With the release date of Valkyria Chronicles 3 for PSP less than two weeks away, I figure this is the perfect time (by my usual standard of procrastination) for me to write up my thoughts on VC2, a game which I had only recently completed.
In my defence, I only got to play the original VC three months ago after finally caving and buying a secondhand PS3. Also, Valkyria Chronicles 2 is the most amazing game ever created for the PSP and everyone with two opposable thumbs should play it.
The original Valkyria Chronicles is in my opinion the game that made good my PS3 purchase. This was completely unexpected because I bought the console primarily for FFXIII, which I threw into the rubbish chute after 10 hours, and VC is pretty much obscure and under the radar for most people.
I found the art style absolutely amazing and the combat system pure genius. This makes sense because the game was developed by the part of Sega WOW formerly known as Overworks who were responsible for fan-favourite Sakura Taisen series, so they really know what they are doing. (Incidentally, I learnt how to play Koi Koi not because of Summer Wars but because of the mini-game in Sakura Taisen…)
The first VC stood out in two aspects. The first is a cel-shaded 3D graphics engine that I think outclassed all previous attempts to simulate manga-style art with 3D models. The second is the hybrid combat system evolved from a combination of third-person shooters and classic turn-based tactical RPGs like Front Mission and Sakura Taisen.
Unfortunately, only the latter survived the sequel’s transition to the PSP, obviously due to technical limitations. In VC2, character portraits and cut scenes are sadly all standard drawn CGs. The battle system is also tweaked to accommodate smaller and close-quarter level designs involving fewer soldiers, but I won’t say that the game has become worse than the original — merely different.
The VC series employs a pretty unique combat system. Basically instead of moving units in a grid like in traditional tactical RPGs, you have a limited number of moves every turn with which you can take direct control of individual soldiers in a third-person view. The enemies will lay suppressing fire on your units but are otherwise immobile during your turn. Moving your troops across the battlefield while dodging enemy fire is hence a far more active and engaging process than in traditional turn-based strategy. This works out incredibly well and the gameplay is very addictive.
Your units can only move a set distance and carry out one action (e.g. attack) each time you select them, so you have to think of how to maximize your limited actions per turn while killing enemies and achieving objectives such as capturing points.
So for example, you can start your turn with a Scout rush by using its high movement range to storm the enemy’s command point and capture it. Then you spend your next move calling in a Gunner using the captured point to obliterate multiple enemies surrounding you. This is a more efficient use of moves than trying to use the Scout’s feeble peashooter to kill the enemies one by one or taking multiple moves to bring the slow-moving Gunner over to the enemy base.
Similarly, if there’s a tank in front of a command point, it is usually more efficient to capture the point by running pass the tank with a Scout or Shocktrooper and then calling in a Lancer (anti-tank infantry) to attack the tank’s weak spot from behind, than to slowly chip away its armour from the well-protected front.
There are many ways to reduce the number of moves you need to achieve the same result and pulling off a perfect combo gives you a warm and fuzzy feeling inside. That sense of satisfaction is the essence of this game. The battle system creates natural synergies you can exploit simply by thinking tactically and does not rely on hard combos that have to be memorized. It’s like poetry. You can watch it in action in this VC3 promo video.
With enough min-maxing, it is sometimes possible to win a mission by capturing all the command points within one turn even though the mission’s limit for S Rank is five turns.
One huge mechanics change in the shift from VC to VC2 is the class system. VC employs a very bare-bone system with 5 basic classes (Scout, Sniper, Engineer, Shocktrooper, Lancer) and an elite version of each class that slightly modifies the gameplay (e.g. Shocktroopers get flamethrowers).
In VC2, the 5 classes basic classes (Scout, Shocktrooper, Lancer, Engineer, Armour Technician) can each be further upgraded into 2 veteren classes (veteran versions of every class, plus Sniper, Gunner, Mortarer, Musician, Swordsman) which in turn can each be upgraded into 2 elite classes (e.g. Anti-Tank Sniper, Heavy Gunner, Medic, Explosive Swordsman) making a grand total of 20 elite classes to play with.
Of course upgrading involves a hell lot of grinding for a variety of random drops (or “credits” since the game setting is a school) that differ for each class… But it’s actually not that hard to get everyone to elite by the end of the game if you diligently play though every mission. You don’t really have to grind (i.e. replay missions).
According to the saved file, I logged 64 hours into VC2, excluding the few dozen reloads it took to perfect some non-repeatable story missions. In 64 hours, I managed to complete all the missions at S Rank (mostly in one playthrough), excluding character-specific missions belonging to characters I don’t use in my main squad, and upgraded all my squad members to elites (with at least one unit of every elite class).
There is a lot more replayability in VC2 compared to the first game. Some of it is grindy, but generally it is thoroughly enjoyable.
If you play through VC, there’s a part during the tutorial where the game proudly informs you that there is no need to grind levels with individual units because all units of the same class share the same class level. You merely have to collect generic EXP to upgrade entire classes. What a thoughtful system, you think to yourself…
In VC2, generic EXP and class levels still exist, but elite status is no longer linked to levels. Instead you have to fulfil specific credit requirements for individual units and manually upgrade them one-by-one to elites. This renders the class-level system completely redundant as anything but a linear stat boost. Sigh…
Credits are granted only to units that perform well in missions and each mission grants a specific category of credits (out of four; e.g. Attack credits, Support credits) and each category contains four different grades (e.g. Attack, Attack II, Attack X, Attack II X).
These credits are granted somewhat randomly, so you can imagine the frustration when you only need one single Attack II to upgrade your Veteran Scout but the mission keeps giving him Attack II X and wasting Attack II on a Shocktrooper that doesn’t need it.
Also, the original VC was fully voiced throughout but VC2 has voice-overs only for select scenes. This is a rather huge annoyance in my opinion because partial voice-over is lame and reminiscence of the Nintendo DS.
And I can’t help but feel sad that the awesome cel-shaded engine Sega made for VC is going to waste now that VC has permanently abandoned the PS3 for the PSP…
Gameplay balance is also not that great. It’s not so bad if you play against another human player, but certain strategies such as Scout rush are powerful to the point of being broken against the retarded computer AI.
The mission-ranking system determines rank by the number of turns taken. This mandates an offensive play-style going for fast efficient wins, which is further disincentive against using support classes such as Engineer/Musician and slow-moving classes such as Armour Tech in most situations, making the Scout even more overpowered.
Of course, getting S Rank using other classes is perfectly doable and there are very few cases where a Scout rush is absolutely essential. But it often makes things too easy.
The weapon/tank upgrade and research options are a huge step up from the original.
In the original game, the upgrades are largely linear stat boosts that, while helpful for progression, do not alter the style of gameplay with few exceptions. The “elite” gimmicky weapons that named NPCs drop are largely useless compared to your default stat boosters. Your tank stays in the base for most fights because it is costly to move and there are very few cases where it is necessary, or even more convenient, to use it.
In VC2, your tank can be customized for a large variety of purposes, from heavy-armour tank that costs multiple movement points to use and can deal massive damage to enemy bosses to low-cast light-armour personnel carriers that can rapidly transport your troops right to the enemy command point while building bridges and clearing obstacles. This makes the tank useful in nearly every mission.
Similarly, there are numerous weapon sidegrades and special enemy drops that are actually vastly superior to your default upgrades and it actually makes sense to keep an eye out for them.
VC2 also does a much better job of developing side characters. In the original game, each of your squad members supposedly has a unique personality and back story, but none of it is covered in the game itself. You only get to infer them from the one-line voice-overs and the in-game encyclopaedia.
In VC2, there is a series of cut scenes and a character-specific mission for every squad member. Sure, the back stories are all cliché-fests, but it’s still nice to have them at all. That said, some of the original VC supporting characters such as Edy are strangely popular with the fans despite having zero presence in the game’s story…
There’s also a decent multiplayer option now that lets you play ad-hoc wireless co-op and versus games with your friends. It’s hard to describe how co-op works, but it is quite fun. Versus mode can be slightly broken if the two players are at very different tech levels in their respective games, but it’s still possible for the disadvantaged player to win if he plays his classes right.
I think Sega has found itself an incredible game franchise in Valkyria Chronicles and there’s a lot of innovation going on in the two games published so far. Unfortunately, the games do not seem to be doing very well commercially and the move to the PSP, a dead platform in North America, certainly does not help.
VC2 is a very fun game, but it is also flawed. Most of its flaws can be attributed to either the technical limitations of the PSP or the strange Japanese notion that all games made for the PSP must be incredibly “replayable”…or grindy (see: Dissidia, Crisis Core, Monster Hunter). The former is made glaringly obvious by the glorious masterpiece that is the original VC on PS3.
VC of course has its own share of flaws. The story is much grander and more immersive, but the gameplay is slightly too simplistic. On the other hand, VC2 has a much lighter cookie-cutter story but improves the gameplay mechanics in some aspects. It’s a two-step-forward-one-step-back deal.
Still, in spite of its flaws and limitations, VC2 is by far the most enjoyable PSP experience I have had. It really is disheartening to see that such a brilliant game is apparently not popular enough to warrant even one proper walkthrough on GameFAQs…
More screenshots because I took too many.
I eagerly await the release of Valkyria Chronicles 3 on 27th Jan. ^^
Valkyria Chronicles inspired me to attempt to play through all five Sakura Taisen in order.