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Pocket War: A Valkyria Chronicles 2 Analysis

When a series gets moved to a smaller platform we expect cuts in the game design. With Valkyria Chronicles 2 we have a situation where the limitations work to make the game more involved then before.

When a series gets moved to a smaller platform we expect cuts in the game design. With Valkyria Chronicles 2 we have a situation where the limitations work to make the game more involved then before.

Sega's Valkyria Chronicles is an unusual series. Starting out on the PS3, it was an attempt by Japanese developers to create a squad focused turned base strategy title. This genre is normally popularized by Western or European developers. The first game did not have a huge success in the US and the series was moved to the PSP. Now with Valkyria Chronicles 2 we have an unusual situation where a sequel is released on a weaker platform, but has more content than its predecessor.

The general plot of the series has to do with an alternate setting for World War 2. The Axis and the Allies have been remained and the conflict is centered on a special mineral used to power tanks and battle suits. The story doesn't take place in either side, but instead focuses on a small neutral nation that is full of that mineral.

VC2 takes place after the events of the first game, which finds the neutral nation now dealing with a civil war due to the nationality of the acting queen. Taking place inside a military school, you're job is to lead class G to victory.

For those not familiar with the series here's a primer, combat is a mix of turned base and real time squad based strategy. Each turn you are given command points or CP, each CP allows you direct control of one squad member. Once you've taken control of a unit, you control them in similar fashion to a third person shooter. Every step you take drains the unit’s action points or AP. The unit's turn ends either after they attack an enemy, or run out of AP and there is no one nearby to attack. You can use the same unit multiple times in a turn by using more CP. However, each subsequent time you use the unit, they'll have less AP to use that turn.

Your squad is broken down into 5 base classes. Scouts, that have the most AP and decent at mid range combat. Shock troopers, which are powerful close range troops with machine guns. Lancers, who are anti-armor units that use missile launchers of the same name, but have only a few rounds of ammo. Engineers provide ammo and can heal. Lastly are Techs who are new to the series, that wield heavy shields and can clear mines and are the only melee class.

Tanks which are separate from the other classes cost 2 CP per action are the heavy hitters. Immune to conventional weaponry, only explosive weapons or hits to their exposed power source will do damage. Tanks can be equipped with specific equipment that can affect the battlefield. You can also opt to take an APC instead, which uses less CP and can transport units. The downside is that APCs do less damage and have weaker armor. Any CP you don't use in a turn will carry over to the next one.

There are several changes and additions from the first game added to VC 2. The first of which has to do with the map sizes. With the power of the PS 3, the designers had the luxury of creating huge maps for each level to take place in. However, with less memory, the PSP couldn't handle having massive maps. Instead the designers condensed the maps into multiple areas. Base camps which can be captured by either side act as reinforcement points and allow travel between the areas. Strange as it sounds, this actually works and gives the maps a sense of having multiple fronts to deal with.

Since you are limited by the max # of people occupying an area at one time does lead to important decisions about who and where to deploy. The different classes fall into a somewhat hard counter system, however things become muddy once you start unlocking advanced classes (more on that further down.)

Another change is the mission structure. The # of missions has grown considerably from the first game. Missions are broken down into required, optional and plot and grouped by the month they occur. Each month's worth of missions requires the player to complete several required missions to open up the plot mission. Finishing the plot mission will unlock next month's group and the cycle continues. Players can replay most missions except for plot missions for more resources.

As in the previous game, classes level up instead of individuals, allowing new members to start contributing the second they are unlock. The new class system and the ability to upgrade your gear act as specialized upgrades. While the main gameplay is great, it feels like there are rough patches with the side content.

Upgrading units to a new class is more of a chore then it should be. To upgrade someone, they first need a prerequisite # of credits. Credits fall into specific categories like attk, arms, support etc, and ranks like attk X, attk L and so on. When you're looking at the conditions for a mission at the mission select screen, it shows you what credits can be earned from that battle.

Upgrades become more important as the game goes on, as each class has two upgrade paths. The first one takes the base properties of said class and enhances them, while the second one completely changes the utility of the class. For example, the scout is a high mobility mid range unit, but it can become a sniper: a low mobility, long range anti infantry unit. Going even further down the skill tree offers more changes to the utility. For example, giving a shock trooper a flamethrower which reduces the defensive bonuses from cover. With how powerful class upgrades are, I wish the developers made it clearer how to do it.

To actually compare what a squad member needs to upgrade and where to get it, requires the player to go through two different menus and several screens to do it. First you go to the training grounds to look at the squad member. Then you go to the briefing room to find the mission with the needed credits. The whole thing is very clunky and it only gets worse when you realize you have to do it for every squad member you're interested in. Compounding the convoluted design is that it's not guaranteed that they'll get said credits.

After a mission is completed, the game tallies up who contributed the most in a mission and determines what credits each active member gets. From what I saw, I couldn't find any pattern to follow. For example, a lancer who single handily destroyed 2 tanks and a turret got the lowest participation in a battle. Another example, a medic who got the final kill in a different battle earned the highest credit type when he was only selected once the entire battle.

Another area that feels underutilized is character traits and potentials. Another defining feature of the series is that each person in your squad is unique. Besides have different values for attributes like health, they also come with traits and potentials. Traits are personality quirks that can benefit or hurt them in the field. For example: someone who hates scouts and gets a bonus to damage when attacking them. Or someone having allergies and loses accuracy when running across grass. Potentials are special bonuses that can happen at specific times and are always good.

The problem with the system is that besides a few really good traits and really bad ones, the quirks from the system don't have a huge impact. Once again, to check this requires going down every member’s page, looking at every trait.

Next problem has to do with the uneven difficulty. While the required and optional missions are fine, it's when the player gets to the plot missions that things get annoying. After a few months, plot missions will have leaders from the enemy army on the field. These characters do major damage, have large amounts of health , have huge AP pools and can move between the different areas like your squad.

The game suggests that you avoid them, but when you have maps that require you to hold a point, that’s just not possible. That is due to leaving someone at the point to prevent it from being captured. All the strategy and counter system flies out the window during these sections. It's like playing a game of rock paper scissors, when someone shows up and uses "meteor" to win every time.

My last issue with the game is the story. While the backdrop of having a civil war in the midst of a bigger war is an interesting premise. The game seems to focus more on the anime inspired soap opera of the characters. While each person is unique, they still fall into the same archetypes that make up anime these days. The lazy, poor at school student who is like Rambo meets Sun Tzu when it counts, the overly cheery girl who believes everything is going to work out and so on.

Like the first game, there are a lot of mature issues going on: racism, genocide and different ideologies battling it out. However, all of this seems to be overshadowed by the characters and their quirks, instead of them dealing with said issues. This problem is made worse by having played Tactics Ogre last year, which told a very mature story dealing with war, politics and honor. In Tactics Ogre, the impact of the war could be seen through every cut scene and major character. In VC 2, only a few cut scenes show the damage of the war, then it's back to dealing with the anime drama.

With all that said, Valkyria Chronicles 2 is still a great game. The developers deserve praise for not only successfully porting the series but also making improvements to the gameplay on a weaker platform. There has already been a third game released in Japan, but it's still up in the air if we'll ever get it over here. Hopefully this post will get more people interested as I want more strategy game goodness on my PSP.

Josh Bycer.

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