Long known in Japan for its brilliant Langrisser strategy-RPG games, Career Soft survived the death of Sega gaming consoles by beginning a new series called Growlanser on Sony platforms. Between the PlayStation and PlayStation 2, the development teamís newest strategy RPG franchise has already seen 3 separate installments released in Japan. However, none of the above names will bear much recognition among the majority of US-based RPG fans. Other than the early 90ís release of the first Langrisser game (titled Warsong in the States) on the Sega Genesis, no Career Soft titles have ever made it over to our shores. Fortunately, thanks to Redding, California-based publisher Working Designs, one of the most overlooked RPG series in Japan (or at least part of it; WD currently has no plans for the first game in the series) will finally arrive in the US at some yet-to-be-determined date.
As Growlanser II opens, the neighboring kingdoms of Rolandia, Burnstein, and Lanzak enjoy tense but peaceful relations a year after the conclusion of a bitter war. Protagonist Wein Cruz, a young scythe-wielding knight, has embarked on his first mission: patrolling the Burnstein border with his apprentice Hans Burt, his longtime friend Maximilian Schneider, and another greenhorn, a girl named Charlone Claudius. On this young group's watch, however, the appearance of a large force of soldiers threatens to reignite the brutal war between the edgy kingdoms. The odd thing here is that the soldiers bear markings unfamiliar to all three regions. So itís up to Wein and his allies to determine who the foreign army is and what its intentions are.
Langrisser veterans should find this plot premise to be immediately familiar, and most should be thrilled to learn that Growlanser II will feature a storyline that branches. Along with characters' performance in battle and information learned from conversations that take place, player decisions determine which plot paths are revealed. These plot paths are represented on the game's Continental Chart, a world map that shows which of its many locations are accessible to the player. And like nearly all of Career Soft's other games, it's safe to assume that a strong level of attention will be paid to the development of interpersonal relationships between characters; it appears that player decisions will also determine the outcome of Weinís love life.
Growlanser II will mimic it's predecessor, playing much like a traditional RPG outside of battles. Also, the first Growlanser's heavily strategic Real-Time Mission Clear system, where battle events affect the mission objective, returns in the sequel. However, Growlanser II's combat will supposedly contain more flexibility than the occassionally restrictive engine of its prequel. For example, instead of being discharged immediately after casting time expires, magic can now be stored: accumulating power as time passes. Stored magic can then be unleashed at any time and even laid down as traps for the enemy. New special attacks are also available to characters who do not wield magic.
Like in many present-day RPGs, characters can augment their weapons by attaching items (in Growlanser II, Spirit Stones) to them. The Spirit Stones in turn bestow attributes to the characters through this association. An interesting twist here is that characters' weapons actually evolve depending on what Spirit Stones are attached to them.
Graphically, Growlanser II retains the sprite-based 2D overhead look of the series' initial installment and of most of the Langrisser games. Screens from the import version and from the semi-playable demos at E3 indicate that the visuals improve on the detail of the attractive maps of the first Growlanser. In addition, Satoshi Urushihara, the brilliantly talented artist of the Langrisser games and Growlanser (and probably best known in the States for drawing the Legend of Lemnear and Plastic Little anime movies), returns to draw for the sequel. The character art for Growlanser II ranks as perhaps the finest that this previewer has ever seen in a US-released game.
All of the Japanese CD-based Langrisser and Growlanser games featured spectacular voice acting accompanying the majority of the dialogue in the game, and it's overwhelmingly likely that the plethora of spoken dialogue will continue when Working Designs, never a company to shy away from voice acting, localizes Growlanser II. However, the soundtrack likely wonít fare quite as well. Growlanser II will be the first Career Soft-developed game in which the talented Noriyuki Iwadare doesnít compose at least part of the score, and the Japan-released soundtrack CD has proven to be quite pedestrian, at least after a few listens. Hopefully, the background music will work better accompanying the game than standing on its own.
With beautiful art, deep storyline, and detailed character development, Growlanser II promises to be one of the finer US RPGs available when it is released, as the dialogue-laden game seems to have found a suitable publisher in the dialogue-attentive Working Designs. It wonít break any new ground technically, but it should provide an engrossing RPG experience for those willing to take a chance on a game that doesnít feature the flashiest graphics around.
In Japan, Growlanser II was sold in both a regular edition and a limited DX pack. In addition to the game, the DX pack included a postcard set featuring art from the game, a premium telephone card, an official art book, and a brown bandanna with Rolandia's emblem emblazoned on it. There is no word on whether Working Designs will include any of these items with the US version of the game, but judging from their track record, thereís a good chance that some extra goodies will find their way into the US release. The North American release date has not yet been disclosed.