(PlayStation Portable Review) Gungnir

Developer: Sting
Publisher: Atlus
Genre: Strategy (Tactical)/Role-Playing Game
Players: 1
ESRB: Teen
Reviewer: Marcus Way

Overall: 6.5 = Fair

Gungnir is the fourth episode in Sting’s loosely connected Dept. Heaven series, following Riviera: The Promised Land, Yggdra Union: We’ll Never Fight Alone, and Knights in the Nightmare. Published by Atlus, Gungnir follows the exploits of young Leonican warrior Giulio Raguel, a squad commander in the Esperanza rebel army from the poverty-stricken land of Espada. Along with his adopted brother, Esperanza’s commander Ragnus Raguel, Giulio leads a small army in a war against the domineering Daltans and their Gargan Empire, led by Emperor Wolfgang III.

Fifteen years prior, the Emperor, in a very biblical display of power, slew as many young Leonican males as he could find to stave off a prophecy that predicted his downfall in what has become known as the Espada Massacre. Another of the Emperor’s causalities was former Esperanza commander—and Giulio and Ragnus’ father—Ricardo. After falling in battle, Giulio comes into possession of a demonic spear known as Gungnir, as well as its protector, Elise. With his newfound abilities and health-siphoning weapon in hand, Giulio sets off with his Esperanza compatriots to bring down the Empire.

From there, you lead your squad in a bitter war against all who stand with the Daltans. Ostensibly a strategy-RPG, Gungnir is more of a tactical-RPG because, unlike the Ogre Battle series, you go wherever the story dictates and have no say over where the army goes. Being at the mercy of the narrative has a downside that rapidly becomes apparent: grinding will take place on the same map that bested you. By not being able to move the squad around, the game locks you into playing the same map until the troops level high enough to continue. But that’s just one of the many frustrating elements in this beguiling but irksome journey for revenge.

The main problem I have with Gungnir is its pace. From the wearisome dialog to the endless stream of enemy actions, there is waiting on top of waiting. The numerous Event Scenes, sections in which the allies chat amongst themselves and where you get to make the odd choice between two options, are packed with more vacuous non-response responses than I could stand. As with the combat, there is too much going on that simply doesn’t involve you. The conversations play out at a snail’s pace because everyone gets a say, even if it’s one of the ubiquitous and unnecessary ellipses that so frequently dominate Japanese role-playing games. The fact is that the characters simply aren’t interesting, and their pulled-from-a-rolodex-style responses to situations do not help their cause. Surprisingly, despite being fairly typical, the story itself isn’t all that bad.

The Rebels versus The Empire is a cliché, but there are a few interesting bits to Gungnir that help to give it a bit of flair. One of the more interesting aspects is that the land is physically divided by a giant chasm that splits East and West. As time passed, the Daltans in the West prospered and eventually subjugated the minority Leonicans, forcing them into slums in the East. Esperanza isn’t the only faction at odds with the Empire, either. The rebels’ war brings them into contact with the Holy State of Millenia, bitter enemies who have suffered from the Emperor’s expansionist policies; the Republicans within the Imperial Parliament; and a breakaway party which opposes the increasing influence of the prime minister and leader of the Imperial Faction, Ziyad Berlioz. As the game progresses, tension mounts between the wayward allies and the battered Leonican troops, as the latter try to avoid being used as pawns in the Empire’s greater struggles.

Some interesting themes are touched upon throughout all of this interaction and conniving and combat, including the right of conquest, responsibility of power, and the dangerous effects of dehumanizing the enemy. Of course, those are covered in broad strokes, with most of the droll dialog centered around a handful of whiny rebels who can’t seem to get their act together and agree on much other than to ignore my advice (“Tell them to shove it … or tell them you’re upset and won’t do it but immediately back down and agree to do whatever they ask. Great.”). Tactics Ogre this isn’t. While the quality of the text is fine, as it is with most Atlus-published titles, the quantity and content leave much to be desired. But the game has to follow a narrative course, and so it does. Even though I can understand that approach, I would’ve at least liked for it to have been more engaging, and offer greater feedback as to acknowledge that my Event Scene choices were even remotely impactful.

Okay, so I’m not the star of the show and my actions aren’t the be-all and end-all. When words fail, there’s always steel. And as with most strategy-RPGs—sorry, tactical-RPGs—the core of the game is the combat system. However, as with the dialog, I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with the battle mechanics. Well, it’s more like a love-grip-the-PSP-with-the-force-of-the-jaws-of-life-in-frustration relationship.

Battles are played out on maps sectioned into grids, with you and the enemy each having pre-set starting positions. And as with all right and proper strategy titles, there are variables galore. Elevation and position factor into the probability of a hit landing and the range of damage, both of which are conveniently displayed before initiating an action, as do the accumulated Tactics Points—but more on that later. One character, the Ace, is chosen from a preset list at the beginning of each match to lead the troops. If that character loses all of their health points, that side loses. There’s a problem with this setup, though, and that’s that the protagonist Giulio isn’t always an available Ace. Despite the choice always being between primary characters, the available characters aren’t always around for every encounter due to the frequency with which they come and go, so there will be times when you’re left selecting from a group of underdeveloped or unfamiliar fighters. Why Giulio isn’t always a choice is beyond me, though small bits of descriptive text seem to be an attempt to explain why each Ace is an option—anger at one of the enemies, the desire to progress, etc.—though I’d think the main character and leader of the rebellion would always have cause to jump in first.

The foundation of the turn-based combat system is time. Each level has to be completed within a certain—often generous—timeframe, and each character can only move as much as their allotted Wait Time allows. A clock constantly ticks down the seconds, referred to in-game as Delay, between moves, and the turn-order bar displays a number below each character icon that indicates how many seconds it will be before they can move again. Movement costs little time, while any sort of action, be it attacking an enemy or swigging a potion, takes all of the remaining time. Most other activities require Tactics Points, including initiating combo attacks, looting bodies, switching out equipment, swapping out allies at Retreat Points, and allowing Giulio the chance to engage the once-per-battle Ragnarok, which summons a powerful War God that smites friend and foe alike. The overall amount of Tactics Points is increased by taking ‘bases’ (flags). A higher total also means an increased chance of permanently killing enemies (drop all of their items) rather than simply making them retreat (drop one item) because damage can be increased with more points, and how enemies are dispatched is determined by the strength of the attack whenever their health points reach zero. It’s an interesting system that is easier to understand than it sounds, despite the game continually flashing explanatory text, even hours into the adventure.

But there’s a problem with this system, and that’s the way the game treats enemy moves and your moves. More succinctly: every single enemy character gets a turn while your entire party shares the same turn. As the enemy frequently has a two-to-one favor, the game snowballs into a series of brutal matches as your outnumbered forces face the full brunt of a game that richly rewards movement. What exactly do more units get the enemy? More chances to move, which means more Tactics Points, both in terms of a higher ceiling and actual stored points. The battle maps aren’t very large, either; this often results in your party being hemmed in by an initial wave, with further waves only serving to further choke your ability to move as well as add to their seemingly never-ending supply of points. This is worsened if you actually follow the game’s advice of choosing the Advanced difficulty over Basic because of your experience with such games in the past; doing so means the enemies can take more pain and will have shorter Wait Times.

The dangers of being hemmed in are many. One of the primary uses of Tactics Points is to initiate Boost Actions (ally-charged attacks) and Beat Actions (combo attacks with allies). As the enemy closes in, your units are frequently at a loss, either being stranded and surrounded or bunched together and easy prey for foes with multi-grid attacks. In a worst-case scenario, your troops will face the dreaded Boost + Beat attack combo that includes multiple enemies attacking at once with charged moves. I can only venture to guess that Tactics Points are in place to limit the abuse of this system, as I often didn’t have enough to unleash such maneuvers even when I was in position, but as the enemy has a massive supply at any given moment, they are rarely at a loss to introduce your squad to a world of pain. This also allows enemy casters all the time in the world to unleash multi-grid attacks, often protected not only by a wall of enemy soldiers but also their frequently elevated starting positions. But the frustration doesn’t end there. Because the enemy has so many units, they seem to delight in poaching as much as possible from your retreated troops’ bags, meaning that you’ve lost that expensive sword, rod, book of spells, whatever, before you even had a chance to go for it with one of your own units. The enemy’s ability to surround and outmaneuver can make some of the system’s more interesting abilities more frustrating as well, such as being able to knock someone off a ledge or forcing a character to retreat by knocking them out of the map entirely.

But a number of items aren’t sufficiently explained to make much of this particularly clear. The extensive pop-up help text and tutorial covers how to engage Boost and Beat Actions and Scramble, the ability to sacrifice Tactics Points for the chance to skip ahead of the turn line to allow a character to act, but some things will come as painful surprises. In one escort map—ugh—I had to ensure that a character escaped a castle by keeping her safe until she reached a Retreat Point. Aside from the fact that she made a beeline to the point without the slightest bit of consideration for her well-being, I twice found myself replaying the mission because of the computer killing my Ace by knocking them into water and off the map. Earlier missions featuring water never indicated that drowning is a possibility, as the enemy and your characters simply jump in and go about following their orders. So imagine my shock when an enemy’s knockback blow sent my Ace over an edge and into water, where they promptly died. The game is at its most trying when its problems compound, and they do so with alarming frequency. It’s actually a respite when the AI hiccups cause your foes to stand around for extended periods of time, allowing you to wallop them, which is vastly superior to the times when they aggressively go after your Ace or set themselves up for strings of boosted attacks. I also ran into some odd bugs in regards to knockbacks, with my Ace once being declared out of the combat zone whenever he was in the middle of the map; another time, I had to restart the system after the game was locked into a state of trying to calibrate the damage an enemy suffered from being knocked off a ledge.

The squad limitation, as with the Giulio not always being a selectable Ace, doesn’t make much sense. If the enemy can field eight soldiers, then why do I only get to select four characters out of a 10-character party? So much of the game comes across so completely arbitrary that, despite the involved combat system, there are moments where it seems laziness won out over proper balance. The only way progress is possible in the later portions of the game is due to the ability to Retry a battle, which, unlike Replay, starts the round over with all of the character and weapon upgrades earned from the previous attempt. As helpful as that is, it seems to be a quick fix to a more complex problem. Then again, so do some of the other questionable approaches. This might sounds like I’m nitpicking, and I would be inclined to agree in some instances, but every defeat by a ridiculously overpowered enemy squad just reinforces how lopsided the rules are.

I did beat the game, though, and while I won’t go through it again, I am glad that I saw it through. For as many moments where I had to set my system down and walk away, there were a number where the game’s web of variables really shined. On top of that, there is the addictiveness of constantly scrounging for new arms and armor, fiddling with items, and trying out the latest looted gear. The various classes offer several many ways in which the virtual tinkerer can outfit their troops just right, which include such professions as Alchemists, Archers, Assassins, Brutes, Gunners, Paladins, Priestesses, and Sorceresses. Each can equip both general and class-specific gear that vary their attributes and attacks: a fire sword might allow for a three-grid horizontal slash with the possibility to inflict lingering burn damage, while a water sword might instead offer a single-grid attack that has a knockback effect. An unqualified weight limit only increases the experimentation, with characters capable of wielding multiple weapons and weapon types just as long as they don’t encumber themselves.

Weapons can also be mastered with use, and as proficiency increases, so too do their attributes and number of special attacks. This is actually a neat system that allows for preferred weapons to be kept, despite their base stats initially being less than another weapon of another element. Crystals strewn about the battle maps can be chipped and their shards picked up for improving gear, though this isn’t always possible given the aforementioned difficulties in regards to the number of enemies per battle. But with enough experience and a few upgrades, an older sword that has a nice variety of pattern attacks can be kept on for future use once it’s been accustomed to. And that’s just weapons; there are also items, armor for the body, head, and hand, and shields to hunt for and fuss over.

With up to 15 characters, there is always some pre-battle maintenance to be done. But that’s also indicative of the game’s more endearing traits in that it caters to players who like to meticulously plan their assaults and execute intricate maneuvers. The latter can be fraught with unpredictability, though, given the limited turn count and the proficiency of the enemy to weasel their way into and around formations, but this also makes it particularly satisfying to successfully pull off a hard-fought strategy. Laying a trap that requires an enemy to find themselves seven or eight grids forward and into a spell’s range as its nine-second cast has ended is cause for a celebration. And there is also something about the let-the-world-burn attitude of the War Gods that is both appealing and cathartic, venting pent-up frustrations by unleashing a deity who could just as well freeze your Ace and make another character retreat in fear as it could turn an enemy onto its former cohorts and knock half of them out of the battle with a mighty attack. The game isn’t always forthcoming with its goods, but it does have its moments.

Gungnir is a decent tactical-RPG that suffers from poor balance and pacing. It would have made a much stronger offering on the PS Vita, which it should be compatible with at some point, but as it stands, there are much better games on the PSP for fans of the genre. If those have been completed, then Gungnir is worth a shot. There’s plenty to like, but it’s not always easy to like it. For those who do decide to take down the Empire, take my advice and enjoy the more forgiving Basic difficulty. Your PSP is already thanking me.

(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)

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