I'll admit, I went into my review of Valkyria Chronicles 4 with some trepidation. It's been rough going for the series since the breakout original, with last year's Valkyria Revolution being the nadir. But after playing the first four chapters of the review version, I'm finding that I'm enjoying Valkyria Chronicles 4 more than I ever expected.
After a long period in the wilderness, Valkyria Chronicles 4 returns to the formula that defined the original, and it's better for it. It's not trying to be a high school comedy like Valkyria Chronicles 2. It's not hampered by the limitations of the PSP like Valkyria Chronicles 3. And it's not trying to be an action game like the woeful Valkyria Revolution. It's a straight sequel, or sidestory, if you prefer, for a new generation of consoles.
Set roughly in parallel with the original game, it follows the Federation's Squad E as they drive into the heart of the autocratic Empire. Like the first Valkyria Chronicles, it's a turn-based tactical RPG in which you direct a handful of chosen units around the battlefield, with each movement costing a Control Point. You can move one unit several times in a turn, but their AP bar will diminish with each move, and you risk isolating them. Success is contingent on understanding your soldiers, each of whom have their own unique foibles, and using the terrain to your advantage.
It's tempting to compare it to XCOM, to which it shares several similarities. But Valkyria Chronicles differs in several crucial respects, the most notable being that your squad consists of bespoke characters rather than units created from whole cloth. That's a great part of the charm of Valkyria Chronicles, as it cleverly conveys the personalities of its squad members through its charming, anime-centric design, stray bits of dialogue, and quirks that confer buffs and debuffs.
In that respect, Valkyria Chronicle is very much in the mold of the first game. But it's also not afraid to stray down its own path. A key difference is in the story: whereas the original game featured ordinary citizens taking up arms to defend their tiny country from an invading superpower, the sequel follows a squad of professional soldiers as they embark on a massive (and perhaps ill-fated) military campaign. As such, the main cast spends a good deal more time talking about their reasons for joining up as opposed to their previous peacetime lives and what they will do when they get out.
It's probably the right move for the series, since rehashing the original would be stale, but I still sort of prefer the approach taken by the first game. Silly as it could be at times, there was a tragic undercurrent in the way it showed ordinary citizens putting aside their lives and fighting for their very survival. I mean, yeah, it had superpowered valkyries as well, but it got the emotional undercurrent right. I'm still warming to "Scaredy-Claude" and his crew of professionals, who include the hot-headed Raz and Riley, Claude's abrasive childhood friend. I can at least say that Kai is a total boss, neatly carrying on the role of badass sniper from Marina.
One advantage that Valkyria Chronicles 4 does have over the original game is a sense of scope. Because you're pushing through the Empire on a broad front, the battles are often much larger than they were in the first game. An early battle pits you against a massive Imperial fortress, which includes a fight between multiple tanks. Vehicles like the APC heighten your mobility, and grenadiers make it possible to take out fortifications from afar. The flipside is that enemy units including gatling guns, pillboxes, and anti-tank guns, all of which have to be dealt with carefully.
Compared to the original game, Valkyria Chronicles 4 ramps up rather quickly, and it's hardly any time at all before you're waging fearsome battles. I like the pace that it moves at, and because I'm not as fussed about my final grade, I'm having an easier time pushing forward when I screw up and lose a character. This, of course, happens fairly frequently because Valkyria Chronicles 4 is still pretty unforgiving.
As an aside, I've been playing Valkyria Chronicles 4 on the Nintendo Switch and I've been pretty pleased with it. I had previously worried about its performance in handheld mode, but thus far I've only seen a couple of very minor instances of slowdown. What's more, where the graphics look a smidge dated on a larger television, they're really lovely on the smaller Switch screen. It's a fantastic podcast game that managed to keep me entertained all the way home from PAX.
It's funny, I'm a Valkyria Chronicles fan going way back, but I didn't think I'd end up enjoying the new game this much. The original game stood out for a number of reasons: it was a great Japanese game in a period in which Japanese games were on the decline; it was an interesting tactics game in a period in which 2K was trying to turn XCOM into an FPS, and it looked incredible in HD. A decade later, Valkyria Chronicles can no longer rely on the impact of its visual style, which is why its so gratifying to find myself really digging the sequel.
Assuming it holds up, Valkyria Chronicles 4 feels like not just a fresh start for the series, but a boost to the legacy of the original as well. And as it happens, the original Valkyria Chronicles is now coming to the Switch as well. It's been a long road for the series to get to this point, but it feels like Valkyria Chronicles is finally all the way back. And I personally couldn't be happier.
Valkyria Chronicles 4 will be out September 25. Look for it on PC, Xbox One, PS4, and Switch.