The PSP may be in its twilight, but that hasn't stopped some niche developers from releasing quality titles for the doomed portable. Atlus and Sting have long been supporters of Sony's handheld and have always released some quality titles. Their latest, Gungnir, is the 9th game in the Dept. Heaven line of titles, which included past games like Riviera and Yggdra Union. Fans of tactical RPGs like Final Fantasy Tactics and Jeanne d'Arc will find plenty to enjoy in Gungnir, provided they can get past the crushing difficulty that almost completely unravels the experience.
It's actually quite amazing that Sting managed that level of balance. In a number of situations I found myself thinking 'ugh, if I had one more unit I could have steamrolled that stage.' Instead every fight seems to be balanced to give you just enough units to be overwhelmed, but not completely beaten. As a result a number of battles are simply wars of attrition, who can outlast who. I found myself on the losing side a number of times, which can be absolutely maddening, but Sting was smart enough to allow players to retry a battle with their currently accrued experience, allowing units to get stronger, even in losses. But some of these stages are just absolutely brutal, with enemies getting the high ground on the meager party that I controlled, and mages and catapults to slow my ascent up the side of a castle.
Controlling meager parties in battle means striking a delicate balancing act between the skills of the units available. There are a number of specialty units that can be used, and they can be absolutely powerful in the right conditions, but I found myself constantly sticking to a few of the main characters who were able to function as hybrid roles. Unfortunately this lead to a feeling that I was always 'doing it wrong,' but Sting was kind enough to let me switch units at designated points on a map. The number of classes is surprisingly deep, but unfortunately not all will find space in the party, since the total number of units caps at sixteen, with main story characters taking up a good third of the space. So being choosey about the units that go in to battle is one of the wrinkles players will have to contend with. The units available to players include classes that are meant for close range and speedy combat like assassins, tanks like knights and berserkers are meant to hold the front lines, and longed ranged archers, magicians, and 'throwers' who hurl large spears at their enemies will do damage from afar.
Once it comes time to get out there in to the breach, players will always find themselves outnumbered, but not quite outgunned, as Gungnir offers a couple of interesting routes to take when it comes to dealing with enemies. Some units have the ability to move enemies with their attacks, this will come in handy when an enemy is placed on say, a precariously high bridge. Knocking them off there with an attack will surely lead to their death. Or if they are near the edge of the stage enemies can be knocked out of bounds and will be forced to retreat the battle. These tactics can also be used by the enemy AI, which is definitely smart enough to do so, and can result in the permanent death of units. All these little details are wrapped in a timed turn system where a turn can be taken by any unit that is ready, and moving them before they are ready results in a penalty that will decrease their max hit points. This is something I absolutely avoided during the game since I had units that could potentially break up an incoming attack before a unit could become ready, but is a nice fallback option to have.
There is also the tactics system that gives players points for moving units, and with these points it is possible to perform boosts or Beats. Boosts are exactly what they sound like, providing a unit with a boost based upon the equipment the unit is carrying. Beats allow for combo attacks when units are within the line of sight of an attacked unit. This is a double edged sword obviously since enemy units can take advantage of this stuff as well, making placement all the more important in battle.
Gungnir's story is one of political intrigue, because a tactical game can never not be about something political. In this case our protagonist is one Giulio Raguel, a young man who fights in the Esperanza, a rag-tag group of freedom fighters who only wish to have better lives for the people in Espada, the slums of the massive empire of Gargania. Giulio is thrust into the forefront of this battle one day when his group encounters a slave caravan carrying a young girl named Alissa. This leads to the Daltans, the 'higher class' to come knocking on the Espada's doorstep, killing the
Leonican citizens in their path. With the magical spear Gungnir that he inherits, Giulio fights for a world where people are on equal standing, though many amongst his fellow comrades fight for different reasons, and the player is put in control of key moments that will affect how the story plays out, which is always a welcome aspect to a game. I like it when I feel like my choices mean something, even if it is just a 'simple' matter of choosing between two very black and white answers.
Gungnir retains the art style that Sting has been running with ever since their first games that came out in the US on the GBA, and personally it works great for me. The sprites look sharp and the artwork is charming. The Shigeki Hayashi score fits the game perfectly and honestly sounds like something that was cribbed from the Final Fantasy Tactics soundtrack. Hayashi has been a mainstay for Sting games and it's good to hear his work continue to get better and better.
Gungnir is one of those games that PSP owners should definitely pick up if they find themselves looking for something to play these days. Though I must vent some frustration with Sony not making the game available for Vita owners. Why tout a handheld as an all in one device if I still have to go back to the previous handheld to play games? It's a minor complaint and doesn't detract from the game in the slightest. Really the only problem I had with the game was the intense difficulty and even then Sting was very forgiving on my inability to work a sound strategy in this game, and I always wanted to go back and figure out what I did wrong and how I could do things differently. Between this game and Unchained Blades, it looks like PSP gamers still have a good reason to hang on to their aging handhelds.