Welcome back to Franchise Festival, a column where we explore and discuss noteworthy video game series from the last four decades. Older entries can be found in the archive here.
This week we’ll be exploring the tactical complexity and charming watercolors of Valkyria Chronicles. All cover art is from MobyGames unless otherwise noted. Where two dates or years are listed, the first is Japan and the second is North America. Much of the development information for Valkyria Chronicles and Valkyria Chronicles 3 is respectively drawn from the Valkyria Chronicles Design Archive and Valkyria Chronicles 3 Complete Artworks books, though any errors are my own.
Sega published Red Entertainment’s Sakura Taisen (translated by fans as “Sakura Wars“) for the Sega Saturn console in Japan on September 27, 1996. The pet project of Red Company’s Teruhisa Hiroi, often credited as Hiroi Oji, Sakura Taisen sees players engaging with visual novel, dating simulation, and turn-based tactical strategy gameplay mechanics during an alternate history of Japan’s Taisho Era (1912-1926). Its steampunk visual style and distinctive combination of genres was a hit in its home country, but Sega’s uncertainty over its appeal to international audiences kept it from ever receiving an official Western localization; the series’ only North American appearance before a 2019 reboot would be the PlayStation 2’s Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love (2005/2010).
Valkyria Chronicles (2008)
In 2003, Sega’s Ryutaro Nonaka had an auspicious conversation with Skies of Arcadia (2000) creator Shuntaro Tanaka about producing a new franchise inspired by their respective work on the Sakura Taisen series as producer and scenario developer. Both were interested in expanding the tactical elements of Sakura Taisen while retaining its emphasis on character relationships and high drama. Given the popularity of recent television series and films based on World War 2, including Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Band of Brothers (2001), this era was a natural choice for such a project.
Though Sega executives initially expressed skepticism, Nonaka and Tanaka’s proposal was eventually greenlit and entered pre-production for the PlayStation 2 under director Takeshi Ozawa with the working title Gallian Panzers in 2005. Early conceptual designs included the defense of the player characters’ desert island base from approaching forces and turn-based strategy role-playing gameplay in the style of Final Fantasy Tactics (1997); the former was abandoned when the team failed to find a way to narratively justify this limited scope, while the latter proved too slow-paced for the intense emotions that Ozawa wanted to evoke. They instead set the game in a heavily fictionalized version of Europe called Europa – their desire for desert combat necessitating fantasy elements that had turned part of the continent into a sandy wasteland during the distant past – and refined the combat mechanics into a partially real-time system called BLiTZ (“Battle of Live Tactics Zones”).
Even as work was proceeding on the project’s gameplay elements, Nonaka and Tanaka sought out a unique visual style to set it apart from competitors. Raita Honjou was hired by Sega to design the game’s characters and fantastical interpretation of World War 2 technology following Nonaka’s discovery of his work at a dojinshi (small press expo), and his designs were brought to life by a team of artists led by Hirotaka Kanazawa. The studio’s Research and Development Division, meanwhile, created a watercolor-influenced engine called CANVAS based on experiments they had been conducting for the latest Sakura Taisen title. After delays associated with the shift from PlayStation 2 hardware to the high-definition PlayStation 3 platform, Valkyria Chronicles launched in Japan on April 24, 2008, in Europe on October 31, 2008, and in North America on November 4, 2008.
Players take on the role of inexperienced captain Welkin as he leads a group of volunteers in the defense of their home country of Gallia during 1935’s Second Europan War. Having initiated a continental war with The Atlantic Federation in an effort to bolster its dwindling supply of ragnite, a precious resource that powers its industrial machinery, the East Europan Imperial Alliance invades previously neutral Gallia in an act of unprompted aggression. In his efforts to free Gallia, Welkin uncovers the involvement of powerful beings known as the Valkyria and works to support Europa’s oppressed indigenous Darcsen people.
As in Sakura Taisen, gameplay actually plays out across several different modes. The player has the opportunity to customize the equipment of Welkin and his expanding roster of teammates through menus between missions. Once a mission is initiated, the player selects and deploys participants to a map. Combat alternates between a menu in which the player selects an individual unit to directly control, a field where that unit is navigated in real-time using traditional third-person shooter controls, and an aiming system in which the player stops their unit’s movement, lines up their shot, and fires; characters can be injured during the player’s turn either from intercepting fire while moving or through the brief return fire of targeted enemies. Once the player has exhausted all of their Command Points – expended through the control and actions of their units – the enemy commander gets the opportunity to move their own soldiers and execute attacks. Each mission proceeds back and forth until the Welkin’s squad completes their objective or every one of Welkin’s troops are defeated. Though troops can be saved by an ally and redeployed in the same mission after being incapacitated, they are permanently removed from the Welkin’s squad roster if they aren’t saved within three turns or if their body is intercepted by a moving enemy soldier.
Valkyria Chronicles is distinguished by its combination of real-time action elements within the overarching turn-based structure of traditional class-based role-playing games (RPGs). Bases on maps can be captured in the manner of an online competitive shooter, giving either the player or their AI opponent a new location to deploy troops, and destructible cover is utilized while moving or positioning units at the end of a turn to reduce the chance of sustaining critical injuries. Four of the game’s five classes – the speedy but underpowered scout, the machine gun-toting shocktrooper, the long-range sniper, and the anti-tank lancer – are oriented around direct combat, while the engineer class is used to repair the player’s powerful tank when it’s damaged. All can have their stats improved between missions by making use of experience points awarded at the end of a battle.
Valkyria Chronicles was a critical darling in Japan and the West, offering an entirely unique twist on turn-based tactical strategy games. Strong word of mouth and an anime adaptation eventually reversed its initial poor commercial performance and led to over 1,000,000 PlayStation 3 copies sold by 2015. A Windows port was similarly successful, rising to the top of Steam’s digital distribution sales charts on its day of release in 2014, leading to the release of a remaster on PlayStation 4 in 2016 and Switch in 2018.
Valkyria Chronicles 2 (2010)
Sega had briefly considered shifting Valkyria Chronicles’ development to the PlayStation Portable (PSP) before settling on the PlayStation 3 due to its capacity for impressive graphics. Returning producer Tanaka and newcomer Shinji Motoyama, best known for leading development on several video game adaptations of the anime Bleach during the late 2000s, revisited this idea when planning a sequel; the PSP had grown increasingly popular in the Japanese market due partially to the success of Capcom’s Monster Hunter franchise. The shift in platform informed a shift in theme, as director Ozawa replaced the first title’s large-scale war setting with a school environment believed to resonate more widely among domestic audiences. Valkyria Chronicles 2 was published in Japan on January 21, 2010 before respectively making its way to North America and Europe in August and September of that year.
The game picks up two years after the defeat of the Alliance at the conclusion of Valkyria Chronicles. Unfortunately, the revelation that the country’s duchess is a Darcsen has led to the rise of an insurrectionist movement called the Gallian Revolutionary Army (GRA) that seeks to overthrow the government and carry out a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing. Protagonist Avan Hardins, who joins the Lanseal Military Academy’s Class G following the untimely death of his brother, must work his way through school while making friends with other cadets and prosecuting a civil war against the GRA.
The overall game structure is similar to Valkyria Chronicles, with the player splitting their time between battles and a planning screen, but school sequences bear more in common with Sakura Taisen than the comparatively limited camp intermissions of the preceding adventure. Avan can chat with the other underdogs of Class G and build bonds that unlock character-specific missions and “potentials” that enhance the character’s abilities or stats during combat.
Combat is more or less unchanged from Valkyria Chronicles aside from battles being subdivided into multiple maps that characters can move between by capturing linked bases. Classes have undergone a more significant revision, on the other hand, with the new Armored Tech class introducing the ability to disarm mines, rebuild cover, and protect units from gunfire using oversized shields. The sniper class has been omitted, but its skills can be conferred on a Scout through the new class change system; this allows units to be promoted along one of several upgrade paths that sometimes change their core abilities. A new multiplayer mode also allows up to four players to cooperate against AI opponents or challenge one another in standalone player-versus-player (PVP) matches, though its dependence on ad-hoc in-person wireless rather than a matchmaking service made it difficult to use outside of Japan.
Valkyria Chronicles 2 was a critical success in spite of its incongruously lighthearted tone and stripped-back level design. Sega had successfully introduced more social elements to the series without abandoning its emphasis on real-time battlefield tactics, making the series more popular than ever in Japan. Poor sales in the West, however, ensured that this would be the last series entry to reach English-language audiences for the next seven years.
Note: Cover art sourced from the Valkyria Chronicles Wiki
Valkyria Chronicles 3 (2011)
Sega opted to continue designing the series’ next entry for the PSP in spite of requests for a new title on home consoles, believing that such a return to HD platforms required a major revision of core gameplay mechanics; their focus on advancing the story and iteratively refining the BLiTZ system was seen as a better fit for low-budget handheld devices. Though much of the staff remained consistent between Valkyria Chronicles 2 and 3, Kei Mikami joined the project early in development as assistant producer to take some of the burden off of Motoyama. The biggest challenge during development was finding a satisfying balance of gameplay that would still resonate with fans of the series debut while not alienating players who had come on-board with its comparatively upbeat sequel. In an effort to refocus attention back on the core plot, Motoyama ultimately decided to abandon multiplayer when he perceived it to be a drain on the team’s limited resources. The game was released in Japan on January 27, 2011.
Players step into the shoes of Kurt Irving (“Number 7”), the officer assigned to lead a Gallian special forces outfit of social outcasts known as the Nameless during the Second Europan War. He gets to know his teammates first as numbers, then as names, while they work behind the scenes to support Gallia’s military and defeat the East Europan Imperial Alliance’s Darcsen-led Calamity Raven unit. Despite relationships with individual squad members still taking center-stage between battles, including Kurt’s romantic pursuit of half-Valkyria Riela or Darcsen Imca, the tone is noticeably darker than previous series installments.
Valkyria Chronicles 3 incorporates numerous small gameplay tweaks that serve to deepen the series’ mechanical complexity while largely retaining its direct predecessor’s implementation of the BLiTZ system. School scenes are dropped in favor of a branching overworld map that allows Kurt to take part in optional cutscenes and missions that impact story battles, and characters are now able to switch between classes as the player desires; this change was made to accommodate the game’s smaller but more distinct roster of 24 squad members. In an effort to emphasize teamwork, tank ammo is now limited to two cannon shells each turn and only engineers can heal other units. Finally, the abandonment of Valkyria Chronicles 2’s class upgrade tree means that most of that game’s advanced battle skills are conferred on soldiers through pieces of equipment like flamethrowers and mortars. Experience points are now used to improve each class’ individual stats rather than broadly leveling the class up or promoting them into sub-classes.
Valkyria Chronicles 3 sold even better than preceding series entries in Japan, though this didn’t convince Sega to localize the game in North America or Europe. It was enough to merit a host of downloadable content (DLC) packages, however, which were collected into the Valkyria Chronicles 3 Extra Edition on November 23, 2011. Nearly three years later, the hard work of bilingual fans would pay off in a 2014 fan translation of this version.
Valkyria Chronicles 4 (2018)
The international reception for Valkyria Chronicles Remastered had been so positive that Sega finally decided to bring the franchise back to home consoles and PC after years out of the spotlight. Valkyria Chronicles 4’s development began in 2015 under director Kohei Yamashita, who had previously served as a game designer on the first three games, and producer Kei Mikami. This shift in platform inspired a change in tone, as the team believed that home console audiences skewed older and had likely already played previous series entries, leading Yamashita to focus on returning to the large-scale combat that had characterized its original release and ramping up the game’s mechanical complexity much quicker than in previous titles. The game was published for the PlayStation 4 in Japan on March 21, 2018, and then on PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Switch worldwide in September 2018.
As in every previous game besides Valkyria Chronicles 2, the narrative begins in 1935 during the Second Europan War. For the first time, however, the perspective shifts from Gallia to a professional branch of the Atlantic Federation’s military when protagonist Claude Wallace is tasked with leading Squad E in a desperate attempt to turn the tide of the war. Operation Northern Cross sees Wallace and his teammates pushing through Europa’s frigid northern region in a direct assault on the Imperial Alliance’s capitol city.
Valkyria Chronicles 4 broadly revives the presentation and mechanics of the series debut, but does make some updates and integrates elements first seen in portable entries. Missions once more take place on sprawling open maps rather than subdivided zones, while the increased number of individual soldiers means that permadeath makes a controversial reappearance. Vehicles cost only one Command Point to deploy, as they had in Valkyria Chronicles 2 and 3, but customization options are more limited than they had been in those games. Last Stands, activated either randomly or automatically (when a unit’s morale is at 100%), give a fallen unit the opportunity to temporarily boost a teammate’s stats, return fire toward their attacker, or carry out one final action before being incapacitated.
The class system represents Valkyria Chronicles 4’s greatest overhaul to the series traditional mechanics. Armored Techs are removed, with most of their skills shifted to the Engineer class alongside the ability to deploy ladders to create new routes through a map. Engineers’ increased skillset, on the other hand, is offset by making all soldiers able to heal themselves with ragnaid. Snipers can now provide intercepting and support fire, while lancers can likewise join in a player-controlled teammate’s attack if they have enough ammo and the target is a tank or other piece of heavy machinery. Finally, the new grenadier unit provides indirect mortar fire that can be launched over nearby obstacles and slow down enemy troops if they’re struck by intercepting fire on their turn.
Valkyria Chronicles 4 was hailed as a return to form for Sega’s cult classic tactical strategy franchise even though previous entries had themselves reviewed quite well. Critics drew positive attention to its refinement of class skills, especially the increased importance of Engineers and game-breaking potential of Grenadiers when used creatively, but were generally disappointed in the plot being so disconnected from prior installments; this had been an issue in Valkyria Chronicles 3 as well. Fans concurred with this rosy critical consensus, as the game ultimately sold over 1,000,000 copies and received additional story scenes, characters, and challenge maps as DLC throughout 2018.
Note: Cover art sourced from Amazon
Valkyria Duel, the first of Valkyria Chronicles’ two spinoffs, was released exclusively in Japan as a browser game in July 2012 before coming to Japanese iOS and Android devices the following month. It features a combination of trading card and turn-based strategy mechanics, as players join either the Atlantic Federation or the the East Europan Imperial Alliance and build squads out of cards representing individual soldiers; these squads have different ranks, making the player’s choice of leader, officers, and rank-and-file soldiers critical to defeating their opponent in automatically-run skirmishes decided primarily by card stats. Most character cards are drawn from the first three Valkyria Chronicles titles, though a handful represent characters unique to this interpretation of the Second Europan War.
Outside of combat, players improve base facilities to enhance their cards and select territories on a continental map to either attack or defend. The continental map was governed in real-time by a server and individual player actions determined which of its 50 territories would be occupied by the Federation or the Empire. Once the map had been fully conquered by either side, it would be reset and members of the winning side would be rewarded with points used to acquire new cards or enhance their decks. These points could otherwise be accumulated through microtransactions involving real-world currency or through trading in cards that the player no longer desired to use. Unfortunately, Sega discontinued support for the game in 2015 and can no longer be accessed by players due to its status as a server-based title.
The series’ second spinoff was an equally bold departure executed on a much bigger budget. Developed under the direction of Ozawa by second-party studio Media.Vision, which had previously contributed to Valkyria Chronicles 3, Valkyria Revolution was published by Sega on the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PlayStation Vita in Japan on January 19, 2017, before making its way to North America and Europe five months later. Though it was initially planned as a real-time strategy, the team opted to use action role-playing game (ARPG) mechanics due to their perceived appeal among a wider range of players. More tactical decision-making was then incorporated when demo feedback suggested that fans found straightforward hack-and-slash gameplay too much of a departure for the property.
Valkyria Revolution is set during an alternate timeline, freeing it from any obligation to conform to its parent series’ established lore, as a young man named Amleth forms Anti-Valkyria unit Vanargand and kicks off a war in response to the Ruzhien Empire’s obliteration of the orphanage in which he was raised and subsequent oppression of home country of Jutland. Gameplay sees Amleth deploy alongside up to three AI-controlled allies onto battlefields between town-based intermission sequences in which the player can make upgrades to their squad; combat on these battlefields occurs entirely in real-time and emphasizes a combination of melee, ranged, and ragnaid-powered special attacks called alchemy. Reviews were almost uniformly negative, however, drawing attention to lengthy cutscenes featuring little action and the cursory tactical battlefield considerations that slow down combat.
Despite respectable sales, Valkyria Chronicles resolutely remains a “cult classic.” Its breathtaking artwork and thoughtfully complex tactical combat has never overcome the inherent barriers to popularity that characterize video games’ strategy and role-playing genres. Perhaps this isn’t the curse it seems at first blush, however, as a team of dedicated staff members honed their unique approach across four increasingly engaging core titles while regularly introducing accessibility features designed to on-board new players. Attempts to broaden the appeal to more mainstream genres – free-to-play collectible card game and ARPG – were met with limited success. Whether Sega greenlights a Valkyria Chronicles 5 or not, the series has established its legacy as one of the most visually and mechanically distinctive tactical strategy franchises of the last 30 years.
What do you think about Valkyria Chronicles? Which entry is your favorite? Do you prefer the sillier or grittier tone? How about your favorite character(s)? Let’s discuss in the comments below.
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As ever, here is a tentative list of upcoming articles:
- #125: Half-Life / Portal – July 22