Backloggery Beatdown: Valkyria Chronicles

Valkyria Chronicles Logo

My wife is trying to tell me something but I shush her because she is interrupting a midgame cutscene that it is reminiscent of Aerith’s death in FFVII (though she will always be “Aeris” to me). Approximately ten minutes later, I indicate to her that she is free to speak, and she replies in awe that the scene was remarkably protracted. Straightforward, I answer that the game I’m playing, Valkeria Chronicles, is a RPG and that they tend to incorporate these kinds of expositions since they are story-based games.

It is not that she is completely unfamiliar with RPGs. I simply have not played many in the past few years. The original ending of Mass Effect 3 was so bittersweet that I never bothered to return for the “remastered” ending. The other EA/Bioware franchise, Dragon Age, enjoyed a successful debut despite not quite living up to the hype that it would match the GOAT that is Baldur’s Gate 2. Dragon Age 2 received a lukewarm response as it was cursed with “mainstream consolization.” On the other hand, The Witcher was such an outstanding game, that I’m still feeling satisfied, knowing that at any moment I can resume my adventures with The White Wolf in The Witcher 2. Besides, I am only halfway through the extra missions in The Enhanced Edition of Witcher 1.

All of those are WRPGs, however. It has been an even longer interval since I have played a JRPG. Final Fantasy X was my last foray into the realm of bizarre facial expressions (“Daddy, why are her eyes closed while she’s talking?” my kids would ask during a cutscene) unconsummated-and-obvious-to-the-point-of excruciating-awkwardness-love-plots and other features unique to Anime, Manga, and JRPGs such as moesWaifus, and lolicon were becoming increasingly awkward and uncomfortable for me. I’m saying, I grew up on Yuffie  but didn’t quite understand the aesthetics of her design at that time, when Rikku  rolled out, I was quite more cognizant. 

Squad 7s R&R
Had to go on YouTube to acquire the evidence. This is certainly what we would call fanservice, but for whom? These are some grotesque proportions on Rosie; she looks like SHE was in a concentration camp rather than one of the toughest soldiers on Squad 7. How about Alicia’s anachronistic two-piece swimsuit? Sega makes this bonus scene relevant as we learn more about Welkin and Isara, and Varrot and Largo, but this is the kind of stuff I’d rather not endure. That goes double for Paz in MGS: Peace Walker.

Those things aside, I ended up quitting the “genre”  ultimately because of grinding, a tradition in gaming where one fights (the same) enemies repeatedly for hours in order to gain the gold or experience necessary to conquer the next area and/or boss. Grinding drowns me in ennui, nor do I have time for it; I can no longer invest seventy-five hours into games like I did with FFVII when I was in HS in order to raise a Golden Chocobo to acquire the Knights of the Round materia while grinding in the crater against (mimics? poes?) to level up my mime material so I can beat the Emerald/Sapphire/Diamond/Ruby weapons. Yeah, all of that was side quest, but do you really feel like you beat the game when they were incomplete? I don’t, especially not for the first playthrough.

Aeris dies
Other characters have suffered (perma)death in video games before Aeri(s)th did, but none of them were as seminal. Was it because she was a playable character who even had her own theme music, an “ultimate” weapon, and Limit Breaker as if you were going to keep her the entire game and the death caught us by surprise? Is it because many of us were juked by the date night with Cloud at the Golden Saucer? Is it because she’s the first character we see in the game’s intro? Is it because this FMV sequence was then-never-before-seen, state-of-the-art stuff? Probably all of the above.

On second thought, the death my wife involuntarily witnessed of is not reminiscent of Aerith’s. It is nowhere close to the iconography, that touchstone, that piece of gaming history which tops practically every “major character death in a video game” list. In actuality, Isara’s death is reminiscent of Tietra’s death in Final Fantasy Tactics. Beloved by their respective parties as figures of filial empathy, both are killed by nefarious means: Tietra, born a peasant girl but adopted by and therefore thought to be a daughter of the nobleman Barbaneth Beoulve, is kidnapped for ransom. Her blood brother, Delita, and step-brother, Ramza  pursue her only to witness their former ally, Algus, fatally wound her after joining another party and cornering one of the culprits responsible for the abduction. Algus is reticent of reticent regret, believing people of Tietra’s and Delita’s social class to be expendable anyway. At least Isara in VC is spared the humiliation of being paraded all about the land only to become collateral damage; a random sniper manages to evade detection while infiltrating a supposedly secure sector and dispatches Squad 7’s engineer.

Tietra's Death FFT
Even Gragoroth can’t believe that the “good guys” would shoot the hostage.

In both RPGs, these young ladies are made martyrs. Teitra’s death roused her rather docile brother, Delita, who would  defect from the Royal Military Academy and scheme, design, and conspire himself from peasantry to nobility while Ramza, feeling that his brother Zalbaag was responsible for Tietra’s death because he gave Algus the order to shoot, joins some mercenaries to distance himself from the politics of nobility.  Similarly, in VC, Isara’s demise rallies Squad 7 in a way that squad commander Lt. Gunther, Isara’s foster brother (like Tietra and  Delita are to Ramaza and Alma, Isara is Gunther’s adopted sister), could not under his own power. Veggie fetishist Largo at first conveys taciturn apathy toward Darcens and insubordinate distain for Gunther until brother and sister duo devise of a plan to launch a surprise attack by submerging their tank underwater. Concurrently, fellow soldier Rosie outwardly despises “dark-hairs” and takes every pre or post-mission opportunity to express her prejudices toward the squad’s tank engineer. Isara, a girl much too sullen. morose and divining for her age and the target of the hostilities, would struggle to reason with her antagonistic squadmates throughout the first act of the game. They deem her very presence as a blight until the squad encounters a concentration camp where the true enemy, The Imperials, enslave Darcens during the war. Squad 7’s mission in Fouzen is to derail an armed train, Equus, with liberating the camp being a secondary objective, but it is tragically razed before its occupants could be extracted. The deaths of these innocents initiates the redemption of Darcens in the eyes of Gunther’s crew as they come to realize that they are not the stinky boogiemen that “history” has painted them to be, but human. This revelation culminates in an almost-handshake between Rosie and Isara, interrupted by a startling sniper shot to Isara’s chest. The irony in fact that she is assassinated during the conclusion of the mission that she invents the cover smoke fired from the Eldleweiss to protect her beloved squadmates should not be lost upon any player.  

gregor
Gregor. Can you tell me with a straight face that this dude is not, in any way, reminiscent of the German SS? Yes, the consonance between VC’s European Wars and the actual World Wars are obvious, but I am going to list them here anyway for exhaustiveness: Europa = Europe; The Autocratic East Europan Imperial Allance = Axis Powers; Atlantic Federation = The Allies; WWI-style emphasis on tank warfare while the planes of WWII had yet to be developed; uniforms which are less functional than fashionable 

One possibly distinctive deviation from FFT aesthetics that VC makes concerns squad composition. The Job Class system in FFT is preposterously fun and rewarding to the point where I have played FFT a half dozen times just to experiment with them. For example, the Monk class is one of the very first classes available, and with light armor, I wondered if they were viable during the late game. Other classes, such as the Knight class, were simply…outclassed…by other classes such as the Lancer, who carried a shield and could attack from multiple hexes’ distance. Also, why would use the Knight skill of breaking weapons when I could use the Thief skill of stealing them? Nonetheless, I proudly raised Calculators (with summoning as their secondary skills) in every playthrough, and even exercised patience through the boring Mediator and silly Dancer/Bard (gender-specific) classes just to raise an underwhelming MimeYo, the requirements for that class were RIDICULOUS, and by the time I had accumulated enough job points to unlock it, I was just content to stick with my male/female combinations of Ninja, Samurai, Lancers, Black/White Mages (I would alternate the male/female casters—never two of the same type at once) until I began to unlock the characters trained in the special sword classes like Agrias, Orlandu, Meliadoul, and CloudBesides these special characters and Ramza, who can unlock the special spell Ultima as a Squire, it is only possible to raise a somewhat generic army whose idiosyncrasies are limited to gender and Faith, with Faith affecting how powerful a character can cast or be affected by spells—the higher, the more potent.

FF classes
Over a decade later, I am STILL in love with the art direction of FFT. Note that the filters in VC engine create striking similar characterizations to the FFT cast. Also, the Geomancer is one of my favorite classes that nobody talks about. When I play as one, I feel like an X-Man or Aang the Avatar.

Valkyria Chronicles handles things quite differently. Rather than over a dozen different job classes, there are only five, technically six classes if one counts the tank commander: Scout, Shocktroopers, Lancer, Sniper, and Engineer. Sincerely, the combat system in VC is fun but basic. The fact that soldiers can be shot while moving is an interesting touch to a turn-based game, however such feature is not enough to spike the difficulty. There was hardly ever a time that I felt challenged besides a few instances where moving my tank was a begrugging necessity lest some enemy lancer would shoot me in the butt. At least VC gets that part right; tanks in the WWII era tended to be more heavily armored in the front and sides than in the back. Same goes for me, lol.  At any rate, the game touts a basic capture the flag and rock-paper-scissors style of battle system for the classes, though it could still be exploited by how imba Alicia is with defensive and “unlock potential” buffs. For the first half of the game, she can run entire lengths of maps in a single turn while head-shotting anyone not ducked behind sandbags at near point-blank range. I say that moving tanks is begrudging because that action takes two turns rather than one; it is simply more efficient to stick exclusively to soldiers, especially after unlocking grenade launchers and flame throwers.

Rather than class complexity, the VC’s focus is on character diversity. Every. Single. Soldier. Is equipped with his or her own voice acting appropriate for that soldier’s character. For example, everyone’s favorite sniper, Marina, possesses the battle perk, “Lone Wolf.” So she is presented as the stoic, dethatched kind of character who is more focused on her job than her teammates. On the other hand, Rosie, my favorite character, playfully says “After me, kiddos” when her “Big Sister” perk activates while around other shocktroopers. While African Americans are still notably absent in the game (which I would prefer over Japanese stereotypes such as Capcom’s Dee Jay and Balrog or Square’s Barrett), there is clear representation through such as Rosina Selden who is Hispanic, Nadine who is Asian, and Jaan Walker who is flamboyantly gay…but he is not the only character who gains stat boosts for being around the same (or opposite) gender, such as Dallas Wyatt, who crushes HARD on Alicia. In other words, unlike FFT where you want to preserve special NPCs, VC the preservation of squad members simply by their various personalities.

For the record, my team, besides the obvious Welkin, Alicia, Rosie, and Largo, included a rotation of Cherry, Aika, Freesa Noce, Ramona, Ted, Vyse, Edy, Jane, Wendy, Nils, Hector, Rosina, Mirana, and Ramsey. Rarely, I would select Catherine O’Hera just to hear that Irish accent.

squad-7-full
Lots of ghostly-white palefaces similar to the FFT art style, huh? Or maybe Japanimation in general. Anyway, this cast is a feminist’s dream. To be quite honest, I found the female characters far more charming and fun that the guys. Some of my favorites, like Jane, Wendy, and Ramsey, certainly defy–or at least complicate–our concepts of gender(ed) roles. A video game, yes, but still something to consider.

In gaming, we toss around “spiritual successor” when “sequel” would be too strong an indicator of intentionality, but VC resonates FFT to the point of embodiment.  I am unsure if I have ever mentioned this because I tend to leave the music criticism to other writers here at PTBN, but I am a formerly trained musician, but with a preference for the unconventional—Video Game Music (VGM). I proudly attribute my love and taste for music not to hip hop, R&B, and gospel, which my parents listened to almost exclusively (in the history of [black] music, the convergence of the “feel” emerged from the negro spirituals from the days of slavery with “the devil’s music” such as the blues and jazz has always been a fascinating historical and cultural paradox to me; you might recognize this as “booty music on Saturday; God’s music on Sunday” particularly with radio stations that play music made exclusively by black people with the occasional Eminim or Robin Thicke who perform in the approrpat(ion)e genres), but to VGM which exposed me to the kind of rock and electronica that I would not be fully exposed to outside of VGM until I was nearly headed to college. Back in the days of listening to the soundtracks of Sonic the Hedgehog, Shinobi, and Streets of Rage franchises, I did not know who the composers were, but I knew that they knew good music because those soundtracks are still jamin’. I make this digression to say that the soundtrack of VC, particularly the menu music, “On the Gallian Front,” exuded the FFT soundtrack.

While doing a little research for VC’s musical composer for the purpose of this very post, I found out it was Hitoshi Sakimoto, who did indeed score FFT.

Mind. Blown.

Compare for yourself:

vs

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zQaWWvWYTR8&index=3&list=PLYMCc3uzmCSaEnZ5UNudJPApfwDq3k_Dh

I imagine that the similarities in score between FFT and VC is a product of the vision of the two games being not only themed in warfare, but also in their similarities in art direction. FFT characters are hand-drawn sprites though shaded to give the impression that they are painted (unless I am totally mistaken that they actually are painted). VC flexes Sega’s CANVAS graphics engine which “paints” the speculative history story of the Second Europan War from first frames of the introductory sequence. Like FFT, VC also uses a palette of soft tones that sharply contrast the realities of war—and the contrast is welcome given (Western) gaming’s (over)emphasis on realism. Despite FFT being produced by Squaresoft and VC by Sega, I do not believe it to be ridiculous to think that the outcome of FFT’s War of the Lions, or “Fifty Years’ War” (an allusion to the actual historical  Hundred Years’ War, or Wars of the Roses) is what we witness in VC several centuries down the road.

That wouldn’t be bad for a fan fiction, I think.

Author: Maurice Pogue

With his FSU Seminoles and San Antonio Spurs both winning championships in 2014, Maurice's friends want him to "go in" with them on the possibility that his 49ers will win in a calendar year. But he isn't *that* kind of gamer. Holla at him.