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Game Reviews: 'LOTR Conquest,' 'Valkyria'

One of the most enduring plots throughout our culture has been the triumph of the little guy over seemingly unstoppable forces.

From Moses versus the Pharaoh to Luke Skywalker versus Darth Vader, the hero's journey from nobody to hero is related repeatedly. You can even see it in the new film "Paul Blart: Mall Cop," if you squint real hard.

It's a familiar tale in video games as well, starting with "Super Mario Bros." and its squat, spunky plumber battling fantastic dangers and rescuing a princess.

All the stories in the "Final Fantasy" series are essentially variations on the same plot; indeed, most role-playing games, including last year's "Fable II" and "Fallout 3," follow the same arc.

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— "The Lord of the Rings: Conquest" (Electronic Arts, for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, $59.99): "The Lord of the Rings" may be the ultimate expression of the hero's journey, with a quite literally little guy, Frodo Baggins, triumphant over overwhelming evil.

Frodo's adventure, though, almost seems like an afterthought in the latest "LOTR" game, which focuses on the trilogy's widescreen battles, from Helm's Deep to Mordor.

You begin the campaign as an anonymous soldier in one of four classes (warrior, archer, mage or scout), although you also get the chance to take control of heroes like Gandalf, Aragorn and Gimli.

It's at the core of the gameplay where "Conquest" stumbles, as most of the missions simply involve hacking and slashing your way through hundreds of enemy grunts. There's very little need for strategy or finesse, just relentless button-mashing that gets old fast.

Once you've finished destroying Sauron, you can play an alternate campaign where you control the forces of evil.

It's kind of fun to run around Middle Earth slaughtering elves and hobbits, but I suspect most players will run out of patience before they get to that point. One star out of four.

— "Valkyria Chronicles" (Sega, for the PlayStation 3, $59.99): For a far more satisfying journey, check out this original epic from (surprisingly) Sega.

"Valkyria Chronicles" takes place in an alternate version of 1930s Europe. Welkin is a nice kid who dreams of being a biologist, but he's swept up in combat when his peaceful homeland is invaded by the belligerent Empire.

In each mission, you have to smartly deploy Welkin and his squadmates — scouts, troopers, snipers and so on — and then create havoc among the invaders.

There's a good deal of tactical variety between (and sometimes within) missions, shifting from defense to offense, so you never feel like you're repeating scenarios.

"Valkyria" is unusually pretty for a war strategy game, mixing anime-style characters with watercolor backgrounds. And the story is compelling, gradually introducing interesting new characters and intriguing fantasy elements.

It takes a while before you even find out what the Valkyria are, but it's an engrossing trip the whole way. Three stars.