You Should Play This highlights one game each week you might not have played when it was first released, but is worth adding to your library.
Valkyria Chronicles is a game that takes third-person shooting and tactical strategy games, and combines them with a narrative that deals with racism, the horrors of war and the costs associated with achieving victory in it. By all rights, this game should not succeed in doing so, but despite all odds, Valkyria Chronicles does just that, creating a memorable game that is at times sad, joyful and utterly bananas.
Originally released on the PS3 in 2008, and released on Steam in 2014, Valkyria Chronicles is set in the fictional continent of Europa, which is modeled after World War 2 Europe and features a conflict that is inspired by that very war. The game follows the adventures of Squad 7, a small militia unit fighting to defend their homeland of Gallia against the invading forces of the East Europan Imperial Alliance. They're a small nation, up against a massive war machine, and it'll take every able bodied soldier and every kind of ruse in order to defend it.
Valkyria Chronicles takes the standard turn-based strategy formula found in other games and adds its own twist by allowing you to take control of each unit you command in third person. From there, you can move them about the map in order to take cover and set up head-shots, at which point the game turns into a shooter as you take aim and hope that your bullets won't go wild and miss their mark.
But there is only a set amount of actions that your unit can perform when selected, and only a small number of soldiers and units can be chosen during each turn. And considering that enemies can fire at you while you are moving a unit, you are suddenly faced with a series of strategic choices that can drastically affect the battle. Do you move your tank up the road so that your Scouts have more cover, or do you take control of a Sniper and try to pick off the enemy hiding behind a building so he doesn't ambush those same units?
The result is a game where every fight is its own puzzle, and while the learning curve is steep at times, it is never unfair. Much of the challenge comes from the diversity of missions and battles Squad 7 will fight in over the course of the war, with one mission requiring you to assault a heavily defended bridgehead while another places you into a flat desert plain littered with trenches and ruins. No matter what the situation is, victory is always within grasp if you prepare and plan properly.
Thankfully, the game presents you with a number of options that allow you to customize your squad to best suit each mission, as you can choose which classes to take with you into each battle. As such, adding a number of anti-vehicle Lancers in a tank heavy mission is encouraged, or several Shocktroopers when close combat is required in city streets. Furthermore, you can customize the weapons, uniforms, equipment and even the tanks your unit uses in between each mission, allowing you to further grow your soldiers as time goes on.
As logical and strategic as the gameplay in Valkyria Chronicles is, it is also mad. This is not an insult, as I mean this in the best way possible. It is just mind-boggling to me that a game can alternate between melodramatic stories about love and war and surprisingly campy segments that are absolutely ludicrous by comparison, and still be as compelling as it is.
At one moment, the game will dive into an exploration of the fantasy World War 2 equivalent of anti-Semitism. The next, your squad is having a beach day, wearing swimsuits and covering the massive battle tank they brought with them to the beach with an umbrella. Though Valkyria Chronicles becomes increasingly difficult and the situations more dire, it never lets go of its lightheartedness, creating a delicate balance that prevents the game from becoming too dark and cynical.
As you fight your way through battle after battle, the soldiers you fight alongside with become more developed, revealing their personalities, backstories and dreams the more they are in the front lines. These characters have there own friends, enemies and quirks, all of which will affect their performance on the battlefield. Someone who is allergic to pollen may have difficulty traversing and shooting in a battle in a field, while simultaneously see far better results when he's hiding for cover in a city next to his best friend.
You'll meet two brothers, the younger of whom joined the military out of patriotism while the elder brother followed so that he could protect his little brother. There's an engineer who holds a masters degree in literature, who dreams of becoming an author that writes romance novels for the public. And there's a 14-year old girl who is a prodigy when it comes to military tactics, who nevertheless fights on the front lines alongside her friends and squadmates for the future of her country. If they go down in battle, and you're unable to reach them in time with a medic, they will die, and their stories will vanish with them.
Considering that you level up classes instead of individual characters, making each soldier unique goes a long way to make each death feel like a crushing loss. It encourages careful, tactical play, and though you may be aiming to play the game perfectly, losses are an inevitable fact that must be dealt with. This is war, after all.
Visually, Valkyria Chronicles hasn't aged at all since it originally released on PS3, and with the upgrades added to it for both the PC and remastered PS4 versions, I'm not sure it ever will. The cel-shaded graphics are rendered with exquisite detail, but are propelled further with an engine that makes the game look like a sketchbook or drawing, with heavy and light lines crisscrossing the screen to add more character the game. Onomatopoeias flash across the screen with each shot and explosion, peppering the game with a cartoon look that fits in well with the fantasy world and the art style.
Special mention must also be made of the soundtrack, which is filled with an horns and strings that successfully capture the joyful energy of Squad 7 and the bleak danger that is war without dropping a beat. My personal favorite remains Those Who Succeeded, an emotional piece about the losses endured during the course of the war.
Ultimately, Valkyria Chronicles is one of the most unique takes on the strategy genre ever made. Though sequels and spinoffs to the series have been developed, with varying levels of praise depending on the title, the original game is still a charming cult classic that stays with you long after the credits roll.
If you haven't taken a journey with Squad 7, you are missing out on something wonderful.
Preston Dozsa is a news editor for theScore esports. You can follow him on Twitter.