Review by Iyamtebist
Reviewed: 10/24/13 | Updated: 10/25/13
Doesn't hit every target, but it hits the most important ones.
Despite being a game that made very little impact upon its release, Gungnir was a game that seemed like it had a lot going for it. In Japan it was in development for two years before its release on May 19, 2011. Considering that this is a much smaller title and not one of the large budget triple A titles that are so well known today, the amount of time spent means much more. To add even further to the hype train, Sting titled Gungnir as episode nine of the Dept Heaven series. For those who do not know, Sting numbers their titles by giving higher numbers to their most innovative games. Considering that the last Dept Heaven game, Knights in the Nightmare, somehow combined elements of chess, SRPGs, and bullet hell shooters but only got a meager episode four title by comparison, one would think that Sting would be working on this as if it were their last game. However it seems much more likely that Peter Molyneux must have been involved with the decision to make Gungnir episode nine considering that, even in concept, Gungnir is not as unique as it is made out to be. That is not to say it is a bad game, nor am I even saying that it does not innovate; I simply do not understand what Stings thought process was whilst naming this game.
That is not the only thing to say about the title though. While the English release keeps it short and sweet by just having it named after the demonic lance the game is centered on, the original Japanese name is much wordier. Gunguniru: Masou no Gunjin to Eiyuu Sensou, which translates to Gungnir: Inferno of the Demon Lance and the War of Heroes, is quite the mouthful. Not that any of this really matters towards the overall game of course. Like with Stings previous games, Gungnir went unnoticed and was not overly successful, which is a shame seeing as how Gungnir is a really solid, interesting, and engaging SRPG.
Liberty or Death
Gungnirs story is perhaps one of the oldest plots in the book. You play as Giulio Raguel, a fifteen year old Leonican born and raised in the slums of Espada, the peasant district of the Gargania Empire. The people of Gargania are divided into two classes; the upper class Daltans and the lower class Leonicans, the latter of which undergo harsh discrimination and hatred from the former. Giulio is one of the two sons of Ricardo Raguel, whom is regarded as a hero to the Leonicans for attempting to lead a revolution against the oppressive Garganian Empire fifteen years prior to the events of the game.
Giulio is looked up to as a hero by the other citizens of Espada due to being the biological son of Ricardo. Giulios older brother Ragnus, despite being the one whom is actually in charge of Espadas forces, is not looked at the same way due to him being of Daltan blood. Despite this, Giulio looks up to Ragnus for his leadership ability while Ragnus thinks Guilio would make a better leader due to him having the support of the people. This creates a contrast between the two brothers right away as both have developed an inferiority complex towards the other due to the surrounding circumstances.
When Giulio leads an attack on a Garganian slave trader, he finds a kidnapped girl named Alissa. She has unknown connections with the Garganian Empire that she refuses to tell about. Despite the fact that the people of Espada do not initially trust her due to her Garganian connections, they decide to let her stay based on the fact that the Empire clearly wants her gone and she is an enemy to them. Months later, troops from the empire show up demanding that the citizens of Espada turn over Alissa or else they will kill one Espada citizen every hour. Giulio decides to solve this problem the same way every video game character does, with violence. At first they are able to fend off the troops but things quickly turn rotten once reinforcements are brought in. All of Giulios friends are mercilessly slaughtered and he is brought very close to death as well.
Miraculously, right before he is finished off, Giulio is revealed to be the chosen wielder of the demonic spear Gungnir due to him possessing the cursed stigmata since birth. With Gungnir, Giulio easily wipes out the remaining troops and gets them to retreat. After this, Giulio, Ragnus, Allissa, and Paulo, one of the elders of Espada, decide to reform Esperanza, the resistance force that tried to take down the Garganian Empire fifteen years ago.
Throughout their campaign against Gargania, Giulio encounters a variety of different allies and enemies, each with their own interesting back stories, motivations, and character development. This shows that a lot of thought was put into the game when even minor characters have complex and compelling back stories. The only complaint I have is that there was a certain plot twist late regarding a major character that felt incredibly forced, unnecessary, and made no sense. Also there are certain things that were not explained but that is likely having to do with Dept Heaven being a series with its own continuity and that there were three other games and likely more to come.
What is really great about Gungnirs story is the amount of maturity and detail it contains when compared to a lot of JRPGs. While one could technically say that the main plot itself is unoriginal, it is not the main premise that makes it as great as it is. What is really great about Gungnir is how well the plot is executed. First of all, the resistance is treated very realistically and parallels real world revolutions really well. For example, Gungnir makes it clear that the small army in Espada is not enough to take down a huge force such as the Garganian forces. As a result, they need to team up with several other forces that they may not exactly trust and are not fighting for the same reasons as the Esperanza forces. For comparison, the American Revolution was not won by George Washingtons small, untrained, continental army. They did win a few battles here and there, but the only reason they defeated the British was because they got several other countries such as France and Spain to back them up, countries that mainly fought because they did not like the British and likely did not care as much about American independence.
What is also interesting about the plot of Gungnir is the amount of distrust and animosity that both sides feel towards both towards the other side and their own forces. In fact, racism, prejudice, and discrimination are all major recurring motifs throughout the game. It is quite a breath of fresh air when you have hundreds of other JRPGs that preach the powers of love and friendship ad nauseum. If you have been unsatisfied with a lot of modern JRPGs for their overuse of immature anime tropes and lack of mature storytelling, then this may just be the game for you.
Modern Colors, Not So Modern Form
Similar to its story and atmosphere, Gungnirs art direction consists mainly of shades of brown and grays without that much color. If this sound familiar by any chance, it is basically the same pot shot that people always use towards modern games that try to max out the graphical settings, aim for photo realism, and use that as a way of intending to make the game sell better, only to result in creating a game that sells millions of copies yet still does not make enough money due to how much was poured into the graphics. Now obviously Gungnir is not a 3D photorealistic game, in fact Gungnir is done entirely with 2D sprite work reminiscent of the style of SNES and Playstation 1 era JRPGs. Regardless of whether it is easier to create a Sprite based game than a 3D one, Gungnirs art style is still very fluid and well animated. While there may be a lack of color, it is still a style that suits the game very well and fits with the overall tone. The characters anime portraits are also well drawn but feel rather limited due to each portrait having only one expression.
One rather glaring aspect of the visuals, however, are the cluttered up menu screens. During both game-play and cut-scenes, there is always an intrusive menu frame that feels out of place and keeps you from being able to see a lot of the game. The equipment menus are also particularly cumbersome and have a rather poor interface. When preparing for battle and trying to equip something, the game will never tell you anything about how a weapon or piece of armor affects stats compared to what is currently equipped, which means you will end up buying multiple pieces of armor that you will not equip due to them being weaker than what you currently have. In battles, the terrain will often obscure your view when targeting an attack and you need to keep re-adjusting the camera in order to see where your cursor is.
Sounds of Gargania
One aspect that I felt fit Gungnir really well was the fact that it did not have voice acting. Even though Voice acting seems to be a standard for most games nowadays, I take issue with the belief that not having it only occurs because they cannot afford to. In fact, the lack of voice acting can generally be a good thing with some games. Gungnirs script, for example, works really well silent and I cannot imagine any voiceovers doing it proper justice. Without hearing it, the games excellent writing is much more noticeable and easier to appreciate than if it was voiced. I do not say this simply because I prefer games to be silent as I really do not have a preference. In fact, I believe that voice acting can really help some games, but at the same time there are games that are better off without them and I am glad that Sting realized that was the case with Gungnir.
The music of Gungnir is also well executed but not perfect. The main flaw with the soundtrack to Gungnir is that it lacks variety. A majority of the games battle songs all tend to try to give off the feeling of a heroic and difficult struggle, and they do succeed for the most part. Gungnirs songs are ones that tend to sound great when you hear them and are really good at setting the mood, but are ones that you will not be able to remember afterwards unless you listen to them more than once. Even among these there are still some songs that are particularly great, some notable ones being The Shield of Gargania, Decision, and Blood Purification. One minor complaint I have is that the song, The Shield of Gargania, is too underused seeing as how it was only used in one battle and was not used in one that it would have really been much more fitting. Regardless, it shows that the soundtrack is of high quality when one of the complaints is that you did not hear one particular song enough in game.
Gungnir Does Not Always Hit Its Target, but It Hits the Most Important Ones
On the game-play side of things, Gungnir is a definitely a solid SRPG with no real huge issues that cause it to be un-enjoyable. At the same time, however, it has a lot of mechanics that were not used to their full potential. Gungnirs battles take place on a grid and tile based platform very reminiscent of Final Fantasy Tactics. Battles also play out the same way as Final fantasy Tactics in terms range of movement, hit and dodge rate, charge time for spells, and with abilities learned from equipment, the last one more so referring to Tactics Advance.
Unlike Final Fantasy Tactics, or most other SRPGs for that matter, characters do not get their turn from a preset order based on speed stats, nor do you have all of your units attack on one turn. Similar to some games, Gungnir uses a time based system to determine when you get your turn. What is unique about Gungnir, however, is that the time passage does not occur in exact conjunction with the moves taken by either sides units. After a certain amount of in game time has passed, you will be able to choose any of your current characters to make a move. When choosing he character you want to make the move with, there are certain factors that come into play. These factors are based on whether or not enough time has passed for a specific character to have a free turn open or not. Interestingly enough, you can still choose to move a character that still has wait time left if you need to get them out of a tight spot, but as a result will have their max HP drained temporarily.
If any of that sounds confusing then you are not alone. This interface was very confusing and difficult to get used to at first. Understanding the concept of how time works in this game is something that will likely be difficult for some people to understand. It is even worse when you combine that with the games cluttered menu screens that make things confusing for first time players. For people who are used to complex RPGs, however, it should not take too long to get used to. Really the main complain that I have is that this battle system does not really add that much to the game. The time system in Gungnir just feels like it overly complicated just for the sake of being complicated. Once you get used to the system, you are basically still using the same strategies in battle that you would if this was Final Fantasy Tactics or any other similar SRPG.
Another complaint regarding the battle mechanics is that you can not replay any previous battles nor are there any generic battles that you could fight in order to level grind. Instead of using Final Fantasy Tactics way of initiating battles, Gungnir is more like Fire Emblem in that every battle you play is done in a pre set, linear order. In the Fire Emblem series, this was much more fitting because the games have much more of an emphasis on the strategy elements than the RPG elements, and are balanced in a way that the RPG elements do not matter as much as long as you do not let every important character killed. Gungnir itself is also balanced well enough that you can still get through the game without too much trouble if you use the proper strategies, but the problem with this set up is that it defeats the point of deep RPG elements and discourages any experimentation due to the inability to repeat battles.
The game has a system similar to Final Fantasy IX and Tactics Advance in that abilities you have are learned based on the weapon you have equipped. Unlike those games, however, you cannot permanently learn a skill and the only way you can use abilities is to keep the weapon you were using. As a result, you will most likely be sticking to the same weapons for most of the game unless you just come across a weapon that is outright stronger than your current weapon. There is even less of a chance of this happening due to the fact that you can also increase the strength of weapons through alchemy.
Of course the alchemy system itself is flawed as well in two ways. The first is that you can only strengthen weapons using gems, which can only be acquired by either attacking crystals on the battlefield which take up to ten turns and will only give a small amount, or by refining your own items into gems. You will most likely use the latter method of obtaining gems due to the excess amount of equipment you will have that will not be used. This leads to the second issue with alchemy, the chance of a strength increase is random and, if it fails, you still lose the gems you paid. When using alchemy, the amount of gems needed and the percentage of the weapon being successfully strengthened are displayed. At first the chance starts at ninety five percent and only requires one gem, but as you continue to upgrade, both the chance of failure and the amount of gems needed increase. This will end up reaching the point where maxing out a weapon costs six gems and has a thirty percent success rate, which means that you will burn through you gem supply incredibly quickly trying to get that last stat increase.
That is not to say that Gungnirs battle mechanics are bad. Even with the missed opportunity of some of the mechanics, the game still does well enough with what it has. First of all the game is well balanced enough that you do not need to worry about having an unbeatable game due to being under-leveled. This is because characters gain experience simply by attacking and it is easy to get a low level character up to speed without needing to worry about having them getting a kill steal from the more powerful ones. What is also nice is that it is possible to switch characters out during battle and have some of your other units come in, meaning that you are not limited to the units you choose at the start of the battle and have more options in terms of strategy. Lastly, it is just a fun game overall and there was not a singled battle that I felt was poorly designed and that was not fun to play.
Even with its misused potential, Gungnir still manages to get the important parts of its game play right and should be enough to satisfy SRPG fans regardless. When you add the fact that Gungnir has a very mature and thought provoking story, excellent writing, very nice sprite-work, and a fantastic musical score, you end up with an overall solid and well made SRPG. The only thing that really holds Gungnir back is the fact that the interface of the game is rather confusing and can be difficult for some people to grasp. While I would not say that Gungnir is a particularly creative or revolutionary title, it still gets most of the major aspects correct and is a solid title. Gungnir comes strongly recommended for any fans of SRPGs or strategy games in general.
Product Release: Gungnir (US, 06/12/12)
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