Valkyria Chronicles is an unusual series. Starting out on the PS3, it was an attempt by Japanese developers to create a squad focused turned base strategy title. This genre is normally popularized by Western or European developers. The first game did not have a huge success in the US and the series was moved to the PSP. Now with Valkyria Chronicles 2 we have an unusual situation where a sequel is released on a weaker platform, but has more content than its predecessor.

The general plot of the series has to do with an alternate setting for World War 2. The Axis and the Allies have been remained and the conflict is centered on a special mineral used to power tanks and battle suits. The story doesn’t take place in either side, but instead focuses on a small neutral nation that is full of that mineral.

VC2 takes place after the events of the first game, which finds the neutral nation now dealing with a civil war due to the nationality of the acting queen. Taking place inside a military school, you’re job is to lead class G to victory.

For those not familiar with the series here’s a primer, combat is a mix of turned base and real time squad based strategy. Each turn you are given command points or CP, each CP allows you direct control of one squad member. Once you’ve taken control of a unit, you control them in similar fashion to a third person shooter. Every step you take drains the unit’s action points or AP. The unit’s turn ends either after they attack an enemy, or run out of AP and there is no one nearby to attack. You can use the same unit multiple times in a turn by using more CP. However, each subsequent time you use the unit, they’ll have less AP to use that turn.

Your squad is broken down into 5 base classes. Scouts, that have the most AP and decent at mid range combat. Shock troopers, which are powerful close range troops with machine guns. Lancers, who are anti-armor units that use missile launchers of the same name, but have only a few rounds of ammo. Engineers provide ammo and can heal. Lastly are Techs who are new to the series, that wield heavy shields and can clear mines and are the only melee class.

Tanks which are separate from the other classes cost 2 CP per action are the heavy hitters. Immune to conventional weaponry, only explosive weapons or hits to their exposed power source will do damage. Tanks can be equipped with specific equipment that can affect the battlefield. You can also opt to take an APC instead, which uses less CP and can transport units. The downside is that APCs do less damage and have weaker armor. Any CP you don’t use in a turn will carry over to the next one.

There are several changes and additions from the first game added to VC 2. The first of which has to do with the map sizes. With the power of the PS 3, the designers had the luxury of creating huge maps for each level to take place in. However, with less memory, the PSP couldn’t handle having massive maps. Instead the designers condensed the maps into multiple areas. Base camps which can be captured by either side act as reinforcement points and allow travel between the areas. Strange as it sounds, this actually works and gives the maps a sense of having multiple fronts to deal with.

Since you are limited by the max # of people occupying an area at one time does lead to important decisions about who and where to deploy. The different classes fall into a somewhat hard counter system, however things become muddy once you start unlocking advanced classes (more on that further down.)

Another change is the mission structure. The # of missions has grown considerably from the first game. Missions are broken down into required, optional and plot and grouped by the month they occur. Each month’s worth of missions requires the player to complete several required missions to open up the plot mission. Finishing the plot mission will unlock next month’s group and the cycle continues. Players can replay most missions except for plot missions for more resources.

As in the previous game, classes level up instead of individuals, allowing new members to start contributing the second they are unlock. The new class system and the ability to upgrade your gear act as specialized upgrades. While the main gameplay is great, it feels like there are rough patches with the side content.

Upgrading units to a new class is more of a chore then it should be. To upgrade someone, they first need a prerequisite # of credits. Credits fall into specific categories like attk, arms, support etc, and ranks like attk X, attk L and so on. When you’re looking at the conditions for a mission at the mission select screen, it shows you what credits can be earned from that battle.

Upgrades become more important as the game goes on, as each class has two upgrade paths. The first one takes the base properties of said class and enhances them, while the second one completely changes the utility of the class. For example, the scout is a high mobility mid range unit, but it can become a sniper: a low mobility, long range anti infantry unit. Going even further down the skill tree offers more changes to the utility. For example, giving a shock trooper a flamethrower which reduces the defensive bonuses from cover. With how powerful class upgrades are, I wish the developers made it clearer how to do it.

To actually compare what a squad member needs to upgrade and where to get it, requires the player to go through two different menus and several screens to do it. First you go to the training grounds to look at the squad member. Then you go to the briefing room to find the mission with the needed credits. The whole thing is very clunky and it only gets worse when you realize you have to do it for every squad member you’re interested in. Compounding the convoluted design is that it’s not guaranteed that they’ll get said credits.

After a mission is completed, the game tallies up who contributed the most in a mission and determines what credits each active member gets. From what I saw, I couldn’t find any pattern to follow. For example, a lancer who single handily destroyed 2 tanks and a turret got the lowest participation in a battle. Another example, a medic who got the final kill in a different battle earned the highest credit type when he was only selected once the entire battle.

Another area that feels underutilized is character traits and potentials. Another defining feature of the series is that each person in your squad is unique. Besides have different values for attributes like health, they also come with traits and potentials. Traits are personality quirks that can benefit or hurt them in the field. For example: someone who hates scouts and gets a bonus to damage when attacking them. Or someone having allergies and loses accuracy when running across grass. Potentials are special bonuses that can happen at specific times and are always good.

The problem with the system is that besides a few really good traits and really bad ones, the quirks from the system don’t have a huge impact. Once again, to check this requires going down every member’s page, looking at every trait.

Next problem has to do with the uneven difficulty. While the required and optional missions are fine, it’s when the player gets to the plot missions that things get annoying. After a few months, plot missions will have leaders from the enemy army on the field. These characters do major damage, are immortal, have huge AP pools and can move between the different areas like your squad.

The game suggests that you avoid them, but when you have maps that require you to hold a point, that’s just not possible. That is due to leaving someone at the point to prevent it from being captured. All the strategy and counter system flies out the window during these sections. It’s like playing a game of rock paper scissors, when someone shows up and uses “meteor” to win every time.

My last issue with the game is the story. While the backdrop of having a civil war in the midst of a bigger war is an interesting premise. The game seems to focus more on the anime inspired soap opera of the characters. While each person is unique, they still fall into the same archetypes that make up anime these days. The lazy, poor at school student who is like Rambo meets Sun Tzu when it counts, the overly cheery girl who believes everything is going to work out and so on.

Like the first game, there are a lot of mature issues going on: racism, genocide and different ideologies battling it out. However, all of this seems to be overshadowed by the characters and their quirks, instead of them dealing with said issues. This problem is made worse by having played Tactics Ogre last year, which told a very mature story dealing with war, politics and honor. In Tactics Ogre, the impact of the war could be seen through every cut scene and major character. In VC 2, only a few cut scenes show the damage of the war, then it’s back to dealing with the anime drama.

With all that said, Valkyria Chronicles 2 is still a great game. The developers deserve praise for not only successfully porting the series but also making improvements to the gameplay on a weaker platform. There has already been a third game released in Japan, but it’s still up in the air if we’ll ever get it over here. Hopefully this post will get more people interested as I want more strategy game goodness on my PSP.

Josh Bycer.

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( A few weeks ago there was an interview on Gamasutra with Brian Reynolds on the subject of game plagiarism. After it was posted I wrote up an opinion piece that I submitted to Gamasutra. However it turns out that everyone had the same idea. The point however was important to get across which is why I’m posting it here.)
Zynga is once again in the news, with more plagiarism accusations regarding the game Tiny Tower and Zynga’s title: Dream Heights. A recent interview was published on Gamasutra with Zynga’s chief game designer: Brian Reynolds. In that interview Brian Reynolds talked about how social games are “inspired” from each other, comparing it to the game industry at large. As someone who has been playing and analyzing games for the majority of his life, I find that assertion a tad disingenuous. This kind of mindset is a dangerous one to have and something we as an industry have not talked about.
There has always been a fine line between inspiration and plagiarism in the Games industry. The Sonic the Hedgehog series was started as a direct competitor to Mario. The majority of First Person Shooters have their foundations base within the Doom and Quake series. 100% completely original games are few and far between these days. Designers are always looking at existing titles for inspiration and refinement to create successful games. 
That last point is important and part of Brian’s response in the interview. On the subject of the success of Civilization he said:
Actually you know, some of the best games ever made, I’ve felt like were actually, the best way to put it — the most favorable way to put it — might be a “glorious synthesis” of stuff in previous games. I bought the very first Civilization, I think one of the greatest games really of all time. I felt like, “Hey wow, what a great synthesis between the Empire game from the PC and the Civilization board game, you know? So it was like some of this and some of that, and then some completely new stuff thrown in.”
This point he is 100% correct on. The highest rated games released were not developed in a vacuum. The designers looked at their respective genre and the industry as a whole for inspiration to help guide them with their project. A quote later on about the concept of games being “reskinned” is where my disagreements with the interview start:
Well so in theory you want to add something, right? You want to, if you’re working in the genre, add something to the genre. You know it’s funny you were talking about “reskinned,” but I just think back in the industry, I’ve actually seen some things that kind of felt like reskins, but were pretty cool, you know? You can do a really good “reskin” and people like it? You take the Star Wars game [LucasArts and Ensemble's Star Wars: Galactic Battlegrounds], that was kind of a reskin of Age of Empires. I mean in fact, they licensed the engine and used the engine, I felt, “Oh that was kind of cool.”
Comparing building a game off of an existing engine, to reports of social games wholesale copying mechanics, aesthetics and design are two completely different situations.  To explain why, we need to go back in time to the NES era.
After Super Mario Bros became a massive success, we saw a lot, a lot, A LOT of plat-formers released. In no particular order, here are a few examples:
CastleVania
Metroid
Kirby’s Dream Land
Ninja Gaiden
Tiny Toons
Mega Man
If we look at the absolute base mechanics of those games, they all share similarities to Super Mario Bros. They all involve the player moving and jumping to get through areas and defeat enemies. However each one of them took said mechanics and went in a different direction, not only from Mario, but from each other. 
Relisting those titles, let’s briefly touch on some of their unique qualities:
Castlevania: Combat system, setting, boss fights.
Metroid: Exploration, player upgrades, setting, main character.
Kirby’s Dream land: Character, setting, inhaling and exhaling enemies, floating.
Ninja Gaiden: Story, close ranged combat, difficulty.
Tiny Toons: Multiple characters each with their own move set.
 Mega Man: Character, long range combat, acquiring power ups from bosses.
This is where the creativity and inspiration of our industry comes from. Each game drew inspiration from Mario and then did something different. With reports and accusations of social games just changing a few graphics and the title, that is plagiarism in my eyes.
Waiting for the next big thing then copying it, instead of trying to create it yourself is not a part of a creative industry. For me personally, I’m not trying to become a designer with the goal of just copying other people’s work. I have been inspired by the games I’ve played for my game ideas, as well as for my analysis and articles. Every one of my ideas is about doing something different with the mechanics or genre as a whole.
I don’t know how much of a profession suicide I’m making by saying this, but no matter how desperate I’ve been to find a job, I have not applied to any positions at Zynga or other Social Game companies. The thought of having a copying mindset instead of a creative one, does not interest me in the slightest.
For social games to evolve, designers have to look beyond the goals of monetization and profit. As they pigeon holed the genre in a “horse before the cart” scenario. How can you create something different, when your game must have an “actions per day” mechanic to allow people to spend money on more actions?
As the competition in both retail and social games grow, I have a feeling that we are going to come back to this discussion of inspiration. Hopefully the outcome to these issues of plagiarism will be a better defined line between inspiration and plagiarism.
Josh Bycer 
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(Note: This examination of Diablo 3 is based on the beta; since there is no NDA I’m free to spill my guts on it. However as with all betas, this is not my final word on Diablo 3, and the positives and negatives posted here may not be in the final version. I will be spoiling elements from the beta, so for those who want a completely clean slate going into Diablo 3, you’ve been warned.)

Irony can be pretty ironic sometimes. This multi-part post all started from me wanting to play Diablo 3, and right before part 2 was posted, I got into the beta. From my time spent with the beta, I’ve maxed out every class and tried to get as many achievements as I could.

Let’s start with the classes; the only 2 that are returning from D2 are the Sorceress and Barbarian. Joining them are the Demon Hunter, Monk and Witch Doctor. The first of several changes to the formula is how skills are used. Instead of everyone using the same mana bar, each class has a different source of power for skills. The barbarian for example gains fury from giving and receiving damage, which fuels their skills. While the Monk gains spirit by using specific attacks and can attack more rapidly.

If you’ve been following Diablo 3, then you should know about the changes to how skills works, but I’m going to repeat it here for everyone. Skills are still unlocked via leveling, but unlike Diablo 2, you now have a limit on how many can be active at one time. As you level up, you’ll eventually increase the amount allowing you more options in combat. However, you’ll never reach a point where you can use everything at once.

What I like about the skill system is that every skill from I saw is built around scaling to the player’s DPS. As I talked about in part 2 that was one of the big issues with Diablo 2′s systems: how some skills were useless due to flat damage. Now, with everything built around scaling, there is more variety and options for the player. At this point in the beta, you can switch your skills at anytime, but there is a 30 second cool down before you can use them.

Passives are also available and add more utility to your character. Like active skills, you can only have a few equipped at anytime with that # increasing as you level up. A big change that was just added to the beta was with the removal of rune stones. Previously, it was revealed that the player could find rune stones while exploring that could be attached to skills, modifying them. The stones would also play a major role in the auction house system of being able to buy and sell them.

In a recent designer blog post, the designers posted that the amount of work needed to create a system on par with loot generation would be too much for too little gain. Along with the tedium of managing so many runes, this led to their decision to change it. Instead, rune stones have been replaced by skill stones which are specific to each skill and unlock at specific levels. Each stone provides a unique modifier to the specified skill.

At this point, I’m not a fan of the current implementation. The reason is that the designers already had a linear path of progression with the way skills and passives unlock. The change to skill runes appears to be a way for them to pad out the leveling content up to level 60. In part 2, someone commented on an upcoming game: Path of Exile, which had skills in the form of socket-able drops from enemies. I was really looking forward to seeing Blizzard’s version of the same theme with the rune stones.

Also seeing as how this is the first iteration of the new system, Blizzard redesigned the UI for selecting and managing skills. While the system is far easier to understand for newcomers, it is very convoluted and clunky for expert players. Skills are now separated into different categories and screens and lack the focus of having everything on a single page. However, since the game is in beta, I’m pretty sure that they will redesign it before the end of beta.

While I like the idea of scaling skills to DPS, one thing that I am concerned about in this regard has to do with the weapons themselves. With exception to the Demon Hunter and their crossbows, everyone can equip a variety of weapons and still use their skills. What that means is that a Sorceress can equip an axe or a club that can give her skills more damage than a wand starting out. We’ll have to wait and see how this plays out over the course of the game.

Going back to the classes themselves, my current favorite is the Witch Doctor as I was a fan of the Necromancer from Diablo 2. My least favorite would have to be the Demon Hunter. They seem to be the slowest to deal major damage and their mana bar which is actually 2 in 1, didn’t get a chance to shine in the demo. When comparing the Barbarian to the Monk, the Barbarian is about pure damage potential. While the Monk has some utility built in with group buffs and area of effect attacks.

Another area that is different from Diablo 2 to 3 is with the world itself. In Diablo 2, the world was largely randomized with set areas for story or quest related challenge. In Diablo 3 it is reversed (at least from the start): the over world map is linear with the chance of finding randomized dungeons as you explore. At this point with how short the beta is, I’m neutral regarding this choice.

One thing I liked that happened near the end of the beta was the chance of a random quest showing up. One of them was a last stand situation where you have to survive against waves of enemies. I hope that there are more quests like this as the game goes on. As for the rest of the beta, it’s pretty much a straight path to the game’s first boss.

Returning from Diablo 2 is being able to recruit a NPC as a follower. Each follower now has their own skill tree and will team up with you when there are no other players in your game. Looking at the game site, there are several followers you can choose from in the main game.

The last new feature in the beta is the crafting system which acts as a positive money sink. You can use gold to upgrade the blacksmith which in turn will unlock new crafting recipes. To craft a new piece of equipment, you’ll have to get raw materials. The blacksmith can breakdown any magical or rarer item to give you said materials. After that it’s just a matter of spending more gold and you’ll get an item. Each item that the blacksmith can craft has several base stats, and a few random properties. That reduces the chance of getting the exact same gear twice.

My real concern above all else has to do with the loot table. As it stands in the beta, the loot table is nowhere near the same level of variety seen in Diablo 2. Currently in the beta, the only two rarities of items are magical and rare. The problem is that rares only have a chance of dropping after fighting the boss or crafting. This is a big difference from Diablo 2 where items could drop at anytime. Now of course I have to remind everyone that this is the beta, and I’m crossing my fingers that this should be fixed by the release date.

Overall I enjoyed myself playing the beta, unfortunately for now; it’s too linear to make a judgment about Diablo 3. That does it for part 4, once again I’m taking submissions for future topics and if you have any ideas feel free to post. Our next part is a submission and is going to talk about level design in ARPGs.

Josh Bycer

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This is another one of those topics where I get to sound old at the age of 27. Gamers these days really do have it easy with their disk drives and cloud saves. Back during the NES era, if you wanted to finish a game, you were sitting there until the credits rolled. During the early days of the industry, saving during a game was reserved for RPGs and Computer games which were a step ahead with the hard drive. For everything else, you had to be lucky if your game had a password save. You youngsters out there are fortunate that you’ll never have to deal with a 30 character password system.

As games became more complex and technology improved, saving went from being a luxury feature, to now standard. However, the actual implementation has several variations. Some games allow the player to save at any point, while others only allow it at specific locations. As the use of saves became standard, it allowed designers to increase the amount of content knowing that someone won’t have to do it all in one sitting. Today, the act of saving has changed to be a part of the design process with how to properly pace and challenge games. This brings us to today’s debate: should saving be an integral part of the game design, or not?

A lot of designers are trying to inject meaningful choices into their games such as the little sister decision in Bioshock. Being able to reload any choice you want undervalues making important decisions. Raise your hand if you ever created a separate save in a game before a major choice so that you can go back to it and select the other one.

Another detail of saves is with challenge; games where the player can save anywhere can ruin the challenge or mood of the game. In Amnesia: The Dark Decent, with the ability to save anywhere and infinite lives, it killed the tension of the game for me. However, playing the mini expansion where the player can’t save and there is only one life, I was feeling nervous due to not knowing what’s going to happen.

Saving can be used as a way to jack up the tension and challenge in a game. The Resident Evil series up until 4 (if I remember right) not only had specific save points, but a limit on how often you could save a game. Each time the player wanted to save they had to use an ink ribbon at a typewriter. However, there was a limit of how many were in the game. Games aimed at expert gamers, lose a lot of their “bite” if you can just quick save and quick load your way out of trouble.

With that said however, fixed saving can be a major hassle to deal with. Free time as most adults know, is not always guaranteed: family emergencies, plans and even a job can get in the way. Some games have their save points anywhere from 20 to 30 minutes apart from each other with checkpoints dispersed between. The problem is that checkpoints won’t save the player’s progress if they need to go somewhere.

Is it fair to force people to replay sections they already beat because of outside issues? An even harder blow to take is having a save point after multiple sections and the player having to go before finishing the whole thing. The length and complexity of games has increased over the years which also mean the amount of time that has to be dedicated to play. That’s one of the reasons why mobile and casual games have become so popular: They’re quick to get into, can be played in short bursts and there is very little progress lost if the player has to stop all of a sudden.

Now this is the part where I normally talk about where my opinion falls on the topic, however I’m going to mix things up. Instead of deciding between A or B, I’m going to purpose option C, a way of having your cake and eating it too.

I purpose that the option of having a “temporary save” become the new standard for design. A temporary save which is used a lot in Rogue-likes, is that besides having a permanent save. The game allows the player to save at anytime, but upon saving the player quits the game. When they load the save up, they are right where they started and the save is deleted.

This will allow gamers to not have to worry about outside issues stopping them from playing while still preserving the game design. Games can still have permanent saves in select places, but the player is no longer forced to lost progress if they can’t reach a save point.

There is one game that I’ve played that used this system to great effect – Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter. BoF is one part rogue like and one part RPG, in how the player is supposed to play it multiple times. The player has a rank that affects what story events, or sections they are allowed to visit during the game. Each time the player beats the game or is defeated, there score is tallied up and their rank is updated. One of the details that are factored in is how many times the player saves in the game.

Like the early Resident Evils, the player can make permanent saves, but at the cost of a save token which are limited in the game. Players can also create temporary saves in the same way I described further up. To get the best ranking in the game, one of the conditions is that the player cannot have any permanent saves in their run.

The beauty of this system is that the act of saving is still a part of the design by being a score factor, but at the same time it’s not punishing people for having a life. For such a challenging and hardcore experience, both Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls are very lenient in this regard. Both games are constantly saving your progress behind the scenes and the player can quit out of the game at anytime returning to their exact position next time.

In today’s world there are numerous ways for people to play games: consoles, handhelds, phones and computers. Free time for many people is a precious commodity and if given a choice, will prefer to play something that they have a chance at making progress with. Instead of playing a game where they have to effectively plan out when they can play it beforehand.

And that takes us to the last part of these posts, what do you think? One last thing that should be factored in to your decision: How many of you have stayed up way past your bedtime to try and reach a save point before bed? My current late night record is being up to 5:30 in the morning to finish the final level of Rayman Origins. As there was no way in hell I was starting that one from scratch again.

Josh Bycer

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