The humble tactical RPG is a slow, thoughtful gaming genre loved by those who've fallen under the spell of games like Final Fantasy Tactics but also one that more action orientated player tends to ignore. This niche appeal means there's yet to be a tactical RPG that's really threatened to break through the perception barrier into the mainstream consciousness despite critical acclaim. Next to try and make that leap is Sega with their PS3 exclusive Valkyria Chronicles.
Set in the mid 1930s the game takes place in a thinly disguised WWII era Europeanesque continent in the midst of a huge war between the Atlantic Federation and the East Europan Imperial Alliance. The previously neutral Principality of Gallia is about to be invaded by the Imperial Alliance who want to mine its rich resources for the precious mineral Ragnite. Their initial incursions into Gallian territory serve as the game's tutorial and opening chapter. The use of the word chapter isn't just a handy description either, the game actually takes place within the pages of a book called "On the Gallian Front" which tells the story of the war in Gallia. This means you're effectively playing through an already decided chunk of Gallian history which is a novel little twist and although a little strange at first ultimately means very little other than giving the developers a reason to keep the story rigidly linear.
The game's hero is Welkin Gunthera, a young man caught up in the war when he returns to his home town to help his sister evacuate. While VC wears it JRPG roots proudly on its sleeves most of the time it's a welcome surprise to find that Welkin is a man without any form of memory loss, misunderstood power or prophetic destiny. Instead he's a simple uncomplicated young man forced to take arms when war lands on his doorstep. This sense of more grounded storytelling does the game a huge favour as its hard not to identify with Welkin. It's worth pointing out that VC doesn't entirely resist the urge to get a little bit fanciful when the titular Valkyria appear later on, I won't give too much away but suffice to say it doesn't spoil things.
Soon enough Welkin finds himself in command of his own squad of troops and things get interesting. The action itself is a resolutely a turn-based affair as expected; at the start of each battle you're allowed to pick which of your available soldiers to take into battle with you. Each soldier falls into one of the five categories (Scouts, Troopers, Lancers, Engineers and Snipers) and understanding the strengths and weaknesses of each type is vital to your success. Pleasingly, rather than rolling off a military production line each soldier is distinctive and comes complete with his or her own back story and personality. Like classic games such as Cannon Fodder and UFO this means you soon develop a sense of loyalty and affection to your squad making any losses you suffer all the more emotional.
Once you've happy with your squad it's on to the battle itself. Each turn begins with a top down view of the battlefield allowing you to see troop positions and such like. You're then asked to pick a unit to move, thus spending a Command Point. Command Points are important because you only get a set number per turn and therefore can only make so many moves. Thankfully you're not limited to only one point per unit or anything restrictive like that, and you obviously therefore don't need to move each unit every turn so there's a definite sense of freedom here even within the confines of a turn-based system. The only thing to keep in mind is that selecting a tank uses two points which forces you to use them sparingly.
Once you've spent a Command Point and picked a unit the camera drops down into a third-person view allowing you to move the soldier (or tank) in question just like an action game, via the left analogue stick. You've got a movement bar at the bottom of the screen that runs down as you run around and indicates your move is over when it's empty. If you stray into the line of sight of the enemy while you're moving they can still shoot you despite it not technically being their turn (don't worry the same applies the other way round to keep things fair) so it's worth making every effort to keep behind cover as much as possible. You're allowed one shot at the enemy per Command Point which you take by pressing R1 when in position. This enters aiming mode which effectively freezes time meaning you can't be shot at and can take as long as you like lining the shot up. Once you're happy you press fire and the game roles its invisible dice and plays out the combat snippet before returning control to you to use any remaining movement points you have to get yourself behind some cover or whatever your cunning plan is. Once you've used up all your Command Points its the enemies turn to do the same, then its back to you and the whole cycle starts again until things are decided one way or another.
This being an RPG as much as a turn-based strategy game there's also upgrades to add into the mix. Between levels you can use your headquarters to spend your experience points levelling up characters and giving them access to new abilities. There's also a research tree here to allow you to develop new weapons and upgrades if you've earnt enough in-game cash. Helpfully you can earn extra experience points via the game's excellent skirmish modes. These are standalone battles you can play over and over to both hone your skills and help pay for those upgrades you want in the main campaign.
While everything so far is coming steeped in high praise things aren't quite as cut and dry as it may seem. First, and probably most annoying of the game's niggles, is the questionable nature of the damage model. Soldiers from both sides sometimes seem to be protected from harm as if by magic which can be frustrating to say the least when you've spent a turn setting up a tactically brilliant grenade strike only to see it have no effect. The cover system also seems a bit half hearted, sandbags and trenches do the job fine however low walls (surely just as effective in the real world) offer no cover at all. Dodgy AI can also prove an irritant albeit one that often works in your favour as you watch the enemy waste Command Points aimlessly moving the same unit back and forth for no discernable reason.
If you've seen screenshots or even better some gameplay footage of VC in action, you'll know by now that its one of the more unique and beautiful games around at the moment. Its potent combination of traditional looking anime with a painted watercolour effect is simply stunning to watch in motion. Add the game's stylised take on alternate 1930s military technology and you've got a package that visually at least is one of the best things on the PS3. Far from removing the brutality of war the charmingly, often picturesque nature of the things helps make the atrocities you'll witness at times all the more shocking. There are plenty of well acted (yes, really) cut scenes to watch along the way helping to drive the story forward which may put off some but are well worth spending the time watching at least once since they're all beautifully done and tell the well crafted story with style.
Valkyria Chronicles gets so much right it's a real shame that the few faltering steps it does make are all linked to the core gameplay. Visually and aurally it's a real tour de force, the plot pretty much stays the right side of the crazy line and on the whole combat feels fresh and well designed. There are a few hiccups and they do take the gloss off things more than the rest of the game deserves, but they shouldn't be enough to put you off. Tactical RPG fans should love this while the rest of you aren't going to find a better reason to give the genre a go anytime soon.