Valkyria Chronicles 2


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Mirror 2:


Two years have passed since the events of Valkyria Chronicles. The little, neutral nation of Gallia is still caught between mighty opposing forces in the game's fantasy analogue for World War II. Now, though, an army of Gallian rebels is rising up against the country's ruler, Archduchess Cordelia, after he was outed in the earlier game as one of the Darcsen, a persecuted, scapegoated race. It falls to your squad, the ragtag bottom class of Lanseal, a Gallian military academy, to end this civil war. The plot will hold your interest, though it can't match the sweeping epic of its predecessor, and no character is as memorable as that game's cold poster girl, Selvaria Bles.

Valkyria Chronicles II squeezes the smart, turn-based strategy and deep, RPG-like customisation of its PlayStation 3 predecessor onto the PSP with great success. But for a few tweaks, the core experience is unaltered, and the familiar, hand-drawn art style has likewise been carried over. The little, often-recycled battle maps are disappointing, but the game's few shortcomings are simple to forgive in the face of the same elegant, chesslike gameplay that made the first game great.

Lanseal Academy is part high school, part boot camp. It's set on a campus imagined in Valkyria Chronicles' whimsical "European" style, all turrets and courtyards. Here, teenagers take classes, deal with teen problems--crushes, bullying, angst--and become soldiers. When lead character Avan Hardins joins Lanseal to inquire in to the mysterious death of his sister, a former student, he is assigned to Class G, in to which the least promising babies are sorted. There he is made the head of the class, and so head of the squad, despite lack of academic aptitude or apparent dedication. Though Avan (personality: hungry) isn't as likable as the leads of the earlier game, it's the ensemble cast that matters. Among those supporting characters, with their own quirks, backstories, and side missions, you'll find charm to keep you involved. The fluffy teen dramas of Class G are well balanced by the hard fringe of anti-Darcsen racism, manifested as bullying within the school and as violent ethnic cleansing further afield.

That huge cast of classmates is divided between the distinct infantry classes that define the essential rock-paper-scissors action: shocktroopers are strong against lancers, for example, and lancers are strong against tanks, while scouts are vulnerable but cover long distances quickly, with tanks robust but pricey to move across the field. Battles are played out by a command mode, with a top-down view of the map, and a third-person action mode, in which individual characters are steered around the battlefield. The distance over which a unit can be moved is strictly limited by its reserve of action points, with a single assault allowed in each move, while the number of moves that can be made per turn is limited by your reserve of command points.

By the end of the ample story-based campaign, around 40 hours long, you'll have a huge, diverse, uniquely customised squad at your command. That's when the new advert hoc multiplayer modes (two-player versus and coop for up to two players) will get interesting--assuming you've got a mate as committed to Valkyria Chronicles as you. The multiplayer modes are available early on, with more maps and missions unlocked as you progress. Newcomers to the game, therefore, won't be able to join veterans in all of their unlocked content. But the modes work well; in the versus mode, the game is at its most online chesslike, with options to set time limits for turns. In coop, you share a turn, making your moves simultaneously as your allies, enabling pincer movements and other strategic manoeuvring.

From that simple but solid process of turn-based action, Valkyria Chronicles II grows a deep, subtle battle process, layered with elements to be customised, levelled, and deployed creatively against the enemy. Beyond the development of new and better weapons and the sinking of experience points in to levelling up classes, each character has a unique set of potentials--special abilities triggered by sure battlefield conditions--as well as a set of particular friends alongside whom they fight best. Avan, as leader of the squad, can issue special orders that bestow temporary stat boosts on units. This sequel also adds branching subclasses to the mix, letting a scout, for example, be specialised in to a sniper or veteran scout, and then a sniper in to an elite or antitank sniper.

When they become available, cutscenes can be accessed from the academy mode, labelled on the campus map. There's the odd animated cutscene, but mostly they are rendered with still portraits of characters and dialogue balloons, partially voiced. The proportion of time spent in these and on the battlefield is right, though the nonessential scenes can be skipped over by the exposition-averse. The art still looks lovely, in the anime cutscenes, but is let down by the character models of the action proper, whose slight blockiness will only remind fans of the original game how crisp everything looked before, though that's more down to the technical limitation of the platform than a fault on the game's part.

The presentation of cutscenes, menus, and missions forgoes the first game's storybook layout of pages and chapters, replacing it with academy mode. This is a 3D map of Lanseal Academy, a hub from which you are able to access the R&D department to create weapons and tanks; the drill grounds to level up classes; the store to purchase side missions and to learn new orders; and the briefing room to access missions and multiplayer modes. In a pleasant touch, the campus and its grounds alter in appearance from month to month, with the game set over the course of a year.

There's a lot to get to grips with--even before beginning to experiment with homemade temporary weapon coatings--and this isn't a game for hand-holding. Staying on top of the stats, symbols, tech trees, and nested menus will keep you working hard, and the game punishes laziness or recklessness later on, but the experience as a whole is cerebral and rewarding. Except for the puny maps, Valkyria Chronicles II skilfully expands on the original; even the relative downgrade in graphics, dictated by the handheld format, doesn't keep it from being an stunning game.

Missions come in two varieties: key, which must be done to progress through the year; story, which move the plot along and are unlocked with each month; and free, which are lovely for practice and levelling. The objectives are predictable--defend a camp, capture a camp, escort a vehicle, collect supply boxes--but are spiced up by environmental challenges (sandstorms or lightning strikes, for example) and by the presence of special enemy units, from whom you are able to pick up new weapon designs. The biggest disappointment is the size of the maps, mostly comprising two or two often-recycled little regions interconnected by gateway camps--by capturing these camps, you are able to use the gateways to deploy to your squad members in the connected area. Coupled with the five-unit limit in each area, it's only this compactness of the battlefields that makes Valkyria Chronicles II feel like a "smaller," lesser game than the console original.

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