TOM Marks' 2014 personal pick
Along with our group-selected 2014 Game of the Year Awards, each member of the PC Gamer staff has independently chosen one game to commend as one of 2014's best.
I first played Valkyria Chronicles when it launched on PS3 six years ago and was completely blown away. I'd never played anything quite like it, and I don’t think I’ve played anything like it since. Its core mechanic, turn-based battles with faux real-time fighting, was a genuine gamble as it risked alienating pure-strategy fans, action fans, or both. It wasn't afraid to break rules from either genre to create something new. The plot is also unique, a JRPG set in an imaginary World War II Europe, and I missed it, too.
The moment I started up the PC version, the melody gave me goosebumps. I was surprised that a game I remembered primarily for its unique gameplay had also left an emotional mark, but hearing the opening song felt like coming home. That was amplified when I got to the squad selection screen and recognized characters like they were old friends. I immediately remembered who were my favorites, and who I never used—who I could rely on and who disappointed me. In fact, one of the hardest things I had to do while reviewing it was forcing myself not to use the same people as six years ago and try something new. It felt like breaking up, but I quickly discovered there was a whole different roster to fall in love with.
This isn’t to say that the world is without awkward moments. Honestly, there are a good deal of those moments. Battles can last for almost an hour and a half, so the story pacing compensates with long chunks of plot before and after each fight. The story is engaging but the emotion fluctuates between events like a silly day at the beach and digging through the wreckage of a burned down concentration camp. The massive number of dialogue scenes definitely dragged on me at points, and the flat English voice acting didn’t help any, but the moments where it worked hit hard. There is a true emotional core at the heart of each character, but you might have to use the Japanese voice acting with subtitles to find it.
Regardless, the battles—those moments that aren’t story—are exciting and fun. They are also brutally difficult. Valkyria Chronicles does a good job of ramping up the difficulty level, but I lost a lot of battles before I discovered and developed strategies that worked for me. Movement and positioning is incredibly important, so my strategy was based almost entirely on Snipers and Scouts, the units with the highest range and movement. But that’s not the only way I could have played. Choice of character, class, weapon upgrades, tank upgrades, and even pathing all have implications on the battlefield. I never once felt like I was making a wholly wrong choice, only that I hadn’t refined my strategy enough.
It’s nearly impossible to assign Valkyria Chronicles to a single genre. It combines things that, on paper, should never work together. The gameplay is a mix of turn based and real time strategy. It's a melodramatic JRPG, but it's genuinely moving. It’s challenging and deep, with an immense amount of detail in everything, down to the map screens to the supporting characters. What results is a completely unique strategy game that still turns heads six years after its initial release.