Did you ever want to be a kid again? Run around like crazy, have make-believe adventures, and trail mud on your mother's carpets? If you answered "yes," then Grandia is not for you: though this character-driven game deftly puts you into the shoes of a child in an adults' world, it spends the next fifty or so hours contorting to fit the tired save-the-world mold. In a nutshell, this extra-lengthy coming-of-age tale teaches one and only one lesson: adulthood is overrated.
From the opening moments it becomes obvious that Grandia elevates town navigation into an art: the game opens with Sue, the hero's young friend, running around town. She rounds one corner, then another, then changes direction and runs into a narrow alley. The camera follows her all the while, zooming, panning, and strafing like crazy. Not knowing that the game has an auto-map function, I watched the opening with growing fear. In short, the towns - especially the first one - are HUGE, and there is a lot of stuff to find and interact with, though none of it is important.
The bad news is that there is no auto-map function in dungeons. These dungeons are every bit as huge as the towns, and they are full of things to find, ranging from routine items like money and healing potions, to important things like mana eggs and powerful weaponry.
The view can still be rotated, making a full circle in a mind boggling sixteen increments (pretty much equivalent to fluid rotation), and even zoomed in as necessary with the press of a button. You can also zoom out and get a limited aerial view in some places, which is usually good enough to get your bearings and little else. It's still pretty easy to lose your way, unless you proceed very slowly and explore every location to the best of your abilities (the Soldiers' Temple, an optional area with multiple secret passages comes to mind).
The camera's placement also slightly hinders the player: isometric perspective imposes considerable limits on the field of vision.
So, how was this fantastic scale and freedom of movement achieved? One of the trade-offs was graphics: all locations are rendered in true 3-D, and though the polygons are textured brightly and attractively, the resolution suffers: the attention to small detail is impressive, but small objects - bottles, etc. - are just a few polygons cobbled together. Nonetheless, most environments are colorful and appealing, and even give Grandia a certain unique character.
The three-dimensionality also comes into play in the dungeons: elevation is realistically represented - some slopes are too steep to climb; you can fall off cliffs and platforms, though you can't die this way; lastly, some dungeons have catapults and springboards that help you get to otherwise unreachable places.
Grandia's second trick is its use of area: while many other games use what I call corridor-based dungeons, Grandia's dungeons are frequently a series of large open spaces. This is a nice idea, but it also makes looking for items very time-consuming: you literally have to comb each area.
Another notable thing about dungeons - you can see the enemies prior to the encounter. Each level in a dungeon has a limited number of foes, and these do not re-spawn unless you leave and come back. You probably won't leave and come back too often because of Grandia's interesting treatment of the world map: it is flat, much like in Final Fantasy Tactics, and movement from point A to point B only requires you to move a cursor.
Unfortunately, even despite the fact that the number of foes is limited, it is still very large. You will enter combat frequently until you will have killed off everything in sight.
Grandia adds a degree of realism to random battles: it matters how you enter it. Ambushing your foe from behind leads to a surprise attack. The enemies can also surprise you. In fact, they usually get the jump - most move significantly quicker than you, and they do actually chase you if you happen to be within range.
Moreover, like in Breath of Fire III, the entire party is represented in the dungeons, not just the lead character: if you have four people with you, all four will walk in a conga line. This makes your party extremely vulnerable to ambushes. In some dungeons, you can expect to be attacked every few seconds.
Well, you've entered battle: now what? Grandia's battle system is one of the most unique and user-friendly on the PlayStation: it brings into play an incredible number of cool elements, and yet manages to stay very intuitive.
Battle centers around the concept of the "IP Gauge," which, like the ATB meter in the FF games, shows how much time will pass before any given participant will be able to issue a command. Besides this "wait" phase, there is an action phase: after you have given a command to the character, you will either see him or her run up to the target and attack it, or prepare to cast a spell or use an item. Spells have casting times depending on the caster's proficiency with the spell's element.
Thus, each battle is very cinematic: instead of the usual I-hit-you, you-hit-me-back routine, you will see and hear people and monsters running around, arrows flying, battle-cries ringing, and spells firing.
The magic system is also handled interestingly. With a "mana egg" you can purchase magical ability with any one of the four elements - wind, fire, water, and earth - and receive a starter spell. By casting spells, the character gains experience and his level with the elements increases, giving him access to stronger spells. By specializing in more than one element, the character can also receive composite spells (wind + fire = thunder, etc.)
The weapon and special move system is almost identical, except you cannot buy proficiencies with weapon types: they're preset. By using a weapon in battle, you gain levels, stat increases (very useful), and new moves.
In addition, Grandia partitions MP into four sections (special moves, 1st, 2nd, and 3rd lvl spells), making it very hard to run out altogether.
However, the engine's greatest accomplishment is keeping the player reasonably entertained for a full twenty hours before it is brought to waste by the combination of extreme tedium and minimal challenge.
Gaining experience with elemental magic is frequently very slow, especially for characters without area-effect or attack spells.
Difficulty is extremely low, partly because you can stun and "silence" enemies by simply attacking them (just by attacking constantly, I defeated the final boss without suffering any damage at all), partly because you can replenish HP/MP at save spots in the dungeons, and partly because your characters are just too strong even without undue leveling up.
Grandia also suffers from several small bugs in combat: one is the uncomfortable lag before issuing a command; sometimes characters will "get lost" and just run in circles.
Now, the meat of the game: the story. Nothing much to say here, except that after a very promising beginning it does nothing but get worse and worse. The archetypal hero's light-hearted adventures quickly merge into a slow, boring slog through every swamp, forest, and mountain range on his way to the mysterious Alent where our boy-hero hopes to be validated as an expert adventurer.
Occasionally the player gets glimpses of the "villain" they met in the first dungeon oh-so-long-ago, digging up relics of the mysterious Angelou - welcome bait for the bored gamers who know that Angelou is what the game is "really" about. The game goes on and Angelou remains a blank mystery.
However, there are bright spots in this non-descript journey. The characters start out as stereotypes but develop nicely throughout the story. I was especially surprised by the developing romance between Justin, the archetypal hyperactive boy-hero, and Feena, an older female adventurer. If the plot breaks any new ground, it does it here.
Some of the extremely numerous side-stories and fetch quests are both fun and funny. Dialog flows well, and a fraction of it is even voice-acted. Better yet, all major characters have several portraits each to express their emotional state, making word exchanges as animated as possible. So basically it's all fun and games until...
...the central plot revives towards the end of the game. It does so with spectacular efficiency: within a matter of a few hours, a new villain is revealed, the world is threatened with destruction, Justin suddenly "matures" in his outlook on life, gains the favor of spirits and a super-powerful sword, and the last piece of the puzzle that is Grandia falls into place: it is your duty to save the world!! Dum dum duh...
In hindsight, Grandia seems kind of fun, and it is, if you only remember the good parts: the incredible towns, the first few hours of gameplay, a fun side quest here and there, the repetitive but non-intrusive percussion ambiance music in dungeons (excellent orchestral main theme, I must say!), the crisp sound effects, the characters...
But when you recall that the game takes over fifty hours to beat, you might ask yourself - is it worth it?