"Growlanser: Wayfarer of Time emerges from a bygone epoch no worse for the wear."
The Growlanser series, now six entries strong, hasn't seen a North American release in nearly five years. Japanese fans have been enjoying these complex tales of war and political intrigue since 1999, but only half of them have made it across the Pacific until now. Growlanser: Wayfarer of Time is a PSP remake of Growlanser IV, which is generally regarded as the best title in the series. Between its intriguing plot, strategic gameplay, and huge number of sub-events waiting to be discovered, it's easy to see why the game is held in such high esteem. It does have some dated elements, including unimpressive graphics and initially slow pacing, but there's a whole lot of game beneath its somewhat rough exterior. If you're a fan of strategy RPGs with strong character development and you're ready to break free of grids, Growlanser: Wayfarer of Time is right up your alley.
The game is set on the continent of Noyeval, a land split into four warring nations. The story begins when the Alten Schwart mercenary brigade, led by a man named Dixon, takes on a job protecting a southern island from foreign invasion. While on the island, Dixon informs Crevanille, a young man in his care, that he is researching ancient ruins for a method to stop omnipotent beings called "angels," one of which almost immediately shows up and starts wreaking havoc. At Dixon's behest, Crevanille is tasked with taking over his work, left only with the cryptic phrase, "You are the key." Shortly thereafter, the countries of Valkania and Dulkheim become embroiled in conflict over ownership of newly-discovered "spellstones" that allow humans to wield magic. What unfolds is an unpredictable tale of political machinations, unexpected connections, and mysterious traces of a long-lost civilization.
The characters in Growlanser: Wayfarer of Time have personalities and beliefs that drive them forward, and it is worth noting that "forward" is not synonymous with "on the same path as Crevanille." Allegiances shift as the player makes decisions at key junctures, and for believable reasons. If a character strays from Crevanille's side, it is likely because they are doing what they think is right. There is an enormous amount of text in the game, all expertly translated and presented in such a way that it makes the characters endearing and likeable. It's a shame that the story is very slow-going in the game's early stages. The plot reaches a steady pace after about ten hours, but that's a long time to wait for things to start getting interesting. That's not to say the game is completely devoid of excitement in its opening stages; I merely wanted the pace to pick up because of how quickly I became invested.
Battles make up the bulk of gameplay in Growlanser: Wayfarer of Time. They're an unusual mix of real-time and turn-based strategy in which the player selects commands for each unit and watches the action unfold all at once. Tactics can be altered on the fly with the press of a button, and control is very tight; victories feel well-deserved while losses feel preventable with a change in strategy. Mission objectives have excellent variety, ranging from manipulating environmental puzzles while fending off enemies to escorting villagers to safety. Even better, the story changes depending on what decisions are made in the heat of battle. Certain characters may live or die depending on the player's actions, and the game will progress regardless of the outcome. It instills a sense of power that makes the player feel like they can make a difference in how the story unfolds.
When not engaged in battle, Crevanille can forge bonds with his allies via the "furlough system." Several hours into the game, the player gains access to a home base not unlike those found in the Suikoden titles. Here, the party recuperates on furlough days in between major story events. The player can choose which character Crevanille spends time with, increasing his or her affection for the hero and working towards that character's special ending. Another sub-system involves accessing a "Dollhouse" to raise a Familiar, a fairy-like creature that can aid the party in various ways.
This version of Growlanser IV contains a wealth of new content, including new characters, events, and endings. Rather than being a series of disconnected post-game extras, these additions are worked smoothly into the narrative and feel completely organic. Load times, which were an issue in the original version, have been almost completely negated thanks to an install option. I'm honestly impressed by the developers' ability to breathe new life into the game without compromising their original vision.
Ironically, despite the game's new subtitle, time has not been especially kind to Growlanser IV's graphics. Environments are fairly bland and primitive, with many field areas looking identical despite being in different parts of the world. Character models feel a little lifeless, though they have some decent battle animations. The hand-drawn portraits fare a bit better, but I have mixed feelings about them. If I had to sum up Satoshi's Urushihara's art style in a word, it would be "unique." His character designs are detailed and interesting, if a bit impractical. Male characters are definitely on the feminine side, and I can't help but be bothered by the way the women are conspicuously sexualized. It isn't suited to my taste, but I can appreciate quality art and I'm sure that it appeals to many people.
Growlanser: Wayfarer of Time is most visually impressive during its anime cutscenes, which highlight key plot points and feature competent English voice acting. It seems like the current industry trend is to render cutscenes in real-time, so it's refreshing to play a game that rewards player progress with a bit of eye candy every now and then. There's some ear candy to be found in the game, too, most notably the catchy theme song and the various adrenaline-infused battle tracks. I didn't find much of the town or field music to be memorable, however. Voice acting is noticeably absent aside from the aforementioned cutscenes, which is disappointing since the Japanese version featured battle quips as well as voiced dialogue. I can't fault Atlus for being unable to license the voice track, because releasing a game like this on a system with a diminishing user base was enough of a gamble on their part. I'm happy we have the chance to play it in any capacity.
Its lackluster graphics and plodding introduction aside, this is a game that we're lucky to have available in English at long last. With branching story routes and over forty potential endings, there are easily eighty-plus hours of gameplay here, making the $30 price point a real bargain. Tight, strategic combat and a good variety of mission objectives keep battles feeling fresh, while the story holds surprising depth and well-written characters. Growlanser: Wayfarer of Time emerges from a bygone epoch no worse for the wear.