"Battles feel like a mash-up of Valkyrie Profile and Valkyria Chronicles, so I found satisfaction in every skirmish I took part in."
Western fans of VanillaWare found themselves heartbroken in 2012 when, after numerous delays, XSEED were forced to cancel their localization of PSP strategy RPG Grand Knights History. That was the sorrowful end of this tale until late last year, when that game's director, Tomohiko Deguchi, partnered up with Spike Chunsoft to create Grand Kingdom, a spiritual sequel to Grand Knights History that takes its predecessor's framework and expands upon it with the added power of the current generation's consoles. The game is still two months away from release, but NIS America are about to run a week-long closed beta to stress-test the game's online functions. I spent some time with a pre-launch version of this beta, and I'm pleased to say it's been quite an enjoyable experience.
Set on the continent of Resonail, in which four opposing nations vie for control and succession, you take control of an unseen tactician in the employ of a famed mercenary's guild called... er, well, The Guild. Not allied with any one faction, The Guild are quite happy to sell themselves to the highest bidder: This means that you, the player, are welcome to forge a contract with whichever side appeals to you and help them expand their territory through conquest.
Your early work with The Guild sees you tasked with the completion of two short quests which serve to introduce Grand Kingdom's single-player campaign. Quests take place on a board game-style field in which you send off a party of four units to achieve an objective — usually to reach the end of the map and defeat the boss — within a set number of turns, fighting enemies and collecting treasure along the way. Each quest board is filled with peril such as traps, hidden foes and artillery cannons primed to fire on set positions. Fortunately, you come prepared with a range of skills that help to get you out of stickier situations: One skill, for example, allows you to warp to any space two moves away from your position, as long as that space is occupied by a treasure chest: Is there a tough, stationary foe blocking your way forward? Warp to the chest behind him, pick up the rewards and continue on your way, all without the hassle of a Pyrrhic victory.
The playfield looks remarkably similar to Grand Knights History, while enemy encounters serve to highlight the difference between the two games: Whereas its predecessor handled battles in a typical turn-based RPG fashion, Grand Kingdom gives you direct control of your vassals as they chain attacks to inflict as much damage as their individual stamina bars allow. Each character class controls differently; Fighters can execute a flurry of sword-strikes that can launch enemies into the air to be juggled; Witches and Hunters rain payloads of fireballs or arrows from a distance; and Medics can heal or harm friends or foes depending on the type of vial they throw onto the field. The system feels a little bit like a mash-up of Valkyrie Profile and a 2D take on Valkyria Chronicles, two games which I love, so I found satisfaction in every skirmish I took part in. The beta only allows players to use the aforementioned four classes, but the full game is set to include a baker's dozen.
Grand Kingdom's beta only includes two campaign quests, so when those were finished, I had to venture into the game's online War Contract mode to continue. To take part in a War Contract, you must first forge a temporary contract with the nation of your choice, at which point you're given preference of which battlefront you'd like to deploy to. These battlefronts play similar to the offline campaign quests, although they're much more complex, with fortresses to defend/conquer. Additionally, player votes determine aspects such as artillery placement, or what type of special "Treaty" skill will activate to change certain conditions or enact effects. The multiplayer aspect of the war mode is asynchronous, so players will only be fighting their opposing side's CPU, instead of other players directly.
Each online war lasts 24 real-time hours. The results are tallied at the end of that period, and the winning faction conquers the region upon which the war took place. I can see how taking part in these will appeal to many, and the idea of territorial changes being made in real time is very cool, but I personally felt like I was embroiled in an endless struggle to futile ends. And yet, how better to describe the horrors of war? Could this perhaps be an intentional anti-war metaphor on Grand Kingdom's behalf? Well, maybe not.
Despite only having seen a small taste of what Grand Kingdom has to offer, I can tell that the game has a lot going for it. In addition to its robust single and multiplayer modes, the character graphics are bright, beautiful and well-animated, and the game is set to an awesome soundtrack by Hitoshi Sakimoto's collective Basiscape. I only had a chance to try the PS4 version, but I can tell that Grand Kingdom's pick-up-and-play skirmishes would be a perfect fit to the Vita.
If you'd like a chance to take part in the closed beta yourself, NIS America are currently accepting registration at the game's website
. The beta will run between May 3rd – 9th.