April 15, 2009
A friend of mine once told me, “When you find a game you really love, you don’t even think twice about buying downloadable content for it.” Just the possibility of returning to the fantasy that once held you so tightly is enough. I myself have actually never purchased any DLC short of the occasional Rock Band track; no game in the current, network-friendly generation has made me care enough to invest any more for couple new bite sized nuggets. At least, that was until I played Valkyria Chronicles.
As did the vast majority of gamers out there, it seems, I passed over Valkyria Chronicles when it was released on the PS3 last November. It was another Japanese RPG whose name bore too close a resemblance to another, lackluster JRPG and was forgotten before it was even given a chance. What a huge mistake, because without a doubt, Valkyria Chronicles features some damn unique and nostalgic gameplay, and perhaps one of the most well-written, truly mature stories I have ever experienced in the guise of a “game.”
Nuts and bolts time. Did you ever play X-COM: UFO Defense released on the PC in the early ’90s? It was a squad focused, turn-based tactics game that inserted your customized band of soldiers into a variety of combat scenarios, while in between missions you’d collect alien technology, research upgrades, and further refine your troops. For me, my lasting memories of X-COM were the infinite and personal stories I inadvertently created along the way — three men are down and only Stark’s left alive in the building. Her rifle is empty and she has a pistol and a few grenades, yet she somehow flanks the enemy tank and saves the day all by herself! But here’s the best part: that was actually a Valkyria Chronicles anecdote, not X-COM. Although not randomly generated like Mythos’ alien war game, Sega’s 2008 version gives you the same adrenaline high of success, with a few new wrinkles thrown into the mix (an overhead tactical viewpoint, the ability to issue status-changing orders and to call for reinforcements, to name just a few). This Japanese take on a Western classic is not quite perfect, I won’t lie to you. The AI can be as dumb as a box of rocks and their snipers sometimes seem to find their marks waaay too frequently, but this similarity of gameplay just scratches the surface.
Each new hardware cycle, game developers have increasingly powerful hardware at their disposals, most of which is then used to create what appears on the screen. However, as Western developers seem use new hardware to pursue ever more graphic violence and realistic graphics, many Japanese developers (with some notable exceptions) for better or worse are using it to become more stylized, more like fantasy and storybook. Such is the visual design of Valkyria Chronicles, which looks like the gorgeous lovechild of Hayao Miyazaki’s anime and recent games like Eternal Sonata. It succeeds in being both subtle and expressive in its watercolor pastiche, though its style may have erroneously contributed to many an American gamer passing it by. Unlike many games these days, which leave me declaring that Wow, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen graphics this good before!, Valkyria Chronicles’ just work. It’s not that they are unimpressive, they are a purely integrated element of the whole piece, and not once did I find myself either disappointed or disconnecting the visual elements from the rest of the game to say aloud, “Now that’s awesome.” And in some ways, that is in itself pretty impressive in my mind.
Most significantly in Valkyria Chronicles, however, is the story it tells. Now, I’ll admit, I am a sucker for emotion, and enjoy letting my own feelings ride with the tale, so perhaps I am more susceptible than others to investing myself in a good saga. But it’s a negative as well, because of how jarringly I am pulled back to reality when the plotlines reveal their shortcomings. Villains exist with no purpose besides destroying the world; protagonists start out small, then begin charging headlong into danger and emerging without a scratch (because, you know, they’re the heroes). And as is often the case with Japanese anime RPGs detested by many, those heroes are fourteen years old with a couple other plucky teenage sidekicks, lots of giggles, and way more smiles than their situations should allow. These things absolutely kill a game for me; usually I lay them aside one day and never touch them again.
I didn’t do that with Valkyria Chronicles. It tells a serious story of war designed with more than a few striking parallels to World War II. There was a sense of brow-raising irony for me through much of the game that it would include concentration camps and extermination, analogues of good and evil to the Axis and Allied Powers and even nuclear weapons, given that just two generations ago such a story written in Japan would have likely had a very different perspective. The historical scope and thematic sobriety alone, while tinged with slight elements of fantasy, would make this an impressive narrative for a game, but it would not have left any real impact without the quality of its delivery. Every character is voiced realistically and with sincerity. When Lt. Welkin Gunther, the protagonist, cries out and leads a desperate charge, you feel his resolve, and you know there’s more behind the moment than “another battle for Squad 7,” because you’ve seen his uncertainty as a young commander and the people he cares for that his mistakes, your mistakes, stand to lose. See, like the old X-COM, characters in Valkyria Chronicles can die permanently if they fall on the battlefield, and those infinite and personal stories don’t always have happy endings. Good people die in war, X-COM got that part right, but without the emotions and personal struggles behind the characters — a contextual narrative of the kind found in Valkyria Chronicles — a fallen comrade becomes just another empty slot in your roster to be filled.
The mere fact that a videogame can have me saying those kinds of things should convince you somewhat of its maturity. I can’t promise the experience would be the same for you, nor is it the best in any one category that the medium has to offer. The “videogames as art” debate is a silly one, but at its heart is a question about a game’s ability to be more than a plaything. Can it make you stop and think about the horrors of war, or have fun and be entertained in ways beyond a psychologically conditioned dopamine rush to the brain?
I know one game that did for me, and it’s DLC comes out later today.
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