World War II ended quite suddenly for Japan. To this day, no other nation has been faced with the aftermath of two major cities disappearing from the map, their artists saddled with the grim responsibility of processing the grief and trauma of an entire culture, parsing the incomprehensible destruction of the atom bomb and transforming it into entertainment. But if the Japanese have taught us anything, its that the human psyche can be a mighty fucker, and over the last seven decades they have proceeded to regale us with a deluge of beautiful and bizarre manga, anime, porn, and video games, many of which have come to define our century’s pop culture. By far one of the strangest articulations of the Japanese perspective on World War II is Sega’s Valkyria Chronicles, a fantasy romp that rewrites the conflict as a romantic steampunk convention from which soldiers “retire” when they get shot too many times in the head, presumably to sip a cup of hot chocolate beside their local hearth.
Yes Valkyria’s war is (literally) a bloodless one, a war fought by fish-sketching artists, girls in short skirts with giant guns, and a tank called Edelweiss, which is the name of a rare alpine flower touted by the Nazi party as Adolf Hitler’s absolute favorite (the word Edelweiss literally means “noble white”). I am not making this up. Within the first hour of the game, Edelweiss is tasked with carrying a pregnant woman whose water has suddenly broken, setting the tone for an incredibly strange exercise in anime-style Teutonic fetishism. The title, originally released for Playstation 3 in 2008 and ported last year to PC, has garnered several awards for its unique visual flair (think Studio Ghibli if they worshipped martial strategy and set out to craft a very kawaii ode to fascism).
Anyways. I was on vacation in the south of France, hell-bent on staying away from the swimming pool so I could do the right thing: check the Steam summer sales for daily price drops. And there it was: Valkyria Chronicles for 50% off. A turn-based strategy RPG with FPS segments? Could be cool. Well-rated by most gaming media, including my favorite outlet Rock, Paper, Shotgun? Even cooler. I bought it on the spot. Fast forward to a week later: back in the city, I fired up my gaming PC, Valkyria first on my list of non-indies best suited to be played on a giant monitor.
If I had to estimate, I’d say it was about a half hour into the game, story chugging along in its sanitized way (the sweet smell of muffins and gunpowder wafting through the air) when it suddenly appeared: the Terrible Emptiness Within. It has a tendency to creep up on me when I’m in the process of learning how to play a new game, mind busily scanning the game’s mechanics for a sense of progress. Many times I have risen above its cynical whisperings to enjoy a game quite thoroughly, only to have it regroup and return, more powerful than ever. But in this case I persevered, fighting now a two front war: the first against the advancing East Europan army, the second against my own fickle nature.
But my efforts were for nought. The game spent too much time showing me the tedious shufflings of each individual soldier. The remapped PS3 controls felt sluggish to someone grown accustomed to the efficiency of an X-COM or a Civilization V, or even a Wasteland 2, all turn-based games that ensure you spend your time giving orders instead of watching fancy zoomy-zooms and well-scored cut-scenes. Then there were the tactical maps: unsatisfyingly approximate and sketchy considering how much I was expected to rely on them. The final blight on Valkyria‘s shiny mug? The game’s first person segments really felt like the worst of both worlds: too sluggish to compete with the immediacy of a good FPS, but annoyingly stressful due to the enemy’s ability to shoot you as you ponder your next move like a dumbass.
So I stopped playing altogether and moved on to another, more exciting game. Such is the life of a restless gamer, wandering from oeuvre to oeuvre like a grizzled Bedouin.
PS: Before you start flaming me in the comments, please rest assured that I am totally aware of the undeniable fact that Valkyria Chronicles is a good game. I know this because the internet has spoken, and I can hear a trillion voices in unison saying: Julian, you dumbass, Valkyria Chronicles is a good game. Ok, fine. But do you know who also thought Valkyria Chronicles was a good game? Hitler.