This will be a series of eight public posts (and more will be added, hopefully, when new games come out).
What is Dept. Heaven?
A vast universe filled with many worlds, each one a separate dimension, features as a grand stage for the massive conflict of two of them. Asgard, which fights on the side of order, is a world of gods, angels, and artificially superevolved humanoids. Niflheim, which fights on the side of chaos, is a world of all kinds of demons and monsters, ranging from Elder God-esque terrifying beasts to your run-of-the-mill RPG small fries. The worlds between are populated by mortals—humans and Sprites—and the odd angel or demon no longer attached to their dimension of origin.
Asgard seeks to make the entire multiverse a place of perfect order, and Niflheim wants to invade and subjugate everything and generally fuck stuff up. Now, these two superpowers had sniped at each other for a long time, but roughly a thousand years ago (by all accounts), there was a full-scale war—Ragnarok—between the two.
At first the demons were scattered and lacked cohesion, but under the leadership of one demon god this eventually changed. Once it did, Asgard found itself in serious danger of being overwhelmed. The gods decided to prevent this at all costs, and broke an ancient taboo by creating a special race of living weapons, the Grim Angels. These creatures each possessed weapons called Diviners that contained all the offensive power of a god, and their eleventh-hour addition to Asgard’s army saved their world from destruction. Ragnarok ended in a cease-fire, and the angels and demons retreated to nurse their wounds.
But the gods were creatures of order, and had to pay for bending their own rules. On the verge of disappearing, they chose seven humanoids to rule Asgard in their stead, and sealed away their great powers in a neutral world for its residents to guard in exchange for eternal peace. The people of Asgard sealed away the short-lived Grim Angels in cryogenic sleep so that they could fight for order another day.
Dept. Heaven is a series of games created by Ito Shinichi of Sting Entertainment, all set to this backdrop. The series is planned to have nine core works—nine Episodes—four of which have been released as of summer 2012. It also includes a handful of spinoffs (there are three right now).
Each Episode takes place in a different world, at a different time. They all play very differently, and because Ito is a clever director who hates orthodox game genres, each Episode is likely to be quite a different beast from any game you’ve set hands on previously. All of them tend to include elements of the RPG and strategy genres, though.
It’s important to note that Episodes are not released in chronological order. They’re not released in numerical order, either—in terms of release order, we got I, II, IV, and then IX. (The Episode numbers don’t actually have any plot significance; they just indicate when each game got pitched in the series’ first stages of development.) It’s also important to note that the Episodes are all more or less self-contained; you can understand any given game’s basic plot perfectly well without knowing too much about the general setting. You cannot, however, understand much about the general setting without playing more than one game. One of the fun parts of the Dept. Heaven series is digging into Ito’s rich worldbuilding from Episode to Episode, and exploring the vast library of multimedia content available (artbooks, interviews, and drama CDs).
About the worldbuilding: In Dept. Heaven games, this is inextricably linked with gameplay, story, and sometimes even individual characters. To explain too much about this would, in some cases, be giving the fun away. But it’s an important element in what makes the stories so enjoyable.
About the stories: The vast majority of them have very serious elements. Just how serious varies from game to game, but there’s quite a lot of unpacking societal issues like uneven privilege and different kinds of prejudice, and looking at the kinds of damage those things inflict. It’s also important to remember that Asgard and Niflheim are all about order and chaos, not good and evil. The cast of characters in each game also tends to be quite morally ambiguous. Someone you thought was on the side of good might actively make a bad decision and do a lot of harm. Someone you thought was definitely evil might have a surprising amount of justification for their actions. And if you want to do the right thing or even gain a happy ending, you’d better get ready to crawl through the mud for it.
One of the things I personally love best about the series is that it’s got its fair share of strong, well-written female and queer characters. It’s not particularly something that has a lot of attention drawn to it—but they’re there, they’re not apologizing for it, and they’re most certainly not going anywhere.
Marietta / the Archangel is a Guardian Angel whose job it is to patrol and secure Heaven’s Gate, and occasionally go into mortal worlds on missions for the gods. She has something of a lofty attitude and alternatively comes off as authoritative and as looking down her nose at “lesser creatures”, and is famous amongst players for wearing very little. She has appeared in three games so far, and one of the multi-Episode narratives is the question of what’s happened to cause the vast changes in her from one game to the next. She plays an especially important role in Knights in the Nightmare.
Hector is one of the Seven Magi ruling Asgard, a former humanoid who has obtained near-immortality from the gods in order to serve in his position. Magically brilliant, he has accomplished a number of feats that have been considered impossible even in Asgard. He is also very, very arrogant and self-centered. Although the biggest role he plays is in Riviera, he has cameo appearances or is mentioned briefly in all other Episodes.
Pamela is a dimension-hopping witch from the world of Yumira, a pocket dimension between the mortal worlds established by the gods. Unapologetically eccentric and always full of energy. She is always researching different phenomena in various worlds, and is often a hidden recruitable character. Pamela serves as the series mascot and appears in all games other than Riviera.
About Individual Games
Each of these is going in its own post. Check them all out at your leisure—and get a sandwich, because this is going to take a bit.
Episode I – Riviera: The Promised Land
Episode II – Yggdra Union: We’ll Never Fight Alone
Episode IV – Knights in the Nightmare
Episode IX – Gungnir –Inferno of the Demon Lance and the War of Heroes–
Yggdra Unison: Holy Sword Legends
Blaze Union: Story to Reach the Future
Gloria Union: Twin Fates in the Blue Ocean
All of the games in this series so far are for handhelds that have no region lock—the most recent versions of everything but Yggdra Unison are available for the PSP, and Yggdra Unison is available for the DS.
All of the Episodes have been (or are being, in the case of Gungnir) localized by Atlus USA. The spinoff games have not been localized, and Atlus does not appear to have plans to do so. If you are Japanese-literate, I implore you to play the games in their original language: While the Atlus translations aren’t unplayably horrible, there are numerous continuity errors and many more places where the intended nuances of scenes are muddled. If you are not Japanese-literate but still want to give the series a try, it might be worth your while to look up some critiques of Atlus’ translation to make sure you don’t miss out.
There are also several cases in Riviera and Knights in the Nightmare where Atlus changed characters’ names for the English version. I will include both names in character descriptions, but will primarily be using the original Sting names and Romanizations elsewhere.