Monday, September 27, 2010

Valkyria Brings Me Back

New Fall titles are on the horizon and here I sit thinking about a game that’s already been out for a while and can easily be found on the cheap. I am a sucker just like everyone else when it comes to announcements of new titles and fancy sequels. At the same time, I have a lot of games that I have barely taken the shrink off of. It doesn’t help that I am also a sucker for the virtual bargain bin, downloading from Steam and PSN whenever there's a sale.

The game my brain is currently focused on is The Valkyria Chronicles. It scratches an itch for me that hasn't been scratched since X-Com. The X-Com series is, of course, the stuff of legend; some of my friends still play to this day. Aliens are attacking and your job is counter their assault on the planet. At its core, X-Com is a squad-based tactical wargame, but there is so much more: I build bases, recruit, equip, research and then am off to confront the recently arrived alien menace. Considering how dated the game looks, I am still tense when I opt to move one of my fellas down a dark hallway. With each turn I have a finite number of actions and when my turn is over, it’s Alien Time. Which is often not pretty.

My friends who still play the game are a bit dark, naming their soldiers after each other, their children and their spouses. It’s quite sad to hear about how David bravely went into the fray to attack, missed his shot and wouldn’t you know it, multiple aliens were right there waiting to destroy him with some huge evil weapon of some sort. At least my friend’s four year-old came through in the end, throwing grenades with great precision to save the day.

Unfortunately, X-Com's age makes it harder for me to get into. The fact of the matter is that nostalgia plays a key role in my enjoyment of the game. But recently, I discovered Valkyria Chronicles and finally get to see how this style of game plays out on a current console in a different setting.

I was almost put off by Valkyria because the characters are painfully cute and the dialogue is pretty silly and syrupy. I appreciate the charm in JRPG-ish games, but I am not generally a fan of the genre. The overall story to the game is fine, but it isn’t terribly original. But once I got past its first impression, I found that I was really falling for the game for a number of reasons.

The game's graphics and stylized look are amazing. Cel-shaded games aren’t new by any stretch, but Valkyria has a sketch-like quality that is beautiful to behold, even during gameplay. The environment and characters all have a hand-drawn look that works very well for the setting of the game, a fictitious world that resembles Europe during World War I. Though due to the art style, it really feels more like a Miyazaki movie. This "Europe" has an amazing source of energy that is valuable and can power up some serious machinery. The soldiers are also modern, but almost medieval with their armor and uniforms. Basically, the look is unique and fantastic.

But when it comes down to it, the gameplay is what puts me over the top with Valkyria Chronicles. This is a deep, complex game and it is one of the only games that has prompted me to I replay a level to see if I could get a higher grade. Team selection is key in successfully completing a mission, but there is a lot more to it than that - I love trying different strategies to complete a mission. The challenge makes it very rewarding - not since Golden Eye have I been so satisfied with my sniper successfully landing a head shot. There is also an entire research element to the game, which still vexes me. I am very indecisive when it comes to picking what type of thing to upgrade, especially when there are troop upgrades and tank upgrades.

Oh yeah, tanks. This game has tanks. I love tanks. Who doesn’t want to commandeer a tank and cause mass destruction? No one, that's who.

Above: A Tank
I love tactics and strategies in games, but you really don’t get those sorts of games on consoles. I find this game very satisfying in a different way from learning how to defeat this boss or navigate these platforms. The only depressing thing to me is that it looks like all sequels for Valkyria are for the Sony PSP, which I don’t own and I don’t predict owning any time soon.

It is easy to think of the new game announcements and focus attention on what is on the horizon. Retailers love to tempt you with pre-order incentives that are less than stellar in the end, anyway. But while waiting for hot new titles or debating new releases, you can get the complete X-Com collection for 15 bucks on Steam and Valkyria can be had for $20 new. I have to say it is nice to try out some games that are a third of the price of new releases.
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