War is nothing new to video games. The medium has always been fascinated with combat and war, from the wave of World War II games in the 90s to the deluge of modern-focused titles after Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. While there are plenty of war video games out there, both based on actual history and not, few of those titles actually manage to say something meaningful about the nature of war, and its consequences. This is part of what made the original Valkyria Chronicles such a massive surprise when it released in 2008, as, despite its gorgeous anime aesthetic, the title really manages to say something, and bring up themes that most war games gloss over. While other Valkyria games haven’t had nearly this level of commentary, Valkyria Chronicles 4 also manages to be a fascinating look at the horrors of war.
The Valkyria Chronicles series takes place in a pseudo-Earth world on the continent of Europa. A massive war has broken out between the Atlantic Federation in the west, and the militaristic East European Imperial Alliance. The game draws obvious parallels to World War II, with the Empire resembling a kind of mix of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, while the Federation has similarities to Great Britain, France, and the other European nations. Across the sea lies the United States of Vinland, obviously meant to represent the United States. While this setup is based in reality, Valkyria Chronicles then layers on fantastic elements like a resource called Ragnite that can power super weapons or the Valkyria, mythical warriors with magical powers.
Right from the get-go, however, Valkyria Chronicles makes sure you know it’s about characters, the people that have to deal with war. Both Valkyria Chronicles games have you playing as a cast of characters from a small town in the neutral nation of Gallia. In the case of Valkyria Chronicles 1, these are characters that are thrust into a war against their will, and have to fight to defend their home from the tyrannical empire. In the case of Valkyria Chronicles 4, the main cast are citizens who joined the army to protect their home, in the hopes of seeing Gallia spared from tragedy.
Many of your squadmates in both games are citizens-turned soldiers, people that led simple lives before, and these characters are primarily fleshed out through Squad Stories in Valkyria Chronicles 4. These stories dive into the characters’ pasts and why they’ve joined the military. One woman joined because her husband went off to war and went MIA, so she felt the only choice she had was to try and find him herself.
Another man joined because his parents forced him to as he was unemployed and hopeless, but when he joined the army he created a warrior persona named “Odin” to help himself deal with the terror of combat. It’s these little touches that make Valkyria’s world feel all the more realistic, and losing one of these party members in a battle after you’ve found out about them can be devastating, compounded all the more by the special item they leave you in their will.
Early on in the first Valkyria Chronicles, the game brings up prejudice and racism against a race of people known as Darcsens. This prejudice stems from ancient history when Darcsens supposedly devastated the continent until the Valkyur defeated them in the War of the Valkyur. This is consistently brought up throughout the first game, as Darcsen teammates are discriminated against or insulted. The most important aspect here though is that it isn’t just the “bad guys” discriminating against Darcsens, it can also be your heroic squad members. These aren’t just cool characters that you play as, they’re made more realistic by having aspects to their personality that you don’t like.
This idea is strengthened in Valkyria Chronicles 4, although racism is very much not brought up. Valkyria Chronicles 4 is a game all about morality, and how war can blur the lines of what’s moral and what’s not. We won’t go into story specifics in lieu of spoilers, but the game doesn’t always cast your heroes in a golden light. There are tough choices to be made, and oftentimes what seems like the right choice to Claude Wallace and Squad-E ends up resulting in a terrible outcome, and oftentimes death.
Just to highlight this point, we’ll cover one example. Early on in Valkyria Chronicles 4, Squad-E enters a city the Empire was recently driven out of, and the squad meets a merchant who’s willing to sell them left behind tank parts, despite the fact they’re with the Federation. Later on, the Federation’s plans go awry and they’re forced to retreat, looping back around the town. As Squad-E is trudging through the countryside, they happen upon a figure hung from the top of a telephone wire, with a sign around his neck.
Once Imperial forces took back control, they murdered the merchant for betraying the “homeland” and strung his body up as an example. Squad-E then has to live with the fact that this man is dead simply because they dealt with him. War games are all about horrific imagery, but this example in Valkyria Chronicles 4 shows how such a menial interaction can have far-reaching consequences in the madness of war.
While all of these are good examples of how Valkyria shines a light on war, the series obviously isn’t without its issues. Valkyria is still heavily inspired by anime and at times the jump from gritty war story to wacky anime can be jarring. At the same time, Valkyria Chronicles 4 has definite problems with the sexist way that some male characters treat women, which is absolutely a problem. These flaws should always be weighed against what a game does well, and used as an example for what to do, and what not to do.
The way that the series handles war, though, is absolutely commendable. Many of the big war games, like Call of Duty, turn war into bombast spectacles filled with explosions and violence, but never really diving into the heart of war. You oftentimes don’t feel good about the story or battles in Valkyria Chronicles, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be. If more triple-A games could learn Valkyria Chronicles, an anime version of World War II, we’d all be the better for it.