The AI and the player will take turns commanding their units, consuming Command Points to take control of the various characters in their respective squad. Once players burn through their Command Points, it’s time for their opponent to act. While using Command Points, movement is limited by a character’s Action Points, draining gradually when keeping mobile. Each character is also assigned a class, with Scouts being granted an extra large AP pool for improved mobility. This restriction is a key strategic element as positioning can make significant impact on the flow of combat. Each unit has a line of sight, and they may target and fire at opposing units within their range even when it’s not their turn. It’s honestly satisfying to witness a horde of enemy Shocktroopers just getting mowed down as they target the player camp.
Combat isn’t all just about unit positioning. Each class has its own strengths: Shocktroopers excel at just destroying infantry, while Lancers are better at piercing armour. Snipers are frail, but can be deadly at a range. The newly introduced Grenadier is a very capable and flexible class that can specialise in launching mortars at any kind of foe depending on their loadout. Meanwhile, Engineers offer capable support. Despite the versatility, returning players may find that combat still leans in favour of units with greater mobility. Scouts are still over-powered, and most missions reward reaching opposing camps quicker than any other strategy. Valkyria Chronicles 4 is very much a title in which the fun is what players make of it. Speed running is a fair tactic, but some players may just enjoy tactically clearing the field instead.
Let’s not forget about the tanks. They’re typically featured on the cover art for the series after all! Most missions will replace controlling Claude with steering the Hafen. In its own way, the Hafen is also a feature character for Valkyria Chronicles 4—it’s featured on the cover, it gets a lot of screen time, characters often personify it, and it ultimately serves as its own class of unit. Tanks function exactly as you’d expect: they have high armour and their weapons inflict a lot of damage. They also make great shields. Progression will eventually result in two more additional vehicles. One thing to note is that tanks also have a gaping weakness: their radiators must be exposed due to the ragnite—fictional fuel—that the tanks require to run. Once again: positioning is important. It’s the marriage of real-time and turn-based combat that emphasises positioning so much.
Command Points aren’t used exclusively for taking charge of an individual unit. Players may issue orders to buff squad members, or launch a variety of support perks like ranged cannon fire and radar use. It’s a useful resource, though utilizing the same resource for orders as controlling squad members may often result in neglecting the additional perks. The impact from squad member actions are often more tangible, so those are more easily favoured.
An additional mechanic, and a significant game-changer, is the ability to order other units to follow your current unit. This movement only taxes the character players currently control, allowing other characters to travel across the map without experiencing the cost. This feature offers greater mobility to the otherwise slower characters, and provides ample opportunity to exploit gaps in the opposition’s positioning. It’s no wonder that Scouts are among the last class to be granted access to this feature. They’re nearly broken already as it is, nevermind when they lend their own mobility to other classes.
While positioning is a key factor, there hasn’t been much improvement in taking advantage of the environment. It’s fair given that Squad E is slap bang in enemy territory, but often the only real advantage is tall grass or sandbags for cover. These buff player characters temporarily—lasting for as long as they remain in cover—but are ultimately limited. A nice change of pace comes far later in the game, where players are able to take advantage of thin ice to drown foes. It’d be nice to see this mechanic expanded further as environmental tools may have been what it takes to shift the balance away from Scout-rushing.
Of course, being an RPG, players are able to upgrade their characters to improve their performance. For example, characters can be upgraded into elite variants of their class. Classes will also level up to acquire new potentials or orders, while improved weaponry and armour can be purchased with money. The Hafen—alongside the other vehicles—can be upgraded and customised. The progression is somewhat linear, but each weapon typically has two to three paths that can focus on accuracy, firepower, armour piercing, range, or ammo capacity. Ultimately, there is rarely a need to branch out beyond the balanced options, though the flexibility benefits higher difficulties and can reward forward-thinking players.
Expanding on the importance of Valkyria Chronicles 4’s cast, each character has their own distinct potentials and likes or dislikes towards other characters in the squad. These range of buffs and debuffs reinforce the individuality of the cast, but also addresses the teamwork required to survive the tragic battles that lay in front of Squad E as they delve deeper into enemy territory. It’s worth paying attention to the unique details to truly optimise the active squad members, and it really drives through their own personalities. Some Engineers may love tanks too much and get distracted, or another character may feel the need to impress the women of his team and cave under the pressure. It’s a fun additional quirk, and it serves the overarching bonding theme pretty well.
It’s worth noting that the enemy AI isn’t very clever. They’ll regularly and happily wander into very clear ambushes, allowing a pair of my squad members to blast them away while the opponent takes their turn. At best, the AI is just very simple. Music can also be a mixed bag. There are some strong tracks that can really pump you for combat, but others just serve as nothing more than background. Tracks also suffer from being repetitive due to the limited scope of the soundtrack. In addition, cutscenes are rarely animated and generally take a visual novel-esque approach.
This title feels like a very safe sequel. Unlike the members of Squad E who are forced the leave the familiar territory of the Federation and Gallia for the betterment of the people back home, Valkyria Chronicles 4 feels very much like the original game. There are some good expanded mechanics, but it doesn’t feel like enough. At the same time, maybe they really are enough? The last western release, putting last year’s spinoff aside, was on the PlayStation Portable back in 2010. In some ways, this return is comforting. Squad E is fighting the very same battle as the Squad 7 in the very first game—all sharing the hope that their fight may bring about positive change to their world. After a long absence, perhaps a successful Valkyria Chronicles 4 could stabilise the series in the west.