Baptism of fire
Exclusive to PSP, Valkyria Chronicles II is the sequel to the acclaimed PlayStation 3 game. You play as Avan Hardins, a hot-headed 17-year-old enrolled at Lanseal Military Academy, anxious to uncover the details of his decorated brother's mysterious death. With Gallia's army in tatters following the Second European War, Avan and his fellow cadets find themselves hastily called up to the front line to combat the Gallian Revolutionary Army.
As your strategic prowess grows, your fledgling recruits prove their mettle in a series of bruising encounters through the streets and fields of Gallia. And as you gradually push back the rebel assault, so you discover the truth behind the demise of Avan's brother.
It's impossible to talk about Valkyria Chronicles II without mentioning its stunning art direction. Mixing evocative watercolour washes with the bold lines of Japanese anime, every aspect is a visual treat. Comic book dialogue blends into vibrantly animated cut-scenes, and the missions themselves are a riot of colourful detail that belie the dark story underneath.
Moving from the lavishly designed Academy, with its larger than life characters, to one of a variety of battlefields, you're first presented with a simplified overview of the objective, with your troops represented by markers on a map. On selecting a unit, you then swoop down into a third-person view, where you can appreciate the stylised setting and clever level design at close quarters.
Valkyria Chronicles II is as accessible as it is beautiful, with a number of simple tutorial missions getting you into the swing of things, while there's a comprehensive bank of information to check out if ever you're stuck for a winning strategy. Even though there's a grand story to be told and an even grander battle to be fought, you'll be guided at your own pace – and before you know it, you'll be itching to get out onto that battlefield.
Before you flex your trigger finger in anger, it's a good idea to get to know Lanseal Military Academy, the seat of learning that doubles as your grand command post. It's here that you select the squad to accompany Avan on each mission, make essential upgrades to weapons and equipment, fine tune your tactics and find out about your recruits. As you collect battle experience from each sortie, you'll also be able to improve your squad's effectiveness with a visit to the fearsome drill sergeant. Meanwhile, tanks and armoured vehicles can be enhanced using the cash earned from completing each mission.
With your squad at peak battle readiness, it's time to launch yourself into turn-based strategy gaming with a difference. Instead of positioning your character and selecting from a range of menu options, as you would in a traditional role-playing game, Valkyria Chronicles II puts its lovingly crafted world at the centre of the action. Once you've decided on your squad, you're ready to deploy right into your troops' boots, in Gallia's farmsteads, market towns and cities.
Combat is a tense affair that switches seamlessly between the ground level skirmishes of Action Mode and the bigger picture in Command Mode. You take direct control of each unit, manoeuvring soldiers and vehicles into positions that give the best chance of gaining the upper hand. Selecting a unit in Command Mode uses a Command Point, while movement on the ground drains your Action Points meter, so the trick is to work your squad into a good position without leaving them high and dry. Once you've used up all of your Command Points in setting up clever covering fire angles, it's time to sit back and hope the enemy walks into your trap...
It's a melting pot of ideas presented into 200 bite-sized missions perfect for PSP, yet with so much upgrading, planning, manoeuvring, fighting and outsmarting to be done, taking Valkyria Chronicles II bite by bite won't be enough. It's one of the most intelligent and absorbing games around.
Brothers in arms
Given that Valkyria Chronicles II packs such a comprehensive campaign mode, you'd be forgiven for thinking it was strictly a single player pursuit. Yet Ad Hoc Mode lets you wirelessly hook up with other players in a range of competitive and cooperative scenarios, the ideal excuse for getting a group of friends together for a Valkyria Chronicles II session.
Should you throw down the gauntlet to another player, you'll be able to bring your battle hardened army to bear across a series of multiplayer maps. To save mismatches, you can introduce a handicap to even things out, although a spell toughening up in the single player missions is the best remedy.
While the versus match-ups provide the best opportunity for bragging rights, the cooperative mode allows you and up to three other players to team up against the enemy. You can play through missions from the main game, so as well as adding a huge amount of variety to play, you can call on help in the trickier scenarios. Both modes offer you the chance to take what you've learned from the single player mode and bamboozle your friends.