Monday, December 29, 2008

Valkyria Chronicles

I got Valkyria Chronicles as a gift this holiday season, and have very much been enjoying it. I really liked the Advance Wars series, and as I've said to others, Valkyria Chronicles is a little like a third-person Advance Wars RPG. Add into that a great art style and a very PG game experience, and you get a very accessible strategy game.

From a gameplay standpoint, Valkyria Chronicles is a turn-based action game. You choose a squad of teammates from a pool of up to twenty characters at a time that consist of five different classes -- Scout (a quick recon unit), Shocktrooper (a machine-gun soldier), Lancer (with bazooka anti-vehicle Lance weapon), Sniper (self-explanatory), and Engineer (the repair and ammo guy). Each plays a role and each has its strengths. In an encounter, it makes sense to bring some of each class, because you're going to see lots of different enemies at any one time, requiring you to have adequate responses. It is possible to both retreat your units and call up reserves should any of your squad fall down on the job.

Outside of the core gamplay are a host of RPG elements that add depth and complexity. You can mix and match the members of your team anytime outside of a mission. Different characters have different abilities, dependant on their background. For example, one of the main story characters was studying to be a biologist, and is thus at home in a natural terrain, gaining a status boost from being in a forest. Similar bonuses -- and negatives -- exist for other characters for other terrains. Additionally, some characters have friendships with other characters, giving them bonuses for working with one another, making you want to obtain and locate certain characters closer to one another within a mission.

Of course it wouldn't be a RPG without levels and items. Valkyria Chronicles has mechnics for both. As part of completing missions and skirmishs you gain experience and credits. You can spend experience on the training field levelling up a certain class of character (each character of that class levels simultaneously). Levelling up adds ability scores as well as the potential for other bonus characteristics. Similarly, you can spend credits on researching new armor and weaponry. These may take the form of weapons with greater accuracy, damage, or status-dealing effects. You can choose where to invest your credits, and how the research tree is managed.

The story in the game is adequate. The characters are likeable if a bit predictable and cliched, but at least you know the roles that each plays. But it's an appropriate message for this game about characters, in that the story illustrates the human cost of war, and the loss of home and friends as a result of a greater, and frequently misunderstood, conflict.

The game has just been a ton of fun, and proves to me again that the PS3 has been a place for incredible games this year. Starting with Gran Turismo 5 Prologue, moving on to Metal Gear Solid 4, LittleBigPlanet, and now Valkyria Chronicles, the PS3 has finally established a great stable of exclusive games. If you enjoy strategy games and have a PS3, you have to look at Valkyria Chronicles.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Prince of Persia Early Looks

The new Prince of Persia title comes out tomorrow, and early looks seem to indicate that my hopes may indeed be fulfilled with this new title: it's stellar. I'll wait to see if holiday season gifts may ship the game my way before playing, but there's really only one question to answer: on PS3 or PC? Have to see if there any appreciable differences. I've always liked the control schemes on PC, where I've played the past three titles. But the reviews have been positive, if not glowing, about most aspects of the game, including references to this game as almost an experience rather than a test of skill, a world full of wonder, but not actually danger. Some players may be unhappy about this, especially given the fact that you actually can't die in the game; your constant companion Elika will always pull you from harm's way. But it's actually something I'm looking forward to.

Increasingly, games for me have been so much more than a test of skill or timing. Two games that I've been playing recently really illustrate the skill vs. experience factor of gaming: Guitar Hero World Tour and Metal Gear Solid 4. GH is clearly a simple game of skill. You must match a pattern of keypresses in representation of guitar playing. And it's fun for what it is, but definately not anything more than a test of pattern recognition and hand-eye coordination set to popular music.

Metal Gear Solid 4, on the other hand, presents a player with an epic tale of love and loss, duty and sacrifice. MGS4 evokes emotional responses, tells a story in its cinematic style, and draws you into a fictional world with very human performances. Beyond being a test of hand-eye speed, reaction time, and critical thinking, Metal Gear is an experience. It attempts to say something profound. I, for one, have been touched time and again by the all-too-human failings of fictional characters in this video game.

Prince of Persia is a game that I hope will continue in this tradition of games that I have enjoyed, games that have stayed with me, games like Deus Ex, Max Payne, The Legend of Zelda, Mass Effect, and others. These aren't just twitchy tests of trigger finger action, they're entertainment, and even art. They stick with a gamer and change them. Those games create a myth all of their own. Ultimately those experiences become part of us and we are a richer person for playing them.

Not that twitchy tests of trigger finger action games aren't fun. Off to play some Guitar Hero!