Ever since I first loaded Final Fantasy Tactics into my PS1 all those years ago, I've been a huge SRPG fan.  In particular, I'm a huge fan of Valkyria Chronicles on PS3. With its huge, detailed characters and rich, colorful environments, I've called it the best game released during this console cycle, and the best SRPG game I've ever played. Based almost entirely on word-of-mouth alone, the PS3 game went on to be quite successful.  However, when Sega announced VCII, the PS3's future was quite uncertain, and the PSP was a safer bet, so they chose to develop this sequel for the PSP instead.

The end result? The best PS3 game ever to grace a handheld console. By that, I mean that Valkyria Chronicles II is very nearly as majestic and beautiful as its PS3 forebear, and that's quite an impressive feat.

Set two years after Welkin Gunter and Squad 7 defeated Maximillian and pushed the East Europan Imperial Alliance out of the duchy of Gallia, the country is now threatened from within. Gallia is struggling to rebuild after the war, and all of the country's woes are blamed on the Darcsens, a much-maligned ethnic group analogous to the Jews during the same period in real-life European history. A rebel faction has formed with the express purpose of purging Gallia of the Darcsens. Unfortunately, with the kingdom still financially strapped for cash from the war, the government is unable to muster up an army to quash the rebellion quickly enough, and has resorted to sending not-quite-graduated recruits from the royal military academy, Lanseal, to deal with the Rebellion. You are Avan Hardins, a young man who enters Lanseal in order to find out the story behind his older brother's death, since Gallia considers the incident a state secret. Avan becomes the leader of Class G, seen by the cadets and faculty as the "Bad Company" of Lanseal, and he must whip this class of misfits into a lean, mean fighting outfit, while helping to keep the peace within Lanseal itself, as there is strong anti-Darcsen sentiment among its student body.

The first thing you need to know is that VCII, despite being on the PSP, is by no means VC Lite. Not only is VC's incredible SRPG engine as deep on the small screen as it is on the PS3, but Sega WOW actually added on to the experience greatly. Your individual soldiers are more customizable with regards to gear and special abilities. You can also switch jobs for the first time. There are more job classes and skill trees. There are more vehicles as well. Valkyria Chronicles 2 includes naval engagements as well as land combat. The environments can be utilized ot much greater degree. VC II eases you into things a bit more slowly than VC I did, but things get serious pretty quickly nonetheless. As in VC I, positioning is essential for both moving your troops as well as effectively countering the enemy's advance. Troop morale plays a huge role in this game as well. It can be improved by interacting with your teammates at school, and it decreases greatly when party members fall in battle. This is not a dumbed-down game by any stretch. VC II, like VC I, features its own in-game achievements, accessible through the Yearbook in Avan's room, although you can't of course share it over the Internet. VCII also features a multiplayer ad-hoc mode with both competitive and cooperative combat, if you happen to know someone else with a PSP and VC II.

[embed:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5wml07nyEkY&feature=player_embedded ]

When you're not fighting, VC II takes place at the Academy itself, and you can participate in various events that help you recruit and improve your party members, as well as train your soldiers on the drill field. The game structure of the between-battle scenes is a definite nod to the Persona series. Many gamers worried that VC II would degenerate into some teenage anime soap-opera, but that's not really the case. There are social-link aspects to VC II, but they're geared towards Avan building camaraderie towards his classmates rather than shoujo-anime style romantic comedy. This game is one of the most mature games I've seen in awhile, and by that I mean it's tastefully done, and is not puerile. The characters are quite engaging, and more fleshed-out than those in VC I. I still prefer VC I's level-headed nature-crazy hero, Welkin Gunter, as Avan, despite being likable, falls victim to the anime trope of excitability at times, but the cast is very well-rounded and engaging.

VC II may have quite possibly the best visuals I've seen in a handheld game on any device. Here, the PSP's limitations are more obvious; the PSP simply doesn't have the resolution or horsepower to render Sega's stunning CANVAS engine in the way the PS3 does (BTW Sega – please consider licensing the CANVAS engine as a middleware for JRPG developers, we might get more of them), but it still looks awesome. The character models are detailed and well-animated; the environments are huge and colorful. As in VC I, the movements of the characters and vehicles are embellished with comic-book style onomatopoeia. This game not only looks better than any other handheld game, but its visuals surpass those of most PS2/Wii games and even a few PS3/360 titles. Hitoshi Sakimoto, the king of SRPG soundtracks and my second-favorite game music composer after Koichi Sugiyama, brings us another rousing, operatic musical masterpiece, and the sound effects are excellent.

Let's be clear – I still prefer the majesty of VC in HD on my TV over a handheld, so the original game still stands as my favorite, and I hope VC III, apparently due to be announced at TGS, will return to PS3. But to dismiss VC II just because it's on a handheld would be unfortunate, because it illustrates how far handheld gaming has come. If VC III is indeed a PS3 game, I would like it to have everything Sega added to VCII with the incredible visuals. This game is accessible enough for a SRPG noob, but has all the depth and challenge that I loved in the original VC and in Final Fantasy Tactics. I cannot recommend VC II enough. I'd thought Fallout: New Vegas would be a shoe-in for GOTY 2010, but after playing VC II, that's not a guaranteed outcome anymore.

Valkyria Chronicles II was available as of August 31, 2010 for $39.99.

My score: A.