Episode II of Sting’s Dept. Heaven series is the one that, thus far in the series, breaks the least new ground. However, having now played all three currently-available games in the series, I am quite convinced that it is the most enjoyable of the three.
Yggdra Union: We’ll Never Fight Alone was first released on the GBA in 2006. A fully-voiced PSP remake of the game came to us in 2008. Having already played Riviera and Knights in the Nightmare, I decided to go back and play the original GBA version, just to see if its age would show. Surprisingly, it didn’t bother me at all. I got along fine without voice acting, and I found the game to be an incredibly enjoyable Strategy RPG. Let’s get into the details.
On the surface, the game seems like little more than your prototypical “Tactical” JRPG; Fire Emblem, Shining Force, Langrisser, and other games had done it all before. Move troops around on a tiny square grid and, once they’re adjacent to an enemy, attack. We’ve seen it dozens of times. In the first hour of play, I wasn’t sure if the game was going to be different enough (or challenging enough) to keep me engaged. But I quickly realized that the game’s mechanics were totally contrary to what I had expected. And, considering this is Sting, I should’ve seen it coming. Fortunately for them (and for us), the experimentation worked beautifully.
Turns go according to groups. There’s you (the ally), a group of enemies (sometimes multiple groups), as well as the occasional group that’s made up of helpful NPCs. During your turn, you can move as much as you like, but you can only attack once. Also, total troop movement is limited by the card you play at the beginning of the turn. If the card has the number 7 on it, you can only move a total of 7 spaces. If 12 (the highest-numbered card in the game), then your troops can move 12. That’s not 12 spaces per character; you have to wisely choose which characters move which spaces during the turn. The number of troops you have on the field is predetermined from one mission to the next. Some missions may have you bring in six troops while others call for as few as one or two troops. There could be as many as twenty enemy troops on the field at one time, and throughout the game, you are generally outnumbered.
Given this setup, and specifically the “one attack per turn” rule, you might be wondering how the game could be any fun at all. This setup would only allow for extremely slow progress, right? For the first few battles, it certainly seems that way. Then, the game introduces the “union” mechanic, which is the key to victory. A few more battles, and the game expands on this mechanic to make it even more interesting.
In the one attack you get per turn, you are actually forming one large-scale strategic battle (should you choose it). The person initiating attack is the union leader, and the characters adjacent to him or her join the union to fight as well. Males unite with anyone up to two spaces away diagonally (making an “X” pattern), and females unite two spaces horizontally and vertically (making a “+” pattern). Unions are even more fully fleshed out when this same pattern is added on a secondary scale. All the troops that are linked to the union leader will then have their + or X (again, depending on the troop’s gender) spread out in a one-square radius. However, in cases where more than five troops can be linked, only the first five are picked, as the maximum union size is five.
What the player needs to keep in mind, of course, is that the same union rules apply to the enemy. They can have up to five troops for the battle as well, depending on their positioning. It isn’t uncommon that the ally and enemy parties will have the same number of troops going into battle (be it one, two, or five). But if the numbers are disparate, the group with fewer troops in their union will have to reuse the same troop(s) that are in their union, in order. In a four-to-three battle, this isn’t a big deal. But in a five-to-one, it is a big deal. And here’s why.
Each “troop” actually consists of a six-person group: one general, and five regular troops. Larger units, such as knights and griffon riders, will only have three instead of six, but they are equivalent in terms of strength. But when a troop needs to be repeated in a union battle, they lose one person per battle. So, let’s say your protagonist (named Yggdra, hence “Yggdra Union”) is stuck in a one-to-five deathmatch. In the first fight, Yggdra and her five extra sword maidens (totaling six) will go up against the first enemy troop. In the next battle, she’ll have four extra, then three, then two, and by the final battle, it’ll be just her and one additional sword maiden. The likelihood of Yggdra losing increases with each battle.
Now, if Yggdra is of a significantly higher level than the enemy troops, or she is up against enemies with a weapon class that is weak to her own (more on that later), or if the card played for the turn grants Yggdra a special ability that will allow her to destroy anything in her path (“Revolution” or “Crusade” cards should do the trick), then it may be beneficial to send in Yggdra solo. The same may be true for any other troop you have, if you think they can survive a one-to-many fight. But, generally, it’s safer to link up and form unions. After all, “We’ll Never Fight Alone!”
Another interesting facet to the combat system is how an enemy (or ally) is defeated. Most troops won’t die in a single battle because the game’s equivalent to HP is a morale gauge. If you win a battle, you will not lose any morale; but if you lose the battle, damage is dealt to your morale based on a few factors. The base damage is determined by the value of the card. This number goes up, on your own deck of cards, with each victory. So you not only level your characters, but you “level” the cards by increasing their morale damage output. Now, this base damage is tempered by a series of percentage bonuses or penalties based on a few criteria: the number of surviving people on the winning side, the difference in weapon types, geographical influence, and special bonuses (troop general is still alive, critical hit dealt, status effect dealt, and a few other specialized bonuses). If the net percentage comes out to 0% or less, you actually won’t do any morale damage. In turn, no morale damage would be done to you given those same conditions. However, if you can get the percentage over 100%, you can do even more morale damage than the total value listed on the card. In other words, whether or not you’re capable of winning a particular battle isn’t all that matters. You have to win it and do significant morale damage for it to be worthwhile. Similarly, a series of strategic losses may be worth it if you can minimize the morale you’ll be losing.
Are you overwhelmed yet? Because there’s plenty more to talk about. There are day/evening/night cycles, there’s plenty to say about the effects of the cards (one used per turn), the forced limitations of each mission, terrain type, equipment, morale recovery, aggressive vs. passive fighting, special abilities, and plenty more. The battle system is so entirely large and complex, it takes the first ten hours of gameplay to fully wrap your head around it. Talk about a learning curve!
But I don’t want to give any more explanation to the combat system. What I’ve discussed are generally the keys to the gameplay. But I will quickly talk about the weapon strengths and weaknesses. There’s a “nested” rock-paper-scissors system with the weapon affinities, which is totally awesome. Swords beat axes, axes beat spears, spears beat swords. Now take that group of three weapon types and give them their own name (for the sake of simplicity, let’s call them the “steel” weapons). Steel beats bows, bows beat rods, rods beat steel. That’s what I mean by “nested.” There’s a rock-paper-scissors setup within a rock-paper-scissors setup! There are also some specialty weapon classes that have unique strengths and weaknesses. Finally, gender plays a role in how the weapons are handled, and some cards only give “ace” affinities to particular genders wielding a particular weapon type.
If all of the complexities of the gameplay made for a boring or tedious experience, then it all would have been for naught. But Sting carefully crafted the game’s combat, character growth, card system, and other little quirks just right. The result is easily one of the most enjoyable Strategy RPGs I’ve ever played.
With the exception of the game’s very strange ending battle (there are three endings in this game, and a fourth ending added to the PSP version), there really isn’t much to be said for “moral choice” in this game. There’s no question that Sting is pushing a message with this game: war sucks, but sometimes it’s necessary.
Yggdra is a princess, the daughter of the king and queen of Paltina. The game opens, however, with Yggdra on the run from the Bronquian empire. Bronquia, led by the completely insane emperor Gulcasa, just raided the castle and killed Yggdra’s parents. Yggdra finds shelter with a rag-tag band of thieves, led by a man named Milanor. She soon encounters a race of vengeful mermaids, who recently lost their ability to procreate (they need some magic gem, and a human stole it, and now there are rumors that human blood will work in place of the gem… it’s weird). No amount of diplomacy works out, and you end up killing nearly all of the mermaids because they chose to be aggressive towards you, instead of helping you bring down the empire.
Yggdra’s next stop leads her to two warring towns, both led by magicians: Rosary (female) and Roswell. In the end, you’ll be forced to kill one of them, and the other one will join your team. The frustrating thing here is that both of these people act like giant idiots, wielding their mythical Ankh Cannons (read: atomic bombs), both claiming their usage as “defense” when no one knows who the real aggressor is in the situation. Yggdra decides to stop them before they end up killing thousands of innocent civilians caught in the crossfire. Again, talk seemingly doesn’t work at all. And when you find out the root cause to this problem (and so many others like it), it’s clear that simply knowing the truth ahead of time could have prevented bloodshed. Unfortunately, no one knew the truth. And no, in case you’re wondering, there isn’t some secret in the game that allows you to avoid these futile conflicts because you learn something ahead of time. The game is scripted in such a way that you are forced to do awful things.
And after doing all of these awful things, at the end of the game, you will be quite literally forced into a situation where you can either stand by the decisions you made, or renounce them in favor of peace. Throughout the game, in many different dialogue cut scenes, your characters talk of “justice.” But relativism is immediately inserted when someone asks “whose justice?” And that’s the lesson to be learned. It’s not a bad one.
The Sting Aesthetic
I’m not even going to talk about the in-game “sprite” graphics and animation. They are merely functional. I don’t expect much else from a GBA game. Nothing looks ugly; everything makes sense immediately to my eyes. In that regard, Sting did a good job.
The artwork, limited as it is, I found to be quite appealing. Satoko Kiyudzuki’s character designs are decent, in the style of most Japanese anime and manga. But the really interesting art comes from Sunaho Tobe. Now, Tobe has done cutesy anime/manga character design before (see Summon Night: Twin Age). But her work on the Dept. Heaven series is far more sophisticated (see, for example, the artbook for Knights in the Nightmare). In Yggdra Union, Tobe contributes the illustrations for the game’s cards. They look mighty cool, though I wish they could be seen in greater detail on the GBA. I suppose that’s part of what the PSP version was for.
Yggdra Union’s soundtrack, by Minako Adachi and Shigeki Hayashi, is on par with Riviera. The game sports a soundtrack of roughly 100 musical selections, most of which are character-specific and/or area/event-specific musical themes. They all start to run together, but you have to admit, if it were just one song that played for every battle, this game’s audio would quickly wear on you. So, kudos to Sting for all the diversity. If not in style, then at least in melody.
Trading Power For Wisdom
By the time I had finished the game, I had clocked in well over 30 hours. I missed a bunch of secrets along the way, including lots of specialty items and a bonus mission. Should I ever feel like it, I may go through the PSP version in its entirety and try to “optimize” my characters through the use of my super brain power (…and a strategy guide). I had a ton of fun playing this game, and for me personally, there’s no question that this is the best of the Dept. Heaven games thus far. It has a perfect pace, it’s difficult without being too punishing, and the union system is remarkably clever within the context of the game. Every single battle encounter felt new and different. I haven’t seen such perfect balance in a Strategy RPG in ages. The gameplay is definitely the game’s strong suit: story, visuals, and audio take a back seat, though they’re not too far behind in terms of quality either.
Of course, if you have a PSP, you may as well get the updated version. I actually enjoyed playing the “no-frills” (read: no voice acting) GBA version. At this point, I don’t think it’s reasonable to recommend playing this particular version of the game, unless you absolutely loathe voice acting (and/or refined graphics, and/or the PSP as a platform). Whichever version you’d prefer, though, I have to recommend this game. Riviera and Knights in the Nightmare will only suit certain peoples’ tastes, but I think Yggdra Union has a better chance of appealing to a wide variety of tastes, even with its complex combat system.