Firing up Valkyria Chronicles 4 for the PS4, I had the feeling I’d played the game before. Wait, wasn’t this on the PSP? It certainly seemed very familiar. In fact, Valkyria Chronicles 4 leapfrogs over several sequels on the handheld system to be the first proper new game on a console since the original. Beyond that, the sequence is pretty confusing, so let’s just move on. The bottom line is, someone coming new to the series will do just fine.
The Valkyria Chronicles franchise — and specifically, this fourth iteration — takes place during an anime analog for World War 2 and on the continent of Europa. Both the Allied and Axis forces have their slightly more benign counterparts and many of the most consequential battles of the war have roughly similar versions as well. While the Alliance — imagine a combined Nazi and Russian force — isn’t portrayed with quite the brutality of real life, it is still a significant menace to humanity.
Generally, the characters that will become part of the player’s squad are engagingly written and voiced, and there is a blend of whimsy, camaraderie, pathos and drama in their interactions and vignette-like stories. There is also a surprisingly mature use of language and innuendo, though it never becomes explicit or truly profane. Still, these anime young men and women feel fully conceived and there is an undercurrent of ethical and philosophical conflict that often rises to the surface as they confront the realities of war. It wouldn’t be anime without an occasional annoying or odd character but these are the exception.
For anyone unfamiliar with Valkyria Chronicles’ gameplay mechanics, it’s a relatively complex mixture of turn-based strategy through movement on an overhead map and semi real-time shooting. The game’s pacing does a good job of moving the action from one battle sequence to another and importantly, keeping the player off guard and learning new tactics and strategies as the war develops. Battles begin with a planning phase and the placement of units in advantageous positions but the real drama comes in the real-time phase. Battles are often challenging, brutal dances of management and smart reaction, and the game does not shy away from the permanent loss of valued team members. While enemies tend to be characterless canon fodder, their AI is excellent and rarely seems unfair. Adding to the mixture of standard weapons, artillery units and tanks, there are some fanciful alternative history-themed weapons. Each character has "Potentials,” special abilities and buffs that are interestingly tied to their character traits. A successful squad will be a balanced collection of weapon specialties and Potentials.
On the PSP, Valkyria Chronicles’ unique art style — desaturated and painterly — stood out, and it’s even more impressive and distinctive on the console, with detailed weapon and character design blended into watercolor-looking natural landscapes. From the excellent music, environmental audio and voice acting to the visuals, Valkyria Chronicles 4’s aesthetics are outstanding.
Despite an hours-long tutorial, it takes some time to fully understand the mechanics of Valkyria Chronicles 4 and it remains a challenge from start to finish. That said, the time spent with engaging characters and their stories is immediately rewarding and it’s hard to resist being pulled into the drama, sacrifice and yet somehow buoyant positivity that motivates them. The focus is on tense and often tragic battles, but both fans of the series and newcomers to the franchise will appreciate Valkyria Chronicles 4 as an excellent sequel and the most accomplished realization of the concept to date.