Note: This review is based on the Japanese version of the game.
The Republic Strikes Back
2008’s tremendously under-appreciated SRPG masterpiece Valkyria Chronicles is one of the PS3’s best exclusive titles, right up there with Metal Gear Solid 4 and Demon’s Souls. When news of a sequel first came in 2009, I was giddy as a schoolgirl at a Jonas Brothers concert, minus the smidgen of disappointment that came from knowing the necessary downgrades a PSP translation would entail. I crossed my fingers and prayed that VC2 could somehow rework the magic of the original for a handheld system.
Well, thanks a bunch, baby Jesus. Unlike on prom night, it seems you were listening to my prayers this time, as VC2 is actually just as sweet as the original. The scale is smaller and the story isn’t as good, but thanks to a handful of gameplay improvements and a bodacious multiplayer mode, the Valkyria faithful have no excuse to miss out on the best handheld game of 2010 so far.
VC2 plays almost identically to the original in the command and battle modes. Expect the same chess-like turn-based battles as you alternate between issuing commands and third-person shooting. Each turn provides you with a set amount of command points, or CP, which can be used to advance individual units and utilize orders, status boosting tactics that are learned gradually outside of combat. Once out of CP, the enemy takes their turn at attempting to gun down your troops, capture bases, and generally screw you over.
The controls are straight-forward and the counter and covering fire auto-attacks keep the difficulty down early in the game, since your team will start off much stronger than opposing forces. VC2’s most prominent change due to its shift to PSP is that battles are on a much smaller scale. You now only deploy six units at a time, and maps are usually divided into two or three sections, none of them much larger than a small field or section of forest.
Entirely new this time around is the school-sim portion of gameplay that takes place outside of combat. Taking on the role of Avan Hardins, you are the head of Class-G, the reject group of an elite military academy. Along with customizing your gear and squad, you are able to experience scores of vignettes of school-life in a graphic novel style system that lets you travel all around the school. The events you see are influenced by who you use in combat, so it’s easy to ignore hateful characters and leave them undeveloped and unloved as they deserve.
Two other big new features also deserve a paragraph: Multiplayer and new character classes. The latter expands four of the core classes from the original (scout, support, anti-tank, assault) into branches of five unique upgrades per type. Snipers are now an upgrade of the scout class, and there is also a brand new armored melee class that evolves into a warrior with an exploding sword. In total there are a whopping 35 unique classes to explore, and customization and advancement is executed well. Individual soldiers must earn merits based on mission type. Once you have the requisite merits, you can upgrade your class. Mix this with a deeper weapon development system and individual unit equipment management, and you have far more customization than the first game.
The multiplayer is also a welcome addition if not flawless. VC2 allows you to pick a leader and complete missions co-op style with up to four friends. It takes some getting used to if your comrades have different play styles, but it isn’t without its merits. The versus mode is really where it’s at though, as now you can see who’s got the better tactics. Overall, the execution of the multi-player was a bit lacking given some of the restrictions for versus matches. However, the single player compaign is more than strong enough on its own. VC2 offers an immense variety of missions – over 100 if you stop to count – including unlockable bonus missions for every member of your team.
While VC2 has addressed the overpowered orders and class balance issues of the first game, there is still room for improvement in other areas. For one, the difficulty just doesn’t hold up. Enemy AI is insultingly stupid, to the point where they ignore obvious opportunities to take the advantage. Half the time they do not even use all of their command points, giving you a drastic advantage. BDSM-obsessed as it may sound, I just wanted to be punished. I wanted to know that I’d been a naughty boy when I carelessly left wounded units in enemy shock troopers’ line of fire, or empty bases meters away from opposing scouts. It doesn’t help that permanent character death has been removed, an unfortunate consequence of the younger cast and school setting I suspect. The challenge revs up a few notches once the in-game school year hits Fall, but more variability of difficulty would have helped.
Not as gorgeous as the original but then…
The first Valkyria Chronicles is one of the PS3’s most visually striking games. While VC2 cannot compare with the cell-shaded deliciousness of the original, it holds its own quite well. The portrait artwork used in the school-sim portions is appealing and varied, and the gorgeous animated cutscenes look like snapshots from the recently released Valkyria Chronicles animation.
The design of the fields during combat left something to be desired for me. I would have liked to have seen more variety. Many of the same locations are repeated time and again, and only a handful are attractively designed. Still, there is a good variety of terrain, with tall grasses to crawl through for sneak attacks, and buildings to use for cover.
Character models are also well-detailed, especially given the greater variety of classes. Each unit-type has a unique costume and uniform pattern, and attack animations are solid. VC2’s graphics are a notch above what you’d expect from a PSP game, and should disappoint few series fans.
Sakimoto Scores Again
Hitoshi Sakimoto is one of my top three all-time favorite video game composers. He’ll never top the masterwork that was the Final Fantasy Tactics soundtrack, but with the first Valkyria Chronicles, he did himself proud. VC2 continues the tradition with a healthy amount of borrowing from the first game’s catalog, and a number of strong new tracks. I adored the opening themes — the beautiful horn melody in the opening screen, and the orchestral interludes during school sim scenes. The riveting soundscapes of certain story battles stayed with me long after I put the game down.
The voice acting is also on par with the original. While less of the dialogue is voiced, every character has enough lines to develop their identity fairly well, and the overall quality is high. The protagonists are all portrayed convincingly if stereotypically. Support trooper Pikki was a personal favorite. She seems to have been raised by wolves, and should stand out as a curious challenge for western localization.
Sound effects have also largely been recycled, so there is little to report there. I liked that the onomatopoeia effects have also returned to accompany weapon sounds. It’s a groovy little addition.
Fire Flower Jutsu!
VC2 takes place two years after VC1. The Republic of Gallia, fresh off of its victory over the Empire, is now in the midst of a civil war. It seems that a segment of nobles are not too keen on their recently revealed Darscen queen, and they embark on an ethnic cleansing campaign to wipe out ethnic Darscens forever. The military of Gallia, split by the civil war and exhausted from the recent battle with the Empire, is forced to rely on military cadets at the elite Lanseal academy.
You play as Avan, the leader of G-Class at Lanseal Military Academy. Avan is a recent volunteer, signing up after learning of his brother’s mysterious death during a top-secret assignment. Like in the first game, you have a large ensemble cast in your squad. Since G-Class is known as the “special” group, expect some colorful personalities. Most of them fit into standard anime archetypes, however the game gradually reveals their side stories based on how much you use and customize individual team members. Transvestites, gun fetishes, stalkers, lolicon, multiple personality disorder, amazons, nuns, trollops, incestuous step-siblings — whatever your kink, there is a VC2 character to accommodate. Among the crew are Cosette, an aspiring doctor, and Zeri, a brainy Darscen assault trooper. These two are your supporting protagonists.
Avan, Cosette, and Zeri form a Naruto, Sakura, and Sasuke style triumvirate, minus the shadow clone jutsu. Avan is the pure-hearted airhead, Zeri is the too-cool-for-school quietly elitist badass, and Cosette is the good-natured pining female in the middle. Avan can be an annoying main character, given his good ol’ boy imbecility, but I found that he grows on you with time. He’ll remind you of Goku from DBZ or even Ash Ketchum at times. In fact all of the character interactions feel like clips from shonen anime shows, which is both a plus and a minus; the cast is lovable and the writing is often funny, but I did miss the relative seriousness of the original game.
Two other things irked me about the story. Firstly, it stretches the bounds of credibility far more than the last chronicle of Valkyria. Alecia, Welkin, Rosie, and Largo — I get why all of them are tough soldiers, given Alecia’s militia leadership, Largo’s veteran status from the earlier war, Welkin’s heredity and knowledge, and Rosie’s general demeanor. However, I never found the circumstances of Valkyria Chronicles 2 as being remotely plausible. How could a bunch of reject teen and twenty-something students, out-gunned and out-classed, defeat a rebel army of professional soldiers? A subplot with a mysterious new Valkyria girl, while maintaining the intrigue of the mysterious ancient clan, also strains credibility given its development. None of it bears a moment’s scrutiny, unlike the first game, in which you were a plucky underdog fighting off invaders in much the same way the American revolutionaries defeated the superior military of the British.
Secondly, VC2 lacks the epic feel of the first game. Whereas the humorous interludes supported a solid narrative in the original, this time it seems like the plot is often an afterthought while the school-sim skits take center stage. On the positive side, you get to know your classmates very well as VC2 takes more time to develop the members of your unit. However, all that time spent on wacky sitcom-esque bits weakens what wanted to be a war story. What might have worked for Persona seems absurdly inappropriate in a world supposedly in the throws of civil war. In spite of a few good twists in the later half, I just wasn’t as drawn in as last time around.
It’s simple really: if you liked the first game, you will like this one. If you never played the first one but like strategy games, this is one of the best ones you will find on a handheld and probably the best you can get on PSP. The story is not as good as the first, though the character development is richer. Even sweeter, a number of VC1 characters are unlockable should you need some extra units. Add strong graphics, great music, co-op, and a versus mode, and you’ve got another hard-to-pass-up title. I’m crossing my fingers and praying yet again that enough people support this franchise that we get VC3 for PS3 in 2011 with online multiplayer. Don’t let me down, J-man.