Valkyria Chronicles II is like World War II, but more portable and centered on the occasional magical girl. Really, what more do you need to know?
As a highly-anticipated sequel to one of the first good RPGs for the PS3, Sega managed to disappoint its fanbase by creating VCII for the PSP instead of the larger, stronger console. If you loved the original Valkyria Chronicles for the expansive levels, anime-inspired cutscenes, or the ability to play on your enormous television, I have bad news for you. However, if you like the original VC for its depth, interesting visual design and story, and action-oriented take on the strategy RPG genre, you'll be pleased with this offering
At its heart, Valkyria Chronicles II is a strategy role-playing game that is turn-based, but with an active, real-time element to each individual turn. You have a certain number of CP (command points) during your turn, and you spend those to make characters perform actions, or to invoke Orders: commands that affect the field of play. When you spend a CP on a character, you get to control that person in a third-person over-the-shoulder perspective. From here you can go about shooting, sniping, bashing, and healing your enemies, your friends, or both. As opposed to the menu-and-slash gameplay mechanics of say, Final Fantasy Tactics or Disgaea, the core gameplay elements of VCII feel much more open and loads more free. There are no squares or hexes; characters move freely, use elements on the field for cover, and defend base camps. There's a visceral thrill to positioning your lancer for a critical hit on a tank's energy pack, or making sure your shock troopers are hunkered down behind cover to hold off the enemy assault. Battles are simply a more fun, involved, and immediate form of what you see in many other SRPG offerings. And as a bonus, you can drive a tank.
Now, despite all the good that comes from sweet, sweet wartime combat, I will admit while grinding it out in the latter half of the game, repeated battles can become a bit of a drag. There are really only a few types of battles: you can defend your camps, capture designated enemy camps, protect a VIP vehicle, annihilate the enemy, and collect goods. Granted, I'm not entirely sure how much more could be added, but by about the fortieth or fiftieth battle, it gets a bit stale. Still, the other elements of play (character interactions, leveling, developing equipment – all of which we'll get to later on) stay engaging and keep the energy up as you proceed to the finish.
As for the controls, they never seem to interfere with gameplay. Characters aim where you want them to aim and go where you want them to go, though piloting the tank takes a little practice, especially if you're uncoordinated like myself. As an aside, a dumb thing I kept doing was trying to pause the game while controlling a character; hitting the Start button when you're controlling a character ends the turn. This can screw you up, but it's probably more of a personal issue (read: my own stupidity) rather than a real gameplay issue. Just know that if you do it by accident, you're not the only one.
One thing to keep in mind as you play is that there definitely is an issue with enemy AI in this game. Often, enemy units will fail to make simple decisions that would change the course of a battle. For example, if you spot an enemy Lancer and use a grenade to blow him out of a hiding spot in the tall grass, DO NOT expect him to go back into hiding. Instead, he or she will likely stand around as if in line at the DMV, waiting for the sweet release of death. There are plenty of examples where things like this happen; enemies fail to hide behind sandbags, make suicidal charges at heavily fortified positions, or venture too close to lightning rods and their own bombardment zones, blowing themselves to bits. While amusing, it doesn't quite make for a high degree of difficulty. Yet, despite all of this, the battles don't usually seem "easy" because they're naturally lopsided. For whatever reason (perhaps some weird Europan rule of combat), you will only ever be able to deploy six soldiers at a time, whereas the enemy can stack the field with a host, receiving reinforcements as turns pass.
I will say this: while in many battles the enemy AI makes things easy on you, some of the "Boss" missions can be difficult, especially if you aren't prepared. The addition of a new enemy type near the early-middle part of the game will definitely require some strategy adjustments, and enemy commanders are sufficiently powerful to give you some problems. While at the beginning of the game you have opportunity to adjust the difficulty level, I'm not entirely sure that any experienced strategy or RPG gamer would feel the need to play on Easy mode. While there are some tough spots, I can only imagine that playing it off of Normal mode would make the whole thing pretty boring.
The best parts of the gameplay, in my opinion, are the development of new weapons and leveling or classing up your teammates. As you win battles, you get money and supplies that you can use to upgrade equipment. This is great fun; its gently controlled to keep you from getting too powerful too quickly, and its deep, with tons to unlock.
Experience points, on the other hand, allow you to upgrade class levels and credits (earned on missions for completing tasks/offing rebel scum) allow you to change classes. In addition, characters can advance to second- and third-tier classes, gaining new weapon types and abilities. Having a well-rounded team seems to be critical, and although there are only five main classes (with five subclasses and various specializations), each character gets natural abilities called "Potentials" which separate the characters. There's definitely a sense of accomplishment in gathering all the credits you need to make your Fencer into a Mauler, and the whole experience certainly adds to the fun. The one downer I've found is that the Engineer class seems a bit useless compared to the others, as healing seems a bit unnecessary. Then again, better players than I may have a use for this class.
It is easy to give Valkyria Chronicles II some credit for the plot and setting right off the bat. The world of Valkyria Chronicles is one of a fictionalized Europe (called Europa, in case you need help drawing parallels) during World War II. The action takes place in Gallia, a small nation between two larger warring empires, where the toll of pushing back an invasion attempt (in the first game in the series), has led to a rebel uprising currently putting the nation in danger. Oh, and the rebels are racists, wanting to wipe out a minority group (called Darcsens) which is supposedly responsible for an ancient calamity. It's a great story base, simply because it's so different from many of the sword-and-shield SRPG and RPG worlds in which I grew up playing. While we're seeing more of these industrialized worlds (see Resonance of Fate, Final Fantasy VI, XIII, etc.), something akin to historical fiction is different and interesting.
As for the narrative, the plot centers on boneheaded Avan Hardins, a young man with a weird brother-worship complex who joins the Gallian military academy when said brother, an ace student there, disappears and is presumed dead. At the military academy, Avan falls into the leadership role in Class G (comprised of the screw-ups and weirdos at the academy) and attempts to turn them into a viable fighting force, all while trying to find out more about his brother.
Much more emphasis seems to be given to the interactions between the few dozen characters at the academy rather than the overarching plot (the war and the brother), but the story really does seem to flow pretty nicely along, with one caveat. The story (and the characters) are decidedly anime archetypes. These people are not onions – don't bother looking for layers. While yes, every character seems to have an "arc" (using a character in battle a few times unlocks small scenes and a side mission), these arcs are straight lines. Racist characters become accepting of the Darcsens. The tough guy finds a softer side. The goofballs learn a valuable, serious lesson.
On the brighter side, the character designs are good, and visually, most of them have distinct personalities. If you don't like standard anime tropes, you'll likely skip through the cutscenes without much interest, but if you are a fan of this kind of story, you'll probably be pleased.
There are two different types of story scenes, the first being traditional-ish anime cutscenes (of which there are very few, due to the PSP hardware limitations), and the rest of the story is done with visual-novel type stock backgrounds and character portraits. The animated scenes are, by and large, very good. The Valkyria Chronicles animation style is very stylized, bright, and colorful. The rest of the stationary scenes are, um, not. There are may be two to four portraits for each character, two to four standard vocal dialogue choices (which can be really annoying), and the portraits occasionally bounce about the screen, mimicking character actions: boring, but it gets the job done.
The in-gameplay visuals are much better. The watercolor style brings simple textures to life, and fits well on the PSP screen. There's hardly ever any visual confusion; enemies are enemies, you don't shoot a building thinking it's a tank, and you can easily find all the characters in your line of sight. While there are only a few stage types and areas, different areas have different feels, and the visuals certainly never take you out of the game experience.
In terms of sound, I think that VCII had its ups and downs. There's absolutely no question that the voice-acting is simple at best. Also, the localization is very solid, with none of the "engrish" or grammatical errors that plagued games five or ten years ago. The music is not particularly deep, but it is effective at conveying tone without being overbearing. The big negative here is the repeated use of the same four or five voice samples for some of the main characters. Specifically, Avan's laugh is perhaps the worst repeated sound effect in the history of the PSP. It grates. It grinds. It makes you want to reach into the game and slap the red out of his hair, and it pops up at least once a scene.
All in all, Valkyria Chronicles II will probably only appeal to a niche audience, due to its SRPG gameplay (and all the tiny little idiosyncrasies that come along with it), the anime-style production, and a reliance on preparation as opposed to being an FPS/3PS killfest or beat 'em up. However, for that niche audience, VCII provides all that you could want in terms of depth, and is a very polished outing for a portable device. There are hours and hours of playtime packed into the game, with plenty of weapons, classes, and cutscenes to unlock. Although the core gameplay drags a little in the middle, the depth allows you to push through and manages to keep the game engaging. Though the plot is relatively simple, the characters manage to keep things engaging enough to keep you involved until the end. And with another sequel already announced, there's hope that the tweaks that can be made (better enemy AI, more mission types, etc.) will be. Overall, Valkyria Chronicles II is a definite buy for most SRPG and RPG fans.