Friday, 18 September 2015

Valkyria Chronicles - Retrospective Review

Developer: Sega
Publisher: Sega 
Platforms: PS3, PC 

There’s something ironic about the fact that an anime style video game, with wide-eyed characters and a storybook presentation, arguably presents a more nuanced, honest portrayal of war than most modern war games.

Looking back at Valkyria Chronicles the best way you can describe it is as a labour of love. There’s not an ounce of cynicism in its design. Is it perfect? Of course not. But it is clearly the game that the developers wanted to make.

And it sold terribly, at least outside of Japan. Which is why we can’t have nice things.
The game takes place in fictional fantasy world that’s directly analogous to 1940s Europe. In retrospect, this is an ingenious design choice. The fact that the game is partly removed from the real world helps it explore said world in a much more tasteful and earnest manner, that likely wouldn’t be possible in a traditional Second World War game.

Valkyria Chronicles charts the invasion of Gallia, a small country that’s remained neutral following a wider conflict between the East Europan Imperial Alliance and the Atlantic Federation. It’s not long before nature lover Welkin Gunther is thrust into war, commanding a squad of local volunteers against the Imperial Alliance.

Once again it’s worth focusing on what Valkyria Chronicles achieves with its fictional setting. Whilst the analogies to World War II are clear, it doesn’t solely draw upon that time period. The fact that the game focuses on a small nation stuck between two dominant super powers has as much to do with the Cold War as it does the 1940s.

And it’s worth stressing how well Sega builds its world in Valkyria Chronicles, because this is a game where the focal point is, its story.

It’s not just focused on its story, it’s focused on story-telling as a whole. The framing narrative of the game is that you’re reading a book about the war, written by a journalist called Irene Koller. Irene is a character in the story, and, provided you stump up some money, you can unlock additional chapters of the game. These chapters that you can unlock aren’t mandatory, although they do offer you an insight into the characters at your command.

And that’s something important to note about Valkyria Chronicles, and something that I’ve always found fascinating, it cares about the people that you order around during missions, and it wants you to care too. Obviously a lot of this is done through the surprisingly excellent script, which has been well translated to boot, but it’s also done directly through the gameplay.

In terms of its gameplay Valkyria Chronicles strikes a solid balance between turned-based tactics and real-time combat. The game itself is turn-based, with you having a number of orders each turn which you can spend as you see fit to order troops across the battlefield. Once you select a unit the game dives straight from the map view directly into the battlefield, putting you, quite literally, into the shoes of the chosen character, and control them in real time.

Each character has a prescribed move space, which differs depending on the units’ class. Shocktroopers and Lancers; the anti-troop and anti-tank units respectively, have an average movement range. Engineers and Scouts have much greater degrees of movement at the cost of reduced defences and less potent offensive capabilities. The snipers meanwhile, have hardly any available movement at all, but come with the best chances of scoring 1-hit kills, vital when you consider that you have a limited amount of moves per turn.

What’s perhaps more interesting however, and directly dovetails with the game’s anti-war politics, is its focus on giving troops their own unique identity. Each character is named in Valkyria Chronicles, and I’m not just talking about the core group of characters either, every character has a name.

Ted, a young scout, died in my last play through; he got run over by a tank in the game’s penultimate mission. Death is permanent in Valkyria Chronicles, which isn’t exactly anything new, plenty of games have dealt with perma-death, perhaps the most closely related to this game would be the X-Com series.

Yet, Valkyria Chronicles goes one step further by giving each character a personality. In Ted’s case he was a joker, a constant flirt (to both sexes, coincidentally), and something of a show off. His personality was directly reflected in the game itself. Stick him with other troops and he was likely to get a boost to his stats. Have him run towards incoming gunfire or be outnumbered and he’d get another boost to his abilities thanks to his bravado. It’s a great gameplay concept, and one that melds perfectly with the game’s storytelling.

It’s also important to note that the personal attributes that each character has aren’t all positive. Some characters are cowardly; quick to lose any hope the moment they face some adversity in battle. Others are xenophobic and racist, unwilling to work with Darcsens, the game’s fictional equivalent of Jews if we’re following the game to be a general analogy of World War 2.

Valkyria Chronicles is a game that wants you to get to know your characters, and not just see them as disposable dots on a battlefield map.

The fact that Sega achieves this level of humanity with its characters is something that should be applauded, but it’s even more impressive that they do so without sacrificing its role as a tight, tactical strategy game. Valkyria Chronicles never lionizes war, and Welkin and his band of friends frequently have qualms about the killing they have to do in order to defend their country, but neither are they naïve; war is coming whether they like it or not, and the gameplay reflects that. Missions in Valkyria Chronicles are swift and to the point; there’s an emphasis on completing them as quickly as possible and with as few casualties as you’re able.

Each chapter of the game typically builds to one or two major missions, with you deploying your squad as you see fit. The stand out early mission goes to Operation Cloudburst, where Welkin, now the Tank Commander assigned to Squad 7, is challenged by his squad, many of whom still see him as a pampered child. Still, Welkin is determined to change their minds and so devises a plan to take back an occupied town in a manner that won’t put his squad in as much danger.

It leads to what is one of the most tactically satisfying missions in the entire game, with you running a small squad behind enemy lines in order to capture enemy locations. The faster you achieve this, the less chance the enemy has to respond. There’s a brilliant risk-versus-reward tension as you push up through the occupied town. Move too fast, and you might risk losing some squad members, too hesitant and you’ll likely get dug into a protracted battle as the enemy is able to call for reinforcements.

There’s plenty of themes running through Valkyria Chronicles: trust, sacrifice, violence, and it’s perhaps easy to immediately write it off as doe-eyed and simplistic, yet, it’s far from it. It’s cheesy, sure, but not stupid. How the game deals with painful and emotional issues in its fictional world is quite fascinating. It leverages the fact that it’s not actually set in the real world to comment on the real world in a much more emotional and engaging manner.

Take the Darcsens. At one moment in the game’s campaign you’re asked to liberate a Darcsen concentration camp. Many World War 2 shooters are happy to have you shoot Nazis all day long, but not many are willing to slow down and offer a more poignant and incredibly sad look at the growth of anti-Semitism that drove Hitler into power.  Rosie, one of the core members of your squad, comes to terms with her own racism and bigotry as the story unfolds in relation to the Darcsens’ plight, and makes for one of the most satisfying character arcs of the supporting cast.

Likewise, there’s a very clear reference to the atomic bomb at one particular point in the game. Selvaria, one of the game’s primary antagonists, is a Valkyria, a race of near legendary super humans, thought to be all but extinct. It’s Selvaria’s interaction with Welkin’s group which has the game further explore the nature of power and how it’s used. Without explicitly saying it, Valkyria Chronicles looks closely at how easy to is to think of people as weapons in times of war, how dehumanising the whole affair is, and how easy it is to view human beings as just another resource in the war effort.  

And that’s something else that the game should be praised for too; its commitment not to paint its bad guys as simplistic, moustache twirling villains. It strikes a perfect balance almost, giving us a clear enemy who the protagonist is fighting against without painting them as a black and white villain.

There’s the aforementioned Selvaria, but even Maximillian, the Emperor Palpatine to Selvaria’s Darth Vader, isn’t just a simple big bad villain. He’s a horrid character, but also one that by the end of the game almost seems desperate and pathetic. Left with almost nothing to lose he’s happy to try and artificially enhance himself into becoming something akin to a Valkyria. There’s a pattern in Valkyria Chronicles: those who forget their humanity and think of themselves as just weapons are doomed to eventually be killed by this fact, regardless of what side they’re fighting on.

Although, if Valkyria Chronicles does slip up at one point, it’s in this final boss fight. It comes across so “gamey”; this is the last fight, so it must be a dramatic final encounter against one all-powerful enemy…right? Well…no, the game up until then had been about besting the empire tactically.

The penultimate chapter of the game pits you against Jaeger, the commander of the empire’s armoured forces. There’s a gravitas to that fight, a sense of two sides coming together and you beating his forces (emphasis on the forces) strategically. He’s a physically imposing figure, but Jaegar is also intellectually imposing, he’s a strategic mastermind and the game actually throws up some new mechanics that the game never reuses other than for this fight. He uses orders (i.e. buffs and debuffs) much more frequently than other enemy characters do, not to mention frequently covering his bases in smoke rounds, forcing you to constantly update your tactics on the fly.

The final encounter with Maximillian meanwhile, is rather silly and contrived in comparison. It works on a story level; he’s augmented himself to artificially become a Valkyria, yet in gameplay terms it looks ridiculous. Why am I bringing two tanks to bear down on one man? Why is he magically immune to my attacks until I’ve arbitrarily shot down three regenerating energy towers each round?

It’s a rather limp note to end on following such an impressive game. Granted, the A.I. is frequently found wanting the entire way through the game. It’ll move troops directly in front of you and then not fire. It’ll sometimes skip upwards of half its turn despite having units that could do something.

There’s also the fact that once you realise how to complete each mission in an optimal manner, it ceases to be a challenge. The A.I. is so easy to manipulate that it’s perfectly possible to complete most missions in one or two turns, ignoring half the forces arrayed against you in some cases, as you make a beeline for the objective.

It leads to a direct imbalance in the game’s squad building. Scouts are arguably the best units in the game, capable of putting down the few enemies necessary to complete a level and having huge movement ranges. In comparison, hardly any levels press the importance of a sniper, with most missions placing such a focus on covering ground as quickly as possible. Even the Lancers become somewhat obsolete by the game’s second half, as your tank(s) and Shocktroopes are almost perfectly capable of taking out the enemy armour with a few buffs here and there.

Still, despite its faults Valkyria Chronicles really is something of an underrated gem. It recently got re-released for the PC, which will hopefully help spread the word that this is a game that desperately deserves to be played, even for those that aren’t especially big fans of the genre.

Perhaps the most ingenious moment in the game comes at the end. Just as you’ve finished, and the credits start to roll, Valkyria Chronicles runs a list of the entire team of Squad 7, showing whether each of them was alive or dead. It wants to stress that these aren’t just units, game pieces with no lives, but that there’s ramifications even after the game (in this case, the war) is over.

It’s a romantic game, both in the sense that there’s a romance between its two leads, and in the sense that it plays out like a sweeping fantasy romance; it’s the original Star Wars trilogy crossed with an anime sensibility. It’s cheesy, affectionate and filled with plenty of the clichés, both good and bad, that are hallmarks of its anime styling.

Yet, despite all this, it never glorifies its subject. It takes a good hard look at war and shows it to be an ugly, horrible thing, regardless of whatever it is you’re fighting for. The fact that it’s capable of doing through its story and its game. Well, that’s why it deserves so much praise. 

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Devil Survivor: Overclocked - Review

Developer: Atlus
Publisher: Atlus/Ghostlight
Platforms: 3DS

Choose easy mode, ok? Look, I don’t care if you’ve played plenty of other Shin Megami Tensei games, just choose the darn easy mode and be done with it. I’ll explain why later, and it’s not for the reasons you’re thinking.

Devil Survivor: Overclocked is a rerelease of the original Devil Survivor, which was released on the Nintendo DS back in 2009. This remake boasts full-voice acting, something which the original game lacked entirely, not to mention additional post-endgame scenarios for several (numerous) endings. This isn’t necessarily a lazy cash-grab update, and it’s clear that Atlus gave a damn about giving the new cut of the game some love and care, rather than simply slapping it onto a new system.

Devil Survivor operates along the typical Shin Megami Tensei lines: target weaknesses, protect yourself using resistances. Most RPGs have this kind of mechanic, with robot enemies being weak to water/thunder, ice monsters susceptible to fire and so on. For Devil Survivor though, like with other SMT games, focusing on your opponents’ weaknesses is mandatory; bonus turns and money are doled out to players who fight successfully, whilst those that fail to adapt are usually shown a game over screen before too long.

Where Devil Survivor deviates somewhat from the traditional SMT formula is in its approach to combat. Rather than being a typical RPG, with enemies and characters lined up against each other, the game takes a strategy RPG approach. Characters move across a grid, with different units capable of moving greater or lesser distances. Units themselves meanwhile, are comprised of a human character and two demon partners. With up to four human characters on your team at any one time, this can amount to 12 characters being managed in a single battle, making for one of the more complex SMT games in recent memory.

Likewise, the story seems par the course to start with; demons, angels, apocalyptic outcomes, teens saving the world, before becoming more interesting with a few added complications. The game starts out with Tokyo becoming quarantined, and it’s soon down to you and your friends to find a way out of the blockade. It’s a fun, addictive little story and the bite-sized chunks of character dialogue fit perfectly with a portable game like this. It’s the kind you can boot up, push the story along, engage in a battle or two, and then put down again, almost like tuning into a popular TV show.

What’s even more impressive however is the commitment to player choice. Devil Survivor has numerous endings, with your choices made throughout the game determining your available outcomes at the conclusion. Many SMT have done something similar, but Devil Survivor almost goes to visual novel lengths of adaptive story-telling. Sure, peel back the cover and look at a guide and you’ll find that your choices weren’t quite as “free” as you once thought, but, considering everything else that’s going on, it’s fascinating that Atlus achieve this much.

The moral choices your character goes through aren’t all locked into the childish good/bad binary that ruins many games either. Without spoiling the plot, the angels in the game advocate absolute control, to the point of being fascist. Likewise, taking the “dark” path actually has your character adopt a “might is right” policy, punishing the weak for the sin of not being strong.

Where Atlus gets you to ask bigger questions is when you’re pitted against these ideologies. You can fight to protect the weak from Kaido, a local gang member who quickly adopts violence as his method of solving problems, but aren’t you just proving his point when you take him on with your demons?

It’s not as if Atlus provide any easy answers either. One of the “neutral” options (there’s several) is to flee from everything, avoiding conflict between the different political beliefs altogether. It’s impressive then, that the game “punishes” you with one of the worst endings for this approach, deftly avoiding the banal “they’re both as bad as each other” intellectual laziness that’s espoused in many a game’s story, most notably Bioshock Infinite.

All this gushing about the game’s story doesn’t mean that the actual gameplay isn’t up to snuff. Combat remains fun and tactical, and the fusion system remains one of the most enthralling mechanics in any RPG to date. It’s easy to get sucked in min-maxing your squad with the best abilities, and, given the tactical-RPG elements that Devil Survivor uses, you’re likely to get absorbed into this aspect even more.

Where things do become a little undone however, are in the difficulty. Not in the obvious sense, like all SMT games, Devil Survivor offers a robust challenge without resorting to cheap gimmicks or excessive handholding. No, where the game does become unstuck is in its approach to grinding.

You see, on the one hand the game actively opposes it, punishing excessive levelling with an experience penalty. Yet, macca, the game’s currency, is needed to fuse demons…and you get that from grinding. You see the problem.

Keeping up a full team of four players and eight demons is damn near impossible without frequent random battles. And the amount of macca you receive seems too slim by the end of the game. It’s a shame that the game should falter in this regard and it’d be easy to fix too, just add in greater amounts of money from fights. This, fortunately, is what the easy mode does without changing the rest of the game’s difficulty significantly.

Devil Survivor: Overclocked is the definitive edition of a very good RPG, that unfortunately succumbs, somewhat, to some slight design flaws. The voice acting can be a little suspect and it does suffer from some fairly awkward difficulty spikes. It’s a terrible place for newcomers to start with the series, who’d be better served checking out the Persona games or Digital Devil Saga first, but, for series veterans, this is a game that rewards its players with a deep combat system and a smart, well written, not to mention well translated, story.