Valkyria Chronicles, by virtue of its timing perhaps (released alongside some of the biggest titles of this generation) went somewhat under the radar. Its combination of tactical RPG gameplay, unique alternate WWI-like setting and striking visual presentation did manage to garner a loyal following, despite the fact it was competing against the likes of Mirror's Edge and Little Big Planet, which is why Sega has seen fit to release the sequel we're looking at today.
Moving from the PS3 to the PSP, the platform of choice is not the only change the franchise has undergone. Many of the changes are obvious reactions to the limitations of the baby PlayStation while some are clearly engendered to reflect fan feedback. For example the difficulty has been toned down and the focus of the story is less doom and gloom and more Harry Potter-esque character drama. If you're worried the changes will result in a "lite" version of the original gameplay, fret not - if anything, things have improved here in every regard.
For those unfamiliar with the basic premise (and familiarity with the original in any way is not required - VCII is very friendly to new players) it breaks down a little something like this: taking control of a team of characters, the player is tasked with defeating a scenario populated with enemy troops and tanks. Players view the action from a command map, showing the high-level deployment of key units, objectives and interactables before selecting a unit to control in real time.
Once a unit is chosen, the player moves, or in some other way makes use of the unit, while enemy units in range may fire upon it. Using a character in this way consumes one of your command points, while the movement of the unit itself consumes action points. Once you've used your action points, you need to choose another unit and once you've used your command points, your turn is over and the enemy gets a crack at moving things around. If you have units in range of what the enemy is doing, you get to see it - otherwise you may get some hints of their activity via the command map, depending on your location.
It might sound complex but you'll pick up the basics very quickly indeed, thanks to the gradual way in which the mechanics are introduced throughout the opening missions. There are many levels to the gameplay, which is where experience (through extended play) observation (paying attention to the displays as you move and attack) and skill (figuring out what to deploy when and where) make all the difference.
Units can be any of a number of classes, each significantly varied from each other. Some are good against armor, while others are intended for anti-personnel engagement. The Scout is ideally suited for ranged observation, while the Engineer can heal or re-arm units that are in need of their services. The player's squad is made up of many more characters than they could ever deploy in a single battle, resulting in careful squad selection and a certain amount of favoritism being inevitable.
Difficulty in general seems to be somewhat lower than the original, with the "Easy" difficulty in particular providing a solid level of insulation between newbie players and the Game Over screen. That said, the ramping up of difficulty as you progress is far from linear, with levels that are adjacent to each other in the timeline proving to be significantly different in challenge from each other. In general, an observant player who plays all the side missions and explores all the extra content will level up fast enough to keep things relatively manageable in terms of difficulty.
Levelling is achieved via a combination of experience and currency, both of which are earned through successful completion of missions. Players are able to deploy experience earned to level as they wish, with levels gained going to the entire class rather than just a selective member of that class. Individual characters do still earn improvements based on their statistics though, so if you continue to choose the same shocktrooper it will inevitably end up the more powerful member of that class.
You can also use currency earned through completion of missions (which, like experience, is meted out more generously the better you manage to defeat the scenario) to perform a number of services in your favour. Most obviously, you can use it to purchase upgrades to your equipment, improving your weapons, armour and vehicles. Typically there are also more upgrades available than you can afford, forcing you to be tactical as to how you deploy this limited resource. You can also use currency to purchase information in the form of newspapers and magazines from the store, with additional missions available for purchase as well. Exactly what you do with your money is up to you and a very important factor in how efficiently you progress through the game.
The story in VCII, while not outstanding, is still very compelling - thanks in no small part to the excellent cutscenes. Gallia, under attack by a despicable and powerful foe in the original game, has managed to repel the invading forces. Ignored now as war rages around the tiny nation, civil war erupts after the leader of the country reveals herself to be of foreign heritage - something the ultra nationalist resistance forces cannot tolerate. The player, then, is cast in the role of one Avan Hardins - a new recruit at Lanseal Military Academy. In search of his (apparently) dead war-hero brother, Avan must assemble a rag-tag crew of misfits into a polished military unit. It's hardly original but the characters are really well realised with compelling traits and very real evolution as the narrative develops.
The story is told through a combination of full, Anime-style animated sequences and less animated (but still full of character) manga panels. Players can trigger these sequences by exploring the world map's flashing yellow exclamation marks (optional) or by progressing the story by visiting the red exclamation marks (required). There's just the right amount of this stuff, which manages to remain interesting throughout the game and helps to imbue your little units with very real personalities - which in turn ensures you're that much more careful with them when putting them in harm's way on the battlefield.
The maps you play on are actually a combination of smaller maps, each of which can be transitioned between at will once the player takes control of a bridging camp. This weird mechanic is in no doubt related to the limitations of the platform, with something like 24MB of RAM of any real use to the developers (compared to the 512MB of system and video RAM on the PS3). This tight restriction is carried over into the game mechanics as well, with deployments capped to a total of 6 units at any one time, only 5 of which can be deployed on a section of the map. This change alone results in a significant difference in the feel of the gameplay, without ever really reducing the fun or complexity of the experience. You will need to think a bit more tactically as there's less room for error and less ability to swarm the enemy with overwhelming force.
Visually the in-game graphics have lost their cool "sketch" style overlay, again no doubt a reflection of the (significantly) reduced capability of the PSP. While it's a shame, it's also not as obvious as it might sound, thanks to the super low resolution of the screen - it's actually kind of hard to see that level of detail anyway. This is another area of concern - sometimes, even from the targeting (first-person) view, it can be hard to make out objectives. Even ones that are close to you. Separating a unit from the background can be a challenge even at medium range and pixelation often has you reaching for the non-existent zoom button.
That said, units move well and look cool, with the meta-game presentation, cutscenes and character portraits all oozing professional levels of polish. Valkyria Chronicles II very definitely has its own, well-realized style and everything within the game remains consistent with that distinctive visual style. It would be nice if there was more variety in the levels however, with the same map segments re-purposed several times throughout the experience.
Sound is always at least perfunctory, with occasional flair ensuring an above-average score in this department. Voices are good, if not universally present for all dialog, adding even more character to the already solid presentation.
If you are even remotely interested in tactical, turn-based RPGs and you have a PlayStation Portable, you simply need to buy this game. It's not perfect but nothing is, and what's here is - for the most part - incredibly good. It's fun to play, varied (if not always visually) and is stacked full of character. There's even multiplayer (co-operative and competitive) which you can enjoy with your friends (although unfortunately only locally) should you be lucky enough to know anyone nearby with the title [...or a PSP! - Ed]. It's very, very good and at 30-40 hours just to play through the single player version, it's well worth the price. Get into it, Valkyria Chronicles II is heartily NZGamer.com recommended.