Nintendo has done everything to ensure that the Switch has a robust collection of games. It launched with an open world Zelda and got Super Mario Odyssey soon after. It courted third parties to get esports staples like Rocket League and fads like Fortnite. It even has a strong showing of indie titles like the challenging Hand Of Fate 2. Yet for all of this, the Switch is still lacking when it comes to strategy games.
It's the perfect time for SEGA's Valkyria Chronicles 4, a game that combines light-hearted anime antics with reflections on the cost of war, and provides a unique take on the tactical RPG genre that fills the Fire Emblem-sized hole in the Switch's library.
The easiest way to describe Valkyria Chronicles would be "anime World War II." Every game in the series connects to the Second Europan War, a huge conflict that rages across the fictional continent of Europa (that's basically just Europe). While Valkyria Chronicles 4 does carry that number four, it isn't a direct sequel. It's the tale of Squad E, an elite ranger force that's spearheading an all-out offensive deep into enemy territory in hopes of ending the war once and for all. These characters share loose connections to those of previous games, but you won't feel lost if this is your first tour of duty.
While the setting borrows heavily from real-world history, the art style strives to create its own. The visual style, called the CANVAS style, puts anime characters against backdrops that look like they were painted with watercolors. It's not only striking, it gives everything a tactile feel. The main menu takes the form of a journal, cutscenes are watched by selecting worn photographs, and the tactical maps you use during missions look hand-drawn. The presentation all comes together to make it feel like you're really sifting through a, well, chronicle of events that happened years ago.
The main gameplay mechanic is the BLiTZ System, which stands for Battle of Live Tactical Zones. Like many other tactics/strategy games, you're given a map showing the entire battlefield. You and the enemy AI take turns moving your troops. But once you select one of your soldiers, the camera shifts to show the battlefield from their point of view. Your vision is then limited to what they can see, and further still by conditions like rain or fog. When you control a soldier, you're directly responsible for their performance in battle. You have to decide to go for safe body shots or risk giving away their position to try that lethal headshot. Their lives are in your hands when you make them run through bullets to cross a heavily-defended bridge. Unlike many tactics games, you spend as much time in the boots of your soldiers as you do being the all-seeing commander.
This is a running theme in the game. Your soldiers aren't just nameless mooks you toss out to die in the name of getting to the next level. They all have distinct personalities to the point of everybody getting full voiceovers. This individualism even affects how they fight. Take Nico, the anime stereotype of a klutzy-but-lovable teenage girl. Her klutziness can actually cause her to forget to reload her weapon, making it so you can't fire that turn. But her chipper attitude can also manifest as the "Early Bird" trait, increasing her accuracy if you pick her to go first.
These little quirks help make the units feel more like people than pawns on a board. I found myself picking Nico more often than the other Scouts simply for her cheerfulness. I paired her with Godwin, a grizzled veteran with the "Lone Wolf" trait. It was fun to imagine the eager but clumsy youngster getting on the old man's nerves even as he secretly kept an eye out for her.
The story itself tries to drive home this message. Squad E is a ragtag group of weirdos and yet are also their army's best hope. Every victory they clutch from the jaws of defeat is thanks to the tried and true power of anime friendship. There's no shortage of cutscenes that show us the daily antics of our heroes at base, and remind us that their silly interactions are as crucial as their ability to shoot a gun. Unfortunately, these scenes not as charming as the writers seemed to think they were.
One scene, for instance, centers on the "joke" that Shocktrooper Raz likes to grope female friend Kai. She hits him for his indiscretion, and we're supposed to laugh as he gets his comeuppance. It just came across as tired to me. And before the comments flood in saying video games shouldn't be political, it's not even about the implications of harassment. It's just a tired trope. Even modern anime, full of clichés as it is, steers away from grope-based humor. Audiences have simply grown out of that schtick, which makes its appearance in Valkyria Chronicles 4 feel dated and unnecessary.
If the humor wasn't awkward enough on its own, such scenes are often followed by the main character musing over things like how beautiful the countryside looked before it was trampled by the boots of bloodthirsty soldiers. But it's hard to take these heavy thoughts seriously when Raz is in the background launching another booty attack.
As a whole, though, Valkyria Chronicles 4's striking art style, immersive gameplay, and quirky characters make it an experience that's wholly unique on the Switch. Strategy RPG fans will find it a great scratch to the itch that is waiting for Fire Emblem: Three Houses. Just be ready to look past the game's over-reliance on anime stereotypes.
A copy of the game was purchased by The Gamer for this review. Valkyria Chronicles 4 is now available for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, and Nintendo Switch.
4 out of 5 stars.