Suffice to say, the release history of Sega’s Valkyria Chronicles series has been uneven, both in terms of quality and availability. After the original game — which is due to arrive on Switch later this year —successfully kicked the series off on home consoles, the sequel only saw a release on PSP, while the third game (also on the PSP) was Japan-only. In the wake of a deplorable action RPG spin-off which released last year, Sega has opted to go back to its roots with Valkyria Chronicles 4, which largely takes after the first game. Luckily, Valkyria Chronicles 4 has managed to remind us of exactly why this series was so beloved in the first place, offering up a fresh cast of lovable characters alongside the tried and true strategic gameplay.

The story follows the conflict between two warring groups called the Atlantic Federation and the Eastern Imperial Alliance, obviously being used as stand-ins for the two sides of World War II, over a precious material called Ragnite. The main character is technically Claude Wallace — the commander of an elite group of Federation soldiers called Squad E — but this is really a narrative that’s driven by its ensemble cast. Conflicting characters like Raz, a brash and reckless Shocktrooper with an itchy trigger finger, and Kai, an aloof and calculating sniper, create plenty of memorable and genuinely heartfelt moments; we were rather surprised at how well the writers were able to develop characters from stock anime tropes into three-dimensional people over the course of the narrative. Moreover, this is done to a certain extent for every character; though there is clearly a key group of Squad E members that the story focuses on, the deep bench of side characters still get their time in the sun during some key cutscenes, making them more than mere fodder.

As one would likely expect from a story such as this, it can get gritty at times in its portrayal of war, showing the real deaths and consequences that result, but it fortunately doesn’t stray anywhere close to Saving Private Ryan levels of bleakness. The more lighthearted anime influences that were introduced in some of the previous sequels make a return here, meaning that every scene alluding to PTSD or loss is offset by three or four scenes crammed with pervy jokes and playful bickering between squad members. Even in moments where it seems like all is lost for Squad E or the Federation, there’s a certain level of hopeful optimism that permeates the writing, and this benefits the narrative considerably.

Gameplay could be described as a mixture of a third-person shooter and a strategy game, with equal importance being placed on both types of play. Every turn starts with you looking at a map of the battlefield, with available units, known enemies, and obstacles all noted, and you’re given a set number of Command Points, one of which is used every time you select a unit for action. The perspective then shifts to that unit, giving you full control over their movement, but with the caveat that the distance they can move is hamstrung by an Action Gauge on the bottom of the screen. Once the unit is in place, they can fire, throw a grenade or heal, and the cycle repeats.

Though it can take a bit of trial and error to come to grips with this battle system, it’s ultimately rewarding once you get the hang of it. Successfully managing a dozen units in a shared effort to reach a certain goal is endlessly gratifying, and the more hands-on approach offered by the third person combat makes the game feel less dependent on RNG elements. Taking control of a sniper and pulling the trigger yourself feels more responsive than if you were to simply order the unit to do so in a more traditional strategy game, even if there's still a chance of missing the shot, irrespective of your aim.

Rather like in the Fire Emblem series, there’s a soft weapon triangle at play here as well. Infantry units like Shocktroopers and Scouts can easily destroy anti-vehicle machines, which are effective at cutting through tanks, which in turn are effective at mowing down infantry. Understanding how to balance these elements is key to wrapping up a battle quickly, as a lopsided team will quickly run into trouble when faced with certain enemies. If a unit happens to go down, you’re given three turns to get another unit next to them to call a medic, otherwise the character dies and is gone for good; it’s not quite the brutal permadeath that Fire Emblem fans are familiar with, but there’s still some danger here to encourage careful play.

What’s perhaps more interesting about all of this is how Valkyria Chronicles 4 chooses to handle progression. Rather than doling out experience to a character after each enemy they kill, it’s all handed out at the end of battle scorecard, which primarily bases your grade and experience allotment on how quickly you achieved the goal. The experience points can then be invested not in individual characters, but in classes as a whole, with every character of that class getting a stat bump and new abilities as you level them up. Though it may seem a bit strange at first, this system does a great job of sidestepping the problem many strategy games run into when several characters inevitably fall out of the usual team lineups. In making levels apply to classes rather than characters, there’s no reason for you to not use the full team, as everyone in a class is more or less equal.

Some variation naturally does exist between characters, and these are realized in special abilities called Potentials. These act as buffs or debuffs that activate under certain conditions, such as a nature lover whose defence jumps up when they go into tall grass, or a unit with PTSD whose attacks become less powerful if bombs are used against them during that turn. Having abilities that both help and hinder a unit’s effectiveness gives each one a distinct feel and encourages the player to frequently experiment with team compositions to find abilities that complement each other. To add further distinction between characters, different load-outs can also be equipped to help make units more specialized and tailored to certain situations. When back at the base, money earned from battles can be invested in an R&D lab that creates and upgrades guns and armour, eventually giving the player plenty of options for how to spec their team.

All of this combines to make for a system that offers plenty of customization for those that want it, but this does also highlight a recurring issue of hefty menu management. Though Valkyria Chronicles 4 may have plenty of depth, it can be a bit of a bear to fully explore, as you must sift through endless sub-menus to find the option you want. An ‘optimize’ option or something similar would’ve gone a long way here, as it often doesn’t feel worth the time to sift through inventories, upgrades, status screens, and more for a marginal bump in the effectiveness of a few units.

Pacing is handled in a strange way, too, with each cutscene and battle playing out as selectable, segmented pictures in a diary penned by Claude Wallace. A new picture is added after you’ve completed the previous one, but this creates an issue with uneven pacing. After watching a cutscene and returning to the diary, you may be expecting to actually play something, but instead will be greeted with another picture representing a cutscene. Sometimes an entire page in the diary is just cutscenes, while other pages have two or three battles back to back. The ability to skip cutscenes and dialogue by tapping the ‘-‘ button helps to alleviate this, but you’re then missing out on key story elements to give context to the playable battles. It would’ve been nice if Sega could’ve figured out a more balanced approach to presenting story elements alongside the gameplay, as it can often feel like too much of one or the other in the way it’s handled here.

In terms of presentation, Valkyria Chronicles 4 manages to impress, going for a surprisingly colourful and painterly visual style. Little sketch marks are used to show shadows on a character’s face, and watching an emphatic “BOOM!” appear after a mortar strike finds its mark helps to give the game a hand-drawn feel that fits well with the optimistic tone of the characters and the overarching meta-narrative that all of this is the result of Claude writing and drawing things in his diary. Coupling this with the soft lines that let colours slightly bleed into each other makes for a striking appearance which balances realism well with slightly more fantastical elements; especially when playing on the Switch’s portable screen, Valkyria Chronicles 4 is quite easy on the eyes.

The soundtrack is a little less memorable than the visuals, but it still does a great job of setting the militaristic tone. Trumpets and drums abound, and there are about as many sorrowful and emotional tracks as there are triumphant and exciting ones, making for some lovely emotional range. Though none of the tracks really stand out in particular and the soundtrack to the original is perhaps superior, the music on offer here gives players something to listen to without being too distracting as they make decisions and line up shots.

As for replayability, there’s quite a lion’s share of content to be drilled through in Valkyria Chronicles 4. Aside from the 30 to 40-hour campaign, there are all sorts of side content to be found in extra chapters that help flesh out certain characters and relationships while giving you extra battles that have unique modifiers, like limiting your character options or giving you special objectives. Along with all this, getting the coveted “A” rank on each battle is quite a feat in itself, even more so if you opt to challenge yourself by leaning harder on classes you don’t use as often.

Conclusion

Though it suffers from some relatively minor pacing issues, Valkyria Chronicles 4 is a sublime strategy experience that fans of the genre won’t want to miss out on. The engaging, character-driven plot, third-person action, deep customization options, and high replayability make this one an easy recommendation, although pacing issues and cumbersome menu management may make it a little more intimidating to newcomers to the genre. We're also undecided about where it fits in the franchise hall of fame; the original game perhaps just shades it. All the same, we’d recommend you give Valkyria Chronicles 4 a go; this is a strong return to form for the series, and it’s a great entry point for Nintendo fans.