A lot of people screwed up in 2008 and missed Valkyria Chronicles. A delightful little strategy role-playing game, Valkyria Chronicles merged third-person shooters, anime cutscenes, and hardcore strategy gameplay into one watercolor PlayStation 3 package that many loved and a lot skipped. Now, the sequel is upon us and it's a PSP exclusive. Valkyria Chronicles II is a bit more light-hearted than the original and predictable in places, but it's an amazing game nonetheless.
If you missed the first game, Valkyria Chronicles II is self-contained enough so that you can jump right in without an issue and have a blast. If you loved the last title, you're in for more of the stuff you dug and a whole heaping batch of fan service.
Valkyria Chronicles II picks up two years after the first game. The duchess of Gallia has revealed herself to be a Darcsen -- a dark-haired race that's viewed to be less than equal by most -- and this has split the country. Some stand by her, while others have splintered off into a rebel squad that's caused a civil war. With the Gallian army stretched, the cadets at Lanseal Military Academy are charged with picking up the slack in between classes and training.
This is where you'll come in and get the tale from the eyes of Avan Hardins. A 17-year-old slacker, Avan's never really shown that much interest in military service, but when his brother is reportedly killed in a super-secret Lanseal operation, Avan jumps in and joins the fray. Whereas the first Valkyria Chronicles was very serious at times in its telling of war, racism, and so on, the sequel is way more lighthearted. There are definitely tender and serious moments, but when Avan comes aboard, he's dumped in Class G, the rejects and misfits dumping ground of Lanseal. No one believes in the class, they don't get along, and everyone's a mess.
If it sounds a bit hackneyed, it's probably because it is. The underdogs coming together to be the standouts because they work together is a story we've all heard before. On top of that, Avan's a goon for pretty much the whole game -- he's not a good student, he doesn't listen to important conversations and he's a bit hard to root for. Still, I enjoyed the story Valkyria Chronicles II tells -- and it's really up to you to see how much you want to be a part of it. After every mission, you're bumped back to this 3D painting of the school. From here you can buy new missions and orders from the Store or page through your stats in Avan's room, but yellow exclamation points on the map are the optional conversations you can pop into with the other characters in the game. Exploring these strengthens your relationships with the squad and unlocks new "potentials" -- combat techniques and bonuses -- in your teammates.
Occasionally, these meetings play out in anime cutscenes, but more often than not, they'll shakeout in still portraits and text boxes. For the big conversations, each line will be voiced, but for the most part, you get an introductory vocal and then you have to read what the character is saying. I wanted more. The voices are really good in Valkyria Chronicles II -- and the music is well done, too -- but they don't get used all that much. It's a shame. The watercolor art style of the Valkyria Chronicles universe is so striking, but it doesn't do that much as a still image behind lines of dialogue.
Anyway, making the most of the moves and techniques you awaken in characters is key to besting the battlefield in Valkyria Chronicles. If you missed the first game, you're in for a treat because the strategic/third-person system has been carried over and tweaked on the PSP. You'll take missions from the briefing room -- escorting an APC, capturing an enemy base, or eliminating all enemies -- pick your squad, and hop to a 2D map of the battlefield with icons for your troops and your visible opponents on it. You pick one of your troops (these troops include scouts, troopers, engineers, lancers and technicians) and the view warps to that of a third-person shooter. You can run your character around until you drain the movement meter, attack once whenever you want, and crouch behind sandbags for cover. Taking control of a character uses a command point, which you only have a limited amount of per turn.
Sounds easy, right? Not so much, but the idea is, and I was able to wrap my head around it. From there, things get complicated in the most awesome ways over time. While the beginning missions will be as easy as taking out other scouts, by the time you're knocking on the 40-hour mark (and you will if you plan on seeing the whole story), you have to worry about weather conditions, trenches, and taking out shield generators before you can strike the massive dudes that can kill you in three shots. Plus, there are orders to give, tanks to manage and so much more.
Gameplay is king in Valkyria Chronicles II, and that's one of the main reasons I love it -- despite minor flaws like not having an easy way to see how many command points are left after selecting a soldier and having a somewhat touchy "capture" area for flags. There's something so satisfying about molding a squad the way you want it and dispatching it to thwart rebels. After every successful mission, I'd earn experience points, resources and currency that I could then dump into new weapons, my characters, my tanks and even into creating these new coatings that enhance my squad. Once I found my preferred deployment -- shocktroopers and lancers -- I was able to pour resources into them and make them as powerful as possible. Each class has a level limit of 25, and I'd try not to ignore the classes I wasn't using, but it just felt so good to see my shocktroopers getting stronger and stronger on the battlefield.
This is one of the joys of Valkyria Chronicles -- watching your army develop. You and I could both play the game to completion and find that the units we were using to get the same job done were nothing alike (you can change Avan's class to whichever you want it to be). Plus, there's a branching class progression tree, so even if you were using troopers like me, it's possible that my elite trooper was nothing like your elite gunner -- even though they're both from the same "trooper" class.
Whew. Sorry if that's a bit much to wrap your head around in text-form. Basically, the system is really, really deep and opens up a wealth of gameplay possibilities for you.
Still, it's not perfect. There are periods where you'll just cruise through battles and dominate your opponent before slamming into a difficulty spike that has you trying the same mission over and over again. The good news is that while these stalls are no doubt frustrating, they were never impassible for me. In fact, I think the difficulty might have been dialed down a bit from the original. When I'd hit one of these missions that I just couldn't seem to get past, I'd go play a few of the optional missions I had passed up, level up some characters, and come back to the task at hand. Usually, this gave me the time to clear my head and tackle the issue.
If you do stall like me, there's plenty to do besides the mission that's bugging you. The missions are laid out by the months of Avan's school year. You'll need to complete a set number of "key" missions to unlock a "story" one that advances the month and the game's plot. However, each month also has a bunch of "free" missions that are just there for your experience points and personal pleasure. And then there are the missions you pick up from classmates in those conversations I was talking about. And then there are the missions you buy from the store. And then there's the fact that you're getting a letter grade on every mission you take, so there's always that prodding to go back, do better, and get more stuff.
The game's packed with content, but if you need more, Valkyria Chronicles II introduces multiplayer to the mix. Through the wonders of ad-hoc gameplay, you can team up with friends or bash their brains in. The co-op section is the standout in my opinion. Here, you can join up to three additional players and take on missions together. You all move at the same time on the map, so you'll need to communicate strategies and what exactly you're doing as you may not be in the same areas. You don't get as many command points as you're dealing with fewer troops, but working as a unit is an advantage all its own.
Aside from the fact that a 30-hour player can come in and clean house on the enemies a lower level player might be stuck on, you can use the two-player approach to distract a shield carrying enemy on one front so a friend can come in for a killing blow. You each get your own experience points and resources when the battle's over, so there's no reason not to pop in with a pal and grind out missions you may have already completed. It's fun to defend a base with a pal or revive a fallen friend.
On the versus side, things are still fun, but it's a bit more complicated. Again, you're bringing the army you've been using in your story, so mismatches are easy to come by. Yes, you can clip a handicap onto a more experienced squad, but it isn't all that clear and that neuter's the team the person's been playing with and still doesn't really even the playing field. In the end, it's pretty easy for the most experienced player to just decimate the noobs at the table. People who are both Valkyria nuts, however, will find better matches.