Player vs. Backlog: Valkyria Chronicles 4
The last game I beat in January was Valkyria Chronicles 4. I’m tempted to call it the best game, too.
The tactics in the Valkyria Chronicles games are always a little weird. A lot of battles play out like a game of tag. As long as one of your people reaches the enemy’s base without being killed, you win. But VC4 has plenty of curveballs up its sleeve—battles where reaching the enemy base in a hurry is quickly punished by the surprise arrival of an unstoppable tank.
That said, the combination of real-time movement and turn-based battles remains a masterstroke. Not only does the action seem more immediate, but there’s a feeling of unpredictability and daring to many turns. I won one battle by dropping a smoke bomb in the middle of the battlefield and charging through the intercepting fire coming from all sides. It was harrowing and thrilling all at once. You always feel a little bit like you’re cheating death, dodging mortar fire and machine gun volleys.
The scale of the battles threatens to be overwhelming at times. Hanging in and slugging out a D-rated victory in many of them feels like an achievement. Getting A-rank requires guts and fearlessness. Your people can die permanently in the fight (if they’re not plot essential), so the cost of aggression is always hanging over you.
But as much as I loved the tactics, it was the story that kept me enraptured to the end. I was surprised by this. At first, it seemed like this group of characters was little more than a set of anime tropes. But as the story enters its second and third act, they acquire surprising depth. VC4’s war is not a war for heroes. It’s a war where the young and innocent are corrupted, forced to make impossible decisions and impossible sacrifices.
It avoids easy answers. Raz can be a bit of a pig, and someone whose friends love him, and reckless, and a hero. Forseti can be a principled man, and responsible for unconscionable actions, and fundamentally in the right in his aims. Claude can be brave without pulling the trigger. The Federation can be worth saving and morally compromised.
This is just the main story of VC4. That central thread is buoyed by smaller scale explorations of individual characters and their quirks. These side missions (called Squad Stories) flesh out all of the characters in your squad, tying their battlefield proficiencies and flaws into bakstories that paint the wider story of this war—who’s fighting it and what they stand to gain or lose in it.
I came for the tactics. I ended up caring about these characters. Not just whether they lived or died, but whether they could emerge from this experience with their souls in-tact. That’s special. And unexpected. And a very good way to start the year.