Review by DualGreen
Despite shortcomings, there's a real gem, here - A review from a huge fan of the series.
Valkyria Chronicles II -
For fans of the first Valkyria Chronicles, hearing that the sequel was going to be exclusive to the PSP was a huge blow. The first game was widely lauded for its superb visual appeal and unique "Canvas" engine, which made the game vaguely resemble a watercolor painting in motion. Battlefields were large and vividly rendered, and the game was oozing with its abundance of detail put into each character. None of these things were possible the graphical limitations of the PSP, and many fans were concerned this was nailing the coffin shut on the series. Despite the first game having been well-received and developing a cult fanbase, it didn't sell as well as it had been expected to and hearing the sequel was cursed to being on a handheld was ominous news.
Despite the lowered expectations, this sequel managed to outsell the original's first week of sales and still bring in positive reviews in Japan, and has since been equally well-received and opened with better-than-expected sales in the U.S. The third game has already been leaked as confirmed (and will be publicly announced on September 16th) and it seems new life has been brought to the series. So, knowing the "big picture reaction," this reviewer still has a lot to say about the game. As a "crazy fangirl" who dumped a lot of time into the original, I think I've got a bit of insight that might be valuable to other fans concerned at how well the game translated onto the PSP.
Firstly, as mentioned in my opening, the PSP simply can't handle the beauty the original managed to bring the table. While the sound effects of guns firing and engines roaming being represented as comic book/manga-esque text pop-ups are still present, and the edges of the screen are still faded during combat to feel as though the game is on a canvas, you're just not given quite the adequate visual appeal you were hoping for. It's pretty darn capable for a PSP game, with impressive lighting effects, detailed levels and multiple characters rendered at once, but no matter what the PSP does, it was impossible to prevent at least a little disappointment.
The character design and story have also shifted direction to a more visual-novel style approach, making the characters feel more as though they're designed to appeal to the teenage demographic that the recent Persona games have appealed so strongly to. For more mature fans out there, you're likely to be disappointed by this somewhat childish rehaul. The "military academy" setting feels a lot more like a high school, and the game really drives home the silly, eyerollingly ridiculous drama.
The original Valkyria Chronicles often stretched your suspension of disbelief with some of its antics, but VC2 dips into awful, occasionally sexist fanservice with characters like Sofia - who tries to get men to fall into her breasts or look up her skirt so she can later break their hearts - or idiots like Joachim - who acts like a pathetic "why me?" type, despite having everything fall into his lap. If you've seen any shonen anime taking place in or around a school, you'll know of the cliche'd kind of characters I'm talking about.
During many of the side-stories and occasionally during parts of the main story, your characters will perform faux military skirmishes (that the game even details running the risk of actual death) over ridiculous little things like a boy they like or squabble they had, or actually throw themselves out in a real military operation just to find a flower to confess their love to the girl they like with (I'm sadly not exaggerating!). The first game did have some material like this, such as Largo's comic obsession with vegetables, but it was more of a relieving distraction than the general theme of the game and added to the quality rather than distracting from it.
Despite the almost overwhelmingly uncomfortable shift toward more immature subject matter, the game does develop each individual character much more than its predecessor, which only offered slight development for many of its less important recruits. They're each given unique scenes for you to enjoy and their own mission that culminates their character development and improves their usefulness in the game's missions. Despite being heavily cliche'd, you do end up caring for most of the cast quite a bit.
The design of the characters is one step back, but their improved development is one step forward. The setting is just a straight-up setback, however, and really hinders the overall plot of the game. While there are bits and pieces that are interesting, with the occasionally moment that is surprisingly mature and intriguing, it's mostly just your average, crappy anime story of a bunch of lovable goofballs overcoming impossible odds by believing in their ability to do so. It continues the story of the first game to some degree, but partially retcons the game's epilogue to introduce a civil war spurred by a revelation about the government made in the last game.
The first game was like this (cliche'd and smitten with shonen anime parables) to a degree, but was more believable given the more mature characters and militia setting. In VC2, however, you're literally just a bunch of school-children solving problems a professional army can't even handle. It's very silly and makes the player feel a lot less involved. If the story and setting of the original game were your strongest draws, you're likely to be shockingly disappointed with the sequel. As I said, the characters do strongly grow on you and the plot has its moments, but the general plot and setting are an overall leap backward in terms of quality.
Finally getting past all of the fluff of the game, however, we're left with the actual core of Valkyria Chronicles 2 - the strategy gameplay. To most fans of the series, no matter how much they love the fluff of the graphics, setting and character interaction, this is truly what brings them in... And, fortunately, it's where Valkyria Chronicles 2 certainly shines the brightest. The rest of this review will operate under the assumption you're familiar with how the first game plays - which is a combination of turn-based and real time strategy and third-person shooter elements. I don't want to water down the review with a long explanation of the basic mechanics, so give the demo a shot if you're new to the series and completely blank.
Due to the PSP being unable to render a lot at once, battlefields are broken down into 2-5 smaller maps that make up a part of the whole, larger battlefield. You still control your characters in semi-real-time, but you're only allowed to have a total of 6 deployed at once and there's a tremendous emphasis on capturing bases and then using their corresponding base on another section of the map to move on. A lot of the mechanics have been changed to stress this emphasis, giving the game a bit less of a "grander" feel and focusing more on speed and efficiency.
Rather than just capturing one base, the game often asks you to capture multiple or to kill every enemy unit (or occasionally find items scattered across multiple maps or drive an escort vehicle to a given location). Given that the enemy can send reinforcements with each base they have captured and immediately bring them into action with their deployment (in the original, deploying a unit and actually using them were divided up into the cost of two command points rather than one), this forces you to think about what positions you want/need to secure more than forcing you to focus on just running a scout to the enemy base, tossing a grenade and blowing the guys out, then capturing it.
While only being able to have 6 units deployed at once and being confined to smaller map sections sounds like a drawback from the original (and, in some ways, it is... You do miss the giant battlefields like the Naggiar Plains or the Ghirlandaio Fortress), it's an overall improvement to the strategic element of the game. "Scout rush" became the most effective strategy in the original due to the unit's high movement speed, but each class is more balanced and specialized in VC2, forcing you to delve into the game's increased variety.
There are now two branches for each of the five classes, and each branch has its own two branches after that (making a total of thirty-five different classes). Many of the branches have their own unique weaponry, as well, which urges you to carefully manage which you're upgrading and where to put your focus into. Although the game does have a new "best class" you'll be using more frequently than the others (*cough* commandos *cough*), the specializations of each unique class make them more apt for different situations, meaning that to have maximum efficiency, you'll need to really branch out and experiment a lot.
In addition to the game's variety of classes and weaponry, you're now given the choice between using an APC (which can carry units inside of it and costs less command points to use, but is weaker, defensively, and must use inferior weaponry) or a tank (much stronger, but costs more to use), and customizing them with literally hundreds of different parts. The "Valkyria Chronicles" experience is thoroughly enriched by all this customization and it feels genuinely rewarding when you make your squad feel just right with its balance.
The downside to all this customization, however, is that the game now focuses a bit more on grinding. Creating all the weapons requires replaying certain missions (and finding and killing their special, frequently hidden "Ace" character) and the system they use for advancing your character classes throughout their branches can cause you to frustratingly need to play a mission several times before you earn the proper credits to advance them... Each mission randomly gives different credits, and you need specific credits in order to advance to a new class. You'll often see a character you need get 5 of a credit useless to them, when the character who needs that credit only needs 2 of it and receives 0. You thankfully still level up classes by picking one of the five base classes and distributing EXP to them, though, meaning that it won't be a total pain to switch to some new classmates late in the game.
The game is also fattened up with a tremendous amount of "filler" content and fewer story-related missions. This is a blessing on one hand, as it gives players who love the game a lot more to do (there are literally almost 200 missions total), and a curse on the other, as more casual fans of the series can find themselves bored with having to do skirmishes irrelevant to the plot that drag the length out of the game more than they feel comfortable with. If you ended up doing everything in the first game, you'll find a world of joy, here, but if you skipped all the optional stuff, the game is going to drag a bit for you.
The amount of content in the game, in general, is very robust. With 35 classes to try out, 30+ side-characters (in addition to many unlockable characters strictly for gameplay, most being recurring characters from the first game) to develop relationships with (platonic ones, you dorks), nearly 200 missions to play and hundreds of weapons and tank parts to develop, the game will keep you busy for a pretty long time - and this isn't even counting the upcoming, large amount of DLC content. I've A-Ranked every mission except one (or more) secret ones, myself, and I've still got a lot of parts to create - This is with 113 hours put into the game. Even if you're only aiming to finish the story, you're going to get about 30-40 hours, which is well worth your money.
Although the game offers multiplayer modes (both competitive and co-operative), they're over Ad Hoc, which means I've been unable to try them and review them. No one I know in person has the game, and using an online proxy for Ad Hoc (like the PS3's Ad Hoc party) is something I've not quite gotten into doing yet (though am looking forward to). From what I've heard, the multiplayer doesn't add a great deal to the experience, but it's worth noting for fans out there who were interested in trying this out, as the original had no multiplayer component to speak of. Just because it doesn't personally interest me a lot doesn't mean it's not worth bringing up in the review, and from what I can tell from the tutorial mission, the added mechanics to co-op play are pretty neat.
Overall, Valkyria Chronicles 2 is really only slightly inferior to its predecessor. Despite having shortcomings in the character designs, setting, plot and focus of the game (it's still just as well localized and dubbed, thankfully), the core mechanics of the game are improved and there's considerably more strategy and variety, in addition to increased character development (for many, one of the major draws to the series are all the minor characters being unique). There's much more to do and most of it feels rewarding to do, provided you enjoyed the mechanics of the original.
It's not a perfect game and it's still a minor disappointment compared to the original, but it tries its hardest for a portable game... and being only slightly inferior to one of my personal top 10 games ever made still earns it a spot in my top 25 or so. As an avid gamer who has easily played over 1,000 games and owns over 800, I don't make a statement like that lightly - I'm not trying to brag, just give a sense of the scope I have when I make a comment like that. I really love this game a lot and the general sentiment from fans who enjoyed the first in the way that I did is similar.
I strongly recommend the game to anyone who really enjoyed the mechanics or characters of the first game, and still fairly highly recommend it to even more casual Valkyria Chronicles fans. It's truly a stellar accomplishment in terms of handheld gaming, and is of course worth playing if you're a fan of handheld RPGs or the PSP, in general. It's a darn addictive experience and worth every penny and second I've put into it. Because I'm forced to attach an arbitrary score to it, I give it a 10/10. I don't believe in "perfection," but any single-player game that I can extract more than 100 hours of fun out of is worth the highest score I can give.
Rating: 5.0 - Flawless
Product Release: Valkyria Chronicles II (US, 08/30/10)
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