'Valkyria Chronicles II'

Giving an underrated game a sequel on different system would normally be a death sentence but Sega has handled the transition from console to portable superbly with "Valkyria Chronicles II," proving that bringing the series to a mobile platform was a great choice. The World War-style third-person shooter/SRPG battles work well on the PSP because of the simple fact that the system can be put to sleep and taken with you -- a big plus for a game that can range between 30 and more 100 hours.

The first "Valkyria Chronicles" game graced the PS3 with beautiful animated watercolor cutscenes, an interesting war storyline, and one heck of a battle system. Its sequel continues the tradition of the first game with some tweaks, both good and bad.

The story starts off light, but eventually intermingles more serious politics and war plots with the zany classroom interactions of your battalion of students. Two years after the first game's defeat of the Imperial Army, the Gallian Revolutionary Army begins a civil war and ethnic cleansing campaign against the dark-haired Darcsen race. Their demands are for the nation's leader, who revealed herself to be of Darcsen descent and not of the hailed-as-gods Valkyrur race, to step down, although she refuses and violence ensues.

At the same time, 17-year-old Avan joins the Lanseal Military Academy to uncover the classified reason for his enlisted brother's death, and ends up leading the horrendous misfit of a class called Squad G. Be warned, however, though this plot sounds mature this is actually a Japanese classroom-based RPG, and that fact alone may be a deal-breaker for many.

Story points and character development are revealed between battles, as you point around a campus map to activate scenes that play out as static character illustrations and dialog boxes. The art sometimes moves around the screen to imply a character's actions; for example, Avan's illustration box moves next to another character's if he's supposed to be shoving the person, adding bits of personality to these barely animated scenes. What will annoy you, however, is that each time a character's dialog comes up they spew a canned voiced one-liner that often has nothing to do with what they're saying. You'll want to mute your PSP if you watch several scenes in a row, especially when Avan does his goofy laugh over and over again and then exclaims, "I'll do it!" even if it's not appropriate. Thankfully, the plot-based dialog scenes are fully voiced and the actors did a great job of making it sound natural. Occasionally you'll see a fully animated cutscene, and these are absolutely gorgeous.

What most shines in "Valkyria Chronicles II" is the battle system. Like its predecessor, you begin by choosing which characters to deploy within your allocated number of slots and control each unit by moving them around in third person until their endurance runs out. The player and the enemy teams are given Command Points (CP) that indicate how many moves they can make within each turn. Each foot soldier can move and take one attack action per CP, while tanks use two, and although enemy units in range will automatically attack as you run by, your aiming takes place in a turn-based mode that pauses their fire.

While building on an already great battle system, "Valkyria Chronicles II" includes some well-implemented additions. Your squad leader and main protagonist of the game, Avan, can be any class he chooses, changing from battle to battle if you so desire. All units can upgrade their class, provided they personally have attained certain items in battle, through a tiered system that increases the character's class stats and varying the character's weapons. These items are given as post-battle rewards to the two units who performed the most admirably. Class upgrades include a "veteran" and "elite" version of the class as well as new subclasses; shocktroopers can become gunners with a wide spread of heavy fire, while scouts can become snipers and lancers can become mortarers.

A new class has been added to this sequel as well. The technician class uses a heavy-hitting melee weapon and a powerful shield. They move slowly and have little endurance, but pack a punch and can take a lot of punishment. They've also taken the ability to disarm mines, which were the job of the engineer in the previous game. Engineers are now mainly used for vehicle repairs and as a high-level medic.

Another addition is the ability to level your classes up to 25 instead of the previous game's 15. Of course, as you gain experience, you will also need to upgrade your weapons. Instead of stocking a gun for each character who needs it, once a weapon is purchased all units within a class can equip it at the same time. Better yet, prices drop at the Research & Development (R&D) department as you progress through the game, making it easier to become more powerful.

Missions are the meat of the game, and they range from capturing enemy bases and eliminating a specific unit, to defending your camp for a predetermined amount of turns - and there are many, many missions. Aside from the required ones there are "free missions" which don't advance the story, missions that can be purchased with in-game money, and DLC missions. This is a game you can choose to rush through with minimal character interaction and side missions or spend months on during your first playthrough doing everything.

Most missions will involve your tank or the newly added Armored Personnel Carrier (APC), which you have the option of switching between. The APC has the advantage of being able to travel farther and transport soldiers, though if destroyed anyone still inside will be killed. Some missions will have you escort an APC to a destination. For night levels, the battle may be made easier by a purchasable lamp accessory for the tank. Other tank upgrades include boosts to your Gatling gun, mortar, or anti-tank canon, a flamethrower, stickers that give stat boosts, vehicle paint that affects the enemy (like night cammo to lower the enemy's accuracy), and even a bridge arm, which lets you repair a broken bridge and create a shortcut.

A new multi-map system has also been implemented, and it works pretty well. Its inclusion means having multiple areas for your troops to deploy, oftentimes being split up from each other. Bases now take more thought to capture because of new "gateway camps" -- camps at the end of an area that lead to the next map. You'll have to make your way to the enemy's gateway camp and capture it before moving on to the next area, where your mission's goal usually lies. This is even more useful when playing ad-hoc co-op, as you can have two to three of your friends deploy in other areas and flank the enemy.

"Valkyria Chronicles II" is a great game with movement that feels natural on the PSP, though sneaking up on someone can be tricky the analog stick allows no way to walk more softly. But despite the classroom antics, repetitive voice clips and too few animated cutscenes and fully voiced dialog, the game's battle system makes it a must-buy for both players who are new to the series and fans. The game stands on its own, with a mostly self-contained story and light references to events from the first game that are often explained. With satisfying strategic battles, a multitude of characters each with their own personalities, and constant challenges, "Valkyria Chronicles II" will give you plenty of enjoyable gameplay for your buck, and keep your eyes glued to the screen as you win the war.

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Video Games: 'Valkyria Chronicles II'

Article: Copyright © Tribune Media Services