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.
The start of each round presents players with an overview of the area. Enemies are denoted by red symbols (matching their class type), whilst allies are shown in blue. Selecting a character will prompt the camera to zoom down onto the battlefield, where it'll proceed to hang over that particular person's shoulder. From here, players can directly control that character, moving them about the 3D environment as they see fit. They can only move a certain distance, however, and once their movement gauge has been depleted, players will be forced to execute an action, or end their turn. Based on how many command points you have (a resource that determines how many moves you can make on your round), you could choose to move the same troop again, but his movement will be restricted due to fatigue.
The scope for strategy is increased tenfold by the host of new features this sequel brings to the table. While it plays out very similarly to the first game, the master tactician will revel in the new battle plans they can implement. Perhaps the biggest change is that captured enemy bases can now be used as waypoints between two areas. Some maps might consist of two or three different areas, but these can only be accessed once the enemy base associated with it is captured. Also, if your own base is captured, it's game over - so an awareness of your surroundings and a solid defence is crucial for victory.
Despite the overall improvements to battle, a lack of mission variety manages to hold Valkyria Chronicles II back from greatness. You'll find yourself playing the same maps multiple times before things start to get interesting, and nine times out of ten the mission will simply be to capture the enemy's base camp. The first game did a fantastic job of marrying narrative with gameplay, which made each mission unique and different. VCII mostly takes place in and around Lanseal, and the variety of gameplay and mission structures feels limited.
The jump from PS3 to PSP brings with it a range of ad-hoc multiplayer options, allowing players to team up co-operatively to take down the enemy, or exchange bullets with each other for a more competitive experience. As with other PSP games of this nature (Monster Hunter, Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker), these features will go largely wasted on the Western audience, but for those with a like-minded bunch of friends (and those that live in Japan), the inclusion of multiplayer can only be considered a good thing.
The PSP is a great platform for the SRPG genre, with games such as Final Fantasy: War of the Lions and the Disgaea series being shining examples. Valkyria Chronicles II is - dare I say it - the best of the bunch, and a truly fantastic PSP game in its own right. The multiplayer features might be wasted over here in the UK, but the plethora of other improvements and new features are more than enough to compensate. Those who have played the original won't need me to justify dropping the cash on it, but for those that haven't and are looking for a stylish, intellectually stimulating strategy game, Valkyria Chronicles II won't disappoint.