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Thursday, July 5, 2012

Game Reviews: Gungnir

Gungnir is a PSP game developed by Sting and Dept. Heaven and brought over to the U.S. by Atlus. It's the ninth entry in the Dept. Heaven game series, which includes several other strange and wonderful RPGs such as Riviera, Yggdra Union, and Knights in the Nightmare. No matter whether you like Sting's RPGs or not, you can't argue the fact that every one of them is quite unique, and Gungnir follows in these footsteps.

Graphics: 7/10
Gungnir's graphics are pretty, to be sure, but for the most part, they're nothing exceptional. I quite like the character designs and the battlefields are stunning, but while the attention to detail is exquisite, the actual "whoa" factor is missing from the locales and attacks.

Music: 8/10
For the most part, while the music is both pretty and atmospheric, it's not particularly break-the-mold notable. The exception--a song that bumps the music score up a whole point--is "Raguel," the theme for the penultimate battle. It's rare that a song comes along that can, on its own, transform a battle from "big fight in a video game" to "YES! I AM INVOLVED! GO, SORCERESS! GO, PALADIN! MAKE THAT SHOT! CAST THAT SPELL! WE WILL WIN THIS FIGHT TOGETHER, MY ARMY!" immersion. Take a listen for yourself:

Story: 6.5/10
The story of Gungnir is not a strong one...or rather, it is, but less-than-ideal storytelling unfortunately hinders it. While the plot is a good, meaty one filled with questions, secrets, politics, and character flaws, it is told at far too quick of a pace and through an unsatisfactory filter: the main character, Giulio. While I have no problem with Giulio as a character, or even as a main character, his personality does not lend itself to conduction of the plots going on around him; he's the type of character who holds his ideals tightly in his arms, puts his head down, and bulls through the webs of intrigue in hopes he can ferry those ideals safely to the other side. Because of this, a lot of the nuances of the game are lost on him, and because of that, they are lost to the player as well, who is forced to absorb the story through this less-than-helpful conduit. Regardless, if you have the imagination to fill in the backstory for yourself, the story is good, and the game definitely gets credit for having some very interesting, non-traditional endings that have incited much anger among players for those non-traditional aspects. In short: a story I enjoyed, but one I recognize as flawed and not for everyone.

Characters: 8/10
"A mixed bag" is the best way to describe the characters of this game. Giulio is solid, but not very interesting, to be brutally honest. His older brother, Ragnar, is a deeper and more tormented individual who nevertheless never succumbs to Wangst, for which I give him much credit. I find the elderly Paulo to be a shallow, distasteful character, but he has many fans (although I question whether those fans like him for his personality or for his battle prowess). Alissa is a character you will either love or hate; I found the juxtaposition of her wide-eyed anime-heroine exterior with a MUCH more complex and MUCH less innocent interior to be fascinating and compelling, but I recognize how she could come off as grating to others. Valerie is a character archetype I usually enjoy--the brash Amazon--but I found her to be a little bit too abrasive for me. Natalia was a fascinating ball of intrigue much like Alissa, and although I wanted to smack her, I loved that she could elicit that reaction from me. The crown jewel of the cast, however, is clearly Elise: a deadpan snarker of a Valkyrie who couldn't give a fig about the war she is involved in and makes this quite clear at every opportunity.

As for the villains, King Wolfgang is a bit underdeveloped but interesting in his weakness; Ziyad is pretty two-dimensional, and his only notable quality is being a quadriplegic; Robertus is a Magnificent Bastard to a T and great fun to hate; and Isabelli is adorable, suicidal, diabolical, and a real pain to fight, making her most memorable indeed. All told, the cast is roughly half mediocre and half great, which tips it onto the side of being good rather than bad.

Gameplay: 10/10
What can I say: Gungnir's gameplay blew me away. I'm not even going to try to describe how it works, but in my opinion, there is not a single negative to it. The gameplay is complicated, strategic, and unbelievably well-balanced, actively punishing typical SRPG "easy win strategies" such as power-leveling only one character or using an army entirely made up of one broken character class, while rewarding versatile blends of character types and well-thought-out tactics. Knockback is an invaluable tool, as are heals, status effects, equipment switching, collection of TP, careful Ragnarok summoning, positioning, combo attacks...every facet of the battle system can be put to good, creative use, and it's SO much fun to do so.

Total Score: 7.9/10, B-
It's by no means the best game in the world, nor is it even the best Sting game (that honor falls to Yggdra Union, in my humble opinion). However, it's a fun game saved from anonymity by amazing gameplay, and considering the PSP is on its way out and you can find it for fairly cheap, it's well worth the price. I played it and loved it, and you should too!

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