A long, long time ago, there released a tactical RPG called Valkyria Chronicles sporting a unique artistic art style and the tale of a man and a woman falling in love on the battlefield while a prince indulged in his obsession with unnecessarily large tanks. It was great, and everybody loved it, but then it faded into the background as forgettable sequels and spin-offs washed up on Western shores, if they departed Japan at all. Then one day, a decade down the line, Valkyria Chronicles took a long, hard look at itself in the mirror and said, “I was great. Everybody loved me. I need to make a comeback. But how?” And so, it donned a new jacket, dyed the gray out of its hair, and made its return to the world as Valkyria Chronicles 4.
You all know that Fallout 3 quote: “War...war never changes...” It applies substantially to Valkyria Chronicles 4 because this game is just about a clone of its first predecessor. Same turn-based tactical combat, same music and sound effects, same light RPG elements, same squad setup where the commander bark orders at his foot soldiers from the safety of his tank. The only huge addition is the grenadier class, which is awesome, except when it's used against you, in which case you'll be merrily strolling your way into enemy territory when all of a sudden you're reenacting the opening of Saving Private Ryan.
VC4 just rips VC1's skin and dyes it a new color, but it also applies ointment to some of the blemishes the original game had. Snipers shoot back at charging enemies and can join in for team attacks, you can later call in radar sweeps and artillery strikes, and losing your tank doesn't net you a game over. Nothing exponentially greater, just touch-up work here and there, but it all compounds, like giving a person a $1 bill for every $5 they have. Even if that only totals out to an extra $4, that'll still buy you a gallon of milk.
The story of Valkyria Chronicles 4 is the same as it was in Valkyria Chronicles 1. The evil autocratic nation of not-Germany has decided to invade the continent of not-Europe, sparking the start of not-WWII. So a ragtag buncha youngins join the military in order to push back the red-shirt army threat. But where the first game took its time introducing us to the everyday lives of the lovebirds-to-be and the formation of Squad 7, VC4 drops us into the very first skirmish of Squad E. Not long after, the squad's commander, Claude Wallace, is told that the not-Allies can't be arsed to deal with a war lasting longer than three weeks, so they send an entire army marching to the not-German capital, Squad E included.
If you've played VC1, picking up VC4 will feel like the good ol' days, but if you're a new recruit, here's the sitrep. You and the enemy take turns moving your soldiers around until one of you does something to make the game go, “You are winner!” But you can't just move your men and ladies around willy-nilly. Not everybody gets one move like they do in Fire Emblem, but everybody has the opportunity to move multiple times per turn so long as they haven't collapsed from exhaustion. It's simple enough to pick up and play, but getting through a battle without feeling like you're on Hamburger Hill will require some mental gymnastics, more so than what's encouraged in games like Fire Emblem.
I thoroughly enjoy Fire Emblem, but in the editions I've played, the objective is rarely more than kill anything which moves, and the games punish you for having your healers near the frontlines, where they're, y'know, the most useful, so my modus operandi was to lure baddies to me until their numbers were thin enough that I could storm them with a blitzkrieg of goats. I could take fifty turns to complete my systematic genocide and the game wouldn't tell me one way or the other if I ranked Patton or Pickett. But Valkyria Chronicles tells you to just capture the enemy base, and it doesn't care one way or the other how you do it. You can be methodical and execute every trooper in sight, or you can cut a path through the weak points in a tank platoon and feel like Douglas MacArthur when the game praises you for capturing the enemy base in two turns.
It's tense and daunting when the enemy turn starts and you're worrying and wondering if your troops will hold up where you left them or if some scout's gonna come out the woodwork and make a beeline for your base while everybody's out to lunch. The game enjoys ramping up the challenge, and I often started matches by staring at the map and asking myself, “What can I do to not totally and immediately muck things up?” but I found that that challenge came more from overwhelming enemy numbers or overpowered bosses than competent AI.
Around the halfway point, you have your first run-in with a mega-ultra powerful witchy woman who'll decimate anyone who comes strolling in her field of vision. But if you just stand a Joe underneath an awning, her attacks won't do a thing, and she'll laser in on him while the rest of your team wreaks havoc behind her back. I also can't tell you how many enemy troops ran headlong into the gun barrel of my tank because they wanted to get to the engineer I had camping in its rear radiator.
Overall, I found VC4 noticeably easier than its predecessor, and I've got two theories on that. The first is that I was the world's worst player of the original Valkyria Chronicles. The lot of my most distinct memories of that game are of hiding in ditches while my lancers constantly missed the huge, hulking tanks sitting between me and my victory condition or of grumbling at my snipers as they missed grown men standing completely still. I oughta consider replaying that game to find out if it was designed as a tougher campaign or if I was just one incompetent ninny.
It kinda aches to admit my second theory, because it had been praise in the third paragraph, but a lot of the changes which make VC4 better than VC1 also make it easier. Gaggles of enemy soldiers aren't so tough to deal with when you can drop a bombshell on them, snipers aren't sitting ducks when you ditch them somewhere, and I don't think I need to explain that one less failure condition means one less headache. The command point requirement for tanks has even dropped from two to one, same as all your foot soldiers. Difficulty and quality aren't mutually exclusive, but it would've been fairer if other features were added to balance out the tipped scales. Sniper interception fire balances itself out, since enemy snipers can also take potshots at your troops, but any strategy of threading an infiltration squad behind enemy lines to take out that grenadier who's been pissing you off the last two turns gets stuffed in a howitzer aimed at said grenadier. But even if the game were organically challenging and required true-blue raw skills to beat, you can still just cheese it by saving and reloading before and after each botched move.
Since we're on the topic of changes, one change I absolutely wish this game had made is being able to speed up enemy turns. Under normal circumstances, I don't mind the moderate pace of enemy turns, but if you save and reload a turn or the enemy troops just pace like anxious fathers-to-be outside the delivery room, it'd be a godsend to be able to fast-forward past the tedium. It's more of a situational problem, but a third of my time for the final boss was spent watching him repeatedly drive into a pool only to pop back up where he was a second ago.
A second more modest change I'd like would be to the leader system. Each side has a number of leaders, and the more leaders you have, the more actions you can take in a given turn. Pop a leader and you take away an available action. It has that usual gratification you get when killing an enemy, but your now brain injects itself with an added “Ooo!” when that enemy you take out also happens to be a leader.
Your leaders now can also tagteam with up to two other troops and ferry them to another part of the map. The selling point the game gives you is the ability to relocate the classes which drop from exhaustion after six steps, but all your leaders at this point belong to a class which drops from exhaustion after six steps. It does remedy this when you get a marathon-running scout leader midway through, as well as the authority to promote any one soldier to the rank of leader, and you can switch around who wears that badge to your heart's content, but those're minor fixes to my biggest issue with the leader system, which is that it shoehorns you into using the same four or five characters every battle. There's a huge pool to choose from. Why does the game think I'd want to handicap myself to get variety in my diet?
Seguing into your squadmates, a gameplay-writing trick I liked in VC1 was that all your squadmates' personalities were conveyed through their battle traits. A certain shocktrooper might get a defense boost when under enemy fire but get high off the scent of grass and find it hard to concentrate on aiming. But crafty as this was, that was as much development as your squadmates got. You didn't even get to see the full roaster of available troops unless some of them had some 7.62x51mm fine dining. VC4 remedies this by dismissing the reserves limit and giving each and every trooper their own Squad Story.
Squad Stories is like Skirmishes, but instead of just recycling a random story map and dropping enemy troops and tanks wherever it seems like a good idea, Squad Stories recycles a random story map and drops enemy troops and tanks where it seems like a good idea while telling a melodrama. As far as the storytelling goes, there's only so much a narrative can accomplish when it's got three conversations, so you won't burst into tears seeing some steely mercenary confess she's working to support her cripplingly sick mother back home unless your own mother's cutting onions next to you.
The tone varies from story to story, with some being comedic and others featuring a touch of angst, but they all feature growth of some kind in at least one character's personality, which is even reflected by replacing bad battle traits with new ones. While I clap for this extra layer of dimension VC4 gives its squadmates, I can't applaud it for doing that annoying anime thing where some of its bit players are one distinct trait and every word out of their mouth is a ham-fisted reinforcement of that trait. Another bad habit it has is when a squadmate reveals their tragic bad story, the listener goes wide-eyed with surprise and remarks, “I had no idea!” Of course you had no idea. You're only now getting to know this person, ya bloody dingus.
Of the three battle types, Campaign, Skirmish, and Squad Stories, Squad Stories has some of the weakest battles. Generally, you're saddled with exactly the three squadmates starring in the respective Story, so the game can't call in the entire Seventh Army and expect you to blaze your way to the enemy base in three and a half turns, so it compromises by placing troops appropriate to your trio, but sometimes it compromises too far. I don't exactly feel like a tactical genius for taking out a tank without any explosives when said tank is parked on top of a highly explosive canister which'll explode if so much as a leave brushes against it.
The side stories of Squad Stories aren't half bad, and neither's the main story. VC1 kinda lost me when it spent the first half of its game hyping up its superpowered magical lady only for our own superpowered magical lady to put her down with two slaps to the face. A new superpowered magical lady takes the stage in VC4, but she's played off as a sympathetic villain, which is one of the story's greatest strengths, that it doesn't paint either side as black or white.
Like any other human conflict, things seem to boil down to “we good, they bad,” and VC4 starts twining this narrative no differently. However, as the game goes on, you find out that some of the bad guys aren't so bad and that the good guys aren't up to angelic stuff themselves. I especially like the enemy tank commander, who's a bit of a playboy but is a genuinely decent guy fighting due to lineage and loyalty for his hometown rather than any sense of nationalism or political ideology. Can't discuss what makes the good guys not so good without spoiling it, but let's just say it's the sort of dirt which turns war tactics into a numbers game.
It does stumble with the gray morality, though. While everybody in your squad has a name, distinct personality, backstory, and visible face—except for one helmet-touting bastard child—all the scouts you stare down through the scope of your snipers' rifles are the same nameless, copy & pasted models who shout typical bad guy stuff like “Die, you commie scum!” in cutscenes. From a gameplay perspective, this is done to save on budget and developer sanity, but from a narrative perspective, it doesn't do much in advancing the narrative's themes.
There's this one moment in a Squad Story where a squadmate saves his little sister from an ambush. However, he points out that the ambusher could've easily gotten her before he got him, and the ambusher replies that he hesitated because he has a little sister back home the same age. For a game filled with an army of the same six clones, this is a major character development, and it could repeat this small success by doing something like giving all the enemy soldiers names and helmets which don't cover their eyes so that it's easier to view them as human. I don't know about you, but I'd probably be a blush more hesitant to pull the trigger on a man named William who has the most beautiful blue eyes, only to be filled with regret when, as he lay dying, he cries out the name of his wife, Marie.
I'm not against black and white good vs. evil narratives, but part of the reason I think VC4 should've leaned more into its gray morality themes is due to an inadvertent strength it has. Since VC1 is the first entry into this IP and was thus saddled with the responsibility of worldbuilding, that frees up VC4 to focus on other things, namely its characters and their struggle with what is and isn't right. In some respects it succeeds, such as with its alpha couple romance, which shows some sense of progression, whereas in VC1, the romance was dropped into your lap like a fat house cat. But while it performs admirably on the “good guys” front, it mostly forgets that its bad guys are “bad guys.”
Overall, I was more invested in VC4's story than I was its predecessor, which sometimes seemed more interested in constantly one-upping itself in spectacle, but not all which glitters is gold, and there're a number of instances which could've benefited from a pair of appraising eyes and a finger to point out what doesn't work.
About midway through the game, Squad E is trudging through a mountain range when a scouting party spies a munitions depot gearing up for an invasion of the main characters' homeland. They're supposed to rendezvous with other units at the coast, but since they're right there, they decide on slithering into the depot at night and blowing the place sky-high. This detour, however, causes them to be late for the rendezvous, and by the time they show up, everybody's dead from an ambush. There're just two survivors, one of whom blames Squad E for the annihilation of her squad. This really ticked me off, but Claude, rather than saying to her, “Actually, we were blowing up a munitions depot, thereby preventing a full-scale invasion of our home country, you're welcome,” just stands there zip-lipped.
There's another moment later on in the campaign, when Claude's presented with the option of rounding an island to the left, rounding it to the right, or rowing his giant boat over it Mehmed the Conqueror-style, and he opts for the third option. But the enemy anticipated this unorthodox approach and set up an electrified fence to halt his progress, and he deduces his only chance of getting past it is by sending in a suicide squad to cut power to the generator. The one cutscene which follows is chilling, the exact moment of the character's death is among the best moments in the game, and the game asks the hard question of which squadmate are you going to kill off for this mission, but jousting cantaloupes, Claude, that fence is held up by blimps. You don't need to send in your friends to die, just have your snipers use them for target practice.
The last thing to touch on, I suppose, would be the DLC. Below is the abridged version of the 588 words I originally wrote covering the DLC:
A United Front with Squad 7: Perform joint-op training with VC1's Squad 7 and scream in horror when you realize two of the original voice actors changed and two others sound like they've taken up smoking since VC1's release. Then all of Squad 7's leaders join Squad E, which isn't canon at all.
Edy's Advance Ops: I literally can't remember a single thing about this DLC. But once you beat it, you get Squad 7's Edy on board. Also not canon.
Squad E, to the Beach!: A bit underwhelming at first, since you spawn in, walk to the enemy base twenty steps over, and win. Then the game tells you if you search and destroy all the chuunibyou soldiers, you get rewarded with sexy swimwear, which apparently has the same defensive properties as full body armor.
A Captainless Squad: No Claude, no reserves, just eight goonies looking for their pet dog, tripping over all the enemy's most powerful commanding units, and covering up their engagements by saying they went on a picnic, had a snowball fight, and fought off giant man-eating bears. My personal favorite.
The Two Valkyria: Fight as VC1's superpowered magical lady, then fight as VC4's superpowered magical lady. Then they and two psychopathic girls join Squad E. Definitely not canon.
Expert Level Skirmishes: Made too easy when you can just plunge superpowered magical ladies into the thick of an enemy battalion to stir up turmoil.
VC4's story gets a light clap for its display of gray morality, but it doesn't deserve an applause for doing more than acknowledging it. It really might've been onto something if it connected its story's themes with its gameplay, but as it is, the game's telling me that war's unjust while handing me a shiny new submachine gun with an upgraded magazine capacity. But if you forget all those lectures on good guys and bad guys, you'll find the game's at its absolute best when it drops you onto Omaha Beach and tells you to have a blast capturing it.
Interested to know the weird trick that makes Valkyria Chronicles 4's cutscenes so spectacular?
Find out on C³'s blog, CCCYabbering.