Inside Pulse 12

Review: Valkyria Chronicles II (Sony PSP)

Valkyria Chronicles II
Developer: Sega
Publisher: Sega
Genre: Turn Based Strategy
Release Date: 08/31/2010

Valkyria Chronicles drew many accolades when it came out, even if it didn’t produce much of a glimmer in the general public’s eye (or entice them to open their wallets) until it received a substantial price drop. Alex praised it highly, and it later went on to win Best Sony PlayStation 3 Game and Game of the Year in our 2008 awards. Those are rather large steps to follow in, and the move to a less powerful system left some apprehensive as to whether the sequel could follow in them. Let’s see how well it fared in the transition.

Valkyria Chronicles II takes place in the year 1937, two years after the first game. The Second Europan War may have reached a resolution, but war still rages on. However, the conflict this time around comes not from an external invader, but internal strife. Rebels who wish the for the Archduchess to be relieved of her throne cause an uproar and recruit others to their cause, and the havoc they wreck sparks a civil war. Leading them is the patriarch of the Gassenarl family, Gilbert Gassenarl, and his children serve in the rebel army as well. Due to lack of troops in the national army, Gallia is forced to rely on town guard volunteers and cadets from the Lanseal Royal Military Academy to deal with them and attempt to quash the rebellion and protect the Archduchess.

In the midst of all this is the main protagonist, Avan Hardins, who applies for admission into the military academy his brother Leon was a cadet at to find out what happened to him. The game revolves around him and his class as they take on missions and try to prove their worth, as their class is considered the dregs of the academy. The game feels more like an anime and has a bit more lighthearted tone, and your squad is skewed towards the younger sector. You can also spot various archetypes – the cheery kind girl, the stoic standoffish pretty boy, the energetic class clown, and so on. However, the side characters do receive enough development and quirks to make them stand out as individuals, moreso than the ones in the first game did, even if some are archetypal. Plus, the story does pick up as it goes on, so the lighthearted anime aspect doesn’t detract too much. Some might miss the history book setup, but the school motif works well enough.

A couple of plot points that would be a spoiler if you haven’t played the first game do figure somewhat prominently in the story. One of them does get divulged rather early in this game, as well as in the Freshman Cadet’s Guide on the official page for the game, so if you’ve read that you’ve already had that point given away. That being said, neither concern the main characters (though you do also find out what they’ve been up to since the end of the last game), and the game give you enough exposition and background on the events preceding this game, so you should mostly be fine even if you haven’t played the first game. I do recommend finishing the first game first just to cover all your bases – plus it’s a great game.

There is now multiplayer mode, which should please those who wished the first game had it. It’s not available initially but unlocks once you play through the first month. Most of the missions in the game can be played with another people, though only missions both players can access can be selected. That means someone near the end of the game cannot take someone who’s still in an early part of the game through a late game mission. Up to four players can play co-op together at once, though versus is limited to two players. However, only ad hoc is supported for both. While the lack of infrastructure support is disappointing (especially if no one local owns the game and a PSP), as with other PSP titles such as the Monster Hunter games, online play can be made possible with third party software like Xlink Kai, or with Ad Hoc Party for those with PS3s, for those who have the wherewithal and patience to set either up.

In co-op, players can give others command points (CP). The number of units available depends on how many players are participating – with two players, each gets four units, three players get three units each, and four players have two units each. Cover attacks can be performed by moving close to an allied unit that’s attacking. This doesn’t count as an attack for that round, so you can still attack again. You can also trigger “buddy effects” by moving multiple allied units to bolster their effectiveness in battle. Versus mode has its own set of rules as well. You can set handicaps, such as damage taken, to compensate for differences in level. Those who chose to play on easy are granted an advantage. Deploying leaders does not give an extra CP, and the player going first start with one less CP the first turn. Units are not hospitalized and vehicles are not disabled, so they’re still available for use even if they lose all their HP. Temporary Coatings do not take effect, not does time advance to the next day after the battle.

Most of the story scenes are depicted with anime character portraits and still scenes. This may feel like a downgrade for those used to the first game’s FMV cutscenes and animated 3D portraits, but there are still some short animated cutscenes, and they still work and look well enough. The in-game models are polygonal instead of cel shaded, but some traces of the pen outline and brushed shadows effects prevalent in the first game can be seen in the artwork. The cameo characters’ portraits are even styled differently than the characters in this game (cell shaded versus drawn), which differentiates them from this game’s characters but can be a bit jarring when first scrolling through your list of units and seeing a sudden style change. While the game’s not as pretty as its PS3 predecessor (understandable given the differences between the two platforms), it does still look fairly good for a PSP game, and the developers did a good job in working with what they had.

Hitoshi Sakimoto, who also composed the music for the first game as well as other fairly well known games like Final Fantasy Tactics and the Ogre Battle/Tactics Ogre series, did the soundtrack for this game as well. It’s as strong as the original’s and retains its orchestral feel. They do a good job of setting the mood the situation calls for, with some tracks being evocative and others designed to get your pulse racing. The various sounds effects augment the effect and help establish the wartime setting.

The voice acting is generally good, and most of the voices fit the characters. As in the first game, some big names lend their voices to this game. Among them is Crispin Freeman, who some may recognize as Alucard from Hellsing and from a plethora of other anime and games. Travis Willingham can also be heard, who is most widely known as the voice of Roy Mustang from Full Metal Alchemist. There’s also Karen Strassman (who some may know as Kirtsy Pape or Mia Bradly), who played Aigis in the various Persona 3 incarnations. The voice actors of the characters from the first game that appear in this game reprise their roles. Though you may get tired of Avan’s laugh by the time you’re done, as not only does it play often, but it can burrow your way into your memory like an earworm. Unlike the first game, you can’t switch to the Japanese vocal tracks. Not all scenes are fully voiced acted; some only have little bits like sighs and short phrases. There’s still random radio chatter during battle, and some of it can be amusing, such as the overdramatic weeping and “He was such a good guy!” whenever you kill an enemy unit. If you don’t install data, there’s a lag in voice acting, such as between when you select a unit or score a kill and when the character actually says something. Even without the data install, though, the loading times don’t slow things down all that much.

Battles work much like the first game and still use the BLiTZ (Battle of Live Tactical Zones) system. They are turned based and divided into Command Mode and Action Mode. In Command Mode, a map depicting the current positions of your units and enemies in the vicinity is displayed. From here, you can deploy units, have units retreat, issue orders, and so on. You can only deploy up to six units (five in one area), and the maps are broken up into areas rather than the large continuous ones in the first game. The smaller number of units is easier to manage, but considering the number of new classes at your disposal, it does feel somewhat limiting. You can have units retreat from anywhere at the cost of one CP, or have them standby for free if they’re in an allied camp. Naturally, you can also select a unit to move them, where the view switches to Action Mode.

In Action Mode, you directly control the unit you’ve selected, using the analog nub to move quickly or the d-pad for a slower pace. Sight lines will appear if any enemies are nearby; blue lines means the enemy has not spotted you, yellow means they’ve seen you but you’re not in range for interception fire, and red means you’re within interception fire range (green means the same, except the enemy is reloading their weapon). Attacking involves switching into Target Mode, wherein time freezes (in a manner of speaking) and you move a crosshair over the enemy and fire. Notably, the transition time between Action Mode and Target Mode is faster, meaning enemies don’t get shots in during the switch, which lessens the chances of your unit dying before s/he can get a shot in. You can toggle between targets with the shoulder buttons, though aiming manually is usually more accurate. Headshots deal more damage, and attacks are more likely to hit when aimed at the enemy’s side or back. How far they can move is determined by the amount of Attack Points (AP) they have left. This decreases each time you select a unit, regardless of whether you’ve moved with them or not. New to this game is Morale, which increases as you defeat enemies and capture bases and decreases when allies fall in battle. Higher morale means higher likelihood of positive potentials triggering and lower chances of negative ones activating. Should morale drop to zero, your squad will give up and the mission will be considered a failure.

Classes now branch into more advanced versions: scout, shocktrooper, engineer, lancer, and armored tech. Some classes have received tweaks. For example, engineers no longer clear mines; that role now belongs to the armored techs, and snipers are incorporated into the scout class tree. To promote a unit into a more advanced class, they have to earn the right amount and type of credits, which are awarded to those that participate in a battle. Class trees consist of more advanced versions of the basic class and classes that specialize in a certain area. For instance, Anthem Corps provide buffs, anti-tank snipers snipe tanks, and mortarers lay down mortars. While I was initially skeptical of melee units in a game full of gun users and heavily armed vehicles, I’ve found armored techs to be quite useful. They shrug off most infantry gunfire and can kill most in one swing as well as destroy the sandbags they were crouching behind (and repair afterwards for their own use). They also have a wide range of attack, meaning you can take out multiple enemies clustered together. Conversely, if you’re not careful you can also hit one of your allied units. Avan is able to change into any class, which proves rather useful since you can use him to fill any shortages in your current group, he can unlock potentials in each class and use them in another class, and he also gives a CP when deployed. However, everyone else is stuck with one class tree. Considering how many branches each tree has and the number of units at your service, though, that doesn’t feel as limiting as it would otherwise.

Outside of battle, the school serves as a hub, similar to the base in the first game. You still have your Research and Development building, where you can develop new weapons and armor and customize your tank, as well as create temporary coatings, which last for one battle and affects a soldier class (whether for good or bad depends on the ingredients used). You can work your units into the ground – in other words, level them up – in the training grounds by spending EXP on each class. Welkin and Alicia take over the Aged Gentleman’s role in teaching new orders (some of which cost a fairly hefty amount of EXP), though they only shows up randomly in the store. Speaking of the store, you can buy missions, encyclopedia entries (which give a lot of background), and articles from the Gallia Times and Lotte Insider. Instead of pages in a book, you select missions in the briefing room, and you can play them in whatever order you please, though you do need to complete enough key missions to unlock the story mission (and complete that too) in order to progress the main story. You can form up to twenty groups, each consisting of nineteen units. You can only take one group with you on a mission, and you can only pick from that group when deploying. As you deploy your classmates in battle, you unlock various scenes with them at the school. Unlocking the first takes five CPs, the second ten, and the third fifteen. Each classmate also has a mission that upon completion unlocks a new potential for them. This gives more incentive to use everyone, both from a gameplay and plot perspective.

After you beat the game, you can return to any month and replay any mission you’d like. There’s so many possible group setups that you could easily spend a long time shifting people and classes around, and you could keep changing people’s classes as long as you have the credits to do so. Some units do have negative potentials, but that can be partly fixed through unlocking all of their classmate scenes and completing their mission, and it doesn’t break the game enough either way to render someone irrevocably unusable. You can always replay a mission to earn more credits for a class change, kill any aces (which can drop items and weapons when killed) you missed, and try to obtain the highest rank possible, though the game does seem to reward speed more than anything. Just like in the first game, the highest rank you can attain is A instead of S as in the Japanese version. In addition, downloadable missions will be made available starting September 28, so even if you manage to beat everything currently available in the game by then, there’s still more to do.

You can no longer save during battles, and you’re limited to one save. Both of these things can feel limiting and irksome coming from the first game’s permitting you to save as in many slots as you like and during battle. However, characters also no longer die permanently, but are merely out of commission for three missions if the enemy touches their fallen bodies or if three turns pass without them being retrieved by a ally, so the danger of losing a unit permanently is gone. Withdrawing units in base areas and deploying reserves no longer takes up a command point, making it easier to leapfrog by having units retreat in one base, then deploying them from another (as units now deploy instantly instead of on the next turn), which is especially good for units with limited mobility like snipers. The maps are smaller in scope and are split into areas. Orders are now more expensive to use, though there are still some useful ones that don’t cost an exorbitant amount of CP.

Taken together, all these factors seem to be a form of checks and balances in order to try and fix any balance issues in the first game while retaining the game’s challenge factor. Mostly the difficulty is challenging but fair (for those who like a challenge, there will be missions that will make you want to tear your hair out), though the removal of mid-battle saves is considering a portable system would arguably need it more than a home console. You’re able to further customize your tank with things like markings and stickers and switching between a tank and an APC (which is less heavily armed but can transport units), although it no longer has a separate meter for treads. Each class is effective in different ways, so they can be devastating when used right. Do remember that if you change them from a second tier and on class to another class, you’ll have to shell out the credits again if you want to revert to the previous class. This does limit how much class switching you can do with a single unit, though you are at least provided with enough units of each class tree that you can still have variety in your squad. However, it does make it a bit harder to unlock all the class potentials with Avan, but it can still be done with time and some grinding for credits.

I practically had to pry myself away from my PSP with a crowbar (metaphorically, obviously) to write this review. I kept wanting to unlock more classmate scenes and missions, as well as work on upgrading everyone and garnering enough credits for each to promote to a more advanced class. Even when I got stonewalled by a mission, I’d want to keep trying to clear it and devising different ways to do just that. There’s a whole lot to tinker with, from customizing your tank/APC to best serve its purpose for the next mission (like swathing it in night camouflage and fitting it with a lamp for a mission taking place at night) to unlocking and trying out all the new classes. Plus the battle system makes fights just flat out fun to play through.

Like its predecessor, this game taking elements of RTS, SRPGs, and third person shooters and combines them all into a pastiche that has yet to be replicated. Even those who’d normally find most traditional RPGs too slow would find this more engaging due to having direct control over your units and being able to aim. The first game flew under the radar during its first weeks, which resulted in relatively poor sales. However, the first game did attract a following, and that along with the addition of multiplayer will likely help this one sell better. The fact that it’s portable will appeal to those who game on the go more often than sit in front of a console. Some might find the school theme lackluster in comparison to the first game’s history book setup, but even they will find that the gameplay’s as deep as ever (and in some ways it’s even deeper).

You can unlock Squad 7 characters by maxing out a class (like Rosie for maxing Shocktroopers); Welkin comes after maxing every class, then purchasing and completing the Order Master mission. Other characters will likely follow whenever Sega decides to release codes for them, as per the Japanese version. While DLC missions won’t be available until the end of the month (except to those who preordered the game at Gamestop), there are some unlockables to be had right off the bat. Besides containing information about the story, your squad, and other such information, the aforementioned Freshman Cadet’s Guide also has three passwords that unlock things when typed into the password part of the Extras section. The first unlocks Edy’s Squad, and the other two unlock stickers for your tank (the Blitz and Sega logos). If you have a save file from Phantasy Star Portable 2, you can unlock Emilia, along with two missions and a Little Wing sticker. From those who imported, yes, a Japanese save file will work with this game. You also unlock a character (Isara) and a sticker (Isara’s Dream) if you have a save from the first game. Sadly for Skies of Arcadia fans, Vyse, Aika, and Fina do not return in this game. However, there are and will be enough bonuses to compensate.

The Scores
Story/Modes: Classic
Graphics: Great
Sound: Great
Control and Gameplay: Unparallelled
Replayability: Unparallelled
Balance: Good
Originality: Classic
Addictiveness: Unparallelled
Appeal Factor: Good
Miscellaneous: Great
FINAL SCORE: INCREDIBLE GAME

Short Attention Span Summary:

Despite being on a less powerful system, Valkyrie Chronicles 2 kept much of what was so good about the first game and expanded on it. While it’s not as pretty as its predecessor, it still looks very good for a PSP game, and the battle system made the transition quite well. There’s more customization for your units in the form of branching class trees and more modifications being available for your tank/APC. The story has more of a anime lighthearted tone, but it’s enough to keep the game going, and it does have its serious moments and character development as well. The addition of a multiplayer mode means that you can now enjoy the game with a friend, either collaborating or pitting your built up units against each other. In short: all of you with PSPs go out and buy this game, as it’s a worthy sequel to a great game.

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