PS4, Vita, Xbox One
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to reinvent a beloved series. The history of games is studded with spin-offs and revamps that worked, in many cases changing things for the better. But even the welloiled propaganda machine at the heart of this ponderous war story would struggle to put a positive spin on this particular transformation. Valkyria Revolution doesn’t deserve criticism for attempting to diverge from its formula, for throwing out the smart tactical combat of its predecessors, or for revising the original’s distinctive pen-and-wash style. It’s not a disappointment because it’s different, but because the changes it makes are almost exclusively for the worse.
The story is seemingly founded upon a total misunderstanding of what made the first game such a cult favourite, believing that a surfeit of backstory and exposition makes for engaging narrative. It squanders a promising setup which occasionally threatens to become more intriguing, as the kingdom of Jutland enters into conflict with the vast and powerful Ruzi empire, in a so-called Liberation War engineered by a coterie of five young people who have manoeuvred their way into positions of influence. This is interspersed with a discussion, 100 years on, between two academics. As a framing device, this soon proves troublesome, not only since it reveals the outcome of the war and the fate of several key characters, but also because it means events are often explained twice over.
That might be less of a problem if the pace was snappier. But if Chronicles’ cutscenes could have used a trim, Revolution’s examination of war makes Tolstoy look like a novella writer. Scenes of almost farcical length follow one another, bookended – and sometimes interrupted – by waits so frequent that the words ‘Now Loading’ in the bottom-right of the screen come to feel like the game’s unofficial logo. The box blurb likens these story sequences to ‘moving paintings’, which is generous in the extreme. The gouache-on-canvas art style feels less an aesthetic choice so much as an opportunity to paper over some obvious visual cracks. And the scenes themselves are so static and sparsely animated that at times you’ll struggle to work out who’s talking during group discussions, especially since the speaker often has their back to the camera.
Budgetary constraints can only partly account for such lifelessness. Limp direction and dull performances don’t help, but the present-day sequences are tedious back-and-forth where key developments are restated. Elsewhere, in the pokey meeting place of the so-called Five Traitors, this quintet of schemers simply stands around a table explaining the plot in interminable detail. The whole thing is slathered in JRPG cliché, epitomised by protagonist Amleth, a sullen orphan with a parodically oversized sword and an outfit that seems to have more belts in every successive cutscene.
Eventually, control will be handed back to you, usually when there’s a new country to liberate – at which point your party of four steps onto the battlefield and any faint hope that the action might compensate for the story’s flaws quickly evaporates. It’s an awkward hodgepodge, combining realtime combat with Active Time elements and the option to pause to launch special attacks or command friendly units. You can guard and roll at the push of a button, but the brief cooldown between attacks, along with the canned multi-hit animation that plays out when you tap X, means it’s wholly unsatisfying as an action game, like a Musou title with a sluggish, halting rhythm. Yet its strategic side doesn’t really work either. If you want to launch a grenade or a volley of machinegun fire, you’ll have to pause and aim, the delay essentially letting you get in a free shot, since opponents will remain frozen in time. But though grenades are handy for dealing with a group of grunts with minimal fuss, and guns for lone enemies in watchtowers, they’re feeble against larger adversaries, so you’ll end up relying on your group’s mana-infused weapon skills. Here, it’s simply a matter of discovering a unit’s elemental weakness and exploiting it, switching control to whichever party member can deal the most damage in the quickest time. Or, you can simply wade in with your most powerful fighter and mash the attack button, ducking out just before a telegraphed area attack is triggered, and repeating until it finally drops.
Despite a range of ways to apparently influence your teammates’ battle roles, the suicidally dumb AI will constantly blunder into danger. Half-hearted cover and stealth systems are rendered useless by your allies’ gormless keenness to waltz into open ground. Giving them specific commands during combat is long-winded and entirely unnecessary when you can just assume direct control, though the soldier from whom you switched will invariably opt to stand immediately adjacent to the enemy as it winds up for its most powerful attack. Since reviving a teammate is as simple as trotting over to where they fell and pressing a button, the game’s most fearsome antagonists don’t so much take thought to beat as time, as you joylessly chip away at their annoyingly long health bars.
Meanwhile, with a structure that demands you revisit earlier levels to push back the Ruzi forces, your party will gain experience that all but negates the need to fuss over the incremental boosts from gear and weapon upgrades. It’s yet another poorly thought-out system in a game with plenty of ideas but no clue of how to make them coalesce. The result is a tiresome slog that proves the first casualty of war is not innocence, but brevity. Valkyria Devolution might have been a more honest title.
The words ‘Now Loading’ in the bottom-right of the screen come to feel like the game’s unofficial logo