"The Return of the Isometric Grid"
The Strategy RPG genre taste is one that many gamers will never acquire. Blending the heavy, melodramatic storytelling and character stat management of role-playing games with the slow, methodical pace and army stat management of strategy games, strategy RPGs tend to alienate those who exclusively prefer fast-paced action in their video games. If you don't like games such as Final Fantasy Tactics or Disgaea, Atlus' long-delayed PSP game Gungnir won't change your mind. However, if the thought of moving little magic men across a grid and building their levels with every engagement tickles your fancy, Gungnir is one of the better (if only) recent releases in this number-crunching niche.
Gungnir's title is a reference to the spear of Odin, the all-father of the Norse Gods. However, the gameplay and story are very much like other Japanese RPGs (right down to drawing upon Norse mythology as an influence). The main character is Guilio, part of both the oppressed Leonican minority, and the rebellion against the evil Daltanian empire. His chances at actually taking down the corrupt regime increase when he stumbles upon Gungnir, the titular artifact of mass destruction. The story follows the usual formula found in these games, with ridiculously overdressed anime characters battling with melodramatic speeches as well as swords and sorcery. However, the writing in Gungnir is smarter than one might expect, as it avoids aggrandizing the rebellion. Players control Guilio's responses at various points, and key scenes are influenced by whether he's made the choices of a saint or a sinner. This doesn't remove the overwhelming familiarity that fans of Japanese RPGs will experience upon playing Gungnir, but it does give the new game its own identity.
The gameplay follows a similar pattern; not particularly original, but a well-constructed take on the formula with some interesting twists. The core of Gungnir involves the usual Strategy RPG mechanics, i.e. an isometric grid, turn-based movement of individual units, and a wide array of character management options as they level up through each battle. One area where Gungnir bucks tradition is the character order, allowing players to be more flexible and move any one unit on their turn. It also benefits from a unique "Tactics Gauge", where players build up Tactics Points by capturing sections of the battlefield. With enough Tactics Points, players can use combo attacks that pair adjacent units, boost their soldiers' stats, and even summon gods to rain death upon their enemies. The character classes aren't particularly novel, following the same warrior / archer / mage / healer job paradigms that we've seen in most other JRPGs. However, there should be enough differences to keep players from feeling as though Gungnir is an outright cliché.
Strategy RPGs are an uncommon breed, and Gungnir represents their polarizing virtues and vices in equal proportion. On the one hand, it's a complex game with a long adventure and plenty of narrative depth. On the other hand, it's anachronistic to the point of seeming like a lost PlayStation One game, with no voice acting, hand-drawn sprites, and extremely limited 3D effects for the environment. The improvements Gungnir promises are ultimately slight tweaks upon the genre standard, and it's not going to win any converts to the Strategy RPG. Still, the target audience should find Gungnir a welcome trip back to a simpler time — at least, for those who already understand how to calculate character, terrain, enemy, and equipment variables.
GameDynamo's Score for Gungnir (PS Vita)
Neil Kapit is a freelance writer, cartoonist, and "La Li Lu Le Lo" agent based in Los Angeles. His work can be seen on www.therubynation.com.
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