“The Only Character You Can’t Hate is the Dog” – It’s Valkyria Chronicles 4 (WITH SPOILERS)

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There is very little to say about the gameplay of Valkyria Chronicles 4; it is a refinement of the popular first game’s systems to possibly their most polished form in the series, with balance tweaks, a small number of interesting new mechanics and the excision of many of the additional features in the second and third games. It is a system that works well, doubly so for anyone familiar with the wargame Infinity, and any marked departure from that formula would lose some of what makes the series so appealing. As a result, any review of the game needs to really focus on the plot, and the interplay of those very polished mechanics with the storytelling for better or worse.

As this article will focus primarily on the storyline and endgame of Valkyria Chronicles 4, it would be best read after completing the game.

 



 

 

The Valkyria Chronicles series has never been known for subtlety in its handling of an alternate-history, high-technology Second World War setting. The first game punches hard at racism and oppression of certain ethnic groups and does so with often lacking tact or subtlety, at times to the detriment of the overall experience. Combine this with egregious juxtapositions of efforts at sincere seriousness with comedy and the result is something which understandably irritates and jars at times. I will admit unfamiliarity with the plots of the second and third entries, but the fourth turns its focus towards the other elephant in the room of a WW2 analogue. Nuclear weapons and total war.

It does so in a way that lacks so much subtlety it had me incredulous at the brazenness of it, the utter emotionally manipulative, cloying nature of the revelation that we had slipped into a Manhattan Project parable. I was ready to be angry, because it seemed so entirely stupid, the sort of ridiculous plot point that even outdoes Victory Gundam’s most notorious excesses of narrative cruelty, that it seemed to be slipping into bad taste. Then I remembered a piece of historical trivia and everything made sense. The game was no less unsubtle, no less, even, crass. No less uncomfortable in what it was doing but there was, I could see, a reason behind it. In order to cut through the preconceptions of the player base and to, indeed, fit the desired moral conflict into the otherwise over-the-top world of the game, it needed to invoke atrocity beyond simply pressing a button to kill thousands.

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In 1981 the academic Roger Fisher posited in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists that the best deterrent to nuclear war would be to require the President to kill a man in order to retrieve the launch codes that would authorise the deaths of thousands, if not millions. Fisher claimed when he proposed this to military personnel they were appalled and said that needing to personally kill before impersonally killing would “distort the President’s judgment.” Valkyria Chronicles 4, either intentionally or unintentionally, takes Fisher’s hypothesis to its most literal extreme. The final moral decision of the game requires the protagonist to personally kill a small child in order to authorise, effectively, a nuclear attack on a civilian target. The initial revelations of this whole setup – a superweapon built into a super-battleship that requires the life of a small child to operate it – the same child whose life is being used as a fuel source for the warship – seemed inconceivably extreme in their cruelty. The series had in the past not shied away from stories of exploitation, human experimentation and crafting humans into weapons – and, indeed, this very game had set up the villains as abusing two child soldiers and an experimented-upon sorceress as their minions – but the revelation that the magical power source of the future invented by the heroes was to be blunt the souls of orphans seemed to be going too far.

I got angrier and angrier with the protagonists as the story headed into its final arc; none of them seemed to have any qualms about pushing the button to kill a child if it would “end the war.” Indeed, they had bought wholeheartedly into the other moral lie the story hinged on – the best way to end a war was to level your enemy’s capital city, killing everyone indiscriminately to make an example. This is, of course, not an uncommon storyline in military fantasy or sci-fi, it is a natural hero’s journey plot for video games to head to the villain’s main base. In Half-Life 2 you fight through the city to destroy the tower at its heart. But put into a pseudo-WW2 setting, and then redoubled down upon with the revelation that the plan was to drop the equivalent of an atomic bomb on a civilian target was immensely uncomfortable. Because it was real, it was both the cruellest and the realest part of the game. A game of cute dogs, noble tank drivers, laughing and joking with the lads, and then giant drill battleships and magic suddenly grounded by the fact that the player was looking like they were off to do this setting’s Hiroshima. And the callousness of all the vengeful, tired, angry soldiers who didn’t even consider if a whole city counted as a valid military target for indiscriminate bombing was understandable but frustrating. In this aspect the game’s storytelling worked so well because the characters seemed to be acting so cruelly.

And then at the climax of the story, the hero hesitates. Unwilling to kill indiscriminately. That climax was the release of the anger the game had built in me. As his comrades call him a coward and a traitor, claim he disrespects the memories of his dead friends, he refuses to kill. The war ends before it is needed. Ordinarily the lack of a big climax, the stepping down from escalation, would be seen as a game failing to offer the expected video game ending. But here, morally, there was no justification to end it like that and so when the game’s personal-level villain, the superweapon scientist Belgar, decides to set the bomb off anyway just to show the scientific community he was right all along it is a narrative justification for what could be seen as a tacked-on, obligatory final boss. The heroes did not end the war, their sacrifices were ultimately kind of worthless, they witnessed unbelievable cruelty, and at the end they nearly all die fighting a sore loser who refuses to honour the ceasefire.

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It’s something of a bold plot arc, really; the heroes almost give in to being worse even than the abhorrent villains and kill the one villain who was probably right in the defector Forseti who decided he could not support a nation that was going to use orphan’s souls as fuel. And in the end they don’t have much of a role in the ultimate end of the war. Moment to moment it makes you hate everyone and everything. You hate Claude and his men for apparently being morally blind right up until the eleventh hour. You hate his nation for their ridiculously unethical superweapon plan. You hate Forseti because – until you see why – he seems to just be a sly, conniving traitor. You hate Belgar because he breaks the minds of his young enforcers Nicola and Chiara. About the only people who aren’t really hateable are the dog and the minor villains Walz and Crymaria, both of whom very quickly realise they don’t want to be there any more. Even by the end you find Nicola and Chiara slightly sympathetic because they have been utterly brainwashed to the point of killing themselves (although it is extremely cathartic that Nicola kills Belgar as part of her “punishment” in exactly the way he punished Chiara)

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But is it good? It’s thrilling, even if it is a little directionless for the first half of the game with a few too many mock battles and a lack of character development for Minerva and Christel which makes the turning point of the story feel less like narrative comeuppance for Claude and more like the game awkwardly kiling the most narratively prominent probably lesbian character for drama. It’s certainly the most brazen nuclear war is very bad and yet people can easily be deluded into thinking it’s good message I’ve seen for a while, and whether intentionally or not its evocation of Fisher’s hypothesis is the most thematic way of driving it home possible. As someone who has watched a lot of Gundam the idea of using magic children as weapons is a common trope. Nicola and Chiara are not far removed from Puru. Angie, the fuel source for the battleship Centurion, is pretty much your Four analogue. So there’s a lot going on that works.

I also give the game credit for including a character canonically described as “presenting as female” and not making their side-story plot about their gender. That is certainly a better handling of such issues than the nonsensical way they handle Kai/Leena (the sister of the man who becomes Forseti pretends to be him after he defects to avoid suspicion falling on the unit, and there are some jokes about hiding a buxom cross-dressing woman which rather strain credibility in the name of comedy). It would have been nice if the two women who are made out to be very close, mostly uninterested in men and, indeed in their epilogue in love would have not been the source of the drama that makes Claude toughen up by killing one of them. But on the whole the game feels like its writing in these issues of personal discrimination are slightly less clunky than earlier entries. There’s still an earnest clumsiness and mawkishness to much of the side-character writing (and the decision to pare back the sidestories to groups of three characters interacting makes some feel extremely underwritten as a whole) but it avoided some pitfalls I foresaw.

There is one final point that really throws me about the game. The postgame campaign, which seems to undermine in the name of gameplay convenience the narrative integrity. Few characters die of the main cast outside the four main villains (Belgar, Forseti, Nicola and Chiara), Minerva’s partner Christel, Raz and one other soldier. There is the potential for more deaths of the side cast if you lose units in missions, and at the end you get a memorial wall and their mementoes. It is simple and emotional. I was pleased I brought everyone I could home. And then so the postgame challenge missions can actually work, the game lets you buy back with resources any dead characters, breaking the narrative flow. I know the story is over, and this is purely supplementary material, but the deaths of Christel and Raz were important to the story and actually tied into characterisation. Simply being able to return them to life and be able to get character sidestories featuring them – even if those are inserted back into the narrative – feels like the mechanics cheapening the few moments of serious choice the game gives the player or characters.

I do not know exactly how I would have done it otherwise. Possibly I would have had the postgame missions retroactively inserted into the campaign at appropriate times for a New Game+ kind of situation rather than adding the thematically clumsy act of going to the Cenotaph screen to buy back the dead. Replaying the campaign and adding, for example, Christel’s sidestory at the point where the story is lighthearted and she interacts with the main cast feels a bit better thematically than after the game letting Minerva buy her girlfriend back with the same funds you use to upgrade units.

But ultimately this is only a narrative failure that comes after 32 hours of main campaign and it’s a problem not unique to this game. On the whole Valkyria Chronicles 4 is a thematically weird, frustrating game that decides the best way to approach a challenging theme is to throw subtlety to the wind and go all in on making any nation that wants to use nuclear weapons a total monster. It’s hard to quibble with that as an intent, with a little perspective.

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