For many Nintendo fans, last month’s Valkyria Chronicles 4 was their first experience with the franchise, and it no doubt was a pleasant one at that. Valkyria Chronicles 4 acted as a lovely return to form for SEGA's strategy series, but this was largely due to how the game essentially went back to the gameplay template that Valkyria Chronicles laid out and added some polish on top of it. Now, fans who want to see where it all began can play the debut outing on Switch, and though it’s a little rougher around the edges than the fourth instalment, it’s still a fantastic SRPG experience that’s more than worth your time.

Valkyria Chronicles takes place in the same window of time as Valkyria Chronicles 4, following the conflict between the Atlantic Federation and the East Imperial Alliance over a precious resource called Ragnite, obviously alluding to the conflict between the Axis and Allies during World War II. The story follows a band of militia hailing from the neutral nation of Gallia, which quickly gets swept up in the war machine. To fight for freedom, Welkin Gunther — a dorky, nature-loving son of a former war hero — and Alicia Melchiott — a baker who takes up the mantle of leading the town watch — enlist in the military and lead the ragtag Squad 7 against impossible odds.

It’s a fantastic underdog story filled with likeable, complex characters and plenty of heart; highlighting what happens when ordinary people are called to fulfil their duty for a greater good. The realities of war are not sugarcoated throughout this narrative — peaceful towns go up in flames and beloved characters die in the line of duty — but it’s all undercut by an undeniable sense of hope that keeps you rooting for this small squad. What’s more is that there’s plenty of fun anime humour to keep things lighthearted, such as the introduction of a winged pig named Hans who becomes the mascot of the squad.

Gameplay is primarily focused on strategy first, but imbues this more thoughtful playstyle with some much-needed action by putting you directly in control of each unit that you command. In a typical battle, a map of the battlefield displays where all allies and known units are located and you’re given a certain allotment of Command Points (CP) each turn; one is consumed every time you order a unit to action, which puts you in control of that unit. The perspective then shifts to an over-the-shoulder third person view of that character, and you can move them about freely, though how far they can travel is limited by the Action Gauge which displays at the bottom of the screen. Once in position (preferably behind some sandbags), you can then choose to fire, throw a grenade, or perform a similar action, and you have to manually aim to pull off most actions.

This system is refreshing for the amount of emphasis that it equally puts on player skill and strategic thinking, requiring adequate usage of both to eke out a victory. Most battles pit you against an enemy force significantly larger than yours, and poor management or placement of your units will lead to a rapidly rising body count. For example, a character may have an Action Gauge that allows them to reach and dispatch an enemy, but if they’re left out in the open when the turn ends, the other four enemies around the corner will quickly avenge their fallen comrades. It becomes a deliberate balancing act, then, as you weigh how aggressively you want to push forward into enemy lines; go too fast and you could quickly lose several units, but go too slow, and you’ll get less experience and money upon completion of the battle.

Underlying the action is a simple 'rock, paper, scissors' class set up that favours diverse squads that cover all the bases. Each unit type has key strengths and weaknesses that counter or are countered well by other unit types and terrains, encouraging players to continuously experiment and try out fresh tactics as new challenges present themselves. For example, lancers are great at blowing up tanks, but they can’t move very far in a turn and aren’t very accurate. Scouts have an enormous Action Gauge that lets them comfortably run long distances on recon, but they don’t have very much firepower. Occasionally, this class setup feels a little basic — many RPGs are notorious for the staggering number of classes and subclasses that characters can fall under — but the simplicity is appreciated, allowing players plenty of freedom for diversity without bogging them down with too many options.

There is, however, a rather minor issue with overall balancing that permeates each battle, somewhat lessening the experience. The scout and shocktrooper units are simply too strong for their own good, and when properly buffed and groomed for a scenario, act as a nearly unstoppable force that do a fine job on their own of cutting a narrow gap through enemy lines and seizing a quick victory. A player can certainly choose to play the game in a more tactically-focused and balanced way, but having that easy option of blitzing for the finish line somewhat cheapens the experience. Valkyria Chronicles is certainly an unforgiving yet fair game in many respects, but the ease with which a player can ‘break’ the battle system makes this release feel a bit less polished than the more balanced fourth entry.

Unlike most RPGs, experience is not doled out per individual after every kill, but entire classes are levelled up at once when in the training ground between battles, conveniently equalizing your team and putting all class members more or less on the same footing. Players are given the option of distributing experience between classes however they’d like, and along with the expected stat bumps, levelling up occasionally grants other boons through new ‘Potentials’ for that class. These are abilities that differentiate units from each other, granting them stat buffs and debuffs for things like sneaking through grass or being caught in a crossfire, and they go a long way towards making each unit feel like a real, fleshed out person, even if the main storyline barely mentions their existence.

It’s a rather unconventional system, but having this focus on group levelling rather than individual levelling is a smart move that we wish more RPGs would integrate into their design; nobody gets left behind, and you don’t need to focus on cycling teams and characters to ensure everybody gets the experience they need. Even so, the Potentials system keeps units from becoming too homogenous, with there being important distinctions between similar units that make a big difference in team composition.

Valkyria Chronicles employs SEGA’s unique Canvas Engine in displaying its visuals, making for a striking, 'watercolour-come-to-life' style that makes each frame look like a handmade work of art while aiding in keeping the lighthearted tone despite the heavy subject matter. Battlefields are bright, colourful and full of details, with things like a subtle, white border around the screen or light scribble lines contributing to the storybook aesthetic. Characters are well animated, too, conveying a remarkable amount of emotion through their facial expressions in the many fully-voiced cutscenes that are interspersed between battles. Similarly, Hitoshi Sakimoto's soundtrack goes for a cheery and sometimes thoughtful tone, packed with a diverse array of tracks. Battle music is high tempo and full of pounding drums while practically every scene featuring Hans has an equally silly ditty to accompany the comic relief.

Though not the remastered port that saw a debut on other consoles earlier this year, Valkyria Chronicles still features all the DLC from the initial release, which acts as a nice cherry on top of the lengthy campaign that the story offers. Valkyria Chronicles looks gorgeous on either the TV or the Switch’s portable screen, and though some slowdown rears up occasionally during more busy fights, its rarely enough to affect one’s enjoyment of the gameplay. Considering the nearly unnoticeable difference between docked and portable modes, we’d suggest you play this one primarily on the go; the segmented, chapter-based pace makes this feel ideal for fifteen to twenty-minute sessions throughout a day.

Conclusion

As a ten-year-old game, Valkyria Chronicles still holds up impressively well; this is some of the best strategy action that gaming has to offer and having it available on the go is an enormous plus. Although there are some minor balancing and performance issues, Valkyria Chronicles offers up an emotionally-gripping, beautiful and fun strategy experience that offers a considerable amount of value for the price of admission. We’d give this one a high recommendation to anybody looking for a quality strategy RPG for their Switch; it may be marginally rougher than Valkyria Chronicles 4, but you really can’t go wrong here.