Valkyria Chronicles 4 doesn't exactly offer a realistic depiction of war. It's meant to be an alternate-universe retelling of our Second World War, true, but every time I catch a glimpse of my Grenadier airing her stockinged legs in the midst of a blizzard (while wearing a very practical winter camo coat on her torso), I say to myself "Yep. This is World War Anime, all right."
I'm fine with that, really. Though the Valkyria Chronicles series (and the first game in particular) delivers some strong messages about racism and anti-Semitism through its persecuted Darcsen race, I'm down with the strong anime tropes that permeate the first and fourth installments. I don't look to Valkyria Chronicles for realistic depictions of bloody battlefields littered with dead and dying soldiers. I play Valkyria Chronicles because there's nothing like guiding one of your Lancers behind the big blue butt of an enemy tank, then shooting a mortar up its unguarded tailpipe. Kaboom. Cue witty victory quote.
The characters attached to said victory quotes are the reason I'm enjoying Valkyria Chronicles 4 a lot. The game puts special focus on the "lesser" soldiers who fight with you, more so than in previous games. While Valkyria Chronicles 4's main story and primary character roster aren't too strong (barring Kai, the A-team's level-headed but troubled sniper), its secondary characters—the recruits who trickle into Squad E as the game goes on—narrate the game's best war yarns through the new "Squad Stories" feature.
In the first Valkyria Chronicles, you gradually learn about squad members through the personnel files that gradually fill out in your private quarters as they become more accustomed to combat. Personnel files still gradually fatten up in Valkyria Chronicles 4, but you won't get to truly know a recruit until you open their Squad Story. This is done by selecting the character often in battle. I usually head to an easy-to-clear map like Chapter 3's "Rangers in the Storm" for spamming purposes. Squad Stories mostly play out in groups of three, and thankfully, you only need to pay special attention to one soldier to unlock the story for everyone.
There are nearly 20 Squad Stories, and they range from kind of hilarious ("Unfortunate Souls," in which a peppy father-to-be with Sonic the Hedgehog's voice is paired up with a fatalist and a basement-dweller who LARPs as a war god) to a little bizarre ("The Girl in the Iron Mask," in which two soldiers try to figure out why their comrade always wears a mask. The answer is, like Valkyria Chronicles itself, very anime).
Then there are the stories that simply deliver a nice dose of the character development that makes Valkyria Chronicles 4 memorable. The first interlude I unlocked was "A Prayer for the Broken," a Squad Story told between a young priestess named Nico who has unshakable faith in God, a trans woman named Rosetta who's formerly of the cloth, and a bad-tempered Darcsen named Godwin who does whatever it takes—including corpse-looting—to survive. When Nico berates Godwin for his sins and tells him God is always watching, Rosetta says Godwin has his reasons for being bitter, and gently educates Nico about the persecution the Darcsen suffer across the countries that make up the continent of Europa (the Darcsen are Valkyria Chronicles' stand-in for Jews; the first game involves liberating at least one concentration camp). When Godwin viciously spurns Nico's subsequent attempt to reach out to him, Rosetta tells him Nico's had a hard life herself and he doesn't have a personal monopoly on misery. The trio only come to terms after they're forced to help each other survive on a patrol mission that quickly turns dangerous. Needless to say, thoughtful Squad Stories like "A Prayer for the Broken" are a relief to dive into after the main story of Valkyria Chronicles 4 trots out moments like "Raz grabs Kai's ass" as character development.
But Squad Stories serve a practical purpose beyond letting you learn more about your soldiers. Everyone in Squad E has foibles as well as strengths, both of which come into play on the battlefield. A Lancer who's a "Tank Killer" might get some extra oomph against armored vehicles during one turn, but they might miss on the next turn because they're "Clumsy" (LOOKING AT YOU, BRITTANY). Successfully finishing a Squad Story lets you turn some characters' detriments into strengths, or even unlock new strengths.
Squad Stories sometimes stop just short of initiating wholly meaningful transformations in some characters, however, and it's a bit short-sighted. The Valkyria Chronicles games have some characters who are "Darcsen Haters"—soldiers who are so put-off by Darcsens that being near an ally who belongs to the shunned race causes them to perform poorly. Valkyria Chronicles 4 has a Darcsen Hater named Viola whose Squad Story is admittedly great (mostly because it pairs her with Simon, a mohawked berserker who screams obscenities to get worked up for a fight), but it doesn't address her prejudices. She goes into her story as a Darcsen hater, and she exits the same way.
That said, I've always appreciated how Valkyria Chronicles doesn't try to pass off discrimination as a problem that's exclusive to "the bad guys." I suppose conquering the petty, fearful ignorance that sits at the fetid roots of racism and anti-Semitism isn't something that can be done in a 30-minute sidequest.
And some people, Viola included, are just jerks. Heck, her Squad Story reveals she's not the type of person who learns lessons quickly and thoroughly. Viola's failure to redeem herself in her Squad Story seems like a missed opportunity on the surface, but "This character is a dingle, here's the proof" counts as development, too. It's a bit of a paradox.
Here's hoping we have continued opportunities to learn more about our favorite soldiers when the next Valkyria Chronicles game inevitably lands on the battlefield.