Problem: Mixing genre conventions makes the game unpredictable, and invalidates the strategy in the strategy game.
Oh, Valkyria Chronicles. You’re beautiful, and I want to enjoy your gameplay. But every time I do a new mission, you find a new way to frustrate me.
Thinking about it, I believe that the reason Valkyria Chronicles is so frustrating is that it mixes genre conventions. It presents the veneer of a strategy game, but it keeps pulling tropes out from action games and RPGs. That’s a big selling point for the game – the tactics of a strategy game, with the ground-level excitement of a third-person shooter – but a lot of the game’s design decisions drive me crazy.
For example, in the latest mission I attempted, I captured the enemy’s base, only to be told that it was a decoy, and now I’m trapped in a pincer move. Okay, that’s fine…war is unpredictable and changes rapidly. What bothered me was that the new enemy units dropped onto the battlefield instantly, in excellent positions, and ready to attack. Essentially, they pulled a convention from the RPG genre, that of the multi-stage boss battle, such as Kefka or Sephiroth in Final Fantasy. But in the context of a strategy game, it meant that all my tactics from the first half of the fight went out the window, as I was now given an enemy I could not have seen coming and could not predict. Additionally, the need to advance and gain ground is a central element of any strategy title, yet my enemies were given ground entirely free and clear, while I didn’t even get a turn’s worth of warning to change my position.
Secondly, and more infuriatingly, this mission featured action game-style infinitely respawning enemies. Foes spawned in groups of six. I thought I was being clever by using a well-placed sniper to pick off the entire assault force, only to have the enemies respawn on top of their own corpses and immediately take their actions. I think this is another core tenet of strategy gaming – if you take ground, it’s yours, for as long as you can hold it.
Third, the game mixes uneven, FPS-like terrain with a movement engine that doesn’t allow the characters to interact with that terrain. Will I be able to move past that barricade next to the one-foot high slope? I have no idea until I run up to it and waste my movement trying to get past it. This is an example of trying to get away from the genre conventions of strategy – gridded battlefields, and movement marked in spaces – and adopt more of the conventions of action and shooter games. I don’t think it works.
So I can’t rely on my mission objectives, I can’t rely on my tactics and positioning, I can’t rely on taking ground and holding it, and I can’t even rely on the movement of my own troops. With all those elements gone, there’s not really much strategy left in this strategy game.
Solution: Give the player a way to see the results of their actions and modify them before they suffer the consequences.
For enemies appearing out of nowhere: When a new wave of enemies appear, the player gets one free movement with each of their units. They can’t shoot, but they can see where the main enemy forces will be coming from, and attempt to take up a defensive position.
For enemies respawning infinitely: Have areas of the map which are clearly enemy-controlled and impassible, such as an armored barricade. When enemies respawn, they come out of the barricade. NPCs should comment on how the enemies will just keep coming, and encourage the player to focus on their objectives, rather than the infantrymen. This allows the player to see that the results of their action (attack those troopers) will have certain results (they’ll just keep coming).
For being unable to predict which obstacles can be passed or not: Allow the player to plot out a unit’s movement before committing to their turn. If the player is unable to draw a line to the destination, they know that the obstacles inbetween must be impassable. This wouldn’t inviolate the interesting third-person movement of Valkyria Chronicles, because a player might see a good shot or a new enemy, and decide not to follow their original plan. But at the very least, they would have a new tool to allow them to counteract the game’s unpredictability.
Arg. I feel like I could write several posts about bad design decisions in Valkyria Chronicles. How can such a beautiful and well-produced game make so many infuriating missteps?
This one is just a nitpick, but I think it touches on a broader design issue.
Problem: Proton Pack cooldown causes dead gameplay: a few seconds where the player just has nothing to do.
Solution: Allow players to change weapon types during cooldown.
When the Proton Pack gets too hot, it needs to vent before it can be fired again. This is the reload mechanic of Ghostbusters. A manual venting shuts down the pack for a second, while an overheat-forced venting shuts down the pack for 3-4 seconds. During this time, the player has very little agency over the game, since they can’t shoot.
My instinct during these lulls in the action was to attempt to switch my proton pack to a different mode, but I had to wait until the pack cooled down before I could change its settings. This made me feel disconnected from the game, reminded me that I wasn’t really a Ghostbuster, just mashing buttons on a plastic controller. Allowing the player to switch modes during cooldown seems like a natural way to keep them connected to the game, as well as encouraging players to look at situations strategically and use a variety of weapons to overcome their foes. Cooldowns become a welcome opportunity to switch tactics, rather than an annoyance that interrupts the firefight.
The design principle here is that the player should always have something to do. This is why you see avatars in World of Warcraft jumping around when they’re running from place to place. It’s an immediate and responsive way to interact with the game. During a boring moment, it reminds the player that they have agency. The boring moments in Ghostbusters are only 2-3 seconds long, but that’s still enough to break up the gameplay flow. It’s the same reason I honk the horn when driving video game cars, or bounce the head of the King of All Cosmos around the screen during Katamari Damacy’s loading screens. Call it a short attention span, but I want to have something to interact with.
Even if there was just a button that made a light on the proton pack light up, I know I’d be playing with it while I waited for my pack to cool down.