"Valkyria Chronicles II" not as great as original, but still really good

"Valkyria Chronicles II" not as great as original, but still really good

The original "Valkyria Chronicles," for the PlayStation 3, remains one of my favorite games of this console cycle.

I love pretty much everything about: the complex, individualistic characters; the watercolor-painted art style; the emotionally charged story; and the unique game-play, which successfully merges turn-based strategy, squad-based movement and first-person shooting in an engrossing manner.

So ,of course, I was quite pleased when Sega announced they were releasing a sequel, but not as pleased as I probably would have been if the "Valkyria Chronicles II" remained on the PS3. Yes, they've moved the second game in the series to the Sony PSP.

Amazingly, though, they've actually managed to expand on the game-play in some solid ways in this handheld version. Unfortunately, they've sacrificed some things in the process too. The result is one of the best games on the PSP, yet it isn't quite on the same level of greatness as its PS3 predecessor.

The series is set in an alternate reality version of Europe, called Europa here, around the time of our World War II. In "Valkyria Chronicles," players take on the role of a militia unit from the country of Gallia, a small nation wedged between two great powers. The empire on the eastern border has invaded in order to capture Gallia's natural resources, and your group of men, Squad 7, led by tank commander Welkin Guenther, will play the key role in driving them off.

"Valkyria Chronicles II" picks up two years after the great war, with a civil war marring Gallia's peace. During the previous war, it was revealed to the populace that their royal leader , Archduchess Cordelia, wasn't a descendant of the legendary Valkyrur, as had long been believed, but instead was of the Darcsen people, a downtrodden race long blamed for a great calamity. This revelation has sparked a rebellion by a vocal minority who advocate racial purity, by the sword if necessary.

Quite honestly, I can't think of a better way to further develop the story told in the first game. And yet, it's the story where they go wrong. There's entirely too much levity in a game where the central theme is preventing racial genocide.

The main problem is the main character: Avan Hardins, a happy-go-lucky enrollee at Lanseal Military Academy. He's enlisted as a student to investigate the death of his older brother, Leon, who he's told was killed while on a secret mission for the academy.

Assigned to Class G, the refuge of the academy's misfits, he's quickly made leader because nobody else wants the job. But what he hasn't realized is that every student at Lanseal is also a soldier, required to regularly go on vital life-or-death missions as part of the coursework. And even after I reached the end of the game, I'm still pretty sure he's never caught on to the whole life-or-death thing. Too many scenes throughout the game play like a bad classroom comedy, not a gripping war drama.

Fortunately, even if they messed up on the story, they managed to incrementally improve on the game-play.

The major change is that they've revamped the basic unit classes and created a host of advanced ones, gradually attainable by skillfully using individual troops. The basic classes are now scout (highly mobile troops armed with rifles); shocktroopers (the guys with machine guns); lancers (heavy infantry equipped with anti-tank RPGs, essentially); engineers (field medics and vehicle-repair specialists); and armored techs (heavily armored melee combatants and mine-field clearers).

Snipers, a primary class in the first game, are now an advanced subclass of scouts. Other subclasses include flamethrower-wielding commandos, heavy gunners, sword-swinging fencers and unit-buffing melodists. Each offers advantages and trade-offs, but the variety really allows you to customize your troops to fit your playing style.

I should point out that your troops aren't faceless minions. Each is an individual with foibles particular to them, including allergies, phobias, hopes and dreams. If you get them killed, they are gone from your game forever, and you rarely get anyone assigned to your squad to fill their shoes. Plus, each troop has a story to tell, a story that unlocks a mission particular to them, which equals more game for you to enjoy.

Another change is the addition of the materials system. With each successful mission, you gain materials that can be used to upgrade your men's weapons, armor and your tank. Or you can use the materials to create "coatings" for your troops, which affect their effectiveness in the field, i.e. raising attack power, defense, evasion, accuracy, etc. (Personally, I pretty much ignored this system without it having a detrimental effect on my game in any way.)

The actual battle mechanics haven't really been altered, but they were fine to begin with, so it's certainly not a problem.

Fights alternate between your turn and the enemy's. At the start of your turn, you get a number of command points to spend on orders, which can have any number of effects, and troop movement. Basically, you use your points to individually maneuver your men (one point equals one troop). While moving, a character can run around as long as he or she has enough energy, as well as stop and open fire, at which point it switches to a first- or third-person aiming mode, allowing you to pick from any targets in range and even try for headshots.

But there are several strategic elements here, because moving troops are vulnerable troops. If a character wanders into the view and range of an enemy gun, they will be fired upon -- and are at risk of being put out of commission -- until you switch to aiming mode or end that character's turn. Yet you can use this to your advantage against powerful enemies. For instance, I've found it advantageous to use a heavily armored troop as a distraction, tricking a rival trooper into exposing his back to my sniper.

And as the enemy is subject to the same conditions, it behooves you to leave your troops positioned so they can intercept approaching enemies in the same fashion.

If I had any complaint about the combat phase of "Valkyria Chronicles II," it would be that there's a very limited number of maps used in the fights. So you'll get tired of the scenery after a while.

But that's offset by the sheer amount of game-play here. You not only have a ton of available missions just following the main storyline, but also an individual one for every troop in your squad, as well as several available for purchase in the Lanseal campus store. With so much to do, it took well over 40 hours for me to beat the main game. And when that's over, you unlock new squad members and a huge helping of additional missions, which really begin to ramp up in difficulty.

And that's ignoring the fact that there is a complete subset of missions you can play cooperatively with a friend over wi-fi -- and another subset of competitive ones.

Frankly, this is a lot of bang for your buck. I just wish they hadn't taken such a comedic tone.

"Valkyria Chronicles II"
Platforms: PSP.
Publisher: Sega.
Price: $39.99.
Rating: T for teen.
Recommendation: The game-play is fairly unique, so you might want to try the demo first. And if you like it, know that there's more game here than you can imagine, so don't be afraid to buy.

Images courtesy of Sega
Top: New Lanseal Academy cadet Avan Hardins, bottom left, meets his classmates Cosette, center, and Zeri.
Second: Joachim, a Squad G soldier who has been upgraded from armored tech to fencer elite, shows a rebel commando who's boss.

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