'Valkyria Chronicles II': Constructing Classmates That You'd Take a Bullet For

Think of it as Persona meets Mass Effect 2 set in an alternate history World War II's European theater. With magic powered tanks.

Valkyria Chronicles II

Publisher: SEGA
Rated: T
Players: 1-2
Price: $39.99
Platforms: Playstation Portable
Developer: SEGA
Release date: 2010-08-31

I am still playing Valkyria Chronicles II, which if by no other measure might mark the success of the game in terms of form matching audience. Valkyria Chronicles II was clearly designed for the commuting student. I can usually finish exactly one mission in the time that it takes to ride the bus to my campus, and with dozens of missions segmented over multiple chapters and countless character vignettes and cutscenes breadcrumbed over a year-long story, the game is clearly meant to be savored slowly.

While I've tried to play as consistently and quickly as possible for the sake of this review, I feel it necessary to be honest that I'm not finished with it. While this might factor into my assessment of the storyline, I don't believe it should bear heavily on the rest of this review, including my final score. You can expect me to revisit the title in coming weeks over at the Moving Pixels blog, but for now, let's not talk about story so much as story structure, which is arguably more important. As I said, the game is very much an ongoing and database-like experience.

Valkyria Chronicles II follows two years after the original game on the PS3. Likely to hedge losses after lackluster sales of its first outing, the series has moved to the PSP, where it was recently announced that the third game will be headed as well. As mentioned, it actually suits its platform in a way that I found refreshingly thoughtful. This is the console that emblematizes the Japanese teenager this generation; the decision to situate the narrative from the perspectives of a college-aged collection of draftees to the perspectives of students at a teenage military academy allows the game design to follow a classic and accessible formula, while fulfilling the promise of "emotional engagement" that's been with the series from the start.

Sure, it's perhaps frustratingly predictable that, of course, a military academy as conceptualized in a J-RPG should resemble a Japanese preparatory high school. As I mentioned, though, it really works. Whereas in the first game, where only the squad leader and his officers were really fleshed-out and given screen time, here there is no member of your class without several vignettes and a personal mission of his own. Think of it as Persona meets Mass Effect 2 set in an alternate history World War II's European theater. With magic-powered tanks.

What I like best about the classmate vignettes is how they fail to objectify the characters. In Persona, you hang out with people because there are ranks and battle stats riding on the line. Here, they just exist. You trigger new scenes by using a squad member in battle, and there are no right or wrong choices. (Instead there are just no choices at all, but I digress). What it builds, far better than the Persona series manages to accomplish, is a sense of nakama.

Nakama means a team of close coworkers or a professional cohort, people who are not quite your friends but are more than incidental acquaintances. You become bonded with your nakama because of the team spirit that you share. We see this used a lot in Japanese narrative, which values the nakama as a noble, platonic bond -- crews who will see each other through thick and thin, like in Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai or even the likes of something such as Sailor Moon. Virtually every J-RPG that you could name plays upon this ideal; it's actually the Japanese word employed for "party."

The term also has parallels in the platoon system and the academic cohort, of course, making Valkyria Chronicles II's blending of the two all too appropriate. It also makes these little scenes among your classmates, which are freer and lighter in tone than much of the first game, absolutely precious. While there are few characters that I can actually say that I love so far, there are a great deal that I've warmed to just by catching them in these more naturalistic moments.

Gameplay-wise, the system is only modestly altered from the PS3 original. Combat is turn-based tactical RPG fare, but being set in a fantasy analogue of World War 2, all but one of the classes are projectile-based combatants. Targeting and cover systems are easy to pick up, even with the PSP controls, making the series a great gateway if you're into RPGs and want to get into genres where you shoot people.

The one melee class is the armored tech, who fights with wrenches and disables landmines. They also carry enormous full body shields, making them the only appropriately dressed unit in the game. All the same, I am over halfway through the game, and I still haven't found a use for them except as stubborn base defenders. For their properties in clearing road hazards, they seem pointless. Admittedly, I have never, ever disabled a mine in this game. It could be that I'm not thinking creatively enough, but I always enjoyed landmines for their properties in launching my characters forward across maps with a minimal hit to their health, seeing as they don't actually do much damage. On the other hand, each of the basic classes (scout, shocktrooper, anti-armor lancers, engineers, and armored techs) segment into multiple tiers of prestige classes with the armored techs becoming powerful fencers, lancers becoming anti-personnel mortarers, scouts becoming snipers, and so on. This can help you really diversify and personalize each member of your squad, but on the other hand, you can only promote a squadmate to a prestige class after they've earned the required commendations in battle, making this more tedious than it's worth in many cases. So while the promise of creating swordsmen (and ladies) should make me want to use those damn armored techs somehow, putting up with the tedium of actually winning a battle with them just to evolve further classes of melee units? I just can't understand why Sega thought anyone would want to bring a knife to a gunfight, even if they do have a riot shield.

As for the visuals: early fears that the reduced graphics engine would turn the battle maps into a Superman 64 style of green pea soup were mostly allayed once the game was actually shown in play. Perhaps I'm the lone PS3 owner who didn't find the CANVAS engine all that interesting. The difference to me, while noticeable, bears very little on my play experience.

Although there are moments when the pop-up is annoying (surprise tanks are never a nice thing first thing in the morning), usually it doesn't turn into an issue. On that matter, pop-up aside, area effects for reduced visibility are if anything a positive continuation from the game's predecessor, and they make sense narratively, instead of acting as a bandaid fix on every map. The major graphical load is broken down by splitting maps into multiple, more manageable areas accessed by camps, resulting in a lot of leapfrogging of units and segmenting your idea of the battlefield. This becomes incredibly fun and a little rule breaking when you do it and rage inducingly frustrating when the enemy does it.

While there are definitely some balance issues with a few of the missions, overall, Valkyria Chronicles II thrives on being a database of vignettes and casual play, while still affording a great deal of strategy and characterization. I hesitate to rate this game without a comprehensive evaluation of the narrative, but as I observed, its story structure through which the body of the game emerges is definitely rateable. Although I find its subject matter significant to talk about as well, there comes a point where its story is divorced from its mission-based model of progression. Most maps get endlessly recycled with a few randomized obstacles and enemies, and their narrative purpose is a perfunctory paragraph at best. So, in the end, although the game clearly has the same grandiose aspirations of the original, this is really more a game to take with you on the bus.







Buridan's Ass and the Problem of Free Will in John Sturges' 'The Great Escape'

Escape in John Sturge's The Great Escape is a tactical mission, a way to remain in the war despite having been taken out of it. Free Will is complicated.


The Redemption of Elton John's 'Blue Moves'

Once reviled as bloated and pretentious, Elton John's 1976 album Blue Moves, is one of his masterpieces, argues author Matthew Restall in the latest installment of the 33 1/3 series.


Whitney Take a Master Class on 'Candid'

Although covers albums are usually signs of trouble, Whitney's Candid is a surprisingly inspired release, with a song selection that's eclectic and often obscure.


King Buzzo Continues His Reign with 'Gift of Sacrifice'

King Buzzo's collaboration with Mr. Bungle/Fantômas bassist Trevor Dunn expands the sound of Buzz Osborne's solo oeuvre on Gift of Sacrifice.


Jim O'Rourke's Experimental 'Shutting Down Here' Is Big on Technique

Jim O'Rourke's Shutting Down Here is a fine piece of experimental music with a sure hand leading the way. But it's not pushing this music forward with the same propensity as Luc Ferrari or Derek Bailey.


Laraaji Returns to His First Instrument for 'Sun Piano'

The ability to help the listener achieve a certain elevation is something Laraaji can do, at least to some degree, no matter the instrument.


Kristin Hersh Discusses Her Gutsy New Throwing Muses Album

Kristin Hersh thinks influences are a crutch, and chops are a barrier between artists and their truest expressions. We talk about life, music, the pandemic, dissociation, and the energy that courses not from her but through her when she's at her best.


The 10 Best Fleetwood Mac Solo Albums

Fleetwood Mac are the rare group that feature both a fine discography and a successful series of solo LPs from their many members. Here are ten examples of the latter.


Jamila Woods' "SULA (Paperback)" and Creative Ancestry and Self-Love in the Age of "List" Activism

In Jamila Woods' latest single "SULA (Paperback)", Toni Morrison and her 1973 novel of the same name are not static literary phenomena. They are an artist and artwork as galvanizing and alive as Woods herself.


The Erotic Disruption of the Self in Paul Schrader's 'The Comfort of Strangers'

Paul Schrader's The Comfort of Strangers presents the discomfiting encounter with another —someone like you—and yet entirely unlike you, mysterious to you, unknown and unknowable.


'Can You Spell Urusei Yatsura' Is a Much Needed Burst of Hopefulness in a Desultory Summer

A new compilation online pulls together a generous helping of B-side action from a band deserving of remembrance, Scotland's Urusei Yatsura.


Jess Cornelius Creates Tautly Constructed Snapshots of Life

Former Teeth & Tongue singer-songwriter Jess Cornelius' Distance is an enrapturing collection of punchy garage-rock, delicate folk, and arty synthpop anthems which examine liminal spaces between us.


Sikoryak's 'Constitution Illustrated' Pays Homage to Comics and the Constitution

R. Sikoryak's satirical pairings of comics characters with famous and infamous American historical figures breathes new and sometimes uncomfortable life into the United States' most living document.


South African Folk Master Vusi Mahlasela Honors Home on 'Shebeen Queen'

South African folk master Vusi Mahlasela pays tribute to his home and family with township music on live album, Shebeen Queen.


Planningtorock Is Queering Sound, Challenging Binaries, and Making Infectious Dance Music

Planningtorock emphasizes "queering sound and vision". The music industry has its hierarchies of style, of equipment, of identities. For Jam Rostron, queering music means taking those conventions and deliberately manipulating and subverting them.


'History Gets Ahead of the Story' for Jazz's Cosgrove, Medeski, and Lederer

Jazz drummer Jeff Cosgrove leads brilliant organ player John Medeski and multi-reed master Jeff Lederer through a revelatory recording of songs by William Parker and some just-as-good originals.


A Fresh Look at Free Will and Determinism in Terry Gilliam's '12 Monkeys'

Susanne Kord gets to the heart of the philosophical issues in Terry Gilliam's 1995 time-travel dystopia, 12 Monkeys.


The Devonns' Debut Is a Love Letter to Chicago Soul

Chicago's the Devonns pay tribute the soul heritage of their city with enough personality to not sound just like a replica.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.