Review: Gungnir (Sony PSP)

Gungnir
Publisher: Atlus
Developer: Sting Entertainment
Genre: Tactical RPG
Release Date: 06/12/2012

I have soft spot in my heart for tactical RPGs. Without hesitation, I tell anyone who asks that Final Fantasy Tactics is my favorite game of all time. The PSP has been a fantastic system for the genre, featuring numerous ports of classic entries, as well as some great exclusives. Gungnir is a member of the latter, and a welcome addition. It seems the PSP isn’t quite dead yet.

Gungnir is the latest game by Sting, and as such is part of the Dept. Heaven series. While this series doesn’t share continuity per se, they seem to hold many elements in common, such as art style, and dedication to originality. Interestingly enough, this is the first game in the series to debut on the PSP, though all of the others are available as well.

So, do PSP owners have one more reason to rejoice, or was this game best left over in Japan?

Story

In the empire of Gargandia, residents are split into two primary classes: noble Daltans, and peasant Leonicans. The Leonicans are tread upon without remorse, including a bloody massacre fifteen years prior to the start of the game’s tale. Now being that there is an evil empire in place, there is of course a resistance group. Called Esperanza, this group of Leonicans and Daltan sympathizers fight to right the injustices of the world.

The story of Gungnir starts with members of Esperanza attacking a Daltan caravan. Instead of food, they find a young noble girl named Alissa. Mostly at the behest of Giulio, the son of the late Esperanza founder, they welcome her into the fold. However, her appearance starts a chain of events that leads to a massive rebellion, tons of political intrigue, and host of interesting characters coming together under one common goal.

Oh yeah, and Giulio is bequeathed the power of Gungnir, the demon spear. It comes with the ability to summon “war gods” as well as a Valkyrie named Elise. Honestly, the story is mostly about the rebellion, whilst the tale of the spear comes up whenever they want to explain how the upstart rebels have a chance at winning. There are a few characters who chase after the spear and its powers, but the true nature of the spear and what it means is left unanswered. It looks cool though.

Gungnir‘s tale is sufficiently interesting to get through from start to finish. There are more than a few loose ends that aren’t tied up, as well as a plot hole or two. However, the characters are given plenty of chances to shine. What I really liked is that side characters continued to be relevant throughout the story. I’ve played a number of these types of games that introduce interesting new characters, given them a mission or two, and then treat them like just another faceless soldier. Gungnir does not forget these characters, and that really helps sell the world.

Graphics

Gungnir shares an aesthetic quality with previous Dept. Heaven games. Character models are cute little bobbled headed creations represented by more serious 2D drawings for closeups. The look can be a bit jarring, but it’s fine. What isn’t fine, however, is how often the models don’t match the portraits. For example, one noble is drawn to be a typical pointy beard fellow with a goofy hat. Problem is, the unit on the field looks like a kid in a suit of armor. One character has a distinctive eye patch that she wears at all times, but the portrait has a different eye covered than the model. There are tons of problems like this, and they really annoyed me.

The environments are solid all around. They use rich colors and varied landscapes effectively, and are full of nice little details. The disparity between the slums and the rich city of Daltanica is almost palpable. Meanwhile, water effects, detail on stonework, and other such niceties keep things looking quite good.

Sting has a habit of of going crazy with fonts, and Gungnir is no exception. On any given screen, you have close to half a dozen different fonts. It’s just crazy. While this keeps things from looking stale, it can also be distracting. In general, there is a lot of text on screen, more than is really needed. This is especially problematic during event scenes. The top portion of the screen is cut off with a bar that tells you the location, while the bottom part of the screen is blemished by a “now talking” sign. These things are really unneeded. After all, you can tell which character is speaking based on the speech bubble coming out of their portrait!

Overall, this is a good looking game with a few design choices that hold back the art style. Clear away some of the clutter, and this is a much cleaner looking game.

Audio

Let’s start with the music. Gungnir uses a typical, but satisfying orchestral score. It adds weight to the dramatic moments, and adds a little something to the battles as well. There was nothing particularly fantastic, nor anything memorable, but it all worked. There were some nice audio cues that stood out though. When you deploy your ace, a dramatic flair accompanies him/her. Also, when summoning a war god, the mood instantly becomes ominous and foreboding. These were nice touches.

For effects the game is part for the course with magic spells and sword thrusts. Nothing sounds out of place, but there are some things missing. Fallen characters don’t let out a death cry, which is something I’m used to. The death cry is usually an aural reward for finally putting down that baddie who’s been terrorizing you the whole battle. It was missed.

Beyond that, the game has a nice sound to it. There’s no voice acting, but it wasn’t needed. The music and effects do the job admirably on their own.

Gameplay

The basics of the tactical RPG genre are in place. You control a party of characters on a grid. Each turn, you can move a unit and have it perform various actions like attacking and using restorative items. Units gain experience for successful actions, are removed from the field when their health reaches zero, and some characters can die permanently. Gungnir keeps these basic mechanics, but adds a number of its own little touches to create a more unique experience.

Firstly, let’s get to the character customization. Characters are locked to a particular class, and level automatically. However, there is some substantial customization when it comes to equipment. Different weapons offer different attacks, elemental affiliations, and abilities. For example, a regular blade has a basic attack, and a sweeping attack. Another blade may use water magic, or add a status ailment when used. With rods, brooms, grimoires, and other mage weapons, different weapons unlock new spells. When these weapons are used, your character gains mastery with them. This unlocks new attacks, and makes the character more deadly with said weapon. There are also many types of armor, headgear, footwear, accessories, and items to equip. Characters can equip up to two weapons and a total of five pieces of equipment altogether. However, beyond the slot limit is a capacity limit. Each item has a capacity requirement in order to equip it. Better items have higher requirements. This adds another layer of strategy when choosing equipment. Do you sacrifice some defense in order to equip a second weapon? How important is it to carry potions around? In addition, you’ll be able to boost weapons via alchemy, making them more powerful, but at the cost of gems which must be acquired either in battle or by sacrificing non-weapon items.

Soldier recruitment is done in three ways. First, you acquire some story-related characters as you play through the game. Some of these will come and go, meaning you can’t rely just on them. Then again, they can’t permanently die, which is a plus. Secondly, you’ll be able to acquire new recruits at predetermined parts of the game. This is a one shot deal, but the soldier are free. Finally, at any time you can visit the guild. By offering up a signing bonus, you can attempt to hire a mercenary. You can also offer up a weapon to get a specific type of unit, but you’ll lose the item in question. For example, by offering a strong sword, you could hire a knight or paladin. Offer up a bow, and an archer will be interested in joining your party. This is a nifty system if you’re trying to replace a fallen soldier or simply trying to get a strong new class-specific character. The downside is that you’ll lose some money even if you don’t hire the merc, so it’s a not a good idea to look unless you’re willing to hire.

Most tactical RPGs uses one of two methods of turn order. Either each character has his or her own speed and acts accordingly, or you control your entire party in one turn and your opponent does the same. Gungnir uses a system that relies on “delay” and “wait”. When delay runs out, you can use one of your unit. This adds delay for each step they take and for whatever actions they take. That character also gets “wait”. This is a separate property that determines how soon that character can be used again. However, you can use a character with wait remaining at the sacrifice of vitality, which determines max hit points. What this system means is that, if you should choose, you can use only one or two characters for the whole battle. In fact, I often found that focusing on a small portion of my forces made battles much more manageable, as you can get several turns in before an individual opponent. This is because all opponents and guest characters run on a individual delay, meaning it takes longer for an individual to act. Keeping track of whose turn is coming up is vital to success.

Beyond that system, Gungnir also uses the “tactics gauge”. The tactics gauge fills whenever you move a character. You can raise your maximum amount of tactics points by capturing points on the map. These points have several uses. You can change equipment, retreat units for fresh ones, loot bodies for items, summon war gods, and take an instant turn. In addition, some weapons and abilities are more effective with higher point totals. More important are the “beat” and “boost” features. Beat allows allies in a cross section from an opponent to add extra hits when you attack. Beat allows adjacent allies to add bonuses to your attack. If used properly, you can multiply your damage dealt by two or three! Obviously, a huge part of the strategy is managing these points and effectively using beats and boosts to your advantage.

If all that weren’t enough, there’s a day/night mechanic in place. Time passes during battle, and a single skirmish can last several days. The time affects all kinds of things, from the effectiveness of some abilities, to status ailments like undead that are only in affect at night. Not to mention, you’re on a time limit for each battle. If too many days pass, you lose. As such, it’s best not to waste time.

The other way to lose is if your Ace dies. An Ace is a leader character you choose at the beginning of each battle. Aces bestow bonuses to certain classes, and you often have a choice between two or three of them. Even if Giulio can be considered the main character, he needn’t always be the Ace. On the flip side, most of the battles require you to defeat the enemy Ace. You don’t always need to clear the field.

This is getting lengthy, but there is still more to talk about. The game flows in a linear fashion. There is no over world to explore, or random battles to worry about. The story takes you right through the action. However, you can choose to retry battles should you lose. This lowers your rating, but also allows you to keep all experience earned on the failed attempt. Lacking random battles is kind of a downer, however, as you can’t experiment as much with different layouts. You need your characters to be deadly from the start of battle. It also means that keeping and even party is all but impossible. Many battles only allow you to use four characters, and you’ll have a party of over a dozen.

Those ratings I mentioned in the above paragraph aren’t there for the hell of it. Earning a good ranking allows for treasure chests to show up in the next battle. Break these suckers open for goodies, though you’ll have to spend several turns wearing down the chest, as well as a turn to actually grab the goods. In addition, these chests can be used as platforms, which can have tactical repercussions

Basically this is a complex tactical RPG with plenty of depth for hardcore fans. With the number of different class types, weapons, and items, you can replay the game and have a completely different experience. The system isn’t perfect, but it’s darn good fun.

Replayability

There are three difficulty settings to try out. Basic is supposedly for beginners, but poses a challenge even for experienced players. Advanced offers a hardier challenge for those willing to battle through it. Beating the game once unlocks new game plus and nightmare mode. New game plus can be played on basic or advanced, and allows gold, gems, and most items to carry over. If you choose nightmare, however, nothing carries over and you’re in for one hell of a ride.

One playthrough will run you about twenty hours. That’s pretty short compared to other titles in the genre, but the extra difficulties and new game plus mode push you to come back for more. Subsequent playthroughs will allow you to skip event scenes, saving you plenty of time.

If running through the game once for the story is all you want to do, Gungnir will be a disappointment. If you’re willing to test your mettle on tougher settings, the game offers plenty of bang for the buck. (Three endings doesn’t hurt much either.)

Balance

Tactical RPGs are hard to gauge when it comes to balance. After all, it may not be that the game is too hard, it may be you just really suck at developing a strategy. Still, I’ll give it a shot.

This is not an easy game. The enemy is often on high ground with long range fighters out of reach. In addition, there are several choke points that must be passed through in order to get to the objective. These are often guarded by strong melee units that are very good at blocking attacks from the front. Finally, there’s those pesky ballistas and cannons that rain hell from above. It can be a lot to take it. The enemy can also make use of boosts and beats, meaning a ill timed move can leave your unit in for a whirlwind of pain.

Even still, strategy is what wins you the game. Taking out those pesky cannons with your long range units at the start of battle is a must, setting up opponents for combos can whittle enemy forces down quickly, and making sure your healer has a clear line of sight to your Ace is paramount. The game certainly doesn’t pull any punches, but it is far from unfair or unbalanced. Not to mention, there are two initial difficulty settings to accommodate different levels of skill.

Originality

Gungnir does a good job of taking well used ideas and dressing them up as something new. After all, combo attacks are a staple of many a good tactical RPG. The tactics gauge is an interesting tool that forces you to rethink battles. What good is setting up for a beat when you don’t have the points to launch one? It certainly keeps things moving.

The story is certainly nothing new. Downtrodden rebels making that one big push for freedom, a super magical weapon ending up in the hands of a lowborn warrior, and other such things are par for the course. Heck, the noble girl you rescue at the beginning is a dead ringer for Alma from FFT!

Still, the game does a great job of creating its own identity. While it won’t set the bar for originality, it is definitely a unique entry into the genre.

Addictiveness

Battles are accompanied by even scenes before and after. This, coupled with a relatively slow moving battle system, means getting to the next save point can take well over half an hour. With retries or restarts, that time can escalate. That’s a pretty big chunk of time to set aside for the game. What this means is it becomes easy to put the game down between every scene. In fact, that’s pretty much what I did, barring a couple of longer sessions.

The truth is that the game doesn’t do a particularly good job of keeping you enthralled. While the story is enjoyable and the combat more than adequate, nothing really evolves throughout the game. You get to see all of the mechanics pretty early on, and the objectives are pretty much the same for every battle. Sure, there are a couple of exceptions, but they don’t break the monotony enough. The game just doesn’t have the legs to sustain extended sessions for any but the most dedicated of players.

Appeal Factor

Tactical RPGs in general are not very beginner friendly. Each comes with its own complicated and deep system, and rarely do tutorials help enough. Gungnir is particularly unfriendly to beginners because of its linear nature. There are no easy random encounters to boost your stats, and the tutorials only offer the basics. This is a game for experienced players only.

For fans of the genre, this is a pretty good buy. It’s only thirty dollars, and its not like the PSP is overcrowded with hot new releases these days. Gungnir stands out for both of these reasons, and overs an enjoyable, replayable experience for those willing to dive into it.

Miscellaneous

Just a couple of things to mention before we get to the scores.

The game allows users to install data to shorten load times. The amount of space required is pretty small, and the load times weren’t too bad to begin with. Still, it’s a feature that every PSP game should offer, so I’m glad it’s in use here.

There was one bug that that caused some issues. An enemy unit used an attack that knocked my unit back. Normally, this is just another part of the game, but there was another unit underneath, and this caused some kind of major catastrophe that caused both characters to take infinite damage because there was no where for the bottom character to go when the top one fell. Both characters died from this, one of them permanently, and forced me to restart immediately or lose one of my best units over something stupid. It also really annoyed me than when one unit is on top of another (which happens sometimes in normal play) or on top of a treasure chest, you can’t choose to attack the thing on the bottom. This was especially troubling during a mission where an uncontrollable guest character decided to sit on top a treasure chest for the whole battle.

Overall, this is a pretty good game, and a welcome addition to the aging PSP lineup. There are just a couple of hiccups that keep it from being as good as it could have been.

The Scores
Story: Enjoyable
Graphics: Above Average
Audio: Good
Gameplay: Great
Replayability: Very Good
Balance: Great
Originality: Above Average
Addictiveness: Mediocre
Appeal Factor: Decent
Miscellaneous: Enjoyable
Final Score: Enjoyable Game!

Short Attention Span Summary

Gungnir, for as difficult as it is to pronounce, is equally enjoyable. The combat system is deep and rewarding, there’s plenty of customization to appease stat junkies, and the story has its moments as well. It isn’t a terribly accessible game, and it doesn’t afford itself as well to portability, but the strength of the core game allows it to rise above these problems. If you’re a PSP owner looking for one last hurrah for your aging hand held, you could certainly do worse than this.

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