Developer: Sting / Publisher: Atlus / Played on: PlayStation Portable / Price: $29.99 / ESRB: Teen [Alcohol Reference, Fantasy Violence, Mild Blood, Mild Language, Mild Suggestive Themes]
Leave it to Atlus to give early adopters of Sony’s PS Vita a reason to play another PSP game. Gungnir is a brand new strategy title for Sony’s first handheld system. The combat is deep, the story grandiose, and the characters sport equally extravagant hairstyles and weapons. It’s everything a strategy fan would want, but it’s nothing you haven’t experienced before.
The two races in the world of Gargandia live very different lifestyles. The Daltania lead prosperous lives as the royalty of the land, with an abundance of luxuries to comfort them, while the Leonica are regarded as cursed and live a peasant’s life, surviving day by day. It isn’t a surprise that the Leonica have a bit of resentment to the Daltania, and a small revolutionary army is formed amongst the peasants. Strong-willed Giulio, his brother Ragnus, and their friends and followers run across slave traders traveling near their home and subsequently rescue a mysterious girl named Alissa. A Daltania noble, Alissa is hushed telling about her past or motives for being so far from her kingdom, but that doesn’t stop a massive search party from seeking her out and killing anyone opposing their efforts. Giulio and his resistance army quickly fall to the superior Daltania army, but just as things look bleakest, the demonic lance Gungnir reveals itself to Giulio, deeming him worthy to use its awesome power. With the power of Gungnir at his side, Giulio and pals are set to fight for equality for all people in Gargandia. While this sounds epic, there isn’t anything exciting, riveting, or worthwhile in the story to keep your attention. It all feels so familiar: the downtrodden people rising up, a powerful weapon/ability being granted, and a demonic influence being defeated. Since the story segments make up a huge majority of gameplay, just reading drawn out text between battles can be an unwelcome chore.
Gungnir is one of the more complicated strategy RPGs out there, but the game does a decent job getting you acclimated to everything it has to offer. At its core Gungnir is like many other strategy RPGs: you move in a grid based map, lining up attacks, and vanquishing enemies. Your army can only be so large at any given time, and you can only take a select few combatants into battle. On top of this, there are around a dozen classes to utilize, including standard roles like paladin and archer, along with more unique offerings like trickster and fencer. Mix in micromanaging elements like inventory management, equipping each unit properly, and using the best classes for each fight and you’ve got the makings of a decent strategy title.
But here is where Gungnir does a lot more. At the start of each battle you select a specific character to act as your Ace. The Ace is your lifeline to the fight: if he/she dies, the fight is over. But the Ace also gives other units special rewards, like faster movement speeds. Speaking of movement, you don’t move each unit one-by-one like in Final Fantasy Tactics or Tactics Ogre. Instead you have a countdown timer that lets you move any one unit. So long as that unit hadn’t moved too recently before, you can move it again. So essentially you can kill all your enemies with just one character, leaving the rest to walk in place at the starting line. Spread throughout the level are banners that you can capture that award your units extra attack strength as well as Tactics Points. These points are used to execute all kinds of special attacks. The most common ones are Beats and Boosts. A Beat occurs when one unit attacks and another adjacent unit (or units) joins in, dealing extra damage. Boosts occur the same way, but instead of lending attack power, they increase attack effectiveness by increasing critical chances or raising accuracy. Since enemies can do Beats and Boosts as well, getting surrounded by enemy units is devastating.
Lastly, Giulio can use all the Tactics Points in reserve to summon a demon to battle via Gungnir. These demons do more harm than good in most occasions as they don’t differentiate friend from foe, dealing damage and breaking armor to all they hit. There’s so much going on when in battle that it can get confusing, but tooltips and a tutorial mode make learning it all much easier. That being said, you probably won’t use all of these in conjunction, rather you’ll find out what elements work together and stick to using them for the rest of the game.
The biggest drawback to Gungnir’s gameplay is pacing. Battles are stuck between longwinded cutscenes and the aforementioned management of your troops. Each battle ranges anywhere from 20 to 45 minutes. Many of the later battles get frustrating when you are near victory only to have your Ace die by a lucky enemy hit and are forced to replay the entire mission from the start. Occasionally you’ll be asked outside of battle to make a crucial decision in the story (like whether or not to kill an officer of the Daltania army), impacting the plot. While these are nice ways to involve you more in the story, the melodramatic plot will still leave a stale taste in your mouth.
Gungnir has a similar graphical style to Sting’s other strategy RPGs Knights in the Nightmare and Yggdra Union. The isometric viewpoint ensures an eagle eye view on the action. Landscapes range from the pompous quarters of the Daltanian people to the slums of the Leonica, both featuring great detail and variety. Character portraits that display during cutscenes are beautiful, with each character displaying a lush originality. I was disappointed with the summoning sequences mainly because I was expecting some extravagant animation, but instead was given a still image of the demon I had summoned with some flashy colors appearing on screen. Overall the game’s visuals are average, not standing out in any good or bad way.
While Gungnir is in no means a bad game, there isn’t anything about it that calls out to be played. The story isn’t entirely original, but the lower class uprising setting fits well with the gameplay (as it does with most titles in the genre). The handful of unique gameplay twists change the usual tactics for battle and can be something fans of the genre will love, but that isn’t enough to make up for the slow pacing of battles. Only if you’re truly fanatical about strategy RPGs will Gungnir will be right up your alley.