By Paul Kainoa Vigil / June 23rd, 2015
*Beware of spoilers!*
In 2008, SEGA released Valkyria Chronicles for the PlayStation 3 worldwide. In spite of some strong early promotional efforts in North America, the game didn’t start off strong in sales. But those sales rose sharply following a price cut, and it allowed more people to become acquainted with the peculiar Valkyria Chronicles. It’s a strange hybrid of strategy-RPG and third-person shooter mixed in with unit quirks that become better with micromanagement, conveyed through the awesome CANVAS graphics engine that gives the game its sketchbook watercolor look and the awesome musical arrangements of Hitoshi Sakamoto. The characters aren’t typically cited as one of the game’s most notable strengths, but they’re essential in commanding all of the visual, gameplay and musical tools that make up the Valkyria Chronicles behemoth. While characters like Rosie and Selvaria are pretty clear standouts, nature-boy-wonder and lead protagonist, Welkin Gunther, is also key to the game.
The setting of Valkyria Chronicles is loosely based upon World War II-era Europe. Gallia is a small, independent, but prosperous territory caught in between two warring powers: the Atlantic Federation and the East Europan Imperial Alliance (this one is the Bad People.) The lush and resource-rich Gallia resists intervening in the Second Europan War being waged between the Atlantic Federation, but, as the Imperial Alliance gains ground in the War with sheer military power, the Alliance seeks dominion over all of Europa and the important multipurpose mineral, Ragnite, found in abundance in Gallia.
Enter Welkin Gunther. He’s the son of a war hero in the First Europan War that took place decades before Valkyria Chronicles starts. At the beginning of the game, Welkin is enrolled in the capitol city’s university, studying Animal Sociology. How’s that for practicality? The first we see of Welkin in the game’s story, he’s admiring some fish and enthusiastically takes to his notebook. His suspicious activities alert Alicia Melchiott, leader of the local citizens’ militia in the town of Bruhl (“Thanks, fish.”) The town is on edge with the expectation of an invasion from the Imperial Army from the East. However, Welkin’s adoptive sister, Isara, defuses the escalating situation by explaining that Welkin was caught in the middle of helping her move to the capital city of Randgriz. They both figure it will be safer there in case of an invasion. Alicia relents, but, when a small Imperial contingent is spotted nearby, Welkin assists (universal conscription!) as an armed footsoldier. As larger Imperial forces assault Bruhl, Welkin and Isara make use of a tank left behind by their father to both escape the city and minimize Gallian casualties. At this point, Welkin, Alicia and Isara are all friends, and Welkin finds it harder to separate himself from actively defending Gallia, especially when he is drafted and designated the leader of a new squad in the Gallian army (thanks to that recent military training.)
This is not the path Welkin wanted. Welkin is peaceful and believes in resolving differences through talk. In one of his earlier conversations with Alicia, she asks Welkin if he would consider joining the army and he denies it, saying he wants to be a teacher. But after being drafted, he doesn’t fight it internally. Through his surveys of nature, he comes to the conclusion that death and conflict are parts of the natural world. Beyond the introductory rallying cries for each mission, he’s not interested in propagandizing the war or rallying himself against the enemy.
These early scenes do much to capture Welkin. He protests his arrest, but recognizes that Alicia isn’t going to back down and that there isn’t anything he can say to dissuade her from the idea that he could be a spy surveying Gallian territory. He’s fairly patient, but also comes across as a bit of a spacey dope. The game doesn’t articulate this well, but Welkin does have presence of mind and takes all matters seriously. He just thinks there is a clear time to intervene or get fired up, and a time to let events unfold. Welkin had no problem standing by Isara growing up, as she was on the receiving end of a lot of harassment for being “Darcsen.”
The Darcsen are an ethnic group indigenous to Gallia, and they are hated by some because a massacre that ended with massive incidental casualties was successfully and intentionally attributed to the Darcsens by… some other group of people (maybe I won’t give away everything.) The Darcsen story is inspired by the treatment of Jewish people throughout Europe in World War II, subject to outright discrimination and more passive ostracizing in the game’s mythology, and both equally horrendous.
Another memorable scene takes place early in the game, when the newly-formed squad does not appreciate Welkin’s leadership. Former singer Rosie and Isara begin arguing because Rosie hates “dark-hairs” and Isara is a dark-hair. Resident vegetable-lover and big guy Largo directly asserts his unwillingness to take Welkin seriously. With tension building, a war going on and an unorthodox commander, the eyes fall on Welkin. He then ambitiously claims that he’ll retake Vasel within the next two days, while at a disadvantageous position. If he fails, he’ll resign from Squad 7, and if not everyone shuts up for the time being.
When he suggests this gambit, he’s not actually sure he can pull it off. This is interesting — does he really care about winning the war or not? He probably doesn’t care if he’s the one to do it. If he leaves, he’ll still do what it takes to look after Isara. Typically, wars are bigger than just one person making all of the difference. However, he still does want the squad to band together, if not to win, at least to learn to cooperate and value one another.
In any case, Alicia and Isara approach him later with misgivings about Welkin’s bold move, but Welkin comes up with a plan. He outfits the Squad’s tank to traverse a river, so that they can take out patrols outside of Vasel. When the coast is clear, he’ll signal for the rest of the squad to follow, and strike when the enemy isn’t expecting them. The river is typically deep enough for boats, but he finds a stretch of the river that he is convinced will be shallow enough for the tank to cross. He thinks this to be so because he notices a certain type of plant growing nearby. Long story short, victory for Squad 7, with everyone involved in happy disbelief. This is all vintage Welkin. Thankfully, Valkyria Chronicles doesn’t make a point of solving every problem with Welkin’s esoteric knowledge of nature, which would threaten to dilute him as a character.
One scene that I don’t think receives enough credit involves Alicia coming upon a dying Imperial soldier and comforting him as he passes. It’s one of the moments in the game that makes an effort to take war seriously. This is a scene that really reflects Welkin’s belief that conflict is natural, in the sense that the game’s story isn’t about lamenting that wars happen at all. It presupposes war, but everyone is treated as human. Alicia is more hopeful that a new Gallia will continue living after the war is won. I would suggest that the game and its characters (manifest with Welkin, in particular) make the argument that the racism problem is more important than explaining that war is bad. The latter angle is a bit of a trite observation, though not any less true. The point is that peaceful coexistence is solved from the ground up. Military victories or losses don’t make moral arguments; war is just one side exhausting another. The war is basically started due to the resentment and maladjustment that fomented from one person losing his mother as a result of royal family politics (no one deserves that, to be sure.)
Welkin is there at times for Alicia when her resolve weakens or when she has questions about life in general, and, early on, Alicia connects Welkin to the Squad. They are meant to be each other’s complements for the purposes of the story, especially since Alicia is more practical and has common sense. The only problem here is that, in the story, Welkin is generally so amazing that he’s almost never in a position of vulnerability. When Isara dies, the story and Welkin move on almost inappropriately fast. There’s a war going on, and Welkin’s not unfamiliar with early loss of family, but, when a character like Isara (who is essential for the first half of the story, so we understand racism is bad and that Welkin isn’t held by the same prejudice) is killed, it’s strange that Rosie comes off as more moved than Welkin, even if Rosie was impacted by Isara’s death. And, when Alicia almost commits suicide because she has difficulty reconciling her newfound identity as a Valkyrur and the Alicia that wants to protect life, Welkin… is finally more direct about his feelings for Alicia and proposes marriage. The concept is ludicrous; we know a least that Welkin cares for her as a friend, but it’s such a departure from Welkin as we understand him (and it doesn’t tell us much or represent an evolution in character) and it’s incredibly difficult to rationalize. It’s one of the game’s duller moments in the story.
Welkin only seems to noticeably crack after learning that Faldio instigated bringing out Alicia’s Valkyria powers. Faldio, an archeology major at the same university as Welkin and a friend, surmises that the fight against the Imperial forces (with a Valkyria in their ranks) can’t be won without a Valkyria of Gallia’s own. A chance encounter to a Valkyria landmark with Welkin and Alicia in tow gives him all of the evidence he needs that Alicia has Valkyria blood, so he snipes her while Squad 7 is engaged with the Imperial forces at Ghirlandaio. Valkyria powers are first awakened when someone is near death. When Welkin eventually finds out that Faldio brought this about, he punches Faldio and storms off. It could be said that Isara’s death has fed into this reaction, and Welkin is stressed because Alicia withdraws emotionally from the team after learning she is Valkyria. But it comes across as a more punctuated moment in the story, given Welkin’s personality development/lack of throughout the game. It is, at the least, an interesting change of pace. The nice thing about this exchange is that this moment does suggest that Welkin cares more about Alicia than winning the war.
Welkin also isn’t the person who brings about the end of the Second Europan War, so he’s not quite messianic. Selvaria, the Imperial-aligned Valkyria, learns that Emperor Maximilian of the Imperial army took her in when she was young only because he knew she was a Valkyria (while endorsing experiments on her prior to her “rescue.”) She decides to end her life and stick it to Maximilian, and reclaim a semblance of autonomy. She spent the better part of her life unflinchingly devoted to Maximilian, so it was a seismic revelation for her. The Valkyria’s Final Flame creates a massive explosion that wipes out most of the Imperial army and some of the Gallian forces, so this is sort of a boon to Gallia for the purpose of their side winning the war.
At the story’s end, Maximilian storms his way to the Randgriz Castle, knowing that it houses a massive Valkyrian lance with unmatched power. Though he easily occupies the castle, Squad 7 rushes to Randgriz after eliminating the last of the Imperial army that isn’t already at Randgriz. Squad 7, in the dramatic last chapter of the game, renders the mammoth tank Marmota inoperable and defeats Maximilian after he dons an artificial Valkyria suit. In mortal peril, Maximilian decides that he won’t simply leave his enemies well enough alone, and attempts to activate a Final Flame of his own. After all, Maximilian is a character mostly motivated by his hatred of people. However, Faldio drags himself and Maximilian to the core of the Valkof tank, killing both of them and prompting the Valkof’s destruction. What was that about one person winning wars?
Flawed as he may be (though not in the obvious sense), Welkin was an essential character in telling Valkyria Chronicles‘ story, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else being the protagonist, even if one might have wished for certain events to unfold differently. Plenty of us might have wanted Isara to stick around for the ending! In any case, Welkin’s gentle, yet resolute nature is a great one for navigating a war tale. Interestingly, he had clear ideas on when to take center stage and when not to do so, and it’s pleasantly odd that, as the story wraps to a close, Welkin isn’t really accelerating the drama himself (he almost never does, as someone mostly undramatic), but serves as a simple hero who unites the story and the Squad against Maximilian. He was clearly positioned never to be the messiah, and Valkyria Chronicles is better for it.
*I didn’t refer to the anime for this writeup. The anime is unfortunate on multiple fronts.*
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