Valkyria Chronicles 2 – Staff Review

Valkyria Chronicles 2 had at least four major hurdles to clear: deliver a second helping of the first game’s quirky strategy and action; adhere to the cartoony, yet charming and often beautiful aesthetics; tie it together with a strong narrative; and do it all with the PSP’s hardware. It doesn’t quite clear them all, as it is saddled with competing partial stories and lingering smaller issues from its predecessor. However, VC2 expands intelligently on existing mechanics and smoothly adapts the engine to the portable platform so much that it feels right at home.

Civil war is the backdrop this time, as Gallia, still recovering from the Imperial invasion two years prior, suffers open rebellion by dissident nobles and army units. Caught up in this is one Avan Hardins, an archetypical impulsive, simple-minded hero who’s jarred from his day-to-day routine by the news of his brother Leon’s death. The circumstances of Leon’s last mission are kept firmly under lock-and-key by the Lanseal military academy, and getting answers means getting in and making the grade. Thus, Avan winds up in Lanseal’s Class G; a colorful collection of misfits, rejects, borderline sociopaths, and one or two competent people to facepalm and look irritated. Naturally, it’s Avan’s job to shape up the squad, uncover the truth, and stamp out the rebellion. While VC2 puts admirable effort towards developing each classmate, the multiple plots are least one ball too many to keep in the air, and the game has problems focusing on any one particular story.

Gameplay has gone through several adjustments. The partial turn-based battle system remains intact, with you spending command points to move and attack while dodging enemy fire in real time. Maps have been broken up and are now linked by checkpoint bases, control of which grants you access to the next map segment. This often puts you right behind enemy units still guarding what was their base, and your opponent can reverse this to funnel troops back into previously cleared areas. It seems odd at first, but it adds a clever dimension to traditional tactics, and maps often have enough connections to encourage flanking maneuvers. Elements from VC1 are also given more depth, such as field effects. Night missions reduce sight distance, cold affects health regeneration, and so on. Objectives have greater variety as well, from typical base capture and search-and-destroy to supply collection or vehicle escorts. In spite of the smaller maps there’s as much going on in each battle as the first game, if not more so.

Not the most imposing armored vehicle on the field, but don't underestimate this little guy.  Maneuvering is at least as important as firepower.
Not the most imposing armored vehicle on the field, but don’t underestimate this little guy. Maneuvering is at least as important as firepower.

You can only field six units at once, so squad development is crucial. Classes still level up as one unit, but they now feature branching subclasses that are upgraded individually. Shocktroopers can get generic upgrades, stack a flamethrower on their SMG, or trade-in for a heavy machine gun. Snipers have been rolled into the scout class, while engineer duties have been split up. Engineers still heal and fix vehicles, while the new armored techs – melee attackers with shields to repel interception fire – disarm mines and fix sandbags. Vehicles have been similarly changed, as you’ll only field one but it has scores of options. Vehicle inventory is now a simple weight system for turret sizes and protection parts, with larger tank types capable of carrying more. Extra components negate field effects, reduce enemy accuracy, and crush through or build over certain obstacles. You can even switch from a tank to an armored personnel carrier, and using an APC to rapidly deploy short-range troops is just one example of how these features can be used creatively.

The enemy has brought its own new toys to the field, and you’ll be introduced to a nasty one early on. Rebels soon start deploying V2s, dangerous armored troops that carry energy weapons not unlike the Valkyria. Just one of these can ruin your day if you’re not careful, and snuffing one out usually involves finding the supply vehicle shielding it first. Cannon towers are also dangerous, as they’re extremely durable, very perceptive, and capable of fighting both infantry and tanks. While you won’t encounter any screen-filling war machines this time, bosses do periodically show up both in and out of vehicles. Surprisingly, those on foot tend to be bigger threats, as they can capture bases and shift between maps as you do. It’s still possible to lure them into firing at an armored target while you put a sniper or something behind them, but expect to get hit hard if you get it wrong.

The controls haven’t changed much despite being remapped for the PSP. Unit controls remain fairly intuitive: thumbstick runs and aims, d-pad walks, shoulder buttons rotate the camera and switch targets, square readies or changes your weapon, X confirms and handles other context-sensitive stuff, and so on. Start button ends a unit’s turn, and this time there’s no “are you sure” prompt. Menus in general are less cluttered than in VC1, but you’ll spend more time in them with the aforementioned unit customization. Chapter navigation is now handled through a map of Lanseal with noticeable improvements over the old interface. Squad management and mission selection have been rolled into one section, and you can draft multiple groups with their own vehicle loadouts. Many scenes with your classmates are optional, with plot progression mostly dictated by how many missions you’ve beaten. Additionally, the game gives you a save prompt after each mission, making it easier to avoid accidentally losing progress.

It’d be unrealistic to compare visuals with those of its PS3 predecessor, though the scaledown is regrettable. That said, VC2 does a respectable job of bringing the series’ graphical style with it. Anime stills and cutscenes are lively and well drawn, with expressive and distinct (if at times stereotypical) characters. Cartoon sound effects still splash over movement and gunfire, serving as visual cues for enemies you haven’t spotted. Several actions have simplified or outright removed animations, from triggering a potential to calling a medic for a downed ally. Oddly enough, this is an unexpected boon, as it reduces breaks in the action. The maps are big enough to accommodate the use of vehicles and snipers, and while models are simpler, your units are animated well and easy to tell apart. Missions in the same region don’t always use the same set of maps, though repetition is unavoidable as you’ll revisit each one many, many times over.

I AM BECOME DEATH, CHOOSER OF THE... wait, no, I didn't mean to end turn yet!  Noooo!
I AM BECOME DEATH, CHOOSER OF THE… wait, no, I didn’t mean to end turn yet! Noooo!

Audio makes the transition largely unscathed. Much of the excellent score from the original shows up here, and new compositions make for welcome additions. The battle music stands out as ever, shifting gears based on who you’re fighting and where: swelling and upbeat tracks for skirmishes against fellow cadets, deep string pieces for trench warfare against rebels, blaring horns for boss fights, etc. Guns, explosions, and other effects are done well, and there’s a nice, meaty smack to the swing of an armored tech’s hammer. The only obvious sacrifice is in voice work, as most conversations are now simply text backed by canned audio quips. Though decent enough in small doses, these quips get old fast, with Avan’s awkward, oft-repeated, indeed scarring laugh being a chief offender here. There’s still plenty of acting to go around, most of it enjoyable to some extent. Crispin Freeman is a convincing Zeri, the exasperated straight man to the more reckless Avan, and plenty of other familiar voices get in on the action.

Squad G develops more as you use them, culminating with individual classmate missions that unlock bonus potentials. Many are just contrived circumstances to hammer the message of the week, typically of the “racism is bad/friendship will save the day/Dwarven Vow #7” persuasion, though some show degrees of sophistication. Imperial transfer student Helmut tables his own bigotry, not out of an epiphany, but because he’s a professional soldier and will help even those he doesn’t like if he’s ordered to. Others are more lighthearted, and your mileage from them will depend on your ability to tolerate stock characters in wacky situations. That said, the game throws enough of them at you that you’re bound to enjoy a few, and I confess most of these idiots had grown on me by game’s end. Stalker girl Melissa was amusing, and everyone involved with shocktrooper Marion’s big secret should be given a medal. If nothing else, you’d be amazed what you can put up with when someone’s bonus potential grants another charge of movement points.

Although “ragtag bunch of misfits trying to prove themselves” has its moments, VC2 never really commits itself to anything else. You’ll regularly fight the rebels, but for a while, they serve mostly as filler battles. When the war does finally take center stage, you’re still kept at a distance, despite clashing directly with rebel leaders. Avan’s search for his brother also falls off the radar quickly with its big reveal feeling rather abrupt and detached from your actions. Token efforts are made at humanizing your enemies, though the shift from playing cards with a subordinate to mustache-twirling, genocide-endorsing villainy is too jarring to take seriously. There are no real differences between drill ground matches and actual combat, and fighting cadets is identical to fighting rebels. How, exactly, one non-lethally sprays a person with napalm is beyond me. And for those irked at the first game’s optional beach trip, a pool scene cranks that to eleven and has assuredly caused at least one aneurysm by now.

What’s irritating is that individual segments occasionally do hit what they’re aiming for. The buildup to an academy tournament is handled well, and rival captain Julianna is an effective (albeit ridiculously proportioned) foil to Squad G. An earnest, simple conversation between friends on opposite sides of a cell door was rather touching and carried more weight than every dramatic scream in the game. Some events fall on the right side of absurdity, like a reenactment of a key battle from VC1; I admit to chuckling at Zeri being forced to play one of Edelweiss’ tank treads. With a little creativity, Generic Anime Hero #38 making his way in this crazy world could’ve been a welcome change from saving the world again. Tragically, VC2 is about as attention deficient as its protagonist and can’t stop from reaching for an epic war story along the way. Where the first game lacked subtlety but still kept a close eye on what it was doing, this one falters on both fronts.

Bang bang, baby!
Bang bang, baby!

Gameplay missteps are also hard to ignore. Advancement through squad classes requires credits earned through mission performance, and credit distribution is so random it feels like part of some cruel social experiment. You can deliberately use one soldier to capture every base or score the most kills, only to find the runner-up got the certificate you wanted on the first unit. Thanks to this, your opponents are likely to get class upgrades well before you do. The suggested level for some missions spikes after a while, and without careful planning you can find yourself seriously outgunned. Old AI issues pop in to say hello, from enemies that waste turns doing nothing to other enemies running blindly into heavy crossfire. Infantry bosses dodge attacks with annoying regularity, though they also lock onto unoccupied camps and can be coaxed into obvious diversions. More than once, you’ll take out what you thought was the last enemy, only to spend two more turns – at a cost to your post-mission rewards – finding a lone straggler hiding in the grass.

And yet for every problem, VC2 offsets it by doing something else right. Lancers and tanks now have a semblance of reliable aiming and are less likely to miss the broad side of a barn. New terrain features are used often enough to make pre-mission preparations worth the effort, like packing a constructor arm or kitting for off-road handling. Barring the occasional mission without reinforcements, you no longer lose if the leader is injured. Downed comrades who aren’t rescued are merely hospitalized for a few missions, and upgraded engineers can revive troops on the field. Later on you can designate additional leaders, instead of being forced to deploy plot-critical people to maximize command points. There are still hassles, not the least of which is triggering the frustratingly random loot drops to build specific weapons. Boss fights can also be showstoppers until you figure out how to exploit the AI. Nevertheless, VC2 makes major mechanical improvements over the first game.

Playtimes will vary significantly, as most fights and cutscenes aren’t mandatory. If you’re willing to risk being underleveled, you could theoretically blitz through the required and plot missions in about 30 hours. Between story, classmate, free, and paid missions, a more dedicated playthrough sends you into over a hundred battles. Many are filler, but that doesn’t make them less fun to play. Indeed, just clearing everything available on a normal run can easily push the clock to 60 or more hours. Throw in DLC and postgame content, and VC2 becomes a tiny, time-eating monster. It helps that individual missions tend to go quicker than VC1, though hour-long skirmishes are not unheard of. New game plus is as welcome as ever, giving you another shot at plot missions if you so choose. Co-op and head-to-head multiplayer further extend the time, with special rules and features for each mode, though regrettably it was not tested in the course of this review.

Valkyria Chronicles II is definitely a bigger, deeper game, and in spite of the obstacles, it handled the platform shift quite gracefully. It’s hard to say that it’s entirely better than its predecessor, as the narrative wanders too often and the gameplay at times struggles under its own weight. Regardless, none of that should seriously deter fans of the original looking for more. The series’ quirky charm shines through despite a directionally challenged plot, and the signature blend of real time and turn-based strategy plays as well as it ever did. Additions and refinements fit like they’ve always been there, and it’s as suited for short bursts of play as it is for dig-out-the-charger marathons. If you have a PSP handy, this one deserves a high spot on your to-do list.

Well, go on! Bad guys aren’t going to drop artillery on themselves! Well, sometimes they do.

This game was played to completion and reviewed using a retail copy.

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