Friday, April 22, 2011

Dept Heaven

News on the new Sting RPG "Gungnir" has come right out of nowhere and will be released next month after about 3 years in development. It better be damn good, cause from what it looks like, I'm not sure if its truly worthy of the "Episode IX" moniker. Its the fourth game in Sting's RPG dynasty "Dept Heaven", but why is it called "episode 9"? That number is supposed to indicate its level of originality: on a scale from one, meaning "stands out from the crowd", to ten, meaning "well over twice as original as a turn-based-real-time strategy board-game-like shooter game", Gungnir is at a nine.
Are you ready?
Dept Heaven games do have quite a loyal following, especially in Japan, where several spin-off games have been made. Critics, however, seem to not like them. Each game has a learning curve. Episode I isn't by any means complex, Episode II takes a little getting used to, and Episode IV...holy shit, its just the first stage and this game is crazy; and that's the reaction to the series from someone that has patience. If you don't like games that are pretty much known just for being "way out there" in terms of gameplay, then this isn't for you.

But if you do have the patience to take some time to figure these games out, you'll be hugely rewarded. Although each game is entirely different in terms of gameplay, they do share common features, such as artwork, the elements, item-collecting, multiple endings, a couple characters, and most importantly: a story that connects all of the games together. In addition to each games' individual story, which are completely different from one another, all of the games are connected in a way that has yet to be explored entirely. Every vague little hint of a connection or any tiny cameo is a huge treat for fans of this series and I'm actually more excited to see where "Gungnir" will take us in Dept Heaven's true story than Gungnir's own plot.
That bar is a visual indicator of how many fuckloads of damage this attack will do
The first game "Riviera: The Promised Land" is the first game in the series and probably the most important in terms of story. It really sets the stage for the rest of the series and is pretty much the source of Dept Heaven's common elements. Also being "Episode I", its also closest to home in terms of RPG mechanics; but that sure as hell doesn't mean its like your typical RPG.

There are no experience points and no leveling-up. You get stronger by mastering weapons and items. After mastering a weapon, you can use its special attack and you get a stat-increase. It goes without saying that Riviera has a ton of items and everything has some sort of use in battle, more importantly, every character uses items differently. The two most important strategies in battle are finding out which character does best with a certain type of weapon or item and properly executing special attacks. This game also differs from a lot of run-of-the-mill RPGs in that it is very exploration-based. On every screen, you can interact with your surroundings. Sometimes something good will happen that will give you an edge in battle, other times you'll hurt yourself or say something to earn the scorn of your female companions. Oh yes, this also has a bit of a dating-sim feel to it. The game's dialogue isn't brilliant, but it can be very fun at times, especially when dealing with girls.
Making bad decisions could get your party in trouble. With sexy results.
I believe the exploration mechanic is the best part of this game. Although a lot of the areas are repetitive, the huge amount of dialogue and the fact that nothing seems useless really make each chapter feel like a real adventure. Best of all, after you beat the game once, depending on what decisions you make (you make a TON of decisions in this game) everything could be different the second time around. Now a lot of western RPGs might have this kind of replayability, but this game was originally released for the Wonderswan, so a game this epic on a hand-held was pretty much unheard of. Its a shame that its battle system can get boring after a while, a huge complaint from critics.

The battles are all planning and strategy, no real edge-of-your-seat action. Yes, it can get boring, but its nice to see an RPG that's a little more complex than "attack, attack, attack". You have to time special attacks, watch the enemy's rage meter, play to their elemental weaknesses, and so on. In conclusion, the game's strong point is "variation". Its familiar in a lot of ways, but mixes up enough of those many familiar aspects to keep you interested. You could blaze through it, but half of the fun is sticking around to enjoy the scenery or enjoy a little small-talk. You just can't get this much fun out of four silent heroes with no personality.
Axes are good against spears, spears are good against swords, swords are good against axes. Do you find this familiar?
After Riviera's re-release on the Game Boy Advance, Sting followed up with a spiritual sequel called "Yggdra Union". At that time, the Dept Heaven series was yet to be established, but you could say that it all started here since a lot of familiar elements from Riviera showed up here and then became staples of the series as a whole. That being said, Yggdra Union is god-damned awesome. So awesome in fact, in Japan, Yggdra Union has become sort of a series itself, with prequels and mobile phone games (though the first one is the only "true" Dept Heaven game).

Rather than a turned-based RPG with a handful of characters, Yggdra Union is military strategy game...with cards. On your turn, you get to select a tactics card that displays your movement and attack power for your whole army. You only get to deal damage to your opponent if you win a battle; depending on how much ass you kicked, you'll inflict a certain amount of damage. One huge thing that separates YU from other strategy games is that your units never "die" unless their morale hits zero, instead their energy is restored after each battle. So they could get beaten in a fight, but its no big deal because they have a shot at the next one. You can also charge your card to activate its power which can be direct damage, but most cards have some other effect like restoring morale, breaking weapons, switching terrain bonuses, inflicting status effects, switching stats, and even summoning skeletons.
Also, these games are known for lots of partial nudity
The main strategy other than the tactics cards is making "unions". You only get to attack once per turn, but by arranging your units in a certain way, you can initiate up to five battles in a row. Proper formation is absolutely critical here so you can line up your units to get tactical advantages against the enemy, but they can do the same to you. You also get a bit of control during the battles, you can order your troops to attack more aggressively, giving you an elemental property to your attacks, or you can fall back, but you'll charge your card's energy for a special attack.

It seems like a lot, but YU will guide you every step of the way. So much in fact, that I find it annoying that it takes so long just for all of the game's mechanics to be available to you. The fact that you can't even make unions until after the first few battles annoys me quite a bit. One thing about the game that I do like is that it doesn't use numbers to indicate attack/defense power, but stars. How strong is two big stars? Well, a hell of a lot more than five little stars. This is pretty cool in that it gives you a visual understanding of how powerful a character is; in fact, the only "numbers" you have to worry about are morale and your card's attack power and movement. Everything else is bars or something. You have to take note of classes, elements, formation, terrain, and cards every time you make a decision, but luckily, there are no complex numbers to worry about.
Except for all the numbers on this screen
Again, a very fun strategy game, but it does have some game-breaking mechanics. For one, once your characters get strong enough, they will be almost invincible with certain cards. Also, some cards like "Steal" are so important, they become insanely overpowered later on, becoming pretty much your only choice against bosses. This could mean that some boss battles are all about damage-dealing and not so much finding many different ways to win (not always, but sometimes). And although similar to Riviera in that you can interact with various things on the battlefield and collect a ton of items that can alter stats or restore morale, there is usually just one way to advance the plot. I think its stupid how in some cases the game won't continue unless you lose a certain number of battles. These are my main complaints about this game, but other than that, its fantastic.

The latest game is called "Knights in the Nightmare" and its Episode IV. So yeah, its so crazy that it can't even be called "Episode III". When this game was released, it became official that all of these games were related and this was the first time the concept of "Episodes" was mentioned. It first came out for the Nintendo DS and featured the main character as a "wisp" that flew around the battlefield and interacted with things like a mouse cursor.
What the fuck is all of this shit?
Yeah...This time, I'm not going to go too far into detail about the mechanics because that would take too long, but in short (and in one breath): You put knights on the battlefield, but they can only use weapons of their class and no higher than their level, to attack monsters walking around thowing out attacks, not at the knights, but at you, the wisp, you dodge their bullets and charge attacks, ocassionally picking up MP, but you have to switch from law and chaos modes to get more MP, and each class acts differently in law and chaos modes, some move around and others don't, so positioning is important, also you can't spam attacks, because each action lowers your knights' vitality, and if they run out they are gone forever, speaking of which, each battle is timed and you lose time every time the wisp takes a hit.....GASP and you beat stages after getting a bingo.

Confused yet? This game got a ton of criticism due to its huge learning curve, but actually, I really like it. I say to Sting, when it comes to making complex games, go nuts. In addition to its deep level of strategy and tons of options, the battles themselves are exhilarating. After carefully fine-tuning your strategy and planning your attack right down to the millisecond, nothing makes you angrier than watching it all go downhill because you got nailed by a bunch of attacks.

Knights in the Nightmare really puts the "time" in "real-time". You need time to charge attacks, but its also literally your life, when time runs out, the battle ends. You are also even more so challenged in this game when it comes to finding items. You can't just hop around the map searching for stuff, there's a battle to fight and its game over if you take too long (not to mention every move and attack costs vitality). In addition to the literally hundreds of items you can obtain, there is a roster of over 100 characters that you can recruit. Each one has a story and unique attributes. Whether it be level, class, or elemental affinity, finding just the right characters for the job is a key element to winning battles.
That, and dodging shit
There's so much more to this game that I could go into, but moving on, there are good points and bad points to the game. The main bad point is that both DS and PSP versions have control issues. Although its not as good-looking, the DS version is much easier to control, but sometimes you can activate knights when you don't want to (one way in which the PSP version is better). On the good side, other than its deep strategy and it being incredibly fun to play, the story of Knights is the best of the Dept Heaven games. There is not be a lot of dialogue and a lot of the story is told through exposition, but its executed very well. I like how only tiny parts of the story are told one at a time until you piece the whole thing together. Plus, do I have to tell you that a story about a dead king that revives the souls of his fallen knights to take back his castle is going to be incredibly awesome? Its a very serious story as well, but not cheesily melodramatic, there are some truly sad parts and the villains are really cool, each having their own personality and motives (none of it cut-and-paste, the writers really thought them out). The best part of the story is watching the bad guys interact with one another, you never know what's going to happen next.

So, what about the series as a whole? I love it. The games are a blast and have tons of replay value; I don't care that Sting just rereleases their games on the PSP, I'll buy them just to check out the new stuff. The games might look complex at first, but once you get the hang of them, its much easier; In fact, the second or third time around, you might find them "too easy". The game gives you all of the information you need to come out with a complete victory, you just have to put all of the pieces together. For that reason, they aren't really "complex" as I said earlier, but just different.

That being said, I'm thrilled to see what Gungnir has in store. Just from screenshots and gameplay videos, I can already see it borrows some motifs from the earlier Dept Heaven games, but its different in its own ways. Is it nine times more original than Riviera? All we have is a demo so far, so who knows.

Whew, what a long review. And that's just the basics of the series, each game is way more complex than what I said and I didn't go into the story of the series as a whole, but I guess part of the fun is figuring that out for yourself. Next week, its a new album review. Time to dance!


  1. Looks like fun.

  2. 3 years of development haha. It better be good

  3. I'm not quite sure how I've never heard of this, but thanks for the in-depth post. I appreciate it.

  4. I played the first game. it was pretty fun but i never got in to the other ones.

  5. it looks pretty... colorful...

  6. love your blog! keep up the quality posts!

  7. Sounds like a pretty cool game, I'd like to give it a shot but I don't like the idea of having to start from the first one just to know what's going on.

  8. Will add it to the list of games to try, thanks for the post.

  9. @Claude
    There's no need to start from the beginning you could really play the games in any order.

  10. 3 years ? really ? don't think it will be so good then. following and supporting

  11. Wow, 3 years? That is insane. Let's sure hope it was a good gamble on their part..

  12. never heard of this series...
    buying for the name :d