The Valkyria Chronicles series is set during a low fantasy re-imagining of World War II, here called the Second Europan War. The topography of the Europan continent is only marginally different to our Europe, and the role of the Nazi regime is played here by an entity known as The Empire, hell bent on conquering their neighbouring countries in order to secure what remains of a depleting power source known as ragnite.
Back in 2008, the first game in the series released on PlayStation 3 and was met with critical acclaim and secured a cult following thanks to engaging combat and a cast of likeable characters - ordinary folk forced into putting up arms to defend their country from an invading evil.
It's been ten years since the original Valkyria Chronicles, and after the immediate sequel shifted to PSP, and the third game never made it outside of Japan, fans have been clamouring for a home console follow-up in the West. After last year's disastrous spin-off Valkyria Revolution, the future for the series has looked somewhat bleak, but not only is Valkyria Chronicles 4 a successful return to form, it's the best game in the series to date and one of the best role-playing games on PS4.
If you've played Valkyria Chronicles Remastered - and you should - then this game will at once look familiar. The campaign is presented to you in the form of a book on Europan history, and each event in the tome - be it a battle, an important story beat, or just some lighthearted banter between comrades - is brought to life in vibrant watercolours. It's the sort of timeless art style that ages gracefully, as opposed to attempts at photo-realism that look dated within a couple of years. You'll progress through the game by working through the pages of the book, watching the story scenes - of which there are many - and taking part in the numerous battles.
The main questline sees you take on the role of Claude Wallace, the commander of Squad E of the Federation Army, in a storyline that runs parallel to the events of the original release. Claude and his squad are on a dangerous mission into the heartland of the Empire to try and end the war by taking out the enemy Capital, and their journey is engaging from first to last. Valkyria Chronicles 4 does a wonderful job of balancing the realities of war with its more fantastical elements, and never veers too far in either direction.
The pretty boys and helium voiced girls in your squad might initially come off as little more than anime stereotypes, but most characters do have layers to their personalities that are explored as time goes on. Similarly, while the story does go into some surprisingly dark territory on occasions, you probably shouldn't go into this expecting hard-hitting commentary on the horrors of warfare - each tragedy is balanced out by an amusing side story, and vice versa.
Combat in Valkyria Chronicles 4 is a refined, updated version of the system seen in the original PS3 game. It's turn-based, and each turn you're given a set number of Command Points which allow you to issue orders to your troops. Selecting a unit uses up one Command Point, and once selected the view transitions to that of a third-person shooter, allowing you to move your soldier or vehicle a set distance dictated by how many Action Points they have.
Tapping R1 at any time opens up an aiming reticule, and from there you can try to kill an enemy - headshots do the most damage but are hard to hit, particularly over long distances, while a body shot is safer but may leave you prone to a counterattack if you don't finish the job. Once you're out of CP the enemy has their turn, so it's wise to make sure your troops are in strong defensive positions before the transition. If any of your soldiers run out of health they'll lay injured on the battlefield for a few turns until you can get a medic to them - fail to do so and they'll perish, and they won't be coming back.
There's numerous different classes in play to spice up the proceedings, each offering different offensive and defensive capabilities. You can't rely on any one class to win battles for you, and choosing the right mix is all part of the strategy.
Shocktroopers can't travel long distances but can obliterate troops with their machine guns, Engineers are a support unit that can repair tanks or diffuse landmines, and Snipers can take out enemies from afar. Grenadiers are a new class to the series that while weak in close quarters combat, can bombard enemy soldiers with explosives in either offensive or defensive turns. Most maps - particularly in later missions - feature enemy grenadiers placed strategically to cause you trouble, and so sending your rank and file out marching without due care will likely see you quickly routed.
Missions and maps are varied, and many are much larger than seen in previous Chronicles games. Some will see you having to take over an enemy base or wipe out an entire battalion, but there are also ones that require you to survive a set number of turns against overwhelming odds, or to escape from enemies hunting you down. During winter missions there'll be occasional snowstorms that hamper movement and visibility, and the deathly cold means that allies who've fallen in battle will more quickly succumb to their injuries.
The campaign is full of tense, well-structured battles that will keep you on your toes, and the changing objectives and combat conditions means that missions don't feel stale or rote, even towards the end of the 40 hour-plus story. There are also numerous optional side stories for many of the supporting characters that offer more insight into their backgrounds, as well as the opportunity to take part in some unique battles.
Valkyria Chronicles 4 has the unenviable task of reinvigorating a series that hasn't seen a mainline home console entry in over a decade, as well as washing away the bad taste left in players mouths after the dreadful Valkyria Revolution. That it succeeds so comfortably on both fronts is at once a surprise and a delight. The storyline is thoughtful and engrossing, the cast is varied and likeable, and the combat is challenging and rewarding throughout. This is the game Valkyria Chronicles fans have been waiting for, and one that newcomers to the series should be equally excited for.