Australia, October 29, 2008 - I must confess it took me a while to get my head around how Valkyria Chronicles works. Much of the blame lies with my own ignorance: before playing I had only the vaguest understanding that it occupied similar SRPG (Strategy Role-Playing Game) territory to the likes of Final Fantasy Tactics (FFT). Once inside the opening tutorial missions however, a critical reassessment was in order. SEGA has instead uncovered the missing link between FFT and -- please bear with me here -- Full Spectrum Warrior; with the characters and aesthetics resembling the former, while the core combat mechanics borrow from the latter. The end result is a beguiling and deep combination of story-driven, turn-based and real-time tactics.

It was the real-time nature of the combat that initially left me bewildered. In a conventional SRPG, when it's your turn it means exactly that: you select your unit then move, attack, heal, cast spells, equip items or whatever you like without having to worry about the enemy intervening. Here, they can. During a selected unit's turn, you move them in real-time from a third-person view a million miles away from the isometric grids common to the genre.

When attacking, the camera zooms in over-the-shoulder and you can flick between auto-locked targets or aim manually to get a headshot. If you move into the enemy's line of sight, they'll shoot you; if you attack them, they can counter-attack. Of course, you're able to return the favour when it's their turn, meaning that effective positioning of your squad -- ensuring you're behind cover (which is often destructible) and facing the right way -- is absolutely critical. And thus the stage is set for an atypically intense, immersive and at times stressful theatre of (SRPG) war.

You named your gun Rosie? Methinks you've been at war too long. Ah well, at least it hasn't mussed up your hair.

The Chronicles of the title refers to the historical account of a war between the East European Imperial Alliance and the Atlantic Federation. Set in the 1930s of a fictitious Europe, this is essentially an alternate history WWII with the Alliance playing the Nazis and the Federation cast as the Allies. The tale unfolds across the pages of a book entitled "On the Gallian Front", focusing on the exploits of the Gallian army and militia to defend their tiny nation from attack.

The resource-rich Gallia may be neutral to the conflict, but it swiftly becomes a strategic focal point thanks to an abundance of "ragnite", a mineral of considerable power and value. Gallia is also home to Welkin, son of a renowned army general and -- as the lead playable character -- soon to be a military hero himself.

The storybook presentation of the war is a delightful conceit. Each chapter is laid out on a two-page spread with sepia hand-drawn pictures of future events waiting to be coloured in as you progress. And when they do, they literally come to life, leading you into superbly animated cutscenes and -- every now and again -- an actual mission. Although often brief, there are an awful lot of cutscenes here; many chapters will sit you through half a dozen cinematics and conversations before you are able to engage the enemy.

War is hell. In this case it's also very very pretty.

Yet, patient players will be rewarded: the story is quite charming and deftly told despite needing to support a hefty cast of characters each with his or her own journeys to take. Better, the art direction is exquisite, with its watercolour and pencil techniques conveying a pastoral romance to proceedings that contrasts poignantly with the machinery of war. You'll soon grow to adore these breaks between combat.

There's also plenty to actually do away from the frontline. Experience points can be spent on the Training Field to level up the five main characters classes -- and cleverly, all characters of the same class maintain the same level regardless of whether they were used in battle, meaning you never have to grind certain characters to catch up. New weapons and upgrades, as well as a host of modifications to Welkin's command tank, can be purchased from the R&D tent -- and, also cleverly, there's plenty of scope here to personalise your approach given the diversity of upgrades and the scarcity of resources.