(As a prelude, I would like to sincerely apologize for that pun. It’s dreadful, even by my low standards.)
Valkyria Chronicles, Sega’s critically acclaimed 2008 release, was a departure from my usual gaming habits. While I’ve played my fair share of real-time strategy games and turn-based 4X games in the past, I’d never really tried my hand at a turn at a “tactical roleplaying game” before, much less a Japanese one. Despite this, the setting of the game, a fantasy Europe undergoing its own version of the Second World War, tickled both my love of industrial fantasy and occidentalism, and I grabbed the PC remaster during a Steam sale late last November. I’ve spent the past week burning through the game’s campaign, and while I have greatly enjoyed the time I spent with it, in a certain sense the game is a cautionary tale of the pitfalls that occur when translating historical events between cultures.
Valkyria Chronicles opens in the far-away continent of Fnurope Europa in the year 1935 EC. As a whole the continent is reasonably well-off, with its pre-WWII-equivalent technological base being powered by “ragnite,” a blue mineral used to power vehicles, heal wounded soldiers, and as a key component in explosives, generally filling the same role of “versatile fantastic power source” that whale oil fills in the Dishonored games. Politically speaking, things are a bit less rosy. Europa is divided between two major military powers: the Atlantic Federation, a defense pact made up the various democratic powers that inhabit the western half of the continent, and the “Autocratic East Europan Imperial Alliance” (horrid name), a great monarchy that seeks to subjugate the western nations both to fulfill its manifest destiny and secure new sources of ragnite. The two great powers fell into conflict several decades ago in the First Europan War, a conflict that saw static trench warfare give way to a primitive war of tanks. As the game opens, the Second Europan War is in full swing, with both sides waging armored warfare in the heartlands of Europa.
While this premise would be enough to drive any game, Valkyria Chronicles leaves this conflict in the background, setting itself in the nation of Gallia, a small nation on the Empire’s northwestern border that has long maintained a policy of neutrality. The game opens with Welkin Gunther, aspiring naturalist and son of a renowned Gallian war hero from EW1, returning to his home town of Bruhl. Unfortunately, the day of his return just so happens to be the day the Empire declared war on Gallia, and Welkin soon finds Bruhl under assault. With his half-sister Isara and Alicia Melchiott, town watch draftee and aspiring baker, Welkin flees Bruhl in the Edelweiss, his father’s old custom-built tank that Isara has kept in working order. After arriving in Randgriz, capital of Gallia, Welkin is drafted into the Gallian militia where, thanks to Gallia’s compulsory military education and his post-secondary education, he is commissioned as a lieutenant and placed in command of Squad 7 of the 3rd Regiment, under which he is given command of both the Edleweiss and Alicia as his sergeant. From here, Welkin and Squad 7 and sent all across Gallia to fend off the advancing Imperial armies, all while hearing disconcerting reports of an Imperial general with the powers of a Valkyrur, a race of beings of immense power who ruled Europa in the distant past.
In terms of visual style, the world of Valkyria Chronicles is a very interesting hodgepodge that collapses centuries of European history into one epoch. Gallia itself seems to be a loose amalgam of Switzerland and the Low Countries complete with windmills, while the Empire seem to have a vague Germano-Russian vibe. Despite this, a whole lot of French and Belgian names are thrown in for good measure. While most of the tanks and small arms fielded by both sides seem to be drawn from Germany’s WW2 arsenal, there is also a surprising amount of medieval influence in the game’s art direction. Rather than being a bustling modern port city like Amsterdam, Randgriz looks like nothing so much as an immense motte-and-bailey castle filled with houses. Breastplates and frog-mouth helms are standard equipment for Imperial grunts. Instead of wielding bazookas or anti-tank rifles, soldiers who specialize in anti-armor warfare use giant lances with rocket-propelled explosive tips. There are even some surprises; Prince Maximilian, commander-in-chief of the Empire’s operations in Gallia, has apparently used Ingres’ portrait of Napoleon as inspiration for his wardrobe. (After seeing this game and the Dark Souls franchise, I do wonder if medieval Europe has the same place in Japanese cultural imagination that the shogunate has in the West.)
While the gameplay of Valkyria Chronicles may seem daunting at the outset, the game is tutorialized enough that even a complete novice can gain a working knowledge of the game in a few hours. Each mission of the game is broken into turns, during which you (in control of Welkin’s squad) and the Imperials alternate in moving their forces, attacking enemy units, and securing camps. Each turn is broken down into “command points” which limit the number of moves either side can make in a given turn. To move an infantry unit requires one command point, while moving a tank requires two. (There are also specialized “orders” Welkin can give that offer passive boosts to units that require between one and three command points to issue.) After you select which unit you want to move from a simplified overhead map, you shift to a third-person view of that unit on the battlefield. While you are controlling a unit, you can move a set amount of paces on the field and perform one major action, whether it be shooting an enemy, throwing a grenade, or using first aid. The same unit can be moved multiple times in a given turn, albeit with a reduced range of travel each time they are selected. Passive fire is also a concern; Imperial units equipped with rifles or semiautomatic weapons will automatically open fire on your units if you move them into their line of sight. Fortunately, units with limited ammo pools like lancers and snipers will not attack outside of the enemy’s turn, and the same mechanic applies to your own troops during the Imperial side’s turn. During the course of battle, your general goal will be to advance across the map, kill red-armored “leader units” to reduce the number of command points the Imperials have available every turn, and secure camps which allow nearby units to regenerate health faster every turn and to shuffle units in and out of combat closer to the front lines as the tactical situation dictates.
The actual units themselves deserve some special consideration. All infantry units are sorted into one of five types: rifle-armed scouts that can run around the map and survive most one-on-one encounters through speed, shocktroopers whose slowness is offset by increased health and powerful infantry-decimating submachine guns/assault rifles, beefy lumbering lancers who wield explosive anti-tank lances, frail engineers who specialize in combat support, and snipers who are…well, snipers. You also have command of the Edelweiss, a slow tank armed with anti-tank shells, anti-personnel mortars, a machine gun, vision-obscuring smoke rounds, and enough armor to double as a mobile shield for your infantry. While there is no character customization system, you recruit from a pool of units varied enough in type, appearance, and personality that you can easily customize Squad 7 based on your playstyle and personal fancy. (In the interests of full disclosure, I should admit that by the later stages of the game I was in command of the Squad of the Dorky And/Or Mentally Unstable Amazons. What can I say; I’m a sad weak little man.) The personalities of your soldiers actually come into play on the battlefield; their personal attributes (country kid, lone wolf, lesbian, racist, etc…) have a chance of triggering personal buffs or debuffs while they are in play. Unit management itself is handled in the Headquarters section of the game, where you can recruit your soldiers, level up their unit types, upgrade or swap out their equipment, and even unlock new orders or sidestories.
While the gameplay mechanics are both easy to grasp and provide a great deal of potential depth, there are of course some hiccups. After every mission, your performance is judged and ranked, with higher final ranks giving you more experience points and money to invest in your soldiers. Unfortunately, the primary criterion the game uses is speed of mission completion, which means that it is in your best interest to game Valkyria Chronicles‘ systems to speedrun missions, regardless of how ridiculous it would look on an actual battlefield. Fortunately, the tradeoff is that you can make up any reward shortfall in the story missions by speedrunning a few particular skirmish missions for a few minutes as need arises. Story missions are also introduced without establishing much information on the battlefield, which leads to you saving before starting a mission, going in to discover what you’ll actually be fighting, and then restarting the mission after readjusting your deployment. Finally, there’s also the travails of bad terrain pathing and capricious random number generators that are endemic to this genre of games.
However, the biggest problem with the game is the story. While Valkyria Chronicles is riven by the usual contradictions of the anti-war war story, there is a deeper disconnect between the game’s subject matter and its intended audience. As I see it, Valkyria Chronicles was written to be a war story for an animé-consuming teenage male audience, and while there is nothing wrong with such a thing in theory, in practice the game has a distressing tendency to undercut itself at every turn.
One of the more obvious examples of this comes in the game’s character work. Valkyria Chronicles is a game for teenagers, which means most characters over 30 look twenty years older than they should, and that Squad 7 consists of a distressing number of child soldiers. The game is framed as a band-of-brothers story of Squad 7 coalesces under Welkin as a working team, but most of the time they interact with the melodramatic intensity of high schoolers rather than as soldiers in wartime. Welkin himself is a particular problem; supposedly the center of Squad 7, he comes across as too much of a flighty wet noodle to be believable as a battlefield commander. (Matters are little helped by the introduction of male side characters with far more presence and personality than Welkin himself.) The story dips into high school-esque tropes with a boilerplate romance between Welkin and Alicia, a cutesy animal adopted as squad mascot, and even an unlockable beach episode. That said, while Welkin is a dud, there are plenty of characters around him to keep the player invested in the game.
The game also has problems with its depiction of war. Part of the issue is that Valkyria Chronicles does not really a philosophy for the origins and appeal of war, instead resorting to platitudes like “deep down we’re all human” and “the struggle for ultimate power is bad, yo.” At times this results in amusing juxtapositions, such as having Welkin and Alicia care for a dying Imperial grunt after they were introduced gunning down Gallian civilians for the hell of it at the beginning of the game. The only real success the game has is with humanizing some of the generals leading the assault on Gallia, particularly Radi Jaeger, a laid-back fellow who solely fights for the Empire to obtain the freedom of his homeland, and Selvaria Bles, a pure-blood Valkyrur cursed by her tremendous power, a childhood of invasive medical experimentation, her devotion to a man who does not love her back, and the financial drain of only being able to wear custom-tailored bras. Aside from Selvaria, the game also compromises its war story by leaning harder and harder on ridiculous giant war machines and ancient superpowers as the plot winds on, compromising the semi-realistic feel of its small squad battles with intricate boss fights.
However, the biggest issue with the story is its racism allegory. Early in the game we are introduced to the Darcsens, a race of people with indigo/black hair and eyes who make up a permanent and widely despised underclass in Europa. In the beginning, as the story goes, the Darcsens were the cruel and tyrannical ravagers of Europa whose reign of terror was ended by the Valkyrur, who invaded from the north, smote their cities, and rebuilt Europan civilization. Ever since, the Darcsens have been sequestered in small communities and eked out a meagre existence as miners and engineers. Their plight is particularly hard in the east, where the Empire has taken to organizing “Darcsen hunts” and imprisoning communities in concentration camps.
Yes, this silly animé-WW2 game has an allegory for the Jews! In fact, it also has a mawkishly sentimental scene where a labor camp is torched by Imperial soldiers in a scene that’s supposed to be a Holocaust metaphor or something! And just for good measure, the game also has a major character in Squad 7 who is horrifically racist towards Darcsens for the first half of the game, only to change her ways when she sees the burned barracks and Feels Sad!
If nothing else, Valkyria Chronicles‘ depiction of the Darcsens is textbook example of the dangers of drawing from other cultures for inspiration. While I would never argue that cultural appropriation should be avoided (we’d have precious little fiction or art if that was the case), there is always a risk when borrowing elements from cultures of which you have little contextual understanding of violating taboos you know nothing about. While this can result in interesting works that show these issues in a new light, botching it, particularly in a story meant to do nothing more than entertain, can result in something truly regrettable.
And yet, in spite of all the issues I had with the story, I would heartily recommend Valkyria Chronicles. I had fun playing the game and I liked both my squaddies and the medieval/industrial stylistic mashup, which were enough to get me through the story and all its problems. In fact, I’m actually interested in checking out the upcoming Valkyria Chronicles 4 if it ever makes it to PC. From what I’ve seen of the trailers, it seems like the story for this game will focus on a squad of Atlantic Federation soldiers involved in a massive land invasion of the snowy East Europan Empire, a story seemingly…based…on…Operation Barbarossa…