Game Review

by Dustin Bailey,

Valkyria Revolution

PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, Xbox One

Valkyria Revolution
Valkyria Revolution drops most of its predecessor's trappings in favor of a new story, new characters, and new gameplay. It's an action RPG set in the midst of a mana-powered, faux-European Industrial Revolution, one which teeters its heroes on the edge between war heroes and traitorous criminals.

Valkyria Revolution is told through the pages of history books. A young historian sets out to find the truth about the Five Traitors who led the nation of Jutland to revolution for their own selfish ends, and with the help of a suspiciously knowledgeable professor pieces together the truth of the events which reshaped the land, along with how the leaders of a revolution became branded as traitors. Passages in those books lead into scenes and battles, presented just a bit out of order and without just the bit of crucial context necessary to put it all together.

It's when it's exploring the grand strokes of the story, of secret political machinations, backroom deals between nations, and swings of public opinion that Revolution is at its best, presenting a complex war with manipulative entities guiding the public among both the heroes and villains. But it's the smaller-scale stuff—from the characters to the combat—that suffers, presenting an epic conflict with broad intrigue that's made dull by its own details.

The Five Traitors who form the core cast have all risen to ranks of power in the land of Jutland, ranging from politicians to businessmen to propaganda-focused journalists, and you're placed in the role of Amleth, leader of the Anti-Valkyria Squad, the military's most elite unit charged with both special operations and stopping the enemy's most powerful force—the titular Valkyria, a creature of mysterious origins who comes to battle clothed as Death itself, reaping the life of friend and foe alike. The titular Valkyria is one of the few threads linking Revolution with the Valkyria Chronicles series. There's weaponry powered by mana-attuned ragnite stone along with politics and aesthetics inspired by historical Europe, though this one trades anime World War II for anime Industrial Revolution, slotting a Russia analog in as the evil empire against which all fights are just.

The battles are where those differences are most clear, since Revolution scuttles the series' trademark tactical combat in favor of action-RPG combat with a light flavor of strategy sprinkled throughout. Each mission sees four party members head out to an arena with specific objectives and enemy layouts, leaving a lot of grunts to overpower, usually some mechanized units to overpower, and occasionally a boss to contend with. It's sort of action but also sort of turn based, with a gauge that refills over seconds governing your ability to do basic attacks or hit up the menu for magic, gunshots, and grenades. In the meantime you're offenseless, leaving you with no recourse but to dodge or guard as you wait for your next opportunity to strike.

Waiting around for a meter to refill as you helplessly circle enemy soldiers is about as much fun as it sounds, but the strategic elements do make the fights a bit more interesting. Dropping grenades amid groups of enemies will send them all scattering—and will destroy certain bits of cover—not only leaving them open to attack but causing them to get progressively more shaken as they see their allies go down, lowering their own attack and defense power. Heading to specific spots on the map gives you the chance to take over bases, swinging the battle in your favor. More concretely, that means faster ability gauges, more easily shaken enemies, and more resolved teammates.

But there's no back and forth to that system, leaving your own party progressively more advantaged as the battle wears on. Enemies start to cower in fear as they see you approach, your attacks recharge instantaneously, and the whole battlefield bows to your godlike master of warfare. It's fun the first few times, but eventually it becomes clear that every single fight turns out the exact same way: even odds as you enter a map before an eventual decline into total domination. There are only a handful of enemy types, and once you've landed on a tactic to deal with each there's no reason to switch things up through the remainder of the game. Take out a commander to demoralize the grunts around him and sweep up the survivors. Damage a mech's legs enough to immobilize it then wail on the central unit. Imagine that process repeated ten times a linear level throughout the length of an RPG, and you can start to see where Valkyria Revolution becomes a slog.

The exception is in the boss fights, which actually do require you to make use of a variety of abilities, exploiting elemental weaknesses to interrupt powerful attacks and making the most of all the resources available to your party to take down either powerful human opponents or improbable, beautifully ridiculous giant magic robots. That is assuming you're on even footing, since the game switches gears from laughably easy to maybe actually impossible at a sudden point roughly two-thirds deep, requiring you to dive into mountains of side missions even more repetitive than those in the main story to grind out the level difference. Or, alternatively, you could make the ever-present toggle to easy mode, which essentially sheds those grinding hours off. You're looking at 30 hours to see the conclusion with a switch to easy, or closer to 40 to see it through on normal with all padded out leveling that entails.

The worst of it all is the character customization system, which comes up just shy of being an absolute mess. Ragnite stones earned as drops in battle can either be slotted in as spells to use, or converted to points to upgrade a character's abilities including, among other things, the power of the spells they can equip. That means you're constantly funnelling useful abilities into the option to use more useful abilities, and the equation never balances out—you're always without the spell you want or without the ability to use the spell you want. You can only take four party members to battle at a time, but the roster is closer to ten, and if you make the reasonable choice to focus upgrades on a handful of characters you're going to have a real rough time in those story missions which force you to use those other, underpowered squaddies.

Party members are spread between four different classes—in theory—but they all end up feeling pretty much the same. Certain classes have better damage, or defense, or healing abilities, but in practice the battles so rarely take advantage of a diverse party that it's rare you'll even notice they're there. (Especially since you can just switch control to them at any time and make use of whatever ability you need.) There's also a whole AI customization system, which I'm loath to even mention for how insignificant it is, but it's another dead end gameplay system that serves no ultimate purpose. Essentially, you unlock certain priorities for your squad from optional conversations, ranging from general focuses on offense and defense to very specific to target enemy parts or use certain types of abilities. Good luck ever noticing those coming into play, though, since your AI-controlled squadmates mostly mill around and do whatever, and it ends up being far more useful to just give a party-wide directive of “attack” or “support” rather than relying on the uncertainties of AI programming.

Your crew doesn't become much more exciting in the story, either. Outside of the core cast everyone's painted in the most one-dimensional terms, from the pompous gentleman to the mostly drunk fighter to the gee whiz tomboy engineer, and most of them simply fade into the background for hours at a time before resurfacing momentarily for an awkward bit of forced comedy. Even the core cast can suffer from some of the same problems, but they at least have arcs—even if you've seen the story of the idealistic princess who must confront the realities of war more than once before.

The promise of the core story, that complex combination of misguided motives and murky political waters, never really materializes either. The revelations that are supposed to recontextualize the roles of the Five Traitors—the core thread on which the entire story hangs—are never quite so revelatory, and their transgressions in forcing their nation into war never feel so horrific when the enemy is literally burning down orphanages and laughing at the results. There are pieces here and there, notably the journalist's struggles in managing propaganda against the tide of public opinion, that catch just enough texture to feel meaningful in the larger context of the plot, but the story reiterates the same themes and conversations over and over in seemingly endless chains of cutscenes that choke the life out of an otherwise interesting tale.

Those cutscenes are hamstrung both by their repetitive content and the game's lack of visual verve, seemingly either a result of a limited budget or the game's codevelopment on Vita—or perhaps both. The bulk of the game just feels flat, from the unimaginative cityscapes and factories that make up the bulk of the levels to the stilted animation that makes the lengthy cutscenes even more tedious. There are moments where the art pushes past the technical limitations, like the beautiful background details of the hub city or the ornately absurd mechs that form the bigger bosses, but those moments are few.

Valkyria Revolution just feels like a collection of half-finished ideas that don't coalesce into anything more, and it's the sheer possibility of each of those ideas that make the failure of execution so disappointing. The story is interesting—but the characters who inhabit it are often trite and lifeless. The combination of strategic battles and action-RPG combat is neat—but none of the systems come together to keep it engaging for any length of time. Revolution's greatest difficulty is the shadow of its own predecessor, but even putting aside the beloved nature of Valkyria Chronicles, this spin-off can't stand on its own.

Overall : C-
Graphics : C
Sound/Music : B+
Gameplay : D+
Presentation : C-

+ Good political intrigue, great soundtrack, echoes of interesting mechanics
Combat is repetitive, systems don't integrate well together, difficulty is never in tune, little story payoff

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