A few years ago, a majority of my friends became obsessed with the television series, Lost. When they weren’t arranging their schedule around the release of new episodes, each spent hours analyzing each cryptic reference the writers embedded into every show, eager to glean some new insight into the overarching, intricately layered narrative. Although I‘ve never developed much of a passion for television, I do admit to having a similar fixation with Japanese developer STING’s Department Heaven series.
Recalling Lost’s cryptic numerology, each of the four games that have been released in the nine title anthology have been given a non-sequential designator, with higher episode numbers purportedly indicating an increased level of originality. Beyond common settings, villains and references to Norse mythology, each entry in the Department Heaven series has offered a remarkable twist on a derivative genre. From inserting dating sim mechanics into Riviera: The Promised Land’s amalgam of role-playing game and visual novel to Knights in the Nightmare’s odd fusion of strategy role-playing game, loot collection, and shoot-‘em-up, STING’s output has been consistently inspired. Thankfully, Gungnir– the latest addition to developer’s gratifyingly imaginative oeuvre, shows the developer upholding the series’ legacy.
Unlike Knights, which confounded many gamers with its dense intermingling of divergent game mechanics, Gungnir’s aspirations fall obliquely within the strategy role-playing realm. At the game’s onset, players are introduced to the Leonica, a subjugated group living alongside the ruling class Daltania. Players take control of members of Esperanza, a resistance faction determined with toppling the aristocrats, and surreptitiously stumble upon a mysterious young noblewoman being transported by slave traders. With verbose conversations which don’t always articulate a character’s motivations, the title’s introduction settles for a slow smolder, rather that enthralling players from the onset. Thankfully, the pace quickens once players are given access to the game’s nemesis- a powerful lance with demonic powers. Like STING’s previous efforts, Gungnir characters often shun the extremes of the moral spectrum, elevating the title above many of its dualistic contemporaries. Unfortunately, the game’s sense of earnestness is undermined by the occasional anachronism which belies the vaguely medieval, high fantasy tone.
Mercifully, any faults in the game’s narrative are easily overlooked by the game’s distinctive combat system. Tweaking traditional SRPG mechanics, Gungnir employs two systems which regulate turn order, making time management just as important as unit positioning. In essence, allied party actions exist alongside corresponding enemy activities on a timeline. When it’s the player’s turn, any unit can be selected, moved, and ordered to act- allowing allies in the interior of a engagement to attack, while bypassing friendlies on the fringes. To keep this flexibility from being exploited, individual units are given a wait time that is consummate with each command; a short movement might require a quick respite but an extended trek and attacks would necessitate a protracted breather. Cleverly, the game allows players to bypass wait times at the cost of shrinking a unit’s health bar, endowing battles with an intriguing risk/reward component. Even for SRPG aficionados, the battle system can be complicated. Mercifully, tutorial screen pop up at regular intervals, which can be reviewed later.
As the game forgoes the ability to grind your party through noncompulsory side missions, players are obliged to be savvy about upgrades. While weapons level up on a per usage basis, allied characters are given five item slots for equipment such as weapons, armor, and items- helping to even the odds of the game’s more challenging encounters. Although a convenient diagram shows the comparative advantage (or disadvantage) of each piece of loot, there’s no way of seeing a comparable analysis in the game’s shop, which is an odd decision considering Department Heaven’s custom of offering a surplus of on-screen data.
Visually, Gungnir is proficient, with charming battlefield sprites for combatants and environmental objects, all presenting in a traditional isometric format. Although the game lacks the robust voice-overs of Riviera, Gungnir’s coding is lean, the game’s diminutive 184 MB footprint provides speedy load times, and a data install option for the hopelessly impatient. It should be noted that at the time of this writing, the title wasn’t compatible with the PS Vita. Hopefully, Sony will rectify this quandary is the coming weeks.
While Gungnir may not be on the same lofty plateau as Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together, Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions or even the Disgaea titles, it does offer a fresh SRPG experience that isn’t a port of a console title. Propelling by an absorbing battle system, graphical allure, and an appealing storyline (once the player passes a languid introduction), the game deserves a purchase by both fans of the genre as well as Department Heaven devotees.