Yggdra Union was among that early handful of downloads. I picked it because I liked the art style, not knowing what I was getting into. I soon discovered Yggdra Union is quite the complicated strategy RPG. There are different character types, and there are cards that dictate movement and status effects, and positioning matters too. And it didn't help that I was trying to play it in its native Japanese (though I eventually relented and found an English copy).
As I later discovered, Yggdra Union is the rule rather than the exception to Sting Entertainment's ... unique design sensibilities. Almost every modern Sting RPG has some sort of interesting twist on the traditional RPG formula. Riviera: The Promised Land is part dating sim and part menu-driven point-and-click adventure, for example. Knights in the Nightmare is a strategy RPG, but it also has sequences in which you must guide a tiny wisp while avoiding a hail of bullets. Rather than simply going with what works, or the cheapest alternative, Sting has traditionally been extremely experimental, and its reward has been a small but fervent fanbase.
As a studio, Sting has also done a good job of navigating the increasingly troubled waters of game development. It's been kicking around since 1989 – and in that time it appears to have found its niche. Over the years, it's mainly stuck with handhelds; when it has ventured over to the Dreamcast or the PS2, projects such as Evolution and Baroque have been characteristically low-budget, though not necessarily bad. Its most ambitious console RPG is probably Treasure Hunter G, a strategy title that had graphics roughly on par with more advanced RPGs such as Dragon Quest VI, and a sweet soundtrack to match.
But behind the scenes, Sting is getting more ambitious. It has a publishing deal in place with Atlus, and more recently, it teamed up with fellow Japanese RPG developer Idea Factory to create a spinoff venture called "Super Sting." In the meantime, it's been slowly fleshing out its own multi-episode epic called Dept. Heaven, which currently encompasses eight games, including spinoffs. Episode IX – the impressively titled Gungnir: Inferno of the Demon Lance and the War of Heroes – is due out in the US next month, which is interesting because Sting hasn't yet released Episodes V through VIII, let alone even made them. If any studio is willing to say "screw it" and skip one or two (or three) episodes in its definitive series, it's Sting.
From what I've played of Gungnir so far, it fits in pretty squarely with the Sting RPG mold. It's another strategy RPG, but this time the action takes place from an isometric perspective, and every character's turn has a cooldown timer that is synced with a real-time clock. It's possible to shave precious seconds off the cooldown timer and jump to the head of the line, but only at the expense of a tactics meter, which is what fuels combo attacks and the main character's high-powered summons. There's a lot of give and take involved with this system, the most satisfying moments being when all of the disparate elements align to permit a powerful multi-character attack.
What impresses me about Gungnir is that it quietly represents the road not taken. Dept. Heaven is a 'franchise,' but you would never know it by looking at the boxart. Riviera, Yggdra Union, and Gungnir – all Dept. Heaven games – are very different from one another, united only by the fact that they tend to be more experimental than most. Sting sequels exist – see the Yggdra Union spinoffs – but they are comparatively rare. Sting prefers to make extra money by porting its games to the PSP (or, in the case of RPG/Mario Party hybrid Dokapon Kingdom, the Wii).
Sting's approach isn't particularly glamorous, but it does seem to be effective. Rather than try to build its foundation on one particularly well-known franchise (like Namco Bandai) or fan service (OK, they do have a bit of fan service, I'm not going to lie), Sting has generally relied on its creativity and good design sense to get by. More importantly, when I go into a Sting RPG – the strictly formulaic Evolution games notwithstanding – it's usually with the expectation that I'll be playing a quality game. Even Hexyz Force, which is pretty average by itself, manages to distinguish itself with a strong soundtrack and some good graphics.
Of course, Sting games are also rather notorious for being slow-paced, fairly inaccessible, and difficult. But that, I suppose, is the price that sometimes needs to be paid when a studio is so willing to play around with established RPG tropes. There is a talented bunch of designers over at Sting, and I expect that they will continue to thrive well into the next generation; which is good, because I want to play the rest of Dept. Heaven.
Kat Bailey is a freelance writer based out of San Francisco, California. Her work has been featured on multiple outlets, including GamesRadar, Official Xbox Magazine, gamesTM, and GameSpot. You can follow her on Twitter at @the_katbot.