Man Down, Man Down!

Back in June I started playing Valkyria Chronicles, a turn-based, squad-level wargame for the PS3. I suspect many of its fans don’t actually know that’s what they’re playing: VC does a very clever job of not looking like a wargame. Characters are controlled from a third-person shooter perspective, and they behave mostly like shooter characters except for the way they have a limited number of movement points and a single action for each round. It also looks more like a good anime than a videogame. This distinguishes it from most other Japanese games, which largely take their aesthetic cues from trashy anime.

On the other hand, let’s not get carried away praising Valkyria Chronicles’ tasteful sensibilities: your second in command goes into combat wearing a miniskirt and blushing like the vaguely eroticized schoolgirl she is.

In fact, Alicia comes very close to ruining the game, especially if you play it in Japanese with English subtitles. The only thing worse about the way the typical Japanese game visually portrays women is the way it characterizes them: overwhelmingly shrill, perky, and prone to mood swings that make Naomi Campbell look like St. Francis. Or they’re painfully demure, barely able to speak or look someone in the eyes. Or they’re perpetually pissed off and speak in a freakishly deep voice. There’s hardly a convention that Valkyria Chronicles doesn’t drive into the ground.

Rosie, left, an unpleasant but useful member of the squad.

Thank God there’s an inoffensive English voice track.

Anyway, I recently went back to my save game, which was on hold at a point where the difficult was rapidly increasing. This is mostly a good thing: the early part of VC is so easy that the only real challenge is how quickly you can walk all over the opposition. However, since the AI is fairly poor in VC, the missions get more difficult through construction and event triggers, which takes it into more trial-and-error territory. In a wargame, that’s really not where you want to be.

One thing works brilliantly in this game, however: rescuing incapacitated teammates.

You can’t tell in the early missions, because it’s a rare event. However, in the mid-game you start having teammates get shot down, and that’s when the rescue mechanic comes into play.

When a teammate goes down, you have 3 turns to get another squad member to his position and summon a medic. The medic instantly transports the wounded squaddie from the battlefield, and he can actually be brought back into play on the following turn. However, if you don’t get there within three turns, your squad member is dead.

There’s a dark brilliance to this system. Chances are, your squadmate is bleeding out on a dangerous patch of turf, which means you really have to think about whether you want to send more teammates out to rescue him. You can easily fritter away the entire team trying to get one wounded trooper off the field. But if you don’t do it, the soldier is dead. Gone forever. And as annoying as some of these characters can be, they’re my annoying characters.

I saw this scenario play out in tragicomic fashion during my last mission. The enemy commander was taking his super-tank (basically a land-dreadnaught) on a rampage through our bases, and we had to cripple and then destroy it while avoiding its powerful main guns. Midway through that little endeavor, he received massive reinforcements along with an honest-to-God valkyrie. I was completely caught out, and thanks to the Valkyrie’s enchanted spear of death, I lost three troopers almost instantly.

Two of them were in positions where they could be rescued. But one of them, my lead assault trooper Rosie, was lying in a trench that the tank had already overrun, and the valkyrie (who is unkillable) was basically corpse-camping her.

Rosie is extra valuable because she provides an extra command point each turn, which basically means I get an extra move when she’s on the field. Still, with two anti-tank trooper and an engineer nearby, I thought we could get her out.

The medic, who scurries into any situation and rescues the wounded

The engineer made a last ammunition run through the squad, replenishing their stocks, then bolted for Rosie’s position. The valkyrie spotted him and hit him with the lance just as he made it to Rosie’s side and called in the medic. Then he  went down. He was slightly closer to the edge of the trench. Trouble was, the engineer is one of the fastest guys on the team. My AT gunners are better armored, but also lumbering and slow. Predictably, the next one I sent on a rescue run got shot down. Worse, he never even made it to the engineer.

So with one anti-tank Lancer remaining, and two soldiers bleeding out in dead ground, I was starting to panic. Rosie was saved, and she was more valuable than the rest of them, but I really didn’t want to lose anyone to this stupid, unfair valkyrie attack.

My solution was inelegant. I took my CO’s tank, drove it between my last lancer and the valkyrie, and used it as a moving shield. Her weapons damaged it steadily, but not enough to destroy it before it reached their position. My other lancer moved up behind the tank, rescuing my soldiers. She barely made it out of the trench before the valkyrie killed her.

I was stunned at the rush of relief I felt as we backed away from the lighting-touched lady with the glowing lance. We’d gotten everyone out alive, and now I was free to concentrate on the super-tank. But in the melee to get Rosie out of harm’s way, I’d completely forgotten about the larger mission, and was now in danger of losing it.

But that’s the point of this mechanic: it dangles the hope of preventing casualties in front of you, luring you into destructive decisions in the name of leaving no man behind.

  1. Ah yes I remember that mission, but I think your “rush” actually came from a bit of ignorance of a couple more of the game mechanics pertaining to that mission.

    I’m pretty sure you auto-fail if Rosie dies because she’s a “main” character, same with Largo. That might just count for Welkin and Alicia though. Also, the secondary cannon of Welkin’s tank will stun the Valkyrie and leave her immobile for one turn (not sure if she can still attack).

    Nevertheless, that was one of the most intense missions for me because the Valkyrie’s appearance totally fucked things up for me. I had to make huge improvisations that eventually succeeded.

    By this time I had taken the second to last enemy base at the north end of the map and was amassing a big force to take that last base filled with the elite guards and that super tank. Then the Valkyrie showed up and threatened to capture my original base – which I had left completely undefended. I now had to take that last enemy base with just five men: two scouts, two shock-troopers, and a lancer.

    The next couple turns were bitzkreig all up in that bitch. We gave up trying to wipe out the base and just tried to cut a path to the flag – stealthing behind the tents and circling around fortified enemy positions – basically running right into the fire. This whole half-baked plan though relied on Largo being able to take out the tank in one shot. The best I could get him was a side shot where only a sliver of the radiator was visible. He took the shot, and made it.

    Artist’s Dramatization

    That was like the third time during Valkyria Chronicles where I leapt out of my chair because of a shot like that. To this day, I retain a special version of the game’s fiction in my mind where that battle was followed by and Iwo-Jima-like photo of those five guys raising the flag.

    How far have you made it past that? Because the missions only get harder. I think after that you have to take the main imperial forward base in the country. I had to have Alicia run WAY behind enemy lines for that one.

    The best and most intense mission in the game though is chapter 17 – the second battle with the red super tank. That got to a point where I had to capture at least one enemy base PER TURN. After capturing most of them I was shocked to look at the clock and find out that only three turns had passed.

    Seriously though, the whole trial-and-error thing with each battle being a puzzle is how a lot of JRPGs work. Traditionally bosses in JRPGs have such a ridiculous advantage over the player that if they had any real AI they’d be unbeatable. The perfect example is a boss in the middle of Persona 3 that has the ability to charm your ENTIRE PARTY instantly, but will sometimes just choose not to.

    If you want to play a strategy game like Valkyria but a little more dynamic and with some actual AI, I suggest you try out either Fire Emblem or Advance Wars on the DS (and GBA). They’re cut from the same ilk as Valkyria, and there’s really very little like them even in the PC world. X-Com is the closest thing really, and even that’s a stretch.

      • Flitcraft
      • October 10th, 2010 4:52pm

      I think you’re describing a different (later?) mission. This is the one in the desert outside the temple, where the big tank just rolls over all your bases in sequence while you delay and destroy it. I think Largo and Rosie might be able to die, but I’m really not sure. In each mission, the crucial point is that Welkin and Alicia can’t die. But I could see the game entering a fail-state if Largo or Rosie buy it, because half the cutscenes are about them. Not sure how it would work if they were gone.

      • Ooooooh. The mission you’re talking about is actually still quite early. Shit get’s way harder after that. I think that mission is around chapter 7. Wait until you reach the second half of chapter 10. Everything after that is one tactical nightmare after another.

        I actually got really lucky on chapter 7. When the Valkyrie showed up there, I happened to have my tank and two scouts positioned right in between the elite squad and my last base. The whole squad except the Valkyrie went straight for the base and were all cut down. The Valkyrie veered left behind the mega tank and for some reason didn’t really bother us during that mission.

        By the way, that’s only the second biggest “tank” you’ll go up against during the game.

          • Paul
          • October 13th, 2010 2:32pm

          The game does get harder as you continue to progress, but the tank mission that Rob’s talking about is probably the cheapest mission in the entire game. It’s practically impossible to strategically plan for it the first time through and you just have to hope to get lucky enough with your troop placement at the moment when the Valkyrie shows up.

          I’ve known a couple people who basically stopped playing because of that mission, so I hope you forge ahead, Rob, there’s still some good gaming to be had.

            • Flitcraft
            • October 13th, 2010 7:36pm

            Good to hear that. It did seem a little cheap. I knew trouble was coming from the stuff Varrot was saying in the early turns, so I knew not to stray too far from the path. So I only had to replay two or three turns near the end a couple times. I’m not too frustrated yet. I just get a bit bored with the game’s pacing. Welkin and Alicia’s mission, for instance, seemed glacial.

  2. Tried to see if I could HTML an image in there but I guess not.

  3. Really glad to hear one of the TMA’ers discussing this game, which I enjoyed a lot despite all its flaws! I’d love to hear more console, and especially more Japanese TRPG, chatter on the show. I was particularly interested in the subject of this post, since I coincidentally also blogged on PC death in Valkyria Chronicles a couple of weeks back ( Specific responses to your post below:

    1. FYI, Rosie and Largo ARE immune to perma-death, similarly to Alicia. :D Medevacing them still does have its advantages, though, because then you can redeploy them in the same mission.

    2. Good heavens, that stage was hell the first time – I remember savescumming like crazy after Selvaria tore a swathe of perma-death through my squad. I think I ended up doing the same thing as you and using the Edelweiss as a shield for my infantry. I still remember my rush of relief when my lancer managed to destroy the super-tank as it ground ever close to my base…

    3. Regarding the Valkyria Chronicles AI… this is a case when I’ll invoke Soren Johnson’s distinction between “good” AI and “fun” AI. Valkyria Chronicles is built from the ground up as a game where you sweep around a large map in pursuit of your territorial objectives, and your opposition consists of lots of foes who are individually weak, but together can overwhelm a PC luckless enough to be left in the open at the end of the Gallian turn. I think of it as being almost like Kelly’s Heroes or The Magnificent Seven, where Clint Eastwood or Yul Brynner can mow down half-a-dozen Nazis/banditos so long as he keeps moving. But if the Imperial AI played the same way as you or I, the game (and levels!) would have to be fundamentally redesigned to accomodate that. It would have to become a far more symmetrical design, for one.

    4. Eventually, you can unlock an order that lets you call in the medic to any of your fallen soldiers regardless of where they are on the field. I’d be curious as to what you think of it, and whether you think it upsets that gameplay dynamic.

    Please keep posting your thoughts on VC – would love to hear more discussion of the game from a Western strategy gamer-perspective.

      • Flitcraft
      • October 11th, 2010 2:47pm

      I think what makes me really resent the bad AI is the way the enemy turn just takes all the momentum out of a level. It’s just randomly scurrying around, burning command points, until it lets me play again. This is already a dangerously unevenly paced game, and the AI turns get excruciating.

      • Ah, right, gotcha.

        Do other turn-based squad-level games (eg X-Com) suffer from the same problem for you? Or does VC suffer particularly badly for you due to the long movement distances, numerous CPs and plethora of units on the field?

          • Flitcraft
          • October 11th, 2010 8:57pm

          No, VC is definitely worse. Too many CPs is a big part of it, and the movement doesn’t seem to be significantly sped-up. Movements out of your LOS still seem to happen in near real-time, so you just watch the sound markers placed on the map during the AI turn. In a game like Jagged Alliance, the AI turn plays out very fast and you only have to sit around and wait for the stuff that’s happening within your line of sight. Since that’s tense stuff, because the game is fairly merciless, it’s not actually boring.

          • Ahh, right. I take your point, though I did also find the AI turns in VC to be tense.

            By the way, I do like the touch of the sound markers. I wonder if they took the idea from Combat Mission? Unlikely, but it’s an interesting thought.

  4. By the way, what happened to the final lancer, the one whom you used to evac the others?

      • Flitcraft
      • October 13th, 2010 7:38pm

      Clean getaway using Edelweiss for cover. Put the super-tank between my guys and her, and she kind of got cornered for the rest of the mission.

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