Throughout history, war has been painful, forcing soldiers on an interminable slog through hostile terrain at the behest of people they do not know—let alone understand the plans or ambitions of. In representing this aspect of conflict, Valkyria Revolution is more accurate than most video games players will find. On the other hand, people tell war stories to inspire, indeed, the setting is often used as a backdrop to tell hopeful tales about the human condition. In particular, anime and Japanese games use this grand stage to intensify interpersonal stakes and drama. This motive appears absent from Valkyria Revolution, resulting in a dull and dramatically inert role-playing game. To be fair, ascribing motive at all seems presumptuous, as the game has no clear reason for existing other than to be a functional piece of software. Since the game is no technical fiasco, to invoke other infamous misfires such as Sonic 2006 or Ride to Hell: Retribution would imply a level of creative investment that this game does not present. Instead, Revolution brings to mind a low grade sausage, a kind of ‘extruded-JRPG-product’ made from dusty off-cuts and not enough spices.
The sheer scope of the mediocrity in this game is staggering, and frankly insulting. Examining Valkyria Revolution is less a critique than trying to piece together a terrible accident after the unfortunates have been carted off on stretchers or in body bags. How could this happen to normal, hard-working people? Were they all just in the wrong place at the wrong time? The prospective investigator must address each element in turn, so that a proper examination of the situation can be achieved.
The Game: For Fans of Rudimentary Button Mashing
Media.Vision, developers of Valkyria Chronicles 3, probably made the right choice to start fresh rather than trying to outdo a beloved trilogy of games (only the first two released in English). However, in 2016, the Japan-only demo completely eschewed the turn-based tactics of previous games for a musty action RPG with boxy dungeons and AI party members. Battles now consisted of musou-like hack-and-slashing through waves of soldiers, although with vastly simplified action commands. This departure would make sense if Sega wanted to target a new audience, except that Valkyria fans’ negative reception to the demo apparently factored into an extensive retooling of the battle system for the final product. The retail version of Revolution‘s combat includes a timed meter that fills after each attack, as well as an active pause to issue commands to the player’s party and customisable AI (though nothing on the level of Final Fantasy XII‘s gambits).
As one might expect, taking a simplified hack-and-slash and bolting on half-baked tactics mechanics produces a sort of mushy gruel that is neither here nor there. Players can look forward to—from different points of view—either a limp action game with one canned combo per character and countless impairments to control and movement or a frustrating tactics game with few items and weaponry and little-to-no control over party positioning beyond a few basic formations.
Battles consist of traversing empty dungeons with three AI party members, occasionally dodge-rolling, but mostly mashing the attack button and selecting alchemical “ragnite” powers that have varied elemental effects. A lack of enemy variety and recycled bosses mean that players have seen the majority of original content by the halfway point. Even by then, expect to have seen the same missions several times thanks to the “strategy layer” (and no inverted commas exist big enough to enclose those words here). Outside of battle, weapon upgrading and item crafting systems are included to satisfy the basic standard of extruded JRPG product. Truly, the one thing that can be taken away from this production is that frequently-criticised series such as Tales of… are not given enough credit for their mechanics being basically fun.
Least of all the pointless activities in Revolution is the aforementioned strategy layer. Superficially resembling the mission selection in far better SRPGs, the world map is an attempt to expose the player to the political and economic machinations of the war. Countries can be caught in the push and pull between combatants, and, incidentally, the map is also the only real visualisation of troop movements on a large scale. Over the course of the game, side missions open on the fronts of the war, but since the economics and politics are predetermined by the scenario, this really only results in vague time pressure to grind levels at specific junctures. Whether players grind or stick to the story missions, the objectives boil down to fighting through enemy forces to capture bases or defeat commanders. A glimmer of genius can be found in the four Grand General bosses—long, demanding battles that make use of puzzle solving—but the way the game parcels them out is perplexingly lopsided, with one at the start and the rest in the latter half. On the whole, once the gameplay systems have been introduced, they quickly devolve into a dull slog.
Presentation: Signs of Rigor Mortis
For a company like Sega, which has published several award-winning tactics and real-time strategy games lately, putting the company logo on this cheap-feeling production is a true shame. The oil painting look of Revolution is supposed to achieve deliberate stylisation, but is dense and irritating. Character models themselves are not terribly designed, but with everything filtered through a canvas texture, the visuals are often too busy to be appealing.
Character animation recalls the early 2000s. Far too many of the 30-odd hours of Valkyria Revolution are spent watching two lifeless automatons flapping their mouths, sometimes breathing or phasing their arms through their weapons. Facial animation especially suffers, leaving the voice acting to convey any emotion stronger than a vague smile. Occasionally, a cutscene will include many more characters, framed in a still shot or a very slow pan; in these cases, telling who is speaking nearly impossible, as the characters’ mouths are too small to be seen. On the bright side, the game’s English voice acting is no disaster. Only rarely do performances seem awkwardly intoned or out of place, even with circular dialogue that cannot have been fun to perform. Otherwise, sound is sparse in cutscenes and utterly cacophonous during the bigger battles. Party members and enemies alike call over their attacks constantly, drilling lines like “I’m gonna murderise them” and “See how tough I am?” deep into the subconscious. A general impression of aimlessness or lack of directorial oversight is accentuated by the scatterbrained story presentation. For example, many character development scenes are sidelined into an optional notebook, but repetitive political and economic exposition is forced into the main flow of the narrative.
The sole aspect of the game’s audiovisual presentation that is actually great is the score by Yasunori Mitsuda of Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross fame. With a soundscape that blends Dragon Age: Origins and Tactics Ogre, the music is always interesting and periodically excellent. The only downside is that the repetitive story and dull characters fail to craft a world that deserves such enjoyable composition.
Story: A Failed Propaganda Piece
Even muddled mechanics and poor presentation can be looked over in a game with a well-told story. However, the characters of Valkyria Revolution are hollow sketches and the scenario is a bore. Although part of a franchise centred on war, with a history of telling interesting stories, from a publisher known for great strategy, none of these factors are apparent in the title’s narrative. Taking place on the continent of Europa, though in an alternate reality to previous Valkyria games, the game follows the exploits of Vanargand, an “Anti-Valkyria squad” augmented with the magical substance ragnite. The small kingdom of Jutland strains under economic sanctions, and with the Ruzi Empire on their doorstep, five childhood friends orchestrate a war of liberation.
Author’s Note: I should point out that I try not to make value judgements on the development or developers of a game, and this is where that becomes tricky. The fact is the story of Valkyria Revolution feels like the most rushed I have seen in a long while; a pre-draft that needed more time in the oven but had a deadline to meet. The short development cycle and significant outsourcing of the game supports this supposition but without any concrete information, we can only critique what we have. Minor spoilers ahead.
As with the repetitive RPG mechanics, Valkyria Revolution‘s storyline fails to capitalise on the ideas present. The blurb above sets up a potentially interesting conflict, set in the throes of an industrial revolution circa. 1854, but the story could be set anywhere, in any century, and be just as bare bones.
At the macro level, Revolution understands the basics of continental conflict and spends too much time in cutscenes convincing the player of this fact. Hours pass with characters burping out justifications for propaganda, military manoeuvres, economics, and historical tensions that play out offscreen. On the micro level, the main characters experience the minimum arrangement of plot points required to define a story, rather than an episode or vignette, but the narrative falls to the limitations of the presentation. In particular, the arbitrary choice of which aspects of personality and backstory are revealed in optional side content, or during the main thrust, hampers the dramatic effect. Early on, the story leaps right into the middle of the action, as though meaning to allow viewers to piece together character motivations and backstory themselves. No such chance—long after motivations and backstory have become clear from context, the characters continue to speak them aloud whenever the game thinks an important connection is not already obvious enough—not to mention that the only affecting part of the lengthy ending is spoiled within the game’s introduction thanks to a 100-years-later framing device.
The game is lifeless, with anime stereotypes coming and going without any impact. The effete princess. The stoic soldier. The spunky one. A conflicted villain whose arc doubly disappoints by taking the entire course of the game to play out a single face turn. After all, if he had left the axis of evil sooner, the game could not recycle his boss fight three times. Honestly, criticising Revolution for resorting to overused cliches is an insult to better JRPGs that use anime stereotypes wonderfully. So much is worth commenting on as a lesson of what-not-to-do, but the above critique is more than enough. Valkyria Revolution is a dull action game, a wafer-thin war story, and a mishandling of the franchise: disappointing whether one played the previous games or not. Gamers know that Sega has so much more to offer, even if the series might now be buried for good thanks to this spin-off. Instead of revitalising a beloved property, Revolution is a snafu.
American Fugitive Review — A Grand Tale of Theft and Auto
The original Grand Theft Auto rocked the virtual world with its violent gameplay from a birds-eye view perspective back in 1997. Once the series moved to a third-person, 3D perspective with Grand Theft Auto III, few gamers looked back and few developers attempted to replicate the original style. More than 20 years later, Fallen Tree Games has become of those few with American Fugitive.
Players control Will Riley, a man convicted for a crime he did not commit and filled with the desire for revenge. Once he has escaped from prison, Will must find old friends—and meet some new ones—to run errands and discover the person who killed his father.
The game is played from a top-down perspective in a 3D open world. More reminiscent of Chinatown Wars than the original Grand Theft Auto, the camera adds a level of complexity to American Fugitive, as players often will not see what lies beyond the edges of the screen. While a behind-the-character perspective would, at times, not go amiss, players will eventually grow to familiarise themselves with the camera, respecting the callback to classic open world titles.
The open world itself is also reminiscent of classic titles, with simplified designs regularly complimented by the detailed art style. The game’s animated, cartoon design scheme is fitting of its fast-paced action gameplay, always managing to keep the player on their toes and keen to discover more. Technically, the game plays almost flawlessly, with no significant performance issues to disrupt the player while they explore the map.
Players can explore the rural open world of Redrock County on foot or in a vehicle. The vehicular gameplay may take some time for players to familiarise themselves with, with some overly slippery mechanics leading to some unfortunate collisions, though fitting to the game’s tone. Thankfully, most environments in the game are destructible, so sliding off the road—if the player follows the road to begin with—does not often lead to disaster.
Despite beginning the game as a seemingly innocent man, Will doubles down on his criminal actions once he escapes from prison. Akin to Grand Theft Auto, the player can hijack cars, kill civilians, and attract the attention of police. Most residential buildings in the game can be robbed by the player, often leading to tense confrontations with the homeowners or police, so players must continue at their own risk.
The ‘wanted’ system in the game works similarly to Grand Theft Auto games, with players accumulating up to five stars depending on their behaviour. The stars often accumulate a little too quickly, however, with additional stars regularly added simply for evading police. Oftentimes, the player may possess a full wanted level—complete with large police vans and circling helicopters—within a minute of committing a minor offense. While this over-the-top gameplay design is fitting to the pace of the game, it may lead to frustrations within the main story missions by bringing the player’s progress to a halt.
The missions are also reminiscent of those in Grand Theft Auto, tasking the player with a wide variety of tasks to keep them busy while the story evolves. While many of these missions may seem disconnected to the main narrative structure, they are unique and regularly keep the player entertained, ranging from simple fetch quests and car robberies to full-scale shootouts. The game’s fast-paced gameplay and lack of loading screens also make the poorly-placed checkpoints bearable, especially when the beginning of missions require the player to drive to a certain location.
American Fugitive‘s storyline is simple in design but entertaining enough to keep the player engaged. The game’s ‘cutscenes’ exist in the form of text atop character designs; while some simple voice acting would elevate these scenes with more dramatic tension, they are short enough to maintain the player’s attention and continue the missions at a fast pace. Players will find themselves surprisingly engrossed in the story, wanting to see it through to its full conclusion.
Accompanying the fast-paced gameplay and narrative is the game’s music. From slow, explorative themes to fast-paced tracks, American Fugitive‘s original score is reminiscent of some of the best soundtracks across different media—from television’s True Detective to video gaming’s Red Dead Redemption 2 and The Last of Us. Each song accompanies the gameplay nicely, ramping up and down as the player makes the appropriate actions, and, along with the expert sound design, add the auditory sprinkles atop a visual and narrative treat.
American Fugitive, simply put, is fun. Fallen Tree Games has added its own unique twist to a classic gameplay formula, and utilised a simple but engaging narrative and a beautiful original score to maintain the player’s interest until the very end. Despite a few minor flaws in gameplay, the game stands strong against its competition. Players looking for a fast, fun, and mature sandbox game should not miss American Fugitive.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro.
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