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Brain Diving
Smokin' Chronicles

by Brian Ruh,

Usually when a politician is caught in a scandal and needs to get out of the public eye for a while, he'll call a press conference and say that he's stepping down to spend more time with his family. What a cheesy excuse, right? Unfortunately, thanks to all the sleazy politicians out there, this excuse has been ruined for the rest of us.

This will be my last Brain Diving column, but I'm not going to say that I plan to stop writing in order to spend more time with my family even though that is more or less the truth. To be completely honest, the schedule of keeping up with the column just hasn't been meshing with the other things I have to do in my life. In addition to my day job and my family, I'm also supposed to be working on a Ph.D. dissertation on anime and globalization, which I really need to finish up this semester. Plus, I have a number of ideas for some big projects that I'll get to one of these days once I have unlocked the achievement of becoming Doctor Ruh. Most importantly, though, this should free up some more time for me to spend making really bad puns on Twitter. So don't worry, I'll still be around, and Zac has kindly left the door open for me to return to the column some day when things are a little less hectic.

I've been weighing a bunch of different ideas for what I would cover in my final column. There are quite a number of books that I wanted to have a chance to discuss, but I thought I'd go out on a recent release that's quite fun – the Valkyria Chronicles Design Archive recently put out by Udon Entertainment. Another factor influencing my decision is that by making the book the subject of one of my columns, I can justify the money I spent on it.

For those of you who need an introduction to the series, Valkyria Chronicles was a video game originally released by Sega in 2008 for the PlayStation 3. Set in an alternative world designed to be reminiscent of Europe in the 1930s (called, oddly enough, Europa), Valkyria Chronicles told the story of a group of militia fighters who banded together to save their beloved homeland of the Principality of Gallia. The Europan continent had been suffering from the large scale conflict between the two major powers of the Atlantic Federation and the East Europan Imperial Alliance, but Gallia had been a neutral territory. However, discovery of new deposits of ragnite (a mysterious, naturally occurring mineral that in the game can both heal injuries and power tanks) in Gallia leads to the an invasion by the Imperial Alliance, and the country's peaceful inhabitants must take up arms and fight back.

I'll admit that in the lead-up to the game's release in Japan, I didn't really give it much attention until I read that Mamoru Oshii had compared it to Hayao Miyazaki's Nausicaa. That seemed very intriguing, and was enough to get me to look it up. What I saw was very impressive – I quite liked the intentionally retro look of the game, the setting, and its character designs. A few glimpses were enough to turn me into a Valkyria Chronicles fan even before I played the game. Although, I must confess, I still have yet to play it. This isn't from a lack of desire, but rather from a lack of a PS3. I just haven't gotten around to getting one, so of course I haven't been able to check it out even after nearly three years.

Luckily, there have since been other ways of experiencing the Valkyria Chronicles universe (only one of which has been officially brought over into English, though). Valkyria Chronicles II, a sequel to the original game, came out for the PSP in 2010. Luckily, being the proud owner of a PSP, I have been able to play this one. There is also a third game in the series that came out for the PSP earlier this year; however, from what I've heard about the PSP being a “dead” platform over here (unlike in Japan) its chances of getting an English language release seem dim. I certainly hope that's wrong, although if it does get a translation it will be a pleasant surprise. As with most large Japanese properties these days, you can find Valkyria Chronicles in a bunch of other media as well, including anime and manga. Most notably, there was a 26-episode TV anime series based on the first game that came out in 2009 as well as a series of OAVs based on the third game that came out earlier this year. Unfortunately, none of the anime or manga has been officially released in English.

With all this to choose from, though, the Valkyria Chronicles Design Archive only focuses on the first game itself. So, you may be asking, why is this guy even reading a book about a video game that he hasn't even played? First of all, the anime series seems to cover the events depicted in the game fairly well, so not having played the game isn't much of an impediment if you're down with watching fansubs. Additionally, the first fifty pages or so of the book walks the reader through the events of the game, so if you really want to know everything that happens and all the plot twists, this would be a good place to start. (Needless to say, this book is filled with plenty of spoilers, so if you really don't want to know what happens, you probably should play the game before picking the book up.)

Taken as a whole, Valkyria Chronicles Design Archive is a very impressive book, both in terms of content as well as in heft. I was surprised at how heavy this thing was when it arrived on my doorstep – before I opened it, I found myself wondering if I had ordered some other books with it that I had forgotten about. Nope. The book is four hundred pages of weighty, full color Valkyria Chronicles goodness. And unlike many other artbooks, there is quite a lot of text throughout this book. I certainly don't envy the translator the task of having to put this thing together and keep track of all the little bits and pieces throughout. They did not, however, cross check each and every term in the book with the translation of the game – there is a small disclaimer at the beginning stating that the translation was taken directly from the Japanese version of the book, so the translated terms may not match up exactly with the English language version of the game.

The book is divided into eight main sections – “History and Story,” “Characters,” “Weapons and Machines,” “Military Affairs and Natural History,” “Gallian Geography,” “Illustration,” “Preproduction,” and “Interview.”  As mentioned above this first section effectively summarizes the events of the game through text, screenshots, maps, and illustrations. The subsequent chapters provide more detail about the world of Valkyria Chronicles and how the game was created.

The section called “Characters” discusses the many varied personalities found throughout the game. There are usually a few screenshots to accompany the characters, but this section focuses mainly on illustrations and design sketches. Of course, the main characters get the most amount of space allotted to them. For example, main characters Welkin Gunther and Alicia Melchiott each receive 12 and 22 pages, respectively. Alicia's designs are particularly interesting because they demonstrate how the character changed and evolved as the overall ideas for the game became more fleshed out. Generally speaking, the number of pages a character gets in this section is roughly proportional to their importance in the overall story. As the chapter progresses, some of the lesser characters get as little as a third of a page.

The “Weapons and Machines” chapter is the place for the real retro-mecha fans to get their fill. It begins by focusing for a few pages on the Edelweiss, the main Gallian tank in the story. It goes on to highlight plenty of other military machinery, both Gallian and Imperial, including trains, howitzers, and a plane; however, both sides must be very thankful for their armored vehicles because there's plenty of tanks on display throughout. Although well done, I found this the least interesting section because everything just felt more or less the same throughout.

The oddly-named “Military Affairs & Natural History” chapter begins by going into some detail about the history of the Europan continent and the conflicts between the Atlantic Federation and the Imperial Alliance. It goes on to detail how Gallian and Imperial troops are customarily dressed and equipped and the kinds of arms they usually carry. In looking at some of the early designs for the Imperial troops, you can definitely catch a kind of Hayao Miyazaki-ish vibe. This chapter also includes pages on ragnite, systems of writing, and rank and insignia. As you can probably tell, this chapter isn't particularly cohesive, but at the same time it provides far more interesting detail than the previous chapter.

The “Gallian Geography” chapter examines the various locales where fighting takes place or other significant events take place in the game. This includes illustrations of cities as well as details on bridges, gun emplacements, and sculptures. The chapter on “Illustrations” does just what it says, and contains various images that were used to promote the game through package design, postcards, and magazine layouts. It contains little text other than to identify where the image originally appeared.

The final two chapters give more of a behind the scenes look into the processes behind making a game like this. The “Preproduction” chapter contains many illustrations, sketches, storyboards, and screen shots of the characters and situations the producers were thinking of before they had decided on a final product. Some of the ideas seem very close to what actually appeared in the Valkyria Chronicles game, while other aspects were changed greatly from the original ideas. It provides a very interesting glimpse into the mindsets of the illustrators and producers when they were developing the game. Even more information is given in the “Interview” chapter in which the producer, chief director, setting leader, and chief artist answer questions about how they developed the game. Valkyria Chronicles seems to have its creative roots in Sega's Sakura Wars franchise as well as a Dreamcast / Gamecube game from a decade ago called Skies of Arcadia. (And in fact the main characters of Skies of Arcadia make cameo appearances as supporting characters in Valkyria Chronicles.) The creators had originally envisioned the game as being true to the actual events of World War II, but as time went on their ideas evolved, yet this general idea of having a game based on the war remained throughout. Another interesting tidbit that comes out in this final section is that the creators were big fans of the anime Royal Space Force - The Wings of Honnêamise, which contributed to the level of detail they wanted to put in the game.

With all this information translated and packed into such a nice-looking package, it's understandable that the cover price of this book is $50. Luckily, you should be able to find it discounted online, but even if you couldn't it's still probably worth that much. As much as people seem to be going the digital route with books, there's something just so satisfying about paging through a book like this. I have to commend Udon Entertainment on a job very well done, and I'm really looking forward to the Valkyria Chronicles II book that they have set for release this coming January. Now, given how many times Udon pushed back the release of the first book, I wouldn't necessarily hold them to that timeline. However, I'm more than satisfied with the way the first book came out, so if it takes them some additional time and resources to produce a quality product, I will be patient.

In conclusion, I just wanted to thank all of you for sticking with me and reading Brain Diving for this past year. I had a wonderful time writing these columns, and I hope you found them informative, enjoyable, or at least somewhat diverting. Take care!

Brian Ruh is the author of Stray Dog of Anime: The Films of Mamoru Oshii. You can find him on Twitter at @animeresearch.

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