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August 2018

Valkyria Chronicles II

Platform(s): PSP
Genre: RPG/Strategy
Publisher: SEGA
Release Date: Aug. 31, 2010 (US), Sept. 3, 2010 (EU)


PSP Review - 'Valkyria Chronicles II'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on Sept. 2, 2010 @ 6:58 a.m. PDT

The story of Valkyria Chronicles II takes place two years after the conclusion of the original game. A group of young Gallian Military Academy cadets find themselves plunged into a bitter civil war when the newly formed Gallian Revolutionary Army stages a coup. As the epic drama unfolds in the game, players will experience stories of friendship, love and growing pains during a time of war and revolution.

Valkyria Chronicles has gained quite a cult following. It sold poorly when it launched in North America and almost seemed destined to be labeled a failure. It received exceptionally good word of mouth, and as the PlayStation 3 dropped in price, more people got a chance to try the unique JRPG. The Valkyria Chronicles anime also gained unexpected popularity in Japan, which was quite the shot in the arm. Valkyria Chronicles 2 may be a PSP game instead of a PS3 title, but it doesn't feel like any less heart or effort went into it. There are some changes here and there, but for the most part, Valkyria Chronicles 2 feels like a full-fledged sequel instead of a handheld port. It's also one of the best-designed PSP games on the market.

Valkyria Chronicles 2 is set a few years after the events of the first game. The small nation of Gallia has successfully fended off the invading Imperial forces with the aid of the legendary Squad 7. However, the war left the nation devastated and the army in shambles. The monarch of the nation, Cordelia, has been revealed to be a member of a hated minority known as the Darcsens. The combination of war losses and the revelation about Cordelia has thrown the nation into a civil war, with an armed rebel faction seeking to remove her from the throne and slaughter every single Darcsen in Gallia.

The protagonist of this story is Avan Hardins, a simple country boy whose life is turned upside-down when he receives shocking news. His brother, Leon, a promising soldier in the Gallia military forces, was killed in action in a secret mission. Understandably upset, Avan joins the Gallia military to find out what happened to his brother. At the same time, the rebel forces deploy a mysterious force of armored soldiers, armed with powerful beam weapons that were thought to only be accessible by the legendary Valkyrur. Unless Avan and his fellow cadets can figure out a way to stop the rebels and their new superweapon, Gallia is destined to be consumed by the flames of war once again.

From the beginning, Valkyria Chronicles 2 seems dedicated to using as many clichéd archetypal characters as possible. In particular, the game seems very influenced by the shonen genre of anime, including shows like "Naruto" or "Bleach." The cast would be right at home in one of those series, from the spiky-haired justice-loving (and always hungry) Avan to the cool, calm and condescending Zeri. It's an exceedingly odd choice for a game that is about a racism-fueled civil war in a war-ravaged country, and it leads to some very odd tone issues.

The main character joins the army to find out about the mysterious death of his brother, but he spends most of his time treating the events of the game like a wacky sitcom. When the reality of war trickles in, it's jarring and feels at odds with the rest of the game. It's tough to get a feel for the game when you go from silly anime-style discussions about knitting or adorable birds to a brutal cut scene where innocent people are murdered by enemy forces. The original Valkyria Chronicles has this problem, but it's noticeably worse in Valkyria Chronicles 2.

This is partially exacerbated by the increased focus on your squad. In Valkyria Chronicles, you had a small set cast of "plot" characters. The rest of the potential playable units were plot-free, and you spent little time with them outside of combat. Valkyria Chronicles 2 gives you a lot more interaction with your team. As the plot progresses, you'll unlock little vignettes with the various cast members interacting with each other. Most are simple and goofy and reinforce the idea that the characters are walking bundles of clichés. Some of them are surprisingly likeable clichés, and there are amusing moments scattered throughout the game. It makes the cast members feel like characters, as opposed to sets of abilities and stats. On the other hand, it certainly doesn't help the tone issues when you're going from wacky school antics to the grim reality of war and back again.

Valkyria Chronicles 2 maintains the same BLitZ (Battle of Live Tactical Zones) combat system from the first game. For those unfamiliar with the system, it's a combination of action and strategic elements. Players are placed in control of a small group of soldiers on a battlefield. As the battle begins, you're given an overhead map view of the battlefield, including the marked positions of friendly units and any visible foes. From this menu, you can select a unit to take direct command of it.

The strategic aspect of the game comes in with the Command Point system. At the start of every phase of combat, you're given a set number of Command Points. You spend one point to take control of a unit, and a few exceptions, such as certain armored vehicles, require two. You can take control of the same unit multiple times, but it's less effective each time you use it. You can also spend CP to give special bonuses to your units or order them to withdraw from combat or move to another area. Once you've run out of CP, it's the enemy's turn, and they'll be careful to exploit any holes you've left in your defenses, so managing your CP is essential.

Once you take control of a character, the game switches to an over-the-shoulder view, and you can move your soldier in real time. The distance you can move is dictated by the Action Points you have, and every character can attack or heal once per turn. Every time you spend another CP on the character, he'll have fewer AP to spend on that turn. Movement occurs in real time, and enemies will react as you move around the battlefield. They fire at soldiers who run past, but you can also take advantage of their reloading time to sneak past an enemy barrage or hide behind cover until it's safe to proceed. Attacking causes the game to pause, allowing you to target the enemy. Aiming for the head or other vulnerable point does more damage but has a higher chance of missing. It's an odd, but very addictive, combination of turn-based and action elements.

There have been only a few changes to the basic gameplay, although they're noteworthy. Due to the difference in capabilities between the PS3 and PSP, you now have a series of battlefields that are broken up into multiple sections. The only way to travel between these sections is to capture a base camp, which is a two-way portal. This adds an interesting layer of strategy because you can use this method to sneak up on enemies and ambush them. If an enemy base is heavily defended, you can find the more lightly defended counterpart on another map, defeat it and send your troops to ambush the defenses from behind. Mastering the usage of base camps is essential to defeating your foes, and it's really satisfying.

The second biggest change is the addition of the APC unit. In the original Valkyria Chronicles, you were limited to using a powerful, but somewhat costly and ineffective, tank unit if you wanted an armored vehicle. While you can still use a tank in Valkyria Chronicles 2, the addition of the APC makes it almost obsolete. The APC is a customizable armored carrier with many powerful benefits. It can carry and deploy units like a mobile base camp. It also has the ability to nullify weather effects, like mist or darkness, for your units. On top of that, it can repair and build structures like bridges, so you can make extremely valuable shortcuts. It's also heavily armored and very combat capable, if not quite to the level of the tank, and it only costs 1 CP to use. The APC does everything so well that it's hard to see a reason to not use it. Its carrying capability makes up for the slow movement speed of Shock Troopers or Lancers.

The level design in Valkyria Chronicles 2 is significantly simplified, owing to the reduced power of the PSP. Most of the levels take place in the same handful of stages but have been modified with different enemy layouts and a slight variation in the level design. It's an advantage because players can explore familiar territory, but it's also a minus because you're seeing a lot of the same area over and over again.

Valkyria Chronicles 2's mission structure is also rather different. At the start of every chapter, you're given a series of key missions to complete. Once you complete enough of those missions, you can undertake the next plot mission. At the same time, you can also many optional side missions to earn rewards. Some of these side missions pop up during the regular course of gameplay, while others have to be unlocked. The levels' variety, short length and pick-up-and-play value are great for a handheld.

Valkyria Chronicles suffered a noticeable imbalance among its various classes, especially the powerful Scout class. Valkyria Chronicles 2 makes many of the character classes into valid choices. Every class is divided into multiple subclasses. You begin with five classes: Armored Tech, Engineer, Lancer, Scout and Shock Trooper. Most of these will be familiar to Valkyria Chronicles fans, although there have been some changes. Armored Tech is a new class that focuses on defense and melee combat. On the downside, they're armed with wrenches, so they have to get up close and personal to have a chance of killing foes. The other classes are relatively unchanged. Engineers can heal and support other troops but are weak in combat. Lancers are Anti-Tank units armed with rockets but are ineffective against regular humans. Scout is the swiftest class and can traverse long distances but is lightly armored. Shock Troopers are armed with machine guns but are less mobile.

The biggest change is that each of these five classes can be leveled up into one of two advanced classes. Scout can be leveled either into Veteran Scout or Sniper. Veteran Scout is an improved version of the regular, while a Sniper can use a sniper rifle and attack from a distance. The advanced classes can be evolved again into two more advanced classes. Sniper can be evolved into an Anti-Personal Sniper or an Anti-Tank Sniper, allowing you to further specialize the unit. Some evolved classes aren't strong enough to justify deploying them when you could use a different character who would do a better job.

Valkyria Chronicles 2 allows for a surprising amount of customization and crafting. Winning missions earns experience points, money and various items. Some items, such as crafting material, are necessary to improve your equipment. By default, you gain access to new guns or armor as you progress. In order to get some of the best equipment, you have to defeat certain enemies and complete certain missions. This will unlock special branches of your potential upgrades with unique attributes, but these custom weapons must be crafted using material you find during battle. Battles also reward you with credits, which are necessary to level up your character to advanced classes. This encourages you to play different missions instead of simply grinding one high-value mission over and over for cash and experience. The rewards for levels don't vary much, so replaying the same mission means you'll miss out on rare items.

One of the more frustrating elements of the original Valkyria Chronicles was the odd disconnect between the scoring mechanism and the gameplay mechanics. Nothing you did in the game matters, except for speed. You can set up clever choke points to force enemies into sniper fire or draw enemies out of hiding places into a more advantageous position, but you'll be rated more poorly than if you took a well-armored character and ran to capture their flag while pretending bullets don't exist. This encouraged gameplay where the primary tactic was picking a Scout and running to the enemy's base.

Unfortunately, Valkyria Chronicles 2 doesn't do a lot to solve this problem. Speed is still by far the most important aspect of determining your score, so strategic play is discouraged in favor of speeding at enemies. The Scout class has been toned down a little, but the new APC replaces it as far as the all-important unit. A lot of the game is focused around the rush toward the enemy base and figuring out the best way to make your soldiers shrug off bullets, instead of making full use of the game mechanics. You don't actually need to go for a high ranking to finish the game, but since your post-battle rewards are heavily influenced by your battle score, you end up lagging behind if you play "poorly."

A wider variety of missions keeps the game fresh, so capture-the-base missions are only a small percentage of the gameplay. You're tasked with more involved challenges, such as defeating all opponents, finding hidden boxes, or escorting a friendly APC to its destination. These are harder to complete quickly because they involve tactics beyond "run to the base," but that adds to the fun. It's more interesting to figure out how to defeat an army of foes within a two-turn time limit than it is to plot out the quickest way to run to a flag. The only real downside is that some of these missions feel artificial in length. A lot of the "find the hidden enemy" missions boil down to you spending extra turns to find an invisible enemy who's hiding in the grass and won't move or attack, so you must check every corner for a cowardly foe.

Valkyria Chronicles 2 features a surprisingly involved multiplayer mode, where two players can work together to finish missions. With two players, you can finish challenges that might otherwise be insurmountable. The game has special mechanisms in place to reward cooperation, such as granting improved stats to two players who are moving together. The only problem is that this gameplay mode is clearly designed for a Japanese audience, so it is limited to local play. This isn't a problem if your friends have the game, but considering the original game's niche popularity, most players will probably never take advantage of this feature.

Valkyria Chronicles 2 also supports DLC missions to extend the game's value. Most of the available DLC looks fairly unexceptional. They seem to be slight variations on existing missions with some additional challenges, but the option to get more content is always nice. Considering Valkyria Chronicles' excellent DLC support, one can hope that the later DLC is more interesting and unique.

Valkyria Chronicles was one of the most distinctive games on the PS3. Its unique watercolor art style really stood out, and it still looks fantastic today. It's inevitable that Valkyria Chronicles 2 can't match up to its predecessor. It's more basic and simple-looking, and much of the artistic style has been lost in favor of more generic anime-style trappings. However, Valkyria Chronicles 2 still looks excellent for a PSP title. The characters are vivid and easily distinguishable from one another, and the combat graphics look great. The story sequences are mostly told through visual novel-style cut scenes, but they're given a lot of care. Some nicely animated full cut scenes show important sequences, and they're a passable replacement for the original's lovingly rendered in-engine cut scenes. The soundtrack is still top-notch, and there are many good tunes, new and old. The voice acting is English-only and is merely passable. Full voice acting is saved for a few cut scenes, and most of the time, characters use single-word replies.

Valkyria Chronicles 2 is a solid sequel. It doesn't fix all of the original title's mistakes, but more importantly, it doesn't make any new mistakes. Any changes are almost universally for the best, except for the plot. A few new classes and a very cool new APC make things more complex, but the game feels very similar to its predecessor. The improvements are in the more subtle changes: mechanical fixes, slight gameplay modifications and greater variety of mission objectives. One can't help but be saddened in the loss of visual quality necessary for the game to work on the PSP, but the game design is pretty much perfect for a handheld game. Valkyria Chronicles 2 is an exceptionally solid strategy-RPG and a great sequel to the original. If you're a fan of the original Valkyria Chronicles or a PSP owner who wants to see what all the fuss is about, you'll have a tough time finding a better purchase.

Score: 8.5/10

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