The recent, unexpected and utterly delightful arrival of Valkyria Chronicles on PC has set me wondering about curious fate of Sega's franchise. It's a series that's garnered a passionate and loyal fan base thanks to the 2008 PS3 original, which won as many hearts with its colourful cast and timeless painterly aesthetic as it did minds with its quirky strategic action. Yet the chronicles of Valkyria seem to have played out in reverse and, through no fault of their own, suffered a demoralising downward spiral of devolution.
Despite the original earning its stripes as a worldwide release that shifted over a million copies, Valkyria Chronicles 2 received a sharp demotion. The shift to Sony's PSP may have made sense in its native Japan, where unabashed fans would relish the ad hoc multiplayer, but everywhere else it felt like a backward step that brought with it an inevitable drop in sales and a slew of technical constraints to boot. The third instalment never even made it to these shores. It's an inverse of the path this franchise deserved, and a waste of such big-hearted promise. After such an impressive start for the series, it was left to drift quietly into obscurity.
Valkyria Chronicles 2's arrival in 2010 was bittersweet, then. It was the sequel many had been hoping would materialise, but it on a platform already in decline. So, through strained smiles, we pointedly ignored the obvious fact that it was neither as attractive as its predecessor nor carrying all of its forebear's effortless charm. The PSP simply wasn't up to the task of depicting the delicate brush strokes and fine lines that allow the PS3 game to belie its age to this day. In trying to recreate that iconic look it lost much of its visual identity as once delicate details were mired in a muddy miasma of muted browns and greens. The variety of its environments was gone and, with it, some of the first game's grand scope and sense of scale. Most of this instalment took place in and around the grounds of the Lanseal Military Academy, which brought with it a change of personnel and the heavy funk of raging hormones and teenage angst.
The series of escapades and high-school dramas that follow are equal parts endearing and grating as unlikely friendships are forged, prejudices revealed and stereotypes routinely fulfilled. The most interesting story elements are reserved for the backdrop against which this all plays out; the outward disdain that many people have for the Darcsen community and the Gallian rebellion brought on by people disillusioned with events that transpire towards the end of the original game.
Avan's fellow Class G misfits are a likeable enough bunch, but none are memorable in the same way as the original's fabulously flamboyant Jann or the quietly aloof Marina. Nor is there anything to rival the touching friendship between company veteran Largo and Captain Eleanor Varrot. It's due in part to weaker characterisation, but also through how the sequel handled death. Nobody can die who isn't scripted to, which immediately weakens your bond and leaves you with a surplus of characters that you will likely never use.
This has a knock-on effect on the game's upgrade system, too. Valkyria Chronicles 2 boasts a more comprehensive set of progression parameters than its predecessor, with the ability promote units via a two-tier specialisation system. To take advantage of this you have to earn specific credits during battles, which necessitate repeatedly choosing particular units to earn them and leads to you to favour some of the three dozen recruits over others, further narrowing your viable options.
Nonetheless, campus life takes in each and every one of your fellow classmates and is ever busy. Through an abundance of minimally yet deftly animated story boards, Avan can interact with every member of his class, triggering side-missions and cameos from the cast of the first game. What Valkyria Chronicles 2 lacks here, as in other areas, is restraint. The first game never let its eccentric characters or interwoven story lines get in the way of the game, whereas Valkyria Chronicles 2 repeatedly falls foul of this. Like the school chatterbox, it often doesn't know when to shut-up and, true to form, this is occasionally amusing but more often annoying.
And yet slowly, despite your better judgement, you get drawn into the daily dramas much as you did at school. You sift through what initially appears to be an impenetrable collection of cliques and find those kids that you enjoy hanging out with. As the daily routine of training, class interaction and missions progresses you come enjoy the repetitive cycle and even find comfort in it. Just as it was before, Valkyria Chronicles 2 proves it's as much about the relationships you form with its characters as it is the quirky mechanics of its battlefields.
It's easy to view the game with a sense of frustration or keen disappointment, but that's borne out of wanting so much for it to live up to its own potential and the misty-eyed feeling of what might have been. Returning to the series recently, first via release of the original on PC and then to its sequel, illustrates the gulf between the two titles. It highlights, too, that there hasn't been anything quite like it since.
Incidentally, that recent, unassuming PC release did find itself atop the Steam charts for a time, something that Sega must surely have taken note of. Perhaps, then, we can dare to dream of the outside chance of a triumphant return of the series on a new console. I hope so; Sega has a national treasure on its hands, and there are few who wouldn't welcome it back with open arms and an honourable 21 gun salute.