Review: Valkyria Chronicles II
Every so often a game comes around that takes the conventions of a genre and makes you really think about what a great gaming experience truly is. That happened when the original Valkyria Chronicles was released on the PlayStation 3 back in November 2008. The only problem was that this brave, new IP arrived in the busy fall gaming season and was overshadowed by other, more popular and well-known titles. The game emerged from the ashes a critical success, although initial sales were far from stellar. Still, over the last two years the game has gone on become recognized as a pinnacle of strategy RPG gaming, across all platforms.
That success was followed up by a sequel, which released here in North America at the end of last month, and I think it’s pretty safe to say that, even though it moved over to a portable system, the feel of the game – both in visual acuity and game play itself – remained much the same as its predecessor. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?
The story in Valkyria Chronicles II picks up two years after the events of the first game. Instead of fighting the Empire, the small nation of Gallia is faced with its own internal crisis, as two factions butt heads in a war of racial supremacy. The Darcsens are the target of a radical group of wanna-be revolutionaries, who wish to cleanse Gallia of their influence. Because the Gallian army was left in such a disheveled state after the war with the Empire two years previous, and because they are not allowed to be brought up against fellow Gallians, the defense of freedom in the nation fall to a group of cadets from Lanseal Academy, headed up by our brash hero, Avan.
Naturally, you meet many more cadets that are put under Avan in what is considered the “loser” class at the Academy – Class G. Part of the story is learning about these cadets, their personal missions in joining the Academy and dealing with their interpersonal relationships. This adds a whole “down to earth” feel to the more outlandish overarching story that comprises the meat of the game. Although, if you’re adverse to high-school-like banter and relationship issues, you may be turned off by some of these idle conversations that you can partake in throughout the game.
Much of these side stories are told through semi-animated cut scenes, where you have portraits of the various characters involved, and there are a few animations here or there. Like if Avan grabs hold of Colette, his little portrait will slide over to the other side of the screen where her portrait is, and “drag” her portrait to the other side of the screen. These cut scenes typically are only voiced with short, generic dialog segments. Many of the main story scenes, and all the fully animated ones, are completely voiced.
The visuals, while they deviate from the “watercolor” feel of the original title, still hold true to that game in both aesthetics and production design. You definitely will not doubt for a minute that this is a sequel to Valkyria Chronicles. The animations are smooth in the cut scenes, and even the in-game visuals of the battles are on part with other graphical powerhouse games on the PSP. The audio is solid, as well. The voice acting is pretty decent, even if it is a bit too melodramatic at times. The music and sound effects are all spot-on, as well. Everything from the “vroom vroom” of enemy tanks moving out of view of your characters to the gun blasts of your cadets going on the offensive is well presented and just sounds great on the system.
Game play progresses from day to day and month to month based on in-game mission completion. You start the game in the month of January, and to progress, you have to complete a certain number of free missions and all the story missions, as well as visit the parts of the Academy campus that prompt you with a required cut scene. Along with the required cut scenes and missions, there are, like I mentioned, “free” missions, mostly there to help you gain experience and cash. Occasionally optional missions that directly involve your squad-mates will come up after viewing the respective cut scenes, as well. So, to experience everything, after every battle you’ll want to view both the optional and mandatory events that pop up around the campus.
Overall, the story ramps up rather slowly, but starts to really get interesting about two months into the game. This is typical of most genre games. It may just feel a bit slower here, since the battles themselves can take anywhere from 20-40 minutes, depending on your proficiency.
The major changes between the two iterations mostly fall in the realm of battle and character customization. As soon as you enter your first battle in Valkyria Chronicles II, you are immediately drawn back to the first game. Things play out very similar, so if you were able to keep your wits about you on the battlefield back then, you will have no problems now. All the basics of the strategic battle system remain in place, but there are some improvements.
Just like the first game, you use your Command Points to move your characters during battle. You have plenty of command points to typically move each of your in-play characters once, but they do carry over to subsequent turns if you don’t use them all. This time around, you also have different uses for your command points. Because the battlefields in VC2 are frequently split up into several screens (presumably because the PSP can’t handle gigantic areas like the PS3 could), you can eventually use your command points to withdraw any of your units wherever they may be on the map, then you can place them again in another area or at another one of your occupied bases in any map area (placing them uses another command point, but it is still a handy feature). Just like in the previous game, they’re also used to place a fresh cadet once one falls in battle or once you remove one that is no longer needed, this time, however, you can switch between areas at friendly bases, which uses the same mechanics.
There are various effects that can come into play on the battlefield, as well, such as fog and darkness. These hamper you and your opponent in various ways. For example, fog decreases everyone’s accuracy, and darkness limits your sight distance so you almost need to be on top of the enemy to see them. You can offset these handicaps by equipping your tank with various devices that render the battlefield effect null for your side only, giving you a nice advantage. To do that, however, you need to spend the money to research those upgraded attachments.
Battles progress in a turn-based fashion just like the first game, where your entire squad takes their turns, until you either end the turn or all your CPs run dry. Then it’s the enemy’s turn. Cover is just as important. You certainly want to make sure none of your troops are exposed at the end of a turn, so there is a pretty reasonable chance they stay safe until you can get to them with an engineer (medic) to patch them up. Each class has a role to play on the battlefield, including the new Armored Soldier class. Snipers, which were one of my favorite starting classes in the original game, have been relegated to a Scout-class upgrade this time around.
Speaking of upgrades, there are so many kinds of upgrades it’s hard to keep them all straight. You can “level up” each class as a whole, using your accumulated experience. Each individual cadet can also be upgraded to a new class. Their initial class is at the top of the tree. This splits off into two more related (and typically stronger) classes, then each of those split off into two more. The catch here is that you need to meet certain conditions with each individual character to be able to upgrade them. To meet these, the individuals need to be used to perform certain duties in battle, such as helping a downed soldier, capturing a base or taking down an enemy. Once you meet the conditions for each class upgrade, you can move them around freely (this also take a bit of cash, but it isn’t much).
Continuing our upgrade discussion here, you can also research new weapons, armor and equipment upgrades at the R & D Department. Some upgrades only require money, some require money and special items that drop at the end of a battle and some require all of the above and certain blueprints that drop from certain named (and more powerful) foes on the battlefield. Conveniently enough, those special baddies are highlighted on each mission summary before you start, so you know what to look for.
All this combined adds up to quite a lot of customization for your classes, your individual characters and your tank. Like I mentioned, some of it is almost too confusing at times, but it all adds to the depth of the game play. Unfortunately, I spend so much time getting upgrades and leveling up my characters that I almost have to spend an entire play session just tending to those tasks.
Along with all that, you can use codes (provided by Sega or other various retailers/web sites) to unlock in-game bonuses such as items, decals for your tank or actual playable characters to add to your squad’s roster. Combine this with cameos of characters from the first game – most notably Welken and Alicia – and this kind of bridges the gap between the two iterations in its own way.
There are a few little quirks here and there that I didn’t take too kindly to, which may or may not be holdovers from the first game. To start with, I realize that strategy RPG battles are typically long, drawn-out, strategic affairs, but it seems like some of these drag on and on and on. Is there no way to speed them up, at least a little? However, I have to say, if I wasn’t watching the clock, I would find it hard to consciously realize that so much time has passed, because the battles are just fun. The length issue only comes up because it tends to make the slow opening months of the game seem to pass even slower.
I would have also have hoped for more intuitive menu navigation in parts. While it is fine for the most part, there are times that feel as if there should be a better way to go about things. For example, when going in to look at your available missions, you can browse through them only. But, to see details, you have to go into the actual mission briefing. Past that, you progress to placing your squad at various locations on the map, but, if you forget a key point from the mission briefing like which enemy classes are present in that mission, you’ll have to back all the way back out to the mission selection screen, then go back into the mission briefing once more. There’s no way to back up very easily through menus like this, when there should be.
Finally, while some battle situations are explained, others are not very clear, if they’re even touched on at all. There are entire cut scenes before certain missions dedicated to explaining darkness and fog effects, but not a word is said about certain shielded enemies, where you have to destroy a supply vehicle to de-energize their shielding. This can lead to some confusion and frustration until you learn what you need to do. All in all, though, the issues I had with this title are pretty minor in comparison with how great the game actually is.
Introduced this time around, as well, is co-op play, but only locally. That means you have to have a friend with a PSP and a copy of the game. There are a lot of “free” co-op missions during the course of the regular story, however many, if not all, of these can be played solo. I had no trouble soloing many of these, so you don’t have to just leave them there.
It’s unfortunate that I don’t have anyone around me who I could play co-op with, because I would have liked to try out that aspect of the game. I would think this third-person strategic game play would lend itself nicely to those types of game play mechanics. I do, however, hope that down the line Sega may look into true online multi-player for this franchise because, for once, I think it would work very nicely, assuming the single-player story doesn’t suffer as a result.
There isn’t anything major added to Valkyria Chronicles II, but all the minor updates and new additions do make it feel like a sequel. It combines the best of the old and the new for an outstanding strategy experience that no one should pass up. There seems to be something for everyone here. It has aspects of RPG, shooter and strategy games all rolled into this nice, feature-filled package. Everything works wonderfully on the PSP, even though, deep down, I long for a full console iteration to see the light of day sometime in the future. Definitely not a game to be missed for any type of gamer. I would honestly rate Valkyria Chronicles – as a franchise – up there with the likes of Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, Okami and Chrono Trigger. The second game doesn’t remove any of the great aspects from the first title and only improves upon an already superb franchise.