Reviews

'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
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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.

6


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