Grids, menus and stats; not the most exhilarating things in the world are they? Still, throw them all together with a suitable anime aesthetic and appropriate rags-to-riches narrative, and the resulting blend can be thoroughly engrossing. The trouble is, however, this is the exact formula the SRPG genre has used for years. It's always the same. You move your rag tag army about a grid, issuing commands which they'll execute based on some dice-rolling going on behind the scenes. Back in 2007, Valkyria Chronicles broke that mould. It was exactly the kind of innovation the SRPG needed, and reignited interest in a genre that was starting to get stale. The game was released to critical applause, and following an anime, its own Manga and incessant babble from people like me who couldn't shut up about how good it was, a sequel was always inevitable.
Taking place two years after the original, in the January of 1937, Valkyria Chronicles II follows a class of cadets during the midst of the Gallian Civil War. Set in and around the grounds of Lanseal Academy, players take control of the comically useless Class G, who turn up late to lessons, fall asleep at their desks and continually embarrass their teachers. This year's ambitious young lieutenant (or Class Chair) is Avan Harkins - an overly peppy youth who enlists at Lanseal to investigate the death of his brother, Leon. While likeable enough, Avan doesn't possess the same naive charm as VC1's Welkin, but he remains an appropriate vessel to carry the action nonetheless.
For the aspiring general, Lanseal Academy is more of a holiday complex than a school; the perfect place to research new weapons, train at the drill grounds or simply ponder over future strategies. In between missions players can select different parts of the Academy to explore, where members of Class G are always loitering about, ready to further the narrative. The story is conveyed through static but well-drawn 2D cutscenes, where Avan and his chums will converse in comic book speech bubbles. It works well with the game's gorgeous watercolour visuals, and saves the PSP from too much technological labour.
Despite the fact it's little more than a glorified map screen, Lanseal Academy is brimming with atmosphere and personality. The story arcs hiding beneath its beautiful architecture are quite different to those of the first game, however. Given the youthful and woefully carefree ensemble of cadets advancing the plot, Valkyria Chronicles II lacks the importance and urgency that underpinned the first game. The storytelling centres around school yard crushes, bullying and class rivalry, themes that many gamers might associate with the Persona series. For fans of the first game who particularly liked the WW2 theme and adult character development, this might seem a little immature in comparison.
That said, the action on the battlefield remains as sophisticated as ever, with layer upon layer of tactical opportunity wrapped around the series' genre-breaking approach to combat. Before jumping into battle players are free to choose which six characters they'd like to send into the skirmish, and where they should be deployed. Characters fall into one of five classes, four of which make a return from the first game. Scouts can cover the most ground of the four classes, and have a keen eye for spotting hidden enemies. Shock Troopers are your frontline fighters, equipped with machine guns for improved firepower. Lancers are well-equipped to take down tanks, and Engineers can be used to heal allies and repair tanks. Finally, the new class to the series are Armoured Soldiers, who carry huge shields that can deflect machine gun fire. While they don't carry a weapon themselves, they also have the helpful ability to disarm mines.
Fans of the original might be distressed by the absence of the Sniper, but fear not - it's still in the game as a sub branch of the Scout class. Through gaining experience and merits, players can direct a character's training through a branching class tree. Each class might feature six or so sub-classes, giving a range of different alternatives to defining your squad. On top of this, Valkyria Chronicles II includes much more comprehensive customisation features, especially when it comes to vehicles. Like its predecessor, VCII gives players a tank to roll into battle (you can name it too - mine's called Thor), and this time it can be tailored to such an extent that you can strip it down to a simple armoured car, or turn in it into a hulking steel behemoth capable of destroying entire towns.