Review: Valkyria Revolution

Name’s the Same

Brand recognition is a huge deal in marketing a new product. Customers are going to be more apt to trying out your new product if it can be somehow related to another well-loved and popular name. All the better if there’s some elements in this product that make the relationship to the popular brand make sense.

Video games, of course, are not immune to this kind of marketing, although I can’t say I see it happening much in modern times. For example, back when bringing JRPGs to the west was seen as a risk, when Square wanted to bring a new game over, they’d just slap a Final Fantasy label on it. The Mana series (Secret of Mana, etc.) began as Final Fantasy Adventure. The first three SaGa games were retitled Final Fantasy Legend in the US. Gamers would see the popular Final Fantasy name and be more apt to give these games a shot, even if they weren’t really Final Fantasy titles.

Leveraging familiarity can go a long way in raising awareness for your product. Doubly so when the name you’re using is from a cult favorite series, with a fanbase that has been rabidly awaiting a new entry since 2011. Even longer, if you’re counting titles released in the west.

Developed by Media.Vision and published by Sega, Valkyria Revolution was released on June 27th, 2017 for PS4, XBox One, and Vita. The PS4 version was played for this review.

Digging for the Truth

Valkyria Revolution tells the tale of the “Liberation War,” a war between the small kingdom of Jutland and the expansive Ruzi Empire. The Empire is right on Jutland’s doorstep, having set up an economic blockade to whittle them down. With their country on the brink of collapse, a group of five influential people come together to convince Jutland to fight back, pushing them toward a war with the Empire.

The story is framed as a conversation between student and teacher a century after the events of the war. The group of five were labeled as traitors to Jutland, since the conspired to lead the country to a long and bloody war, and were put to death. At least, this is what is taught in the history books. Through this framing device, the real story of the Liberation War is presented.

As I inferred earlier, Valkyria Revolution is leveraging the name and popularity of Valkyria Chronicles to create a whole new game. Revolution takes place in an entirely different world, with completely different characters. Some elements do exist that link the two, like the presence of the energy source Ragnite and the existence of Valkyria warriors. Outside of minor similarities, though, Revolution may as well be an entirely new IP.

The plot itself has some points of intrigue and some truly memorable moments, but they are few and far between, padded out with lengthy boring cutscenes and often banal dialogue. It’s normal to spend over an hour or so watching various cutscenes in between short gameplay segments. I’ve said in the past that I often enjoy games heavily weighted on the story side of the scale, but that’s because in those situations, the story being told is actually interesting.

Revolution has cutscenes for some of the most pointless and unimportant moments in the narrative. I know “show don’t tell” is a rule in writing, but I don’t really believe it necessary to show a five-minute cutscene for an event that was already explained within a few sentences in a previous cutscene and adds nothing important to the plot.

Adding further to annoyance is that the game has to load in between every scene change, and often even in the middle of the same scene. There were a few scenes of simple conversation between the five traitors, or between the Ruzi emperor and his subordinates, where the scene cut to a loading screen multiple times and returned with absolutely nothing changed. Characters weren’t moved around, graphical presentation didn’t change, and the conversation carried on directly from the pre-loading scene…I have no idea why or what the game had to load.

To Arms

Where the namesake Valkyria Chronicles was a strategy game with TPS elements, Revolution is an action game more similar to the musou genre. In battle, you take control of a squad of four characters (most of the time), taking down your enemies in real time.

Revolution does attempt to hold on to a strategic feel with a few of its engines. Most noticeable is that most of your actions rely on a constantly refilling meter, a la the various ATB systems in the Final Fantasy series. Once you perform any kind of attack, you have to wait until your action gauge refills before you can attack again. You can still move and defend during this time, and striking a balance between offense and defense with this gauge quickly becomes important.

In most missions, you have a selection of just over ten characters from which you can form your squad. Each has one of four specialties – hard-hitting Shocktrooper, speedy Scout, defense-focused Shield, and magic-focused Sapper. Aside from weapons, each character within the same specialty controls nearly the same. Each character does have some unique innate abilities and weaknesses, but they never really stood out enough in action to matter. I just ended up picking out my favorite character from each specialty and using them throughout the game.

Doing so actually helped out, due to the way you develop your characters. You do gain experience after battles and level up like in a standard JRPG, but you can also get additional stat boosts through a system that reminded me of a simplified Sphere Grid from Final Fantasy X. Each node on the grid unlocks stat boosts and affinity toward different magic elements (allowing you to use higher-powered magics), but unlocking nodes requires spending ragnite – the same items that you equip to characters to unlock magic. Ragnite isn’t cheap or common to obtain, especially higher-powered ones, so it’s a constant battle between using what you have in battle, or spending it to unlock stat boosts.

Despite some misgivings I have with the various systems, battles themselves are quite fun. You can switch between which squadmate you’re controlling at the push of a button, and the rest run off of AI commands that you can set in the game menu. The AI isn’t perfect (I can’t count the number of times a squadmate would chill out in the middle of a telegraphed AOE attack), but it’s capable enough that you won’t feel like you’re just carrying your team solo. I did run into an issue of my character getting stuck inside larger enemies when attacking them – an annoyance, but one I was able to look past.

Stunted Growth

The graphical presentation…this is something I’m very conflicted on with Revolution. On one hand, I love the character designs. The character designer definitely loves leather belts, but the designs are nicely detailed and each character’s look fits their personality. The various battlefields you’ll find yourself in are attractive as well, although not particularly varied some of the time.

The animations, though. Cinematic cutscenes are handled fairly well, but the overbearing amount of dialogue cutscenes includes a lovely lack of lipsynching and jerky motions and animations…should the characters decide to animate at all. Animations during battle are decent, but there’s a noticeable lack of in-between frames when switching between different attacks and motions. The lipsynch issue I want to point out in particular, as it’s not just mouth flaps not being timed to the dialogue. Oftentimes, mouth animations are so slight that it’s impossible to see movement at all, and I found it difficult to keep track of who was even speaking in some scenes.

I will note that I ran across some slowdown and framerate drops in battle, but it happened rarely. Most of the time, Revolution keeps up well graphically. The slowdown usually happened if I was stuck fighting in a small area against an overwhelming amount of enemies.

Stunning Scores

The composer behind Revolution is Yasunori Mitsuda, a prolific name in the gaming industry. He had a hand in our previously reviewed Stella Glow, which has a beautiful soundtrack, and both Chrono games, of which I consider Chrono Cross to have the best game soundtrack I’ve heard.

I am glad to say, then, that this game’s soundtrack lives up to the expectations. The standard background music is a bit understated, but wonderfully composed, mostly featuring full orchestral arrangements. It’s the occasional vocal track, though, that absolutely blew me away. Revolution features a number of hauntingly beautiful vocal pieces that stand above just about everything else in the game.

Unfortunately, I can’t lavish the same praise on the voice work. Most of the primary players in the story give halfway decent performances, but with the aforementioned banal dialogue throughout the game, even the best actor or actress would be forced into a disappointing display. Many of the antagonists have laughably cliche villain performances as well, and many of the spoken lines in general are often performed with awkward or just plain wrong emotion.

A Flawed Return

Overall, Valkyria Revolution tries some interesting things and succeeds occasionally, but the entire package is brought down by over-focus on its rather dull plot. Sitting through an hour of pointless dialogue between each quick moment of gameplay is not my idea of a good time. I actually enjoyed the core gameplay, despite the vast departure from previous series entries, but it never felt like there was enough of it. Revolution is just too focused on its plot…which I wouldn’t mind, if the game actually had an entertaining story to tell.

Bring in to this the lack of polish in animations and voice overs, as well as the confusingly common loading screens, and you wind up with an underwhelming game that had the chance to be so much more. It’s even more disappointing that this is the first Valkyria game released in the west in seven years, and many were hoping for a triumphant return.

The core gameplay is fun, despite a few annoyances in design choice, but the package as a whole is painfully mediocre. For fans of the series that have been waiting to return to the world of Valkyria, I’m saddened to say that this opportunity isn’t really worth your time.

~ Final Score: 6/10 ~

Review copy provided by Sega for PS4. Screenshots taken by reviewer.