Today’s Play – Valkyria Chronicles

I went back to Valkyria Chronicles today and completed two missions.  It’s taken me almost a month (and eight play sessions) to get back to the point I was at before after just eleven days and three play sessions, which isn’t exactly speedy and suggests I might be playing the game for quite a while yet.  It’s fun though, so that’s fine.

I don’t know exactly why I’m not putting much time into it, but I don’t think it’s a case of GADD. It probably just has more to do with having the 360 under my desk and the PS3 & Wii set up at the TV.  Being somebody who feels compelled to keep up to date with various websites I’ll casually look over at my PC while playing a 360 game, whereas if I’m on the PS3 or Wii I’m away from the computer, which ends up interrupting my play more when I get up to check in with the web.  Having a young family member obsessed with LittleBigPlanet also plays a part because I’ll play on the 360 when he’s on the PS3, which is often.  Anyway, gaming:

Valkyria Chronicles

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Having defeated the giant tank in the desert, I’m now up to chapter 07, which is the first chapter so far to include two battles (every chapter so far has only had just one mission, apart from two optional Report chapters that have had none, being just a series of cutscenes).  The first mission of this chapter has the distinction of being the last mission I played before I stopped playing the game for months.

It’s not actually the fault of the mission, which is an interesting one.  Welkin and Alicia have been separated from the rest of Squad 7 by an enemy attack, and have to move through a forest by themselves, avoiding the enemy as much as possible.  Alicia was injured in the attack and has limited movement, but Welkin can use herbs hidden throughout the level to help her, increasing her movement each time.

It’s another night mission (although if you haven’t bought the Largo’s Passion report it would actually be the first night mission), limiting visibility for both you and the enemy.  Because the enemy knows you’re there they are firing large, powerful mortar shots into the area to try and hit you, which are initially random (although still stick to your route quite well), but will focus upon you if you are discovered by any of the searchlights spread around the area.

With just Welkin and Alicia present the mid-mission dialogue focuses entirely upon them.  One particularly nice one takes place at the final healing herb, when Alicia asks about the herbs being edible.  Welkin worries because he thinks she’s hungry, but then she gets embarrassed and admits she was just thinking about its potential in a bread recipe.  At times Valkyria Chronicles really is ridiculously heavy on dialogue and cutscenes, but it often does it quite well so it’s generally forgiveable.

On my first attempt at this mission a few days ago (which I neglected to make a Today’s Play entry for) I succeeded but did so in one too many turns, which ended up with a B rank.  It was my own fault too because I made the mistake of moving Welkin before Alicia, which meant I had to waste an additional turn healing her (as I reached the herb with Welkin and had to stop there, then had to move Alicia there, then Welkin again).  That was just enough to prevent me getting Alicia to the goal in enough turns for an A rank.

On my first attempt today I made another stupid mistake right at the end.  While moving Alicia towards the goal I saw what looked like a shortcut and had a look.  It turned out to just be an alcove to dodge the searchlights, so I had to backtrack and couldn’t reach the goal.  In fact I had to end the turn just 7 steps short because I ran out of movement, which meant waiting for a whole other phase, knocking me down to a B rank.

For some reason that pattern of stupid mistakes continued.  On the next attempt I stupidly ended Welkin’s turn in the middle of a spotlight path, which meant he was discovered on Alicia’s turn and would have taken lots of damage from mortar fire, right before I needed him to run past a couple of enemies.  That prompted a reload.  Then I accidentally moved Welkin before Alicia again as I approached the second healing herb, which again meant wasting a whole turn’s worth of movement, making me load it in again.

On the fourth attempt I was able to overcome my own foolishness and got both Welkin and Alicia to the goal in enough time to earn the A rank, as well as 30,380 EXP and 50,660 DCT.

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Being Valkyria Chronciles, following this little mission are four whole cutscenes (or five, depending on how you look at it).  The first, immediately after the mission, has Welkin and Alicia taking refuge in a cabin in the forest, where Welkin applies more herbs to Alicia’s ankle.  Its main purpose is to reveal just why Welkin has such a love of nature, with it stemming from the nature walks his father, General Gunther (hero of the First Europan War), used to take him on.

The next cutscene has an injured enemy soldier entering the cabin.  He’s dying and asks for help, so they do what they can to make him confortable.  The soldier dies calling out for his mother, and Alicia pretends to be his mother to comfort him as he dies.  It’s a nice scene, reinforcing that the enemy are just people too, not monsters, and Alicia is clearly upset.  That’s understandable, because even though she has killed dozens of Imperial troops they were all just faceless brutes (almost literally, as their helmets have face plates) terrorising her home, rather than actual people.

Meanwhile, in another (optional) cutscene, Rosie and Largo look for their missing squad members (although, as they’re apparently standing right beside the tank they don’t seem to be looking too hard).  Rosie berates Isara, Welkin’s sister, for not helping them search and just fixing Welkin’s tank instead, but Isara points out that they’ve no chance of finding them in the dark, and the best she can do is hope he returns and make sure his tank is ready for when he does.  As the big war veteran, Largo offers some words of comfort to her.

In the next cutscene (a two-parter), Alicia feels bad that she couldn’t help the dying soldier, but Welkin reassures her that she did all she could and helped him die in as much comfort as possible.  Alicia realises then that the Imperials are just as human as she is, with loved ones, hopes and dreams.  She then reveals that she is actually an orphan with no family to go back to, which in a way is a blessing because then she can’t ever lose anybody close to her.

As Welkin is reassuring her that Squad 7 are like an extended family, they are discovered by enemy troops (the second part of the cutscene), led by an enemy commander who looks a lot like General Gregor (one of one of the high-ranking commanders of the army), but I don’t think it’s actually him.  When they discover that the two of them helped treat the soldier’s wounds and gave him a proper burial the commander decides to let them go.  They part ways when they hear the sound of fighting, and the enemy commander says it’s a shame that they’ll probably meet again on the battlefield.  It’s another nice moment, with both groups acknowledging that they’re all just people caught up on different sides of a larger conflict.

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The next mission reunites Welkin and Alicia with Squad 7.  They start at the top of the map with the rest of the squad at the bottom, and Welkin has to reach the tank (the Edelweiss) before he can use it, which is needed to break through to the enemy base camp (the victory condition is to take the camp with one of your people).  There’s also a mortar at the top of the map firing onto Squad 7’s base camp, so ideally Welkin and Alicia should take that out before heading down.

My initial impressions of the mission weren’t favourable.  Welkin and Alicia are separated from the others by a canyon, meaning they have to run through the mortar camp, along the canyon and then into safety.  There are mines scattered all along the route that are easy to miss and deal lots of damage, the enemy mortar ensures that you need to waste turns moving people out of the way of its fire, the mortar itself takes at least three grenades to kill (Welkin and Alicia only have one each), and without the Edelweiss all Squad 7 can do is stand there and get hit with whatever the enemy decides to throw at them.  To top it off, watching the canyon is an Ace sniper, a special unit who automatically crouches when fired upon, raising his defence to ridiculous levels (so that even if I aimed at his feet to anticipate the dodge, he takes almost no damage).

In fact, the only saving grace on my very first attempt was that the enemy AI was bad enough that they didn’t manage to kill anybody on their turn, despite having all the advantages.  I’m not sure I’ve mentioned the game’s poor AI before, but it really is possibly the worst part of the game.  On enemy turns the game will waste command points (which you have a limited amount of in each phase to control units) making unimportant units at the back of the map run around in circles, or they’ll choose not to attack your troops despite having clear shots.  On this particular mission one sniper even tried to shoot through one of his allies, doing a significant amount of damage to him.

It’s easily the most disappointing element to the game because you’re never actually challenged by the AI, and all the developers could do to counter that is to increasingly stack things in the enemy’s favour.  More units, more command points, more tanks, special troops, special conditions, mines; they’re all thrown at you as an alternative to true difficulty, and even then they’re often squandered by an AI that doesn’t know what to do with them.  It stops it from ever feeling like you’re winning due to superior strategy over an equal, and more like you’re picking on a child whose only real strength is that they have more pieces than you do.

Anyway, that bad first impression killed a lot of my enthusiasm for playing the game but, aware that if I stopped now I’d be less likely to come back if it’s for a mission I don’t enjoy, I persevered.  On my second attempt Welkin was hurt and Alicia was killed by the damn mines, one which I didn’t see, one which I miscalculated how closely I could pass to it, and one taht went off because I accidentally ran along the wrong side of a wall.  I kept going though just to see how things progressed and hopefully learn a few things that might be of help in the replay.  That went well enough, and ended when the Edelweiss (which I hadn’t been properly repairing) was destroyed.

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On my third playthrough Welkin was killed on his first turn by – sigh – mines.  On the fourth attempt I accidentally got one of my shocktroopers killed, Hannes, and the enemy then advanced and killed him outright (so that he can’t ever be used again).  As I like him and was only on the first turn I restarted the mission.

On my fifth attempt things finally went well. Welkin got to his tank without setting off mines, and once in the tank he managed to kill an enemy tank in one hit.  Rosie was able to kill the Ace sniper without difficulty, and the mortar was destroyed easily.  The poor AI even worked in my favour when I hid one of my units, Hannes, behind my tank (which can’t be damaged by enemy gunfire).  The enemy kept firing at him despite not being able to do any damage and kept hitting their own troops doing so, killing two lancers (who actually could damage the tank and are one of the biggest threats on the level).

Aside from one missed shot everything went pretty much perfectly up to that point, making it an excellent point to save and continue from.  The good fortune continued when the last remaining sniper attacked Rosie, missed, and was then killed in Rosie’s retaliation.  What was bad was that by that point I was on the fourth turn, which is when the ranking drops to a B, and winning after three turns for the A rank seemed like it could be difficult.  Still, the fourth turn was all I needed to destroy the remaining tank, bash through the wall it was guarding and occupy the enemy camp, completing the mission.  B rank, 29,700 EXP, 50,000 DCT.

After that I saved on a new slot, then reloaded my mid-mission save to give it another try from that point.  I pushed forward with the Edelweiss and was able to get close enough to the barrier to destroy it without having to destroy the tank (which is what had slowed me down), then sat it in front of their tank to block it from firing at my other units, as well as using the tanks mortar to kill the shocktrooper and sniper in the enemy camp.

Then I sent Hannes round to claim that camp, finish off a few dead troops (which I think gives you extra points), and then ran him round to the final camp, but as he was heavily injured he was killed trying to take down its sole guard.  But then all I had to do was send a scount (Suzie) in to rescue him and claim the enemy camp.  There was one dicey moment where her Humanitarian perk kicked in that stopped her firing and wasted that turn (which is probably going to get her replaced after this mission), but on my final command point she used a grenade, killed the shocktrooper and claimed the enemy base, winning the mission in three turns. Rank A, 35,230 EXP and 59,590 DCT.

So I actually earned a greater reward despite killing three less lancers and one less tank, which is partly why I’ve said before that I’m not keen on the game’s ranking system.  I’d rather be rewarded for clearing out the enemy and keeping my troops safe than for taking shortcuts, leaving the enemy alive, and sneakily grabbing a quicker victory.

Still, it is the way it is, and even with the annoying start to the mission it’s still a fun enough game to keep me going.  Not today though, as I’m typing this shortly before the NPD group are due to release the US video game sales for May, which is when my duties on my other blog kick in.

Image Sources:

Alicia and the Edelweiss: Kotaku

Imperial and Tank: Ripten

Lancer Posing: Sankaku Complex (CAUTION – links to site with adult, NSFW content)

Tank Targeted: Sankaku Complex (CAUTION – links to site with adult, NSFW content)

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