Gungnir is a strategy role playing game (SRPG) developed by Sting Entertainment and published by Atlus (continual supporters of RPGs of many types) for the PlayStation Portable. Gungnir is episode nine in the Department of Heaven series of RPGs which might raise a few eyebrows. Let me answer some questions for you quickly. Yes, there have only been three previous entries in the series (Riviera, Yggdra Union and Knights in the Nightmare), so you haven’t missed a string of games in the middle. Incidentally, those games correspond to episodes 1, 2, and 4, respectively. Strange release schedule, no? Also, you do not have to have played the previous entries before playing Gungnir. The games exist in the same Norse mythology inspired universe, but take place on different worlds and are mostly unrelated to each other. Whether these games will ultimately coalesce into some epic gaming joining-of-forces, Marvel movie style, is anyone’s guess… but probably not.
“As long as my blood still runs.”
The above quote serves as the title of Scene 4 of Gungnir, and is right up my alley by immediately suggesting a level of tension or passion that drives this story. In broad strokes, the story of Gungnir revolves around a group of rebels from the oppressed Leonican people attempting to rise up and overthrow the ruling Daltans. Early in the game, you meet the mysterious girl Alyssa, who gives you access to Gungnir, the power lance of the gods. She joins the band of rebels, and together they journey forth through a story filled with loss, political intrigue, revenge, and shifting motivations.
The story in Gungnir is serviceable, but doesn’t live up to its bullet points, and ends up coming off a bit flat and uninspired. It’s not up to the quality of classics such as Final Fantasy Tactics, and lacks the unique flavor of a game like Jeanne D’arc. Part of the problem is the lack of character development, as actions and motivations often get swept up together and viewed on such a macro scale that it’s hard to really relate to the individuals.
Another problem with the story is an overall lack of polish and presence in the presentation. The writing suffers, perhaps from an iffy translation, with some characters being too obvious in their uni dimensionality, “I only care about money,” while others spew lines that seem completely out of place. “Don’t hate the player, hate the game.” That line just sounds wrong in a medieval fantasy setting. In Disgaea, it might fit right in, but if lines like that are meant to be anachronistic and elicit chuckles, they wholly undermine the intended gravitas of the unfolding story.
Without voiced dialogue or any cut scenes, it’s hard to get invested in the characters. Like many SRPGS, dialogue is presented in text boxes accompanied by character portraits. The problem with these portraits is that they don’t change. It seems there is only one per character, so it rarely matches the emotion of the dialogue or even represent what the character is wearing, furthering the distance between gamer and character. Weighing in at only 143MB, Sting seems to have developed this game to be lean, with an idea of its expected return.
That being said, the struggle of the Leonican people does feel cohesive, with a pervasive sense of desperation and determination, and does more than just glue the battle scenes together. Those battle scenes are probably the reason you would want to get this game anyway.
The pulse of the battles lies in time management. While this is a turn based game, the turns don’t play out in any initially sensical order. Each character doesn’t get their own slot to move. Instead, when your turn comes up, you choose which character to move. Effectively, this means you can choose to play the most with the characters that are most critical, and introduces a layer of strategy by allowing you to adjust the flow and tempo of the character movements and actions. This gets a little more complicated because your party wait time and your character wait times are different. Your party wait time is relatively short and dictates your slot in the turn order.
When your slot comes up you can move any character, but only if their individual wait time has ended. Each character has a delay that is associated with taking an action, which is lessened if you choose to only move and wait, instead of acting. Further, you can “scramble” and push a character whose wait time isn’t up to the front of the stack with the tradeoff of some HP. If it sounds complicated, that’s because it is. It all makes sense once you get the hang of it, but is never sufficiently explained during the game.
Additional systems at play during battles are those of Beat and Boost. The beat mechanic allows your party members that are in line (according to the battlefield grid) with the attacking character to help out and add strength to the attack. Somewhere there exists an arcane set of rules governing the Beat option, but good luck finding it. From what I could decipher, the aiding character must be able to hit the target on their own, so spacing and weapon selection play a role. Boosts function similarly to beats, in that they utilize the collaborative effort of your team, but they add temporary buffs to the current support action instead of increased power to an attack.
These mechanics are not fully explained in the game, which is a shame because coupled with the time management options, they constitute the majority of the strategy in this SRPG. During the battle scenes, there is a healthy variety of strategic options, allowing the battles to play out in interesting ways, though some of the battles take a bit too long to work through.
Governing these various battle tactics is the Tactics Meter. This is really the most important component of managing the battlefield. You gain tactics points by moving your characters and increase your maximum mainly through capturing specific points on the map. These tactic points are used to fund actions such as scrambles, boosts, and beats. The tactics meter is intuitive, even if the systems it regulates aren’t.
There are certainly a lot of systems at play in Gungnir. In addition to the ones mentioned, you have weapon levels and mastery levels, new equipment to test that can be subbed in mid-battle (on certain squares), player and character wait times, elemental affinities and more. To play a perfect game, you would need to master each and every one of these systems. It really isn’t necessary, though. At least through the first half of the game, these systems are slowly introduced (though clearly not in enough detail), but being aware of the available options is far more important than mastering these systems. The game is not particularly forgiving, but you don’t need to be laser focused to win battles.
Overall, this game sits somewhere near the middle of the spectrum. While the story comes off a little bland, and the mechanics are maybe too complex for their own good, neither are off-putting. The game doesn’t reach the lofty highs of the genre classics, but it never really intends to. Gungnir is a solid game, just limited in scope. If you know that going in, and have the patience to wade through the intimidating layers of stats, there is enjoyment to be had in the focused series of battles. For what it’s worth, the more I played Gungnir, the more options I had and the more I liked it.
Review copy of game provided by publisher.