We've been hearing it for years, that the PSP is dying, that it's too far behind the DS, blah, blah, blah. Every time I hear that statement, I take a quick gander at the upcoming release calendar and see that there always seems to be a great PSP exclusive on the horizon, ensuring that the fledging platform stays alive for another little while. The latest exclusive to give the platform a defibrillator shot to the chest is Sega's Valkryria Chronicles II, a sequel to the original PS3 exclusive.
The game takes place in the 1930's in the fictional continent of Europa. Two years have passed since Maximillian of the nation of Gallia was defeated in the first game. Since that time, a rebel force of scattered Gallians have launched a new civil war against other Gallians of Darcsen heritage. Since the armies were so devastated after the events of the first game, much of the defending has to be done using military cadets. This is where you come in.
You play as Avan, a spirited young soldier who comes to the military academy to find out what happened to his brother. Before long, you're told that he died on a top secret mission, and little else. The overarching plotline focuses on this aspect of the story.
As interesting as the story sounds, trust me, it's not. The game forces you to sit through lengthy dialogue exchanges that are painful to listen to, and could not be less relevant if Darth Vader himself came into the frame and started baking chocolate chip cookies for everyone. With all this potential for an involving story, it's a shame that the missions are bookended with plotlines like missing birds and other miscellaneous high school type storylines that would be more at home in an episode of Degrassi than in a serious military drama. It doesn't help that the cutscenes are also presented with static images that bounce around the screen, and voice acting so wooden I had to check to see if the UMD was made of balsa.
It's a shame that the storytelling is so weak, because the actual gameplay is engrossing and addictive. VCII utilizes a mixture of turn based and real time strategy for the battles. Essentially, the battles have you moving your troops around a battle field in real time, and committing a single action. These actions can be things like attacking, healing, repairing your vehicles, destroying or repairing environmental barriers, and more. You're given several classes of soldier to take with you on each mission, and mastering each of their strengths and weaknesses is key to success. You have your standard scouts, which utilize rifles and grenades and are one of the most accurate classes. Shocktroopers do far more damage with their machine guns, but have to be closer to have any sort of accuracy. Engineers allow you to repair vehicles, heal other units, but are rather weak in a fight. Finally, you have your lancers, which move incredibly slowly, but wield incredibly powerful rocket launchers and can disarm landmines. You also have access to a vehicle that you can customize for mobility or power.
Turns are handled in an interesting fashion. At the start of a turn, you're given a set amount of command points and see the battlefield from an overhead map view. Moving each soldier requires using one of your command points (vehicles require two command points). Once you've selected your soldier, the game shifts to a full 3D view of the battle field. At this time, you have to keep an eye on your action points meter at the bottom of the screen, which tells you how far your character can run in that action. At any time during this phase, you can commit a single action. When that soldier's turn is over, you're returned to the map screen to further plan your strategy. When you run out of command points your turn is over and the enemy begins their phase.
Keeping an eye on the environment is also essential. If you leave your soldiers out in the open at the end of your phase, they'll get shredded by enemy infantry. Positioning your soldiers in towers, behind sandbags, crouched in tall grass, or behind walls is imperative. When you do this, you're also able to protect your ground by auto-firing as the enemy moves across the battlefield. Further increasing the strategic slant, is the fact that you have to manage several battlefields at once. You can move from area to area by capturing enemy camps, which give you a new hub from which to send and retreat wounded soldiers. These camps also serve as hubs from field to field, so maintaining control of these points is usually indispensable strategy.
Further complicating the environmental angle are hazards and characteristics like night time, mist, and landmines. You can equip items on your vehicle to offset these characteristics, but usually at the expense of power or mobility.
When not in missions, you're given the academy as a hub. From here, you can pick up on those wonderful story threads, unlock new missions, and most importantly, upgrade your squad. By winning battles decisively, you gain more money and experience. Money allows you to upgrade your squad's weapons and armour, get new parts for your vehicle, and buy new missions. Thankfully, experience and equipment is spread around classes and not specific troops, so you don't have to worry about using one particular soldier more than another to ensure equality across your ranks.
In the hub you can also customize squads for specific types of missions, but I personally found it much more efficient to simply set up a squad for each mission.
There's also a full multiplayer suite for both co-op and versus modes. The co-op introduces a few wrinkles to the formula such as covering fire, sharing command points, and running together to boost your action points and cover objectives quicker. If you find a buddy with a copy of the game and a like minded penchant for strategy, you can really tear these missions up. Versus is exactly as it sounds: i.e. you put your best squad up against your friend's best squad, may the best strategic mind win.
Despite the awful voice acting and poor storytelling, the presentation for the game is phenomenal. The anime cutscenes are beautifully animated, and the game has a beautiful water colour aesthetic to it that really makes it pop off the PSP's screen. Everything in the battles is exquisitely rendered and detailed, and the frame rate stays high throughout. The game is also filled with lots of little touches that accentuate the effort on the part of the graphical team. From the comic-styled "bang" or "rattatata" coming out of the guns, to the little tanks and people walking around the hub, VCII is simply a beautiful game, easily one of the best looking strategy games on Sony's venerable handheld.
If you can get past some significant pacing issues and a storyline that squanders its potential, you'll have a blast playing around with the deep strategy and addictive mechanics of this little gem. It's almost as if the developers created this amazing battle system, but had no faith in the product so felt the need to avoid letting the player in as much as possible. While it won't be long before you find yourself mashing the X button to skip all the lame cutscenes, the battles will have your eyeballs glued to the screen.