A Minimized Masterpiece
I don't think the PSP gets a fair shake. Between the poor decisions from the top brass over iteration after iteration of the hardware, constantly having to fight against piracy with seemingly useless firmware updates, having an arguably useless physical medium and a sort of "second class citizen" status on PSN, the little portable has a terrible stigma that can cause the uneducated to simply look past it. However, there have always been a slew of excellent games made for the little black handheld that could, and it looks as if the 2010 fall line up will be nothing short of amazing. So when It was announced last year that my favorite PS3 game of all time was going to the PSP, I thought it was a death sentence for the series. It took everything that games media had to get the Valkyria name into people's minds and spur the resurgence of sales that pushed the game into the top ten almost 9 months after it's release. I was extremely worried that quality would take a hit, the visual style and complexity of combat taking a back seat in order to fit all they had to give onto the sub 2 gig UMD format. I took it as a death rattle for the closest thing we will ever get to "Skies of Arcadia 2".
And now, having played through the game, I have never been more happy to be wrong. Valkryia Chronicles 2 is a shining example of how to do it right.
If you've ever played Valkyria Chronicles 1 on the PS3, you know what to expect. The game plays nearly identically, the user selecting members of their platoon to form a squad, entering missions which require different skills held by different members, strategically chosing where to place each member using the map system and moving them to their destinations or engage in combat in real-time. What I hadn't expected was the increase in complexity surrounding unit classes. It's now possible to change any character to any unit type you desire, which makes the post game quite fun (though for the story mode doesn't have much use). However, each unit now has a talent tree which requires credentials and resources to unlock secondary jobs like sniper, fencer or mauler. It's a huge game changer that really keeps you from gaming the system. In VC1, I found myself using only people who gave turn bonuses; there often being one of each class, which allowed you to move across the field very quickly seeing as how each class can act as a sort of everyman (each class has 4 or 5 responsibilities they can cover, and using 3 of them in tandem can cut a swath through the enemy in no time). In VC2, you have to be much more liberal about swapping out people who aren't needed, or abandoning fields that you've already cleared. The level of strategy is far higher than it was in the previous game and it always keeps you on your toes. It never feels cheap, and there are times where you have to experiment when some of the more advanced enemy units start to appear, but it only adds to the experience. It all feels very very tight and plays very very well.
The mission system has been vastly overhauled as well. One of VC1's core problems was that, even in hard mode, you only had about 18-20 missions to choose from (more so with DLC) and they were always the same. It wouldn't be long until completing each one was turned into a point by point formula. In VC2, though there are only a handful of map types, each type has 5 or 6 submaps which all connect together. In the story mode, each mission will take a certain amount of sub-maps and link them together using the base flags. Enemy type, location and strength seem to be either randomly or procedurally generated, allowing for a different experience each time. You can go back at any point and play through older missions (which you will in order to mine for materials or accolades) but it never feels boring (at points it can feel easy though).
The game isn't perfect though. One of the great selling points of VC1 was the depth in each character. Each person had their good points and bad, be it cowardice, arrogance, racism, classism, sexism; it made everyone feel very unique and allowed you to connect emotionally very early on. In VC2 however, all the characters are very 2 dimensional, taking notes from the Valkyria Chronicles anime rather than the game (somehow, the attitudes for each character between the anime and game are completely different). It doesn't hurt the gameplay and not everyone is terrible, but I was quite shocked coming from VC1 where I loved almost every character, to not caring about any of the principal characters in VC2. Cameos from VC1 do show up here and there and it made me smile quite wide, but they are few and far between (until post game, where you can play as a handful of the old core squad). There's a lot to gain from having the user love the characters they're meant to love and hate the characters they're meant to hate. VC1 preformed this task flawlessly. VC2 does not, it has a lot of trouble making you care about any of those involved. Considering the story is much longer and has many branching options that VC1 did not, It can be a real problem if you're looking for that same level of storytelling.
Load times, at times, can also be a slight issue. following in traditional japanese RPG style gameplay, cut scene segments will be scrolling text with the occasional exclamatory sound clip accompanying. However the game seems to have trouble locating these sound clips off the UMD, causing awkward 5 to 10 second pauses in dialogue. Even with the optional install feature this still occurs. This is definitely a game that I would buy from PSN opposed to in stores as that would undoubtably solve the problem. The important thing is, it doesn't hinder the gameplay. Switching between sub-maps, characters, view points and weapon styles is flawless and effortless, it's only the window dressing that suffers a few hiccups here and there.
The worst parts of VC2, having now "finished" my copy (there is an EXTENSIVE post game mode as well as a free mission mode, co-op and competitive multiplayer, though it is ad-hoc only, and I am still well emersed in the gameplay) never seem like deal breakers. There are a few interesting menu decisions that make you wonder why they were put there, or if they could have been streamlined, but it's never awful. Each menu is very clean and allows you to get from place to place and do everything you need to quickly and efficiently.
As I stated at the beginning of this review, when I saw the footage of VC2 last year, I was worried that we were going to get something subpar, something inferior to the beautiful game we received on the PS3. I am thrilled to report that this is not the case. Valkyria Chronicles 2 is an absolutely fantastic game and is currently very high on my GOTY 2010 list. If you have a PSP, you owe it to yourself to buy this game, especially if you were like me and had to dust the system off after not using it for so long. It a fine example of what a game should be. Deep, complex, ever-changing and always interesting. It's a shame the plot isn't as strong as the previous game's but that doesn't make playing through the game any less of a wonderful experience.
I've often said that as much as I want a Jet Set Radio sequel, I didn't want Sega to do it because of their auspicious track record. Games like Valkyria Chronicles 2 give me hope and remind me that there are people in the house of Sonic that remember how to make truly excellent works of entertainment.
5 stars. It is truly excellent.