In fact, despite being the fourth game in the series, VC4 even returns to the series’ original conflict—a sort of Norse-flavored, alternate history World War II. An evil empire (a fantastical mix of Nazi Germany and the USSR) is invading the “Atlantic Federation” and a plucky crew of volunteers from Gallia (basically fantasy Holland) sign up to bring the fight back to the fascists, big tank in tow.
All of these beats feel so much like that first game that VC4 comes across almost as a soft reboot of the original rather than a side story.
The more things don’t change
Combat and progression have been simplified compared to the previous sequels. Battle begins from an overhead perspective, but shifts to an over-the-shoulder view when you select a unit. From there you can move your units in real-time, limited only by the soldier’s dwindling “Action Points.” While you line up shots as in any over-the-shoulder shooter, a weapon’s precise aim is out of your control. It’s up to the JRPG math behind the scenes—massaged by your reticle placement—to land blows and critical headshots.
Unlike most tactics games, you’re not limited to one action per unit per turn. Every turn awards you a certain number of “Command Points” to spend how you see fit. Every move costs a Command Point, but they can be spent on any unit you like. Ammo and diminishing Action Points limit most soldiers’ maneuvers.
You usually need to split your actions across classes anyway. Valkyria games operate with a rock-paper-scissors-esque combat model. Lancers fire anti-armor rockets that are great for taking out tanks, but are too inaccurate to use against infantry. Likewise, shocktroopers rip personnel apart with machine guns and flamethrowers, but can’t put a dent in vehicles.
Deciding where to position which classes is half the fun—and often frustration—of VC4. Most missions almost play out like puzzles. Sending a fast, fragile scout into the heart of enemy territory might give a grenadier the line they need to mortar a high value target. Then again, that grenadier might be equipped with an anti-vehicle launcher when they really need an anti-personnel weapon. Or maybe your scout gets gunned down by covering fire before they even see their target.
The straightforward positional battling is exciting, but VC4 also throws in its fair share of unexpected circumstances to which you need to adapt. Special boss units will literally explode out of the ground mid-mission. Foes you thought were dead can be resurrected with special “Orders”—Valkyria Chronicles’ equivalent of map-wide spells that can buff and heal squads on either side.
Surprises and difficulty spikes
The problem is that VC4 is a very linear game. Each story mission plays out more or less exactly according to its script, every time. After the surprise shows up, the best solution is often to just quit, reload, and try again with a team composition that meets your every “unexpected” need.
VC4 works best when you don’t need to do that. You can sacrifice Command Points to evacuate and summon new soldiers from preset camps across almost every battlefield. That lets you fine tune your tactics on the fly, offering the satisfaction of slipping your opponent’s traps rather than the paint-by-numbers victory of restarting every battle with the optimal lineup from the jump.
For the most part, VC4 offers that satisfaction. It’s not until near the end, when the game starts leaning on some absolutely insurmountable boss battles, that save-scumming becomes downright mandatory.
Common tanks and soldiers are eventually replaced by foes that automatically shoot you during either team’s movement, without even spending their attack actions. That means they can kill your troops with a single shot of automatic overwatch fire on your turn. Then they’ll lob unpredictable artillery strikes that shred through tanks.
Even bumping the game down to easy mode, which makes beating normal enemies trivial, barely affects these late-game unstoppable killing machines. What’s worse, actually killing them usually requires repeated, hyper-fiddly aiming and specific units. One late-stage boss, for example, was only vulnerable for a short time after I shot its weak point—twice—with a sniper rifle. Then I needed to move a shocktrooper within close range from behind to shoot them in the head.
But then the boss’ head reared back once it started taking damage. I had to predict where the weak spot would be after that animation started. Otherwise it did so little damage that the boss healed through it on the next turn. Of course, then I had to blow yet more Command Points evacuating my shocktrooper, because anything standing near the boss on the next turn died instantly.
Admittedly, that’s my most egregious example of VC4’s absurd difficulty spikes. But it perfectly illustrates the flawed ways the game goes about making battles more challenging. It relies too heavily on mission-ending complications that make tedious hammering on the “retry battle” button so much easier than thinking on your feet. That’s something the series has struggled with since the very first game.
A suitable ending
Thankfully, the game dials it back again in the very final few missions. In this last stretch the game was challenging in a way that felt in line with the rest of the game’s squad-on-squad maneuvering. And if you get completely stuck there are always side quests that flesh out your squaddies’ relationships while raising valuable experience points.
These “Squad Stories” aren’t very involved—just a single mission and some dialogue to flesh out three related characters at a time. It’s never quite enough to make any otherwise expendable soldier seem like more than an anime archetype. You’ve got your earnest kid sister cliché, for example, and a nature loving farm boy obsessed with wildlife. Even so, it gives more life to what could have been nameless bodies swinging guns around.
The handful of main cast members fair a lot better. I especially like Minerva, the stuck-up rival of your squad commander. VC4 is usually pretty lighthearted but it does dip into some darker territory as its continental conflict spreads. Minerva does a great job of painting that human cost as something personal, but also necessary.
Valkyria Chronicles 4 doesn’t do much to push the series forward mechanically. If anything, it feels like a bit of a reset—a reintroduction both to home consoles and English-speaking territories. But its tonal balance of airy anime and war drama feels sharper than ever. I suspect the difficulty spikes will drive a lot of people away, but it’s a ride worth taking to the end if you can make it.
Try it. You don’t need to play the previous games to enjoy this side story of turn-based tactics in a fantastical WWII. You will need a lot of patience for character archetypes and massive difficulty spikes.