Some may have been ready to immediately write the PSP off following the release of the Vita. Atlus certainly hasn't, however, and one of its more recent moves has been to announce a release of Episode IX in Sting's Dept. Heaven series, Gungnir, in North America. Despite being labelled as Episode IX, Gungnir is the fourth game (not counting spin-offs) to be released in the series. The episode numbering instead intended to refer to the level of originality rather than any sort of chronological order. Some themes are shared between the games, however, such as a heavy influence of Norse mythology and Asgard in particular, and, as the title indicates, this is still the case with Gungnir.
"Atlus is clearly intending to show that PSP games still have a place in the market."
Gungnir's setting is the Gargandia Empire in the year 983. The Empire is home to two races, the Daltania and the Leonica. Regarded as cursed, the Leonica are subjected to discrimination by the Daltanian nobility. The fifteen-year-old protagonist Julio Raguel is a Leonica, and member of the resistance faction Esperanza. He rescues the sixteen-year-old Daltania, and main heroine, Alyssa, from slavers and welcomes her into Esperanza. Soon after, however, Esperanza finds itself overwhelmed, with Julio's life in severe danger. At that point, the titular demonic lance, Gungnir, appears before Julio. He uses it to turn the tide of battle, setting the events of the game into motion and putting his fate in the hands of destiny.
The battle system has a classic isometric, turn-based strategy RPG foundation, with some twists. Each action a character takes, such as moving, uses up time. This may cause the character to slip down the turn order and wait for another character to go before they can, for example, follow up this movement with an attack. Certain actions contribute to filling up a Tactics Gauge, displayed on the left side of the screen, with a more filled gauge resulting in stronger attacks from the party. Instead of simply saving up the gauge, however, players can also sacrifice part of it to interrupt the displayed turn order. This provides another strategic dimension to the game, and allows players much more flexibility in battle. Battlefield layout also plays a part, since any character pushed off the battlefield is taken out for the remainder of the battle. In addition to this, other characters can assist with attacks through the Beat and Boost systems, providing the characters are in the correct locations on the battle map.
Common features from other strategy RPGs are found in Gungnir, such as attacks being more effective if they are made from behind or beside the enemy. The game is designed to favor strategy over brute force, with the developers stating that even low-level characters should be able to contribute effectively in battle. Players are able to recruit a number of generic units in addition to the storyline characters, including a selection of monster classes. The production staff have stated that their goal in the gameplay was to provide a fairly standard experience at first, but to then add in various complexities that would help keep gamers interested. Judging from the various features and gameplay videos available, Gungnir certainly looks to be well on its way to achieving this goal.
Story scenes and battles make up the bulk of the game, with a break between each stage allowing players to upgrade and alter the party's equipment. The plot is generally linear, and the lack of side missions places the focus on story battles and strategy. It has been noted by Sting that certain side aspects have been deliberately left out to try and encourage other play styles. There still are multiple endings determined by the player's decisions on how Julio behaves at certain points throughout the game. The story is filled with rather dark tones and themes, and this is reflected by a colour scheme that is grittier than the other games in the Dept. Heaven series.
Despite the relative grittiness of the colour scheme, Gungnir's visuals do still stand out, in part thanks to a rather striking UI. The 2D sprites work well together with the 3D backgrounds as well, so there doesn't seem to any pressing graphical concerns. It is worth noting that the opening video, in which the characters have more deformed proportions, harkens back to the earlier stages of Gungnir's development from before it became clear that a grittier visual theme fit better with the overall plot. Series composer Shigeki Hayashi takes charge of the score once more, and his compositions give off a very rousing feeling that should compliment the story and visual themes very well and more than make up for the game's lack of voice acting.
Atlus is clearly intending to show that PSP games still have a place in the market, and Gungnir looks set to go a long way towards backing up that statement. Between Gungnir and Growlanser: Wayfarer of Time, whose North American release follows shortly afterwards, it is pleasing to see that handheld tactical RPGs remain well catered for, and there's still plenty to look forward to for those not ready to jump to the next generation of handheld just yet. Gungnir is due to be released for PSP in North America on June 12, 2012. It will be available as both a UMD and PlayStation Network download.