I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with strategy RPGs. I'm usually easily hooked in the early stages of the experience, the brightly colored anime-style heroes and simple grid-based combat making for a rather satisfying experience. It's only when the game begins to introduce the more complex systems; tasking me with the management of dozens of characters; that I start to become overwhelmed.
This is why I just wasn't able to get into Gungnir, a game which right off the bat buries the player in waves of complexity. Though I've enjoyed previous installments of Sting's "Dept. Heaven" series (Riviera was pretty great), this particular entry seems to be crafted for hardcore SRPG buffs, a clan to which I cannot claim membership.
If you've ever played a "tactics" game before (Final Fantasy Tactics, Tactics Ogre), Gungnir will seem rather familiar. You navigate tiny sprite characters around a series of complex chess boards, all covered in varying terrain and an assortment of enemies. Most maps task the player with nothing more complicated than clearing the map of bad guys, accomplished by putting your tiny soldiers within range of the enemies and letting loose with their equipped weapon or magical spell.
Thankfully, Gungnir isn't an entirely by-the-books affair, with some rather very interesting mechanics coming into play. The battlefields are littered with special squares, which can be captured by either the player or the enemy. Each captured square adds an additional point to the tactics meter each round, letting the player unleash devastating special attacks, or set up chain attacks with characters facing the same enemy. The game also gives a turn order for each unit on the map, which skillful players will be able to manipulate to gain a initiative advantage. There's even the option to permanently sacrifice a character's stats in return for letting them break the turn order, for use in truly desperate circumstances.
In addition to the intriguing gameplay, Gungnir also offers a fine level of visual polish, the cute 2D sprites being the highlight (and looking rather slick when played on the PS Vita's gorgeous screen). The game uses 2D character portraits to help advance the plot, though I was rather disappointed to see that these remain static regardless of the situation, main character Giulio wearing a cocky smile even as he laments the death of his friends. Additionally, the game's menus all benefit from some slick visual design, something that has always been a staple of the Dept. Heaven series. So, if you're a strategy RPG fan and a graphics design buff, you'll definitely want to check this one out.
The real problem is that the game is simply a chore for anyone but the most dedicated SRPG fans. Enemies are stocked to the gills with HP, and given the frequency with which attacks will miss or be blocked, taking down even a singular target is an ordeal lasting countless turns. Having your character jump from too high a platform means they'll be stunned for an entire round, while magic spells take so long to cast that the target has often maneuvered away from the impact site long before the fireball actually shows up. Even the treasure chests have mounds of hit points, and spending four in-game turns simply trying to crack open some loot seems like an unnecessary hassle. With no apparent way to save mid-battle, Gungnir forces use of the PSP / Vita's sleep modes, preventing you from using other applications until the fight is finished. Not to mention that with battles this tedious, every defeat truly stings, and getting to the end of a 30-minute play session without any progress to show for it will be enough to convince many to stop playing entirely.
In short, if you're the kind of player who's sunk hundreds of hours into similar titles, you'll likely feel right at home with Gungnir. If you never made it past the windmill level in Final Fantasy Tactics, you may want to stick to something a bit more user-friendly.