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August 10, 2017

Valkyria Revolution: It’s So Bad (Part 1)

Even though I’m making a casual reference to the ill-fated Power Glove, don’t get the wrong idea.  I have no love for Valkyria Revolution.  It’s a bad game, and you should do what you can to avoid it.  In fact, my biggest take away from it is that I should go back and play Valkyria Chronicles 1.  I just might when all’s said and done.

With that said?  Valkyria Revolution isn’t just bad.  It’s fascinatingly bad.  And I guess it’s up to me to explain why.

Like, okay, cards on the table.  I’ve played bad games before.  We all have.  I’ve taken my bad experiences personally, and in the past I’ve spent days -- if not weeks, if not months -- going over as many details as I can to explain why a game isn’t good.  My suffering only emboldens me to strike back.  And of course, my ability to hold a grudge should never be underestimated.  But with Valkyria Revolution?  Things are different.  Whereas stuff like Final Fantasy 13 or Watch Dogs fill me with rage, VR almost makes me want to laugh.  I say almost, because most of the time I’m left shaking my head in disbelief, thinking in a hushed, awed tone that “This is really bad.  It’s so bad.”

I don’t think this game gets a single thing right.  Well, no, that’s not true; the music’s fine, as you’d expect when one of the composers worked on freaking Chrono Trigger.  But it gets enough wrong.  So much wrong.  If not for a couple of instances -- if not for moments where, if I squint hard enough, I can see the traces of a good idea trying to break out of its prison -- then I’d be fine with saying that virtually every choice it made was the wrong one.  Good design can’t save a game from bad execution.  That’s assuming, of course, that there were good design choices to begin with.  And right now, I’m just…I’m pretty much sitting here in awe over everything.  Every single thing.

I hardly even know where to begin -- so I guess I’ll do the safe thing and start with an overview.

The thing about VR’s story is that it’s part of a framing device.  There’s a student who wants to find out the truth behind what happened in the past (i.e. the game’s present), and so he discusses the truth -- the knowledge his teacher holds -- in the midst of a graveyard.  The point of contention: the role of the Five Traitors, a group of individuals who have pushed their home of Jutland into an all-out war with the Ruz Empire.  On the surface, it’s a way for Jutland to deal with dwindling resources and the Empire’s blockade (because of course there’s an evil empire).  Their true motive, of course, is to exact their revenge on those that wronged them, particularly after burning down their orphanage and killing their teacher/adoptive mother/totally not a villain now.

It’s probably worth mentioning that I tapped out of the story -- and the game as a whole -- by this point.  Said point is apparently seven hours in, but it feels I’ve played for three times longer than that (and technically I’ll have put in a little more time by the time you read this post).  The story is rife with sins, but since we’re dealing with a game, you know the rule.  Gameplay is king.  It’s a shame, then, that VR’s gameplay can’t justify sticking around for very long.

It’s a mix of VC1 and Dynasty Warriors, to sum it up.  Players will take a squad of four onto various battlefields, throwing down with Ruz soldiers, massive machines, and marching from base to base to gain an advantage against the dreaded empire.  Critically, the gunplay from previous installments takes a backseat; your soldiers this time around are equipped with a range of melee weapons, which in turn carry mana-enhanced engines.  The end result?  You’ve got access to close-range attacks and magic, as well as more conventional weaponry like rifles and grenades.

But since this is still a Valkyria game -- albeit a spinoff -- you can still count on some of the conventions from previous games.  While everything takes place in real time instead of a turn-based hybrid, you can still rely on cover to land sneak attacks or protect yourself.  Similarly, you’re rewarded for landing headshots with bonus EXP (and another dead soldier, of course).  And on top of all that, you can stop the action with Triangle to access a battle menu, which in turn lets you shoot, cast magic, use items, or give your party members orders.

All right.  So here’s where the problems start.

Superficially, the combat resembles Dynasty Warriors; if you look at a screenshot, you’d be forgiven for assuming Koei Tecmo had a hand in it.  But if you watch gameplay footage (as I did prior to release), you’ll notice something odd.  Button-mashy as they may be, the Warriors games have all put a furious flurry of attacks in the players’ hands, with promises of action and combos within seconds of starting the first level.  That’s not the case with VR.  Whereas you have at least two buttons for your standard attacks in a Warriors game -- the combination of which can create new strings -- VR gives you one button.  From that button, you only get one basic combo, and one that (near as I can tell) doesn’t change.  Ever.  Certainly not across the seven hours I put in. No launchers, no knockback, no stagger -- maybe you can knock foes down, but that’s about it.

And sure, you have access to magic that can do the trick -- and can be changed, more importantly -- but there’s a problem with that, too.  See, your actions in VR are beholden to a sort of Active Time Battle gauge; with the exception of defensive moves like blocking and dodge-rolling, you can only use offensive or support moves once that gauge fills up.  So the problem doubles down.  It’s borderline impossible to feel the rush of battle because the flow is broken up every few seconds; you hit X to launch your basic combo, then have to wait for your gauge to fill back up, then hit X again, then wait again.  X, wait, X, wait, X, wait.

The end result is the game’s second problem: it’s so goddamn slow.

The default movement speed is slower than frozen molasses.  It takes so long to get anywhere in this game -- from the next objective on the map to an enemy unit a few paces away -- that I’m thankful that I have a gun so I can murder enemies from afar.  The alternative is to walk up to them, slowly, and whittle away at their health, slowly, while I run through the loop of X, wait, X, wait, X, wait, slowly.  There’s too much downtime and waiting for everything, which is a death knell for what’s roughly one-half action game.  Maybe that wouldn’t be so bad if things died quickly, but they don’t.  Mechs of varying sizes crop up on a regular basis, and you have to whittle away at them, slowly.  Just like with anything above a basic grunt.

And maybe that wouldn’t be so bad if the strategy half of the game was in good shape, but it’s not.  You can use cover, but it’s entirely unnecessary.  Enemies will let you walk up to them and slice them to death, which is compounded by the fact that their ATB gauges fill up at a much slower rate than yours -- so once they fire their guns, they’re open for days.  Even if you can block and roll, there are virtually no instances where those defensive options feel like a necessity.  Why?  Because there’s no challenge to the game, and no pressure to be felt.  The only time when I feel like I have to stand up and take notice is when I’m chipping away at a boss and he uses some random big-damage attack to knock out my AI partners. 

Other than that, VR is a cakewalk.  I’ve coasted by using one of the default spells to instantly kill clusters of enemy soldiers in one shot.  Who would’ve thought that a rock could prove more useful -- and spam-worthy -- than a grenade?

Damned if the ally AI is any help, though.  Part of the reason why I say cover doesn’t matter is because -- setting aside how inconsistently it appears -- if you try to hide to launch a sneaky sniper shot, your partners will rush in anyway to smash whatever’s in their field of vision.  Near as I can tell, their self-preservation instincts are MIA; they’ll pick each other up if someone gets KO’d and fire off healing spells, but it doesn’t change the fact that they’ll put themselves in mortal peril to begin with.  At least, they’ll do that when they’re not busy getting stuck on walls. 

And since this is a Valkyria game, they brought back the innate talents for each squad mate -- buffs and debuffs that trigger depending on the battlefield conditions.  Fair enough, but the problem is that the negative ones seem much more likely to trigger than the positive ones.  There have been times where I’ve taken a single step -- including when I first got to try out the game/my party of choice -- only to have one guy get debuffed instantly because he was drunk.  If you so much as step off the road with another character, her “pollen allergy” will kick in.  Well, I say as much, but the consequences are so negligible that you can ignore them and go back to fighting your battles.  Slowly.

All of that is bad, without question.  But somehow, things manage to get even worse.  How, you ask?  Well, let me answer that with a question: is this game even finished?  Sometimes I can’t help but wonder.  Like, even if I held the disc in my hand at this very moment, I’d have doubts that it was real.  VR is a game loaded with oddities; it’s not broken or buggy or anything, but there are all of these issues that pile up and become hard to ignore.  Some of those grievances are pretty minor, to be fair; it’s annoying as hell that you can’t warp from one section of town to another and instead have to walk slowly to one of the exits to do anything, but I guess I can deal with that.

But the more you look at the game, the more you realize something is amiss -- and it’s downright distracting.  It looks like there are missing animations in some instances, whether it’s the main character powering down his giant sword, or just raising your guard to block incoming attacks.  There’s a distinct anime style at play here (as you’d expect), but everybody’s faces look kind of off.  Janky, even.  The resident fanservice character -- a spy and intelligence expert -- is supposed to use her looks to worm her way into tight circles, but it doesn’t matter how low-cut she keeps her jacket.  I just can’t get over the fact that her eyes look too wide for her head.  Or how her bangs make it look like she has no eyebrows.  It’s distracting, to say the least.

Then you get to some of the cutscenes, and you run into a problem that’s almost impossible to ignore.  Since this is a war drama with thousands (if not millions) of lives on the line, you need to have people thrown into the mix besides the core cast.  Even if they only show up for a bit, crowds help emphasize the stakes and impact of the conflict, and what it means for the innocents who can’t fight back.  But then you have scenes where people gather around for a big rally or speech or funeral service or whatever, and suddenly you can’t pay attention to a single word because you notice that they copy-pasted the same model eight times in a row, AT LEAST.  And the camera will pan just enough to show that there are only four or five different models, period.  Jesus, I’m facepalming just by thinking about it.  How did this game even happen?

The real killer of the gameplay is a baffling stylistic choice.  See, there’s a lot of talking in this game.  A lot of it.  A whole lot.  So you would expect, then, that something would be done to spruce things up.  Sometimes you have to have exposition, but a savvy creator has to use the tricks at his or her disposal to spruce up the scenes and keep them from being slogs.  The VR devs didn’t get the memo.

Think of it this way.  You know how in Persona 5, there are lots of little touches to make a relatively basic-looking scene come alive, even before you get to the beefed-up cutscenes?

The text boxes move, the character portraits emote, the camera angle changes, the HUD shifts slightly, the characters actually do stuff…even if you zone out and ignore the words being spoken, Persona 5 does its best to get the most out of its audiovisual aspect without (presumably) breaking the bank.  Conversely, everything in a VR cutscene is almost completely static.  You’re lucky to get a slow pan over a scene, characters stay stone-still, there’s nothing to look at but plain white text, and you’re more likely to surf on a passing comet than see some actual spectacle.  Characters just drone on and on and on, and fight their hardest to stay as immobile as possible no matter the situation.

And “the situation” is basically setup for the next big conflict in a war that barely comes off as one.  You steamroll enemies until it’s time for a damage sponge of a boss to wall off your progress.  Your reward for beating that boss is the chance to watch bland, interminable cutscenes that dish out setup, world-building, and exposition, characters don’t develop outside of token efforts, relationships are barely established, and the game grievously misunderstands what its audience is here for.  And those grievances -- those dull, dull, dull, dull, dull cutscenes can go on for 15 to 30 minutes.  Your reward for getting through them is 1) the chance to slog through more gameplay, slowly, and 2) unlocking additional, optional cutscenes that barely add anything.

I’m tapping out of this game so hard that my hand has created a new fault line.  Because as bad as the gameplay is, there’s something even worse.  The cutscenes are awful because of their poor direction, but they could have been saved if they actually had anything interesting to say.  They don’t.

This story is not good.  And not even Brunhilde’s behemoth bosom can save it.

But that’s a topic for another day.  Tune in next time when I continue to pound my face against the keyboard.  Because boy, sometimes you just have to have a good old-fashioned dose of suffering.

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