The day has come! Let's go Plus Ultra and start discussing My Hero Academia!

August 17, 2017

Valkyria Revolution: It’s So Bad (Part 2)

Oh God, I can feel a migraine coming on already.

*sigh* Let’s just grit our teeth and power through this.  Okay?

Okay.  So the last post dealt primarily with the gameplay of Valkyria Revolution -- and true to this series’ title, it’s bad.  Stunningly bad.  As I said, not a single choice made was the right one.  Combat is slow, strategy is nonexistent, AI is worthless; the list goes on and on.  (Boy that upgrade system is borked.)  It’s unpleasant from start to finish.  At least, I assume that’s the case -- because I tapped out after seven hours with the game, and didn’t even make it to the halfway point according to the built-in table of contents.  I’m not too broken up about it, because that means I get to put more time into learning some new fighting game characters.  (Why didn’t anyone tell me Dizzy was so cool?)

I can still think of a few questions that need asking and answering, though.  Since this is a video game we’re talking about, gameplay is king.  Well, I assume as much among the general gaming populace.  Can good gameplay compensate for a bad story?  Essentially.  Tekken 7’s story is not great, but I don’t begrudge it when it lets me land a juggle combo into a Rage Art.  Can a good story save a bad game?  Possibly.  That answer will vary between people and games, especially depending on the length.  But as far as I’m concerned, there’s one ironclad rule at play here: you can’t have a game with both bad gameplay AND a bad story.

And guess which game does?

Credit where credit’s due: Valkyria Revolution at least has an interesting setup.  You’re playing as a soldier and his squad mates, but you’re also following behind the back of one of the so-called Five Traitors.  History has long since condemned them as schemers and criminals who guided the ever-bullied kingdom of Jutland into an escalating war with the Ruz Empire, but the historian reading about them years later (which we experience via framing device) is out to conclusively learn/prove that the Traitors weren’t the monsters common knowledge has made them out to be.

There are some neat ideas at play here.  The Five Traitors have all worked their way into positions of power or influence, despite their humble beginnings as mere orphans.  Because of their determination -- their lust for revenge against DA EMPYARRRRRRR that took everything from them -- they use their influence to distort Jutland at large to propel the war.  One of them has a parliamentary seat, so he’s got a hell of a lot of pull.  But beyond that?  One of them is a writer who uses propaganda to build support among the people.  One of them has a hand in manufacturing, so he pushes towards a focus on weapons R&D.  One of them is a spy who can play whoever she wants -- friend or foe -- with her feminine wiles.  One of them is a soldier who can make sure his squad performs exactly as intended.  So yeah, the central premise isn’t wrong.

The problem is the execution.  Because you see, VR is so anime-heavy that it utterly breaks the game.

And as a friendly reminder: I like anime.  I like a fair amount of the stuff Japan puts out -- not everything, mind, and not with blind adoration, but I do have a deep respect for what comes from the land of the rising sun.  VR, however, is the exception that proves the rule.  It’s such an exception that I’m having a hard time summing it up; I don’t know whether to call it a bowl of lukewarm gruel made from ground-up anime tropes, or a plate of broken glass made from the shattered suspension of disbelief.  So let’s just call it both, declare it a buffet of organ-shredding badness, and move on to the next step.

Here’s the thing: even though I’m by no means an expert on the franchise, I still have some idea of what made Valkyria Chronicles into something special -- something that won over plenty of fans back in the day.  The visuals helped, for sure, but so did the affect.  The tone.  The feel of the game -- a set of intangibles that are appreciable here and now.  It was a fantastical retelling of a major historical event, which was absolutely to its benefit.  The setting, the relationships, the technology, and especially the characters -- all of it felt like a trip to the past (albeit one that never existed) that set Valkyria Chronicles apart from a good number of its peers.  Sure, it eventually led to gunfights and tank warfare, but it was also a game starring nature lover trekking through the countryside, featured its leading heroine as a cheery baker, and used goat poop about as well as a video game could.

So what do we have in 2017?  A game that A) didn’t understand what made its predecessor good, B) didn’t care about what made its predecessor good, or C) couldn’t come close to replicating what made its predecessor good.

I’ll grant the devs that the city you use as your home base -- the one city, as far as I know -- is okay to look at as you go on your way (slowly).  That’s probably only because it might as well be one big room with a few extra nooks you can access, but whatever.  It’ll do.  And the idea of having a city, the development of which is spurred on by an apparent industrial revolution, is a good one.  If they had the skill (or the guts), the devs could’ve gotten so much out of that aspect.  They could have made the game into something truly special -- not just something in the shadow of VC1, but with its own unique style.

It was right there.  Right there.  It could’ve been a game about the inexorable march of technology, and what it means for a society forced to undergo rapid change.  Simple lives in the country have been traded for the hustle and bustle of urban sprawls that have spread like viruses; you could build a whole game around the growing pains there.  Shoddy work conditions, sanitation, mass emigration and culture shock -- all of that and more, or even any of that.  But this is a game built around war, which giftwraps even more opportunities.  It’d be a perfect chance to show how evolving technology is changing the face of war.  Use the emergence of new tech to prove how devastating the battlefield can be, or how unprepared soldiers are to face heretofore-untested weaponry, or escalate the conflict via an aggressive arms race.  There are so many possibilities just waiting to be probed.  And what did the devs choose?

Oversized, overdesigned melee weapons with lots of glowing bits.  Because fuck credibility, and fuck you.

As much as I like melee weapons in video games, Mass Effect and Xenoblade Chronicles X have taught me that sometimes, it’s OK to have RPGs with guns in them.  Sometimes it’s even preferable.  Just look at Vanquish; rather than rely on plodding cover-based shooting galleries, it featured rocket-paced action and enough style to make the average hair metal band look like stuffy salarymen.  Despite the dark specter of Call of Duty, there’s still plenty that you can do with guns -- least of all lend a bit of cadence to the universe you’re trying to build.  But whoever spearheaded VR’s direction didn’t get the memo, and it creates an affect that grinds brains into a coarse powder.

As I understand it, Valkyria Chronicles 1 was about quasi-realistic warfare -- soldiers on two fronts marching to dispatch enemy units and claim territories.  It’s not a one-to-one with real conflicts, I know, but the simulation of it gave that game an interesting take.  But VR doesn’t.  The massive divide between reality and fantasy creates a gap that can’t be bridged by either gameplay or story.  Why is it that in a universe half-built on industrial advancements -- at least on a level above VC1, but that still counts for a lot -- an entire nation would pin a fair amount of its hopes on a group of soldiers who trot across battlefields with axes and lances?  This is a game where enemy soldiers from DUH IMMPIAAAAAAH willingly and eagerly shoot at trespassers in the head from the safety of sandbag barriers and urban layouts -- some semblance of guerrilla warfare, arguably.  What sort of idiot would march up to them in the hopes of whacking them with an oversized sword?

And okay, sure, you could make the argument that it’s “Anti-Valkyria Weaponry”, given that that’s the purpose of the playable squad.  But then you’d fall flat on your ass.  If it’s possible to make Anti-Valkyria Weaponry into swords, knives, claws, and rods, why can’t you make that weaponry into guns so you can shoot a Valkyria in the head from two towns over?

The cynical reason that comes to mind is because the devs thought it would be cool.  That people would like it, because it’s cool.  That people would buy into the game because it appeals to what they think is cool.  But it isn’t.  You know what’s cool?  Style.  Originality.  Quality.  You aren’t achieving that with a game like this, because you’re offering nothing of value besides cheap pandering -- and that cheap pandering breaks the game over its knee.  I don’t want to see some royal asshole start duel-wielding and showing off his gun katas in what’s supposed to be a serious, investigative historical drama.

Either make it so that everyone uses conventional weaponry (except the valkyria…kinda like a certain franchise-starting game from a decade ago), or make it so that no one uses conventional weaponry.  Otherwise, the inherent justification for the Anti-Valkyria Squad is that they’re so much more powerful than the enemy that they don’t need to use guns.  That’s not good for tension, guys.  Take this seriously and play up the strengths of your game -- the quintessence that sets it apart from generic anime fare -- so that gamers will be more likely to buy in when it’s time for future VC games.  Or, god forbid, VR2.

So here’s the thing about VR that utterly slaughters any hope for the game.  There’s a character in it named Tilda, and she’s my favorite of the bunch because 1) she’s not some dumb teenager, and 2) she talks the least.

To be fair, it’s not as if everyone else is utterly worthless; my main squad features Tilda, stern teacher Brigitte, joking drunkard Daryl, and sweet supporter Blum (who’s in this war for his mom, and that’s A-OK with me).  It’s just everyone else that’s utterly worthless at best, to the point where I actively resent the game when it forces me to play as others.  Some of the guys in the squad feel like filler to pad out the roster, which is only bolstered by the fact that the game follows the Final Fantasy Type-0 school of thought: introduce a bunch of soldiers and say they’re all comrades, but do nothing to develop them outside of their character models.

It really hits a fever pitch with some of these guys.  As an example, here’s Sara.

For starters, you have to try pretty hard to notice that she’s just barely wearing her squad uniform, which you’d think would be an issue for a member of the army.  Maybe it’d be easier to look over that if she didn’t come to every battle in high heels.  She looks like she’s just rolled out of bed, her clothes look wildly incongruous with the era -- “1937”, but to be fair nobody looks like they coordinate with squad mates, citizens, or the time period -- and the fact that it seems like she wears headphones just ‘cause makes my skull threaten to rupture.

And then you get to her in the actual game, and she’s annoying as hell -- inundating each stage with chipper cheers and shouts of “GOT A BAD FEELING!” over and over and over again.  If I could, I would superglue her to the dugout benches.  When she’s not being a cloying little imp, she’s being generic and predictable, and grating in kind.  There’s another character named Helena who’s basically dressed like a standard anime schoolgirl, and while she’s presented as slightly more hot-blooded than most, she’s still effectively a standard anime schoolgirl.  To that end, she and Sara, in the first optional cutscene presumably there to flesh out characters and provide world-building details -- especially those that would show how they feel about the Jutland/Ruz conflict -- sit around stuffing their faces with sweets while they talk about which boys they like.

This game is so bad.  This cast is so bad.  But it gets even worse from here.

The mere existence of Ophelia infuriates me, and it shouldn’t.  In theory, she’s a good idea: she’s a princess of a beaten-down kingdom who rises up to lead her fellow men to victory and salvation.  She’s a symbol of hope, inspiration, and strength to the despairing masses.  She’s not just the standard damsel in distress.  On paper, it all sounds airtight.  But in the game, she the second-worst character VR has to offer.  Why?  It’s simple.  Ophelia doesn’t belong on the battlefield.

So here’s the thing.  I spent a few days trying to figure out why Ophelia drove me up a wall like a grandma in dire need of an exorcism.  And eventually, I found my answer.  See, Tales of the Abyss has a character in it named Natalia, a princess whose country of Kimlasca is on the cusp of (and eventually thrown into) a war.  Rather than sit around and clasp her hands in prayer, she takes up her bow and arrow and takes the fight to the front lines.  Same basic premise, but the key differences are there.  For one thing, Natalia actually has (intentional) flaws alongside her character traits.  She’s bratty at times and kind of dopey at others, and certain reveals later in the game leave her effectively short-circuited, but it doesn’t change the fact that she’s a princess for a damn good reason.

Natalia can take care of herself on the battlefield, with archery skills that she’s honed for years and enough savvy to save the main cast on multiple occasions.  But it’s not just about her physical ability, though.  She’s a princess who uses her status and her inherent character to the benefit of others.  In the former case, she puts in tons of effort as an ambassador from one corner of the world to another, bringing together dissimilar peoples for a common goal.  In the latter case, she does so much for so many people -- tasks small and large -- that the average citizen has more love for her than the actual monarchs of their countries.  Whether it’s her status or her character, the devs put in work to make her more than just an archetype.   

In contrast?  Everything about Ophelia is just lip service -- and done poorly, at that.  She goes “I’m going to fight on the front lines for my country!” at the outset, only to fail so miserably that she ends up being a liability for the others -- basically becoming someone that the others have to babysit before she gets killed.  Her first kill on the battlefield is basically an accident, one that shocks her to her core and requires the others to comfort her in the face of a necessity of warfare.  And I’m just sitting there thinking “We don’t have time for this bullshit.”  If not for the game forcing me to have her in the party, she would’ve gotten the glued-to-the-benches treatment, too…but then it turns out she has some secret hidden power via her singing.  Because of course she has some secret hidden power.   How else would the devs justify dragging her into every new firefight?  And it has to be via singing, because now it’s like she’s an idol!  Everybody loves idols, right?


Maybe I would feel better about the character and the situation if it wasn’t for the fact that Ophelia makes a terrible first impression.  Lives are on the line, and not just her own, yet she acts like she can handle it just to prove how tough she is.  Or to do what she must for her kingdom.  Does she seriously think that the only way she can help out and make a difference is to fight in close-quarters combat with soldiers and mechs, any one of which could blow her brains out from hundreds of feet away?  What happens when your luck runs out, and you get killed because you were too busy playing soldier?

I get what the devs were going for by having her give soothing speeches to the populace, but it’s not enough -- and worse yet, it’s actually harmful in a lot of ways.  She hosts these big speeches to try and soothe the people of Jutland, but it comes off as accidental propaganda -- a ploy that plays into the Five Traitors’ schemes, with Ophelia accidentally acting as a pawn they didn’t even ask for.  And even though I tapped out at the seven-hour mark, there was still plenty of time to show Ophelia doing more than just a PR stunt; much like Natalia, they could’ve had her using her status and authority to serve the people, whether it’s in a personal or political capacity.  But they didn’t.  Hell, I’m starting to wonder if she’s basically just a figurehead slapping a proverbial Band-Aid on the situation, when everyone should really be zeroing in on parliament. 

Or, you know, the actual, professional soldiers trying to save the country.  Then again, that begs the question: given that the Anti-Valkyria Squad is just doing a mission here or there while it’s explicitly stated that the Jutland Army is fighting the main battles, doesn’t that drastically devalue both the Squad’s presence and the player’s input?

…I hate this game.

Is there anything that genuinely works in VR?  Possibly.  Maybe there’s more after the first seven hours.  But as it stands, there’s nothing here that I would unabashedly call “good” -- just “passable” or “tolerable” at best.  As it stands, I see no reason to venture any further into the game than I already have.  The sunk cost fallacy won’t get the best of me.  Not today, at least.

Characters create opportunities, but grievously, there’s only one character that I’m okay with.  Well, technically two; there’s a guy named Godot who seems to be the only one taking this war seriously…but from what I’ve read, he ends up getting killed off.  Because of course the level-headed, reasonable, responsible, loyal soldier ends up getting killed.  And as for Madam Booby, Brunhilde?  She gets in, like, one line that comes off as a joke -- disdainful compliance with the leader of DEH UMPAIOOOOOOOR -- but that’s it.  The only way for her to become a genuine selling point for the game and/or a cause for continued play is if she gained a cup size through every progressive chapter.  At least then there’d be something to talk about.

But don’t you worry.  Even if VR has nothing to talk about, I certainly do -- because as I said, Ophelia is only the second-worst character in this game.

See you next ti-

*vomits blood* 

Oh, that’s not a good sign.

No comments:

Post a Comment