Alright so as you all know I love my VITA, it is my constant companion and eternal friend; yes I am a very sad human being. That being the case I felt a little weird bringing out my original PSP again for Gungnir, the latest title in the Dept. Heaven series. You may remember past games in the series like Riveria and Yggdra Union which came out on the GBA and were crazy, weird, and awesome. I was pretty excited to get into it and after blowing the dust off old one stick I got down to it. Is this one worth going out to storage and digging out your PSP or should you hold off till it becomes VITA compatible (if at all)? Read on and find out!
So at its heart the gameplay here is pretty much Fire Emblem; you move guys around a grid, attacks are dealt, and positioning matters. That’s all great but where this game gets interesting is in all the bars it gets you to fill and all the various systems it layers on top of it. You level your characters, who can level up their weapons which earns those weapons new attacks, those attacks can all be leveled up to add new properties, and every single action seems to earn you at least some experience. Those are just the bars to fill though, you can also have characters combo attack, add effects to each other’s attacks, and set up various menacingly intricate strategies that will make you feel like a Machiavellian marvel. The wrinkle here though is the fact that the game limits to you to one character acting per turn, sure you will overall have more turns than the enemy but every enemy unit gets their own turn. At first this may seem limiting but it means you need to be more creative with your strategies and by the end of my time with the game it truly got me thinking multiple steps ahead.
Moving onto the story, things are taking a very Star Wars route here. You are a scrappy young member of a bunch of rebels with a dead hero father who is defying yet losing to an evil empire. One day you get a magic stick (the titular spear Gungnir) giving you to power to do awesome shit and take back the realm. From there things go pretty J-to-the-RPG with lots of convoluted plot twists involving espionage, nobility, and magic that despite being interesting was hard to follow. I will admit to only having time to play through half the game, it is a JRPG on the PSP after all and there are only so many hours you can spend on the bus without looking weird, so maybe it gets real straight forward by the end…but I doubt it. Despite all the standard obfuscation that is so key to the genre there are actually some interesting facets to the storytelling. First off, you do get to make some seemingly major decisions (though whether the end results are any different between the choices wasn’t clear) and second they try to play with some interesting racial issues. The two sides of the conflict while being politically opposed are also racially opposed. They explore themes like whether political creeds are stronger than racial bigotry and what are the effects of a racial pogrom on an ethnic civilian populace. However for as interesting as this theme which undercuts the entire game is, it’s ruined by the fact that the two races don’t really seem to have discernible inherent differences.
So that seems like a good place to start talking about the presentation and specifically the graphics, we’d talk about the audio but there’s no V.O. in this game and the music is fine but unremarkable. So continuing my thought from the last paragraph, I really think that FF style sprites and anime portraits were a bad choice to portray subtle racial differences. I couldn’t identify a single consistent difference between characters of the two races that would identify them as such yet all the characters knew at a glance who was a Leonican and who was a Daltan (the two races); perhaps everyone just had really thick accents? The other thing that stuck out to me about the presentation was more something that’s common to all the games in the Dept. Heaven series and that’s too much damn text everywhere. Almost every screen has the location name, catchphrase for the location, time, date, year, and what kind of scene is going on. Add onto that reams of dialog for cutscenes and endless numbers, stats, and menus for battles and you have a screen that is very hard to focus on. It’s a very distinctive look but you never know where to put your eyes and with this game’s not super well designed menus it makes for a slightly uncomfortable experience.
Overall Gungnir is a solid and fun experience with some large caveats though I ended up enjoying it a lot despite-and somewhat in the face of-its flaws. In terms of gameplay I would be willing to make the-some would say controversial statement-that this game is on par with the Fire Emblem series in terms of quality. Even with the ho-hum story and mildly bewildering visual design I had a great time but those things are still a factor. If you really enjoyed the last few games in Dept. Heaven series then you will enjoy this one. The visual design and the writing is very similar and it maintains that overall vibe, these games as a whole kind of feel like the JRPG equivalent of Suda51 and his games. That said if you’re just looking for a new JRPG to play on your handheld and your PSP is already in storage then maybe wait for it to become VITA compatible, we don’t know when that will be but it is coming. It’s a good game I just don’t think it’s worth going to any extra trouble to play, if you’re still on the good old original PSP though then it’s totally worth your time. So for a stellar game with some noticeable warts, Gungnir gets a 3 out of 5 stars.