Serotonin: Variety in battle is the spice of life

May 9, 2014


I’m currently trying to get through Valkyria Chronicles II. Note that I said “trying.” It’s certainly not a terrible game; the soundtrack and visuals are very similar to the first Valkyria Chronicles, which is nothing but a compliment. The music ranges from tranquil and relaxing to foreboding and intense. The world is a mix of fantasy, anime and historical fiction. At first, I couldn’t help but think how ridiculous it is that teenagers in high school are being trained for war, until you remember that children younger than these have been expected to fight for their countries for thousands of years.

The original was one of my all-time favorites; the combination of top-down strategy and third-person shooter was unique, and I’d never seen this sort of setting before. The comic book-style presentation was appealing, the characters were expertly developed and acted, and it showed early on what kind of games the PlayStation 3 could produce. I was thrilled to hear that a sequel was being made.

I wasn’t at all thrilled to hear that it would be on the PSP, a system I didn’t possess or have any affinity for. I reluctantly bought the portable device, along with Valkyria Chronicles II, and was quickly dismayed at what the sequel had compared to the original: less scale, less heart and, most importantly, less variety.


The setting is creative. Your title character is Avan Hardins, a 17-year-old who enrolled in the Lanseal Military Academy after his older brother, Leon, was killed in action. A military school is a wonderful backdrop and the perfect choice for a sequel; the high school dynamic lends itself well to various scenes of melodrama, intrigue, romance and comedy. It forces different personality types to work together and allows the player to become more familiar with a multitude of characters via cutscenes around campus.

Each area of the school can yield vastly different conversations. In the library, people are quiet and respectful. In the classroom, they’re ambitious but inexperienced. In the hallways and courtyards, cliques are formed, gossip spreads and crushes turn into awkward exchanges. It’s a nice change of pace from the first game, and I was pleased to see that each member of my army got a relatively interesting backstory and opportunity to interact with Avan, Zeri and the other major players.

However, the campaign and the majority of the fights have my eyes rolling and wishing for more variety. I’m 45 hours in and halfway through the game, but am desperately lacking motivation to finish it.

My main complaint is with the maps. They’re extremely small, to the point where a single unit can run across its entirety in a single turn. I imagine this has something to do with the hardware restrictions of the PSP, but I can’t give the game a free pass for that. Instead of one single map per mission, you’ll generally see two, three or four mini-maps linked together by “bases”, essentially warp points to other sections on other maps. Trying to figure out which point links to which point is infuriating.


Map 1 may link to Map 4 and 3, but not 2. Map 3 may link to all 4 maps. Map 4 may only be accessed by Map 3, and so on. Part of what made Valkyria Chronicles work so well was the top-down viewpoint, letting you see both armies clearly (save for a few hidden units). You could get a firsthand account of what the action would look like by controlling a single unit. Here, I barely know what’s going on half the time.

By capturing an enemy base, I can retreat a wounded unit and replace it with another, but if I leave another base undefended, I leave myself open to a single enemy unit capturing it and losing the mission. It doesn’t help that most missions restrict your army count to five or six units. It feels more like a weird combination of Capture the Flag and Red Rover instead of a real-time strategy game between two warring factions.

The number of maps is also severely limited. You will see a lot of repetition in the maps and mission objectives. Granted, many of the missions are optional, but you’ll need to get your units as much experience as possible in order to have a fighting chance against some of the brutally unfair boss levels. Every mission feels exactly the same, every map feels like I’ve played it a dozen times before and I can generally use the exact same roster of units and win. If variety is the spice of life, repetition must be the bane of it.


The complete opposite of Valkyria Chronicles II in this regard is Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty. The campaign is absolutely stellar, aside from the less-than-stellar writing. You might get tired of Jim Raynor’s eighteenth begrudged, bitter remark about the Empire and Mensk, but it’s still a great continuation of the series that many of us grew up idolizing. Blizzard goes for broke; there’s enough humor, horror, dread and deviant behavior between the Terrans, Zerg and Protoss to keep you playing each level just to see how the story develops. But it’s the variety of the missions that really make this a near perfect experience for me.

Each mission has a totally different map, forcing you to play differently. Gone are the days where you could simply turtle in your base and wait the enemy out, or just build an army and go around the map killing things. Environmental dangers have been added; one level has a giant wall of unstoppable fire going from left to right. You have to build quickly, but also invest in transport ships to take your army with you. Do you wait until the last possible second, trying to build up as big an army as you can? Or do you relocate quickly, at the risk of being under-powered when you take on enemies to the right? Unit, upgrade and strategic choices take on a whole new meaning due to the variation of the level design.

Some missions make enemies much tougher at night, others force you to establish small bases throughout the map to provide closer backup for your army. A favorite of mine changes the level of lava at various points in the level; a bounty of riches are scattered across the rocky plains, but is it worth the risk? Do you only take fast units, increasing your chances of making it back before the lava rises? Or do you take heavier, slower, more powerful units to counter the inevitable enemy attack?


You can tell real effort was put into changing it up to keep players on their toes. A strategy that worked in the previous level may not even warrant an experimental try in the next.  There’s enough variation in units, resources and upgrades to make a compelling campaign even if all the maps were exactly the same, but Blizzard threw in a ton of variation in the geography, the look and the consequences of the environment to boot. Magnificent.

Valkyria Chronicles II isn’t a bad game, but it’s also bloated and in serious need of a trim. The amount of content doesn’t justify the game’s 60-80 hour length. The presentation and effort to develop characters is noted and appreciated, but I know that my next mission will be on a map I’ve played 14 times already with virtually no changes to my strategy or units, and that totally turns me off.

This is coming from a guy who would be happy eating the same meal eight days in a row. Maybe I should hold my taste buds to the same standards as my gaming habits.