Every month you can watch reviews and read our thoughts on the games we've been playing, old and new. This month we have two video reviews and a lot of little bits and pieces for you to read.
Valkyria Chronicles 4
Tanks, magic and adorable anime dogs can only mean one thing: a new Valkyria Chronicles game. The Valkyria Chronicles series has had a tricky time of it since the first game, with none of the sequels or the spin-off making the same impact as the beautiful debut of Valkyria Chronicles a whole decade ago.
Valkyria Chronicles 4 aims to fix that problem by being pretty much as close to the original game as possible, just with different characters and a different, concurrent storyline.
First, a history lesson. In an alternate version of Europe where the allied forces march under the sickening name of the Edinburgh Army, the military empire of “Not-Russia” invades and starts a big war, and neutral, tiny wee Gallia is stuck in the centre of it all. The first game focused on Gallia’s part in the war, but Valkyria Chronicles 4 changes the focus to the allied front, making inroads into imperial territory. After a few years now of not really knowing how to continue the story of Valkyria Chronicles, it made sense for Sega just to go back to the war that started it all.
This is a war unlike any other though. A decade on, no other game has really emulated the Valkyria Chronicles formula. It’s a mash-up of turn-based strategy, real-time/arcadey running and gunning and JRPG levelling and progression. It sounds like a mess but it works extremely well; each round on the battlefield gives you a handful of turns to move units, use them to attack or do another action, and capture bases along the way
Between each turn you can scan the battlefield from above and make decisions, but when you’re down on the ground the battlefield comes alive as crossfire and artillery spring into action as soon as your unit is spotted. There are a few basic unit types: scouts are weak but can travel the furthest, shocktroopers pack a punch and can dodge crossfire quickly but can’t run far, lancers trudge along at a snail’s pace but can destroy tanks and snipers sit back and dispense death from a distance. Happily, all the bizarre unit types of Valkyria Chronicles 2 are gone; no more bagpipe players on the battlefield.
The one new addition to the roster is the grenadier, who can’t travel very far but can fire devastating shells for miles, destroying infantry and artillery in their wake. They’re extremely useful and the key to success in a lot of missions, but not as overpowered as others have made them out to be.
Between battles, you spend most of your time in a lovely story book, watching cutscenes of Squad E and getting to know the cast better. The squad all tend to fit into anime stereotype moulds, but they are a likeable bunch. Give them a bit of time though; unlike Valkyria Chronicles 1, this game throws you into the story at a point where everyone already knows each other, with a lot of flashbacks used to bring you up to speed. The first game had a slow start, story wise, but at least you were always on the same level as Welkin when it came to meeting and getting to know folk. Here it feels like you’re playing catch-up.
Trips to army headquarters let you use experience and cold hard cash to develop equipment, train your squad and learn new orders. You can also tailor your squad, choosing recruits who you either think will be useful, or you just like the look of them. They all have their quirks too, no two troops are completely alike.
Don’t get too wedded to the idea of having a completely unique experience though. Valkyria Chronicles 4 carries over some of the first game’s biggest flaws, and they all contribute to a strategy game that doesn’t really require much strategy.
The missions in the game are each memorable and full of do-or-die moments, but there’s a strong feeling of the game’s guiding hand throughout. You’re never *really* asked to figure out the best approach by yourself, and a lot of the missions boil down to doing the Big Thing that the game wants you to do. There’s a mission near the start of the game that takes place in a flashback. You’re told before you go in that it’s the toughest training mission the army has to offer, a kobayashi maru-level task of unbeatable odds. But then you get into it and all you have to do is exactly what the game tells you.
I thought the game would take the training wheels off when, about a third of the way through, I was on a frantic and chaotic battlefield full of tanks and pillboxes.
“Yaaas!” I thought. Finally time for some real tactical creativity to get my squad through this hellscape.
But no, that’s when the enemy AI decides it can’t be arsed taking me on properly and just half-arses it’s way through the battle. It doesn’t help that, as an RPG at heart, Valkyria Chronicles is extremely unbalanced in the players favour.
Here’s the thing nobody likes to talk about with JRPGs: they’re fundamentally broken at the core. They’re games where the player always has numbers on their side, and Valkyria Chronicles is no exception. It’s game where a small team of less than a dozen can take on a whole army, because you’ve got the highest defence, the best weapons and the strongest tanks, every time. And even when the enemy could easily wipe out your entire platoon in one round, they never do.
If that all sounds disappointing, bear in mind the first game was exactly the same, and I count it as one of my favourite games on the PS3.
It’s a unique and special game that’s dear to my heart because there was nothing else like it, and because it told this grand, sweeping romantic war-time story through an anime lens. I could look past those flaws because the journey was so magical, and the central hook of the gameplay was so special. I can honestly say that Valkyria Chronicles 4 is just as good as the first game, but I don’t think I’ll ever love it like I do the first.
And that’s a shame, because if you’ve never played a Valkyria Chronicles game, this fourth entry might be the one that you fall in love with. It even fixes a couple of problems the first game had: tanks no longer take up two turns per use, and you can make squad members follow captains around so you don’t need to waste turns moving them individually. I’d kill for that in the first game!
If you look past the lack of real strategy to just embrace the JRPG trappings, Valkyria Chronicles 4 is a game of thrilling battles, exciting set-pieces and wonderful characters. For that reason, it’s still something special.
Final Fantasy XV: Pocket Edition HD
In a bizarre twist, blockbuster JRPG Final Fantasy XV was adapted into a chibi-style mobile game, featuring the entire storyline and main quest told in tiny, mobile form. In an even more bizarre twist, that mobile game has now found its way back into consoles. And in a final, perfect twist, that mobile port is on the Nintendo Switch, which is probably the perfect fit for it, and it’s what I’ve been playing on.
I have to make it clear from the start that I’m a very firm Final Fantasy XV apologist. I love the world, I love the combat and most of all I love the boys. Don’t let that convince you that I was sold on this game from the beginning though. It seemed a strange move to condense a game as sprawling and epic into a mobile experience.
Any scepticism I had melted away as soon as I saw adorable wee King Regis though. Wait till you see his wee beard!
Playing Pocket Edition is like finding a time capsule from an alternate dimension where FFXV was a fully-fledged ps2-era JRPG. From the top down camera and the basic-but-exciting battles to the expressive chibi-style characters, everything feels authentically of a time when I’d sit in my bedroom playing JRPGs for hours on end and developing my characteristic pasty complexion.
Every aspect of big boy FFXV’s combat is present and correct: warping around the battlefield, switching weapons on the fly, co-op attacks and, when you unlock the Royal Arms, the devastating Armiger Technique.
Dodges and counters are telegraphed and use slow motion to give you plenty of time to react, and magic is a “one and done” situation. It’s just all been made much more simple, which I think will appeal to a lot of people.
Progression through the game is simplified too. Lucis is no longer a giant open world to explore at leisure, but a miniature world map of linear chapters where you visit towns and crawl through dungeons as the story dictates. It means there are a lot fewer sidequests now, but they don’t feel like a chore. In fact, one of the cleverest features of the game is a wee warning when you’re about to leave an area with incomplete sidequests; if you just want to blast through the game you can, but it’s handy to know you’ve got the option to hang about and do a bit of item hunting first.
I’m not one of those folk who thinks pocket Edition is better than full-fat FFXV, but it can be more enjoyable to play in short bursts, especially on Switch. Bosses and bigger creatures who could send the camera into a wild spin in the original game are now much easier to handle because of the camera angle and simplified controls.
The biggest strength the game has is actually how similar an experience it is to the original. For all its differences and simplification, every story beat and cutscene is here. The emotional gut punch halfway through still rings true, and the big epic moments still have the same bombast and spectacle they had before. Even the notorious chapter 13 is here in full, although it’s somehow less difficult and infuriating than it was before. It’s really, truly surprising that an unashamedly “cutesy” game can have such an impact, but it all comes down to how confidently the game wears its art style.
The consistency in the art style and presentation also helps the story to feel more cohesive too. In the original game, some important plot details and world-building conversations could be easily missed because they were just mentioned in passing now and again. In Pocket Edition those same conversations don’t feel as throwaway because they’re presented with the same level of detail as the major story beats; they don’t feel as throwaway, so they stick in your memory much easier.
It’s not all perfect though. It’s an obvious port, which brings some issues in the transition. Audio glitches are frequent, and sometimes footsteps or music will disappear for a while if too many sounds are triggered at the same time. The boys idle chatter repeats a lot, and sometimes entire conversations overlap each other.
These issues are fairly minor, but they’re disappointing. Really, they’re only so disappointing because the rest of the game is such a pleasure to play. I’d love for more people to experience FFXV and get the same joy out of it I have over the years, but I think that Pocket Edition is a much better entry point for some players; people who don’t want a giant, sprawling world to explore will be able to get just as full a FFXV experience from Pocket Edition as I have the full game, and that’s the point of why this game exists.
If the full game turned you off, and you yearn for a JRPG like the PS2 days never ended, then FFXV Pocket Edition might be just the thing for you.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2: Torna – The Golden Country
It’s time to go back to one of the best Switch games and it’s a lovely way to be welcomed back to the world of Alrest. I’ve barely scratched the surface and already it’s become one of my favourite games of the year. Worth playing and completing the main game first, so people new to the game will have a very generous package waiting for them.
I managed to live for 31 years on this planet without ever playing Dr. Mario. I don’t know how I managed! I thought I’d give it a quick shot on the Switch to pass time on the train. It’s a revelation! Who knew Dr. Mario was such good fun, even after losing 10 rounds to my wife? Nintendo did, that’s who.
Really good fun, but no Bruce Campbell. I’ll be talking more about it next month as our fingers are very much on the pulse.