Version tested: PSP
Lanseal Academy is a Disneyland boot camp. A 200-foot spire at the centre of the military school's grounds jabs at the clouds, while far below a moonfaced clock tower leans heavy on ancient Doric columns. The building is seasoned with the intricate stone decoration of so many fairytale castles, an unlikely centerpiece for an institute designed for little more than turning tweens into cold-eyed soldiers.
Around the citadel, where your character, Avan, has enrolled in the hope of discovering the mystery behind his brother's recent death in the grounds, tanks roll to and fro, while a timpani of blanks rattles around the buildings. This surrounding layout is more Sandhurst than magical kingdom, containing as it does Drill Grounds, an R&D centre and a Briefing Room, all arranged and spaced with uniform precision. It's in this contrast of exaggerated fantasy with the orderly arrangement of a military barracks that Lanseal Academy, Valkyria Chronicles II's central hub, communicates a great deal about the game it houses.
Because, on the one hand, this is the sequel to the smartest tactical RPG of the past five years: a Chess-like military sim built on layered order and immovable mathematics. You direct your handpicked squadron of infantry around each battlefield, flanking opponents in complex manouevres that can outclass even some of PC gaming's most celebrated playpens for the armchair general.
Yet the fantasy elements that overlay this core - the heroic special abilities that trigger with anime fanfare in battle as a character is momentarily inspired, the super-deformed tanks, playground dramas or shrill squeals of female soldiers in victory - are a far cry from the sombre reality of this subject matter. It's as if the Somme was remade as a High School Musical spin-off.
For fans of the first game, the unusual concoction will come as no surprise. The PS3's Valkyria Chronicles was a game that blossomed in a hotbed of borrowed ideas from disparate influences. Somehow the marriage of crayon-effect visuals with stories of villages razed to the ground by heavy tank fire, or the mash-up of melancholic French Horns to mark the passing of a beloved soldier, and furious J-pop drumbeats to mark the arrival of the next, worked wonders. This sequel is no different, holding its ideas in awkward but endearing tension.
In terms of its systems too, Valkyria Chronicles II, like its forebear, is a melting pot of design ideas. Each mission begins as in Advance Wars et al, with a top-down view of a battlefield punctuated by coloured icons representing friendly and enemy infantry and vehicles. Select a unit, and the camera swoops down to an over-the-shoulder view of the field itself. A Command Point gauge slowly depletes as you move your soldier in real time around the environment, moving, attacking or capturing enemy bases. During the 'turn' you can make a single attack upon an enemy, lining up a reticule on your opponent and sitting back as the move plays out, the outcome of which is based on various statistical factors.
When your CP is used up you return to the map view, regardless of whether you left your soldier crouching in safety behind a sandbag or standing in the open, metres from the barrel of an enemy's gun. You have a set number of moves per turn, during which you can choose to manoeuvre another unit or, unusually, continue moving the same one. Once all of your moves are used up, control switches to the opposing side, and thereafter back and forth until the mission objective is won or lost.
This straightforward core is made more complex by a slew of factors and sub-systems. Infantry are divided into five basic classes (with a huge number of further specialisations - this sequel's primary improvement - unlocking as you level them up), each of which has its own strengths, weaknesses and weapon specialisations.
As you can only take a small number of units into each mission, you must choose your team carefully. Scouts, with their generous Command Point gauges, can cover a lot of ground, but by carrying rifles the number of shots that can be made per move is limited. As a result it's wise to support them with Troopers, whose machine-gun fire can decimate enemy numbers. Lancers' with their missile launchers are necessary for taking out enemy tanks, while Engineers will keep them well-stocked with ammunition while providing medical support if necessary. Experience earned from missions can be spent on upgrading each class, while money earned can be used to buy better equipment for both infantry and Class G's heavily customisable tank.
Unlike the first Valkyria Chronicles, the majority of the sequel takes place in and around the single location of Lanseal Military Academy. Avan, on enrolling at the start of the game, joins the lowest-achieving students in Class G. It's this collection of miscreants who form your squadron, although you can only take a handful of them into battle at a time. The high-school drama, which appears heavily influenced by the most recent Persona, is enjoyable, but lacks the bite and punch of its more serious predecessor. By focusing on a group of 17-year-old high school students, this sequel forgoes the variety of characters seen in the first game, even as the number of personalities, and amount of exposition given to each has ballooned.
The story is told in the stylised, low budget-style of so many Japanese strategy games, via short narrative vignettes featuring 2D still portraits of the characters involved, overlaid with comic book word balloons to house their dialogue. SEGA injects these sequences with energy by having the frames in which the portraits sit bounce around the screen in a rudimentary approximation of the action or temperament of the person speaking. Should two characters bump into each other in a corridor then their two portraits knock together on-screen before the speech bubbles pop up to comment on the action. It's a simple technique but through some thoughtful execution helps bring the economical approach to storytelling to life.
As the game progresses you become attached to the members of Class G, firstly through the narrative asides that pummel you in-between each mission - of which there are far too many - and then via the war stories you develop with each on the field. Even the hub area of Lanseal itself, little more than an obfuscated menu screen, becomes a character of its own, and the rhythm of school life provides a constant, comforting beat to which progress marches.
Missions are divided into three types: 'Story', which progress the game's narrative, 'Key', which must be cleared in order to access the next Story Mission, and 'Free', optional extras useful for earning extra money or experience. Throughout the game the same clutch of maps is used time and time again, and despite the fact these are broken into different areas, allowing you to split your team up tactically, they eventually become repetitive, the different combinations of area effects or enemy types in each iteration doing little to change the strategy required to beat each.
The move to PSP is clearly for the benefit of the Japanese community, and the Monster Hunter-esque ad-hoc multiplayer modes, both co-operative and combative, will be of limited use to all but the most dedicated Westerner. The switch from console to handheld has also demanded the removal of the graphical effects that made the first game so visually appealing, as well as, of course, restricting the gamer to the central hub of Lanseal itself from the need for a smaller number of locations.
Despite these reservations, Valkyria Chronicles II remains exciting, its hotchpotch design ideas maturing for this sequel despite the focus on a younger cast and more immature surrounding story. A series yet to reach its full potential? Certainly. But when the potential is so great as this, even the evolutionary steps along the way are worth examining.
8 / 10
Valkyria Chronicles II releases 3rd September, exclusively for PSP.