Editor's Note: As of July 19th, 2012, the game has been made Vita-compatible, addressing one of Jason's major concerns with the game. As he stated he would do in his original review, he has updated both the game's review and rating to reflect this development.
Author's Note: Never did I imagine Gungnir would be such a beast. Atlus' new SRPG came across my desk a few weeks ago, and I truly enjoyed it. In preparing for the review, hours melted away quicker than I would have expected. One thing stuck with me, though; this newly-released PSP game was not compatible with Sony's new Vita handheld. To me, this was a huge misstep. How could a new game for a dead system not be playable on Sony's current device? Well, to sum things up, my review docked Gungnir 20 points for this blunder, and neither my readers, nor Atlus, were pleased with my opinion. In the original article, I promised to revise the score and review as soon as Sony and Atlus got on the ball and made the game Vita-compatible, something I never thought would happen (how are those PS1 games on the Vita coming along?). I was wrong, and I'm delighted to share that now Gungnir can be downloaded to a PS3 system and transferred to the Vita. It cannot, however, be downloaded directly to the Vita, but we have every reason to assume that will change soon. So, as promised, the original score of 75% has been restored. What follows is my original review, with the compatibility remarks removed. Enjoy!
As we all know by now, Atlus RPGs can run the gamut from crazy good (Yggdra Union) to crazy bad (Knights in the Nightmare). Gungnir falls on the positive side of the spectrum with a sweeping narrative focusing on the futility of war and a new mechanic that sets the game above your average ho-hum SRPG. The tale follows Giulio, an unwilling participant in the war gripping the world. As he comes to grips with the role thrust upon him and his new, powerful weapon, a demonic lance-thing with summoning powers, Giulio changes from a reluctant warrior to a true hero. The characterization here is top-notch, especially when considering how few previous Atlus SRPGs made me actually care about the characters and their fates. I should say "character;" as much as I empathized with Giulio, none of the other characters are quite as memorable. Still, it's the conflicting goals of these forgettable supporting characters that build the game's feeling of moral ambiguity, a trademark of the better Atlus' SRPGs.
Gungnir's gameplay hook is even more refreshing than the engrossing story. If you are an SRPG fan, this will blow your mind: The battles are not turn-based. What? I'll explain. Each party member is governed not by the order set up for you, but by individual counters that are depleted and refilled by actions. If you move a character, a little of this counter will disappear and need to be refilled over time before the character can act again. Special moves, attacks and everything else subtract from the counter at different rates, meaning that the planning ahead aspect of games like this is still just as important as when things are turn-based. Reading back over this, I'm realizing that the mechanic isn't the easiest to explain in words. If you think about the Active Time Battles (ATBs) from the Final Fantasy series and the normal turn-based SRPG fare mixed together, you'll have a slightly clearer idea of how things go in Gungnir. Aside from Tactics Ogre's rewind mechanic, this system is the best new spin on the SRPG I've seen in years.
The game looks and sounds fairly decent, just not great. The sprites are attractive enough, but the battle animations and arenas are pretty standard fare. The voiceover, and there is a lot of it, is the typical over-the-top nonsense you've come to expect from games like this. There isn't anything wrong with the presentation per se; it's just middle of the road and easily interchangeable with any other recent SRPG. This feels like a wasted opportunity when you consider the innovation in gameplay, like somehow the presentation should have tweaked the genre in the same way the new battle mechanics do.
Maybe it is because my most recent SRPG experience was with the Vita port of Disgaea 3: Absence of Detention, but Gungnir refreshingly moves at a quicker pace than other games in the genre. Where games like Final Fantasy Tactics and the Disgaea series place a lot of emphasis on "the grind;" endlessly playing and replaying maps to boost unit stats, Gungnir keeps things interesting by breathlessly whisking players through the main story (at a comparative pace anyway). Each encounter moves things forward, keeping the narrative at the forefront. Other grind-heavy SRPGs become less about the story and more about stats (after too many hours in Digaea's Item World, it wasn't uncommon to forget character's names and motivations over their attack and defense stats), but like Yggdra Union, the story remains Gungnir's main focus. Smartly, though, the game retains plenty of opportunities for those looking for that endless grind, and players can conceivably make it to the end of the lengthy adventure whether they utilize it or not.
So there it is, my review revised to reflect Gungnir's breakthrough to Vita owners everywhere. As an SRPG, Gungnir tries a few new things with the usually-rigid genre and nearly all of them work almost all the time. If you're a PSP holdout, go give this one a shot; it's a great way to say goodbye to a system fondly remembered by so many. If you're a Vita owner, this is a no-brainer due to the, shall we say, "slowdown" in new titles. As I said before, Atlus games can be hit or miss, especially when it comes to the strategy genre. This one is a direct hit.
Final Rating: 75%. Atlus games can be hit or miss, especially when it comes to the strategy genre. This one is a direct hit.