Back in the mid-90s, a much younger me unwrapped a Sega Genesis at Christmastime, and thus was a burgeoning hobby for video games truly born. Several months later, that same bright-eyed, younger me purchased a game called Shining Force from a local pawn shop, and thus was a love for not just strategy RPGs, but all role-playing games born. My fondest childhood memories of gaming are based around predictable games like Super Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog, but Shining Force and its Genesis sequel, Shining Force II, are the games I get most nostalgic about when I decide to fire up Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection on the PlayStation 3, and play through them again.
Even though I love strategy RPGs, my attempts to keep up with all the AAA mainstream titles that release on a yearly basis means I don’t get to play them very often: not many SRPGs fit into that AAA category. When I jumped into Sting’s PSP exclusive SRPG, Gungnir, I was reminded of two things: the first was my respect of Atlus as both a developer and, in this case, a publisher, and the second was my love of SRPGs.
Gungnir, the ninth episode in Sting’s Dept. Heaven series – which currently consists of four entries – is an all-around gem of a title. I don’t mean to give away my verdict at the offset, but I want to preface everything I am about to say with the fact that I absolutely loved this game. It’s not perfect, but it’s probably the most enjoyable gaming experience I’ve had in a while.
The game is based around the struggle of a ragtag band of resistance fighters known as Esperanza, desperately trying to combat the inequality of the empire of Gargandia by eliminating the established order. Made of up subjugated Leonicans based in the slums of Espada, Esperanza’s ultimate goal is the upset of Emperor Wolfgang III, in order to unseat the ruling class of Daltanians, and bring about new order to Gargandia.
After raiding a Daltanian caravan, younger brother of the resistance leader, Giulio, discovers a kidnapped Daltanian girl, and brings her back to the slums. Not long after, the Daltanian governor of Western Gargandian, (where Espada is located) catches wind of her, and sends a force to eliminate the resistance and capture the girl. After a desperate battle, Giulio is given the power of the mystical spear known as Gungnir, and, with encouragement from his older brother, decides to use this power to aid Esperanza in achieving their goals.
Gungnir’s story is surprisingly deep for a game of its genre, encompassing a myriad of heavy-handed themes such as racism, redemption, rebellion, and revenge, (I swear it’s coincidence that those are all ‘R’ words). It’s almost a shame that the story is told explicitly, through text-based cutscenes: there is so much at play below the surface here that the ability to explore the world and flesh out the lore would have been welcome. As it stands, past events are detailed enough that you get a clear enough picture of how things escalated to where they are. It’s just not the most engaging way to tell a story.
It also takes a while for the story to really get going. I was somewhere around half-a-dozen battles in before I really started to develop a picture of what was going on. There’s enough insistent motivation to get you through those early battles, but you don’t get a really clear picture of what you’re fighting for until a couple of pretty significant plot points have already hit. It’s hard to get invested in revelatory moments when you’re not wholly sure of their significance until later on. Gungnir does stumble into this pitfall, but once it does get going, all of those concerns can be pretty easily tossed aside.
Of course, this being a strategy RPG, the game lives or dies on its battle system, regardless of the narrative. Luckily, Sting exceeds expectations here as well, creating a system that requires each battle, (with the exception of the first two or three, when the player is finding their footing) be approached with careful thought and planning. There are quite a few key mechanics at play here, and until you master them all, it’s extremely difficult to be successful.
The most significant of these is the combination of the Delay system, the Wait system, and the Ace system. The Delay system is fairly straightforward: every action you preform adds to your delay timer, and you aren’t able to make a move until your delay timer hits zero. Combined with that, the Wait system is similar to the Delay system, but encompasses individual units. Each unit you bring onto the battlefield has a wait timer that operates in tandem with broader delay timer. When you move or preform an action with a unit, its wait timer increases alongside the delay. Just because your delay timer has reached zero, does not mean that a unit’s wait timer has reached zero. If you move a unit before its wait timer has hit zero, you will lower its maximum HP for the battle you are in.
Operating alongside both of those is the Ace system. This takes the formulaic idea of having a leader in battle with you, and sort of turns it on its side. Before each battle, you are given a choice of Ace. Each of these Aces offers bonuses to certain units in your army, lowering the delay that their actions cause. If you choose an Ace that befits the other units you have on the battlefield, you’ll be able to move much more frequently. If your Ace is not beneficial, you’ll find that the enemy will move much more often than you, and as a result of this, you will (generally) find winning the battle difficult. And, of course, if your Ace dies, you lose the battle.