At the time of writing this, Grandia is a month short of being a one year old game. During that time, a lot of things have happened to the system hosting this RPG, much of it bad. Software for the console is drying up fast, and Grandia came at a time when many games developers had already given up on it.
Yet one of the reasons Grandia is on the Saturn is because the console that the game was originally intended for, the Mega CD, had gone the same way very quickly, before Game Arts even had a chance to talk about it. Still, if ever there was a title that wasn't rushed to release, this is it.
Grandia succeeds in a great number of ways. However, for the most part Grandia is a linear RPG. And this is supposed to be a linear review, so let's begin.
The pre-rendered introduction animation looks superb. I can't think of any other Saturn game with video quality that boasts such clear colours, with no dithering or blockyness. It nearly looks better than PlayStation video quality, until things start moving quickly and it becomes obvious that the frame rate is lousy.
After a second intro with more hand drawn elements (assuming there is enough back-up RAM with which to save games, otherwise this animation is denied!) the scene changes to a real-time one of top villian Baaru speaking to Myuuren and Riin, a young man and woman immediately under Baaru's command. At the first opportunity Grandia has to show off its mastery of 3D graphics , it fails. Baaru looks pixelated, and there is not very much detail to this scene within his flying ship. Yet already the game has captured attention with all three characters speaking beautifully. And then an anonymous announcer's voice chips in to say that the ship will soon reach its destination. Riin opens the shutters that allow you to look upon the world that will be your playground for the forthcoming epic. For this little opening, it would seem that Game Arts wish to introduce you to their imagery very slowly. It seems logical that Baaru would be introduced in a blocky manner. The game is saying "okay, here's the obligatory graphical compromise to help you to suspend disbelief". But don't blink yet.
For then Grandia hits you with the amazing camera flight over the hero's home town of Parm. Ah, what can be said? This scene shifts more polygons, sprites and special effects than anything else I've seen from a console. And the music is possibly even more impressive, as it starts off with a sound like a chorus of bagpipes, and then flows into a much lighter tune as Sue and Pooey make their appearance. The music stops as Justin, the 14 year old star of the game, gets thrown out of a house he wasn't supposed to be in. This seems to be the light-hearted way Game Arts like to start their epic RPGs, as the player's first task is to find a bunch of garbage which a group of local kids refer to as legendary armour!
There is much to do in the towns. Just running around and seeing what items of furniture can be knocked over in the houses is a pleasure. One thing that I noticed very quickly was the way the game sometimes uses 3D aural effects. For example, if there is a stove bubbling away in someones home, running around it will cause the bubbling sound to noticably shift from left to right according to your relative position. It's worthy of commendation that work has been put into the finer details of Grandia's soundtrack, as even though the Saturn really struggles to compete with the PC, PlayStation and N64 in terms of graphics, in the right hands its sound capabilities are second to none. It is a good idea to check out all these nice touches that there are to be found in towns like Parm, for there is no going back when you finally set sail for, um, New Parm...
The music remains at a consistent high quality throughout, although to someone who has played Lunar Eternal Blue, a few of the tunes may seem quite similar (something that could also be said about Lunar Silver Star Story). The music is streamed like the games already mentioned in this paragraph, so there is no opportunity to hear any of it on a CD player without getting the music CDs themselves (items I've never seen myself, otherwise I would probably have my own copies). But even in doing this, Game Arts perform more magic by getting the feeble double-speed CD-ROM drive to stream separate music and speech samples simultaneously, without compromise. If your Saturn's CD drive is noisy you can hear it frantically seeking back and forth for audio data while two characters are having a conversation. If my PC's 10-speed CD drive were to ever attempt this, it's guaranteed to lock-up and fail.
Clearly there is a lot to digest in each town, as this reviewer is still stuck in the first one! So venturing outside, things don't look very different. There is less detail to be found than in a village, but then these areas are larger. Importantly there is no change to the control system at all. Whether indoors or outdoors, walking, running, climbing and turning are all the same. Grandia has the appearance of an action RPG, but running into an enemy will result in a turn-based battle.
Fights are viewed from above, with the same sprites that are used to represent characters and monsters outside of battles. The backgrounds are 2D, which is in contrast to the rest of the game. And also in contrast to other RPGs that were released at around the same time, like Shining Force III, Azel Panzer Dragoon RPG, and the translated Final Fantasy VII. That could make Grandia one of the last big name RPGs to use 2D, and yet it still manages to be innovative.
Battles take into account the posistion of the characters, and the timing of their actions, as well as just statistics. If a character wants to attack an enemy by hand, but there are other characters in the way, it will inevitably take longer to carry out the strike. All the running around and hitting takes place very quickly, almost like in Guardian Heroes, but good timing and positioning can make a difference. Each character must wait until their icon on the timing bar reaches a certain point before they act, but being hit can force these timing icons to stop, or even shift backwards, making it very difficult for a player or enemy to stike back if they are being picked on by a great number of opponents!
In my experience, this battle system doesn't seem to be appreciated by everyone. On one occasion the console was rudely turned off in front of me after the very first fight, the reason being that the person didn't like the look of the battle system. On the other hand, I've been told that players of table-top RPGs (which often have extremely comprehensive fighting systems) tend to be more impressed by Grandia's battles because of the timing and positioning elements, especially in comparison to console RPGs where the characters return to their original position after every turn. But this isn't to say that Grandia is over complex; you can play it like Lunar (ignore the timer) and Final Fantasy (ignore where your people are) and still get by.
Grandia isn't very difficult. The only real challenge it presents are in the three optional stages on Disc 2, although I find it curious that the foes encountered in these areas give very little by way of experience points. It isn't even particularly tough at the end, at least there are certainly no Omni Zophar-like stories of gamers getting stuck. But general dungeons and outside areas do present plenty of gameplay. The mazes are many in number, although are not of a size where maps are required. Avoiding monsters is fun too, and quite often tactics more appropriate to action games are needed to outsmart them, so as to get to the next area quickly. In whatever way Grandia is played, it will still be satisfying.
The level-up system is well balanced too. When a new area is encountered, it will always be just difficult enough to apply presure on the player without too much frustration. And this is achieved with very little in the way of added hit and magic points during level-ups, which in themselves occur rarely. Sometimes it is impossible to go back to where you were last to just run around and gain experience, but this doesn't seem to be a problem.
The mix of characters that are available to control is quite impressive. For the first few hours it seems that Justin, Feena (a girl met while travelling to New Parm), and Sue are to be the only regular characters. But then the game simply isn't giving away all its secrets yet. And nor shall I, except to say that if you play the game through again after beating it, who you will give priority to when using Mana Egg power-ups will probably change.
Mana Eggs allow a character to cast spells during battles (and to recover between battles). But it is true that the spell effects are not that great. Character animation and speech during the casting of magic is good, but otherwise Grandia's magic often lacks colours, looks dull, and takes a longer amount of time to watch than the effects are worth looking at for. And they only take a handful of seconds each! The first Level 2 Earth spell for example, gets old very quickly. A hexagonal patch of red-hot rocks appear on the ground, in a spiral, and then you see the hexagonal spiral go backwards so as to disappear. Boring. Quite often normal hand weapon attacks do just as much damage, but you find yourself always resorting to spells just to try and get better ones through experience. It can be tough getting Water magic experience though, as Water is inoffensive and so there isn't always any use for it in battles, unless heroes need healing.
Grandia is a very good game indeed, in terms of a variety of sights to see, and plot to unfold. I took my time with it and clocked up 74 hours before viewing the ending. It achieves more than many other RPGs and is both a visual and aural showcase for the Saturn. Game Arts have produced a number of transparent objects, for example, as well as putting effects like fog in the foregound rather than the background (which is much more pleasing to the eye). The polygons are solid with no break-up or dodgy warping going on, and a close look will even reveal that many 3D objects are light-sourced. But there are areas for improvement.
The game is full of loading delays. All of them are very small, but having a loading delay just for calling up the status/inventory menu is silly, and shouldn't happen again. Maybe Grandia should have used a RAM cart to avoid this? Also, despite all the exploring being in 3D, much of the game still felt 2D. The towns were all built on flat ground, and although I imagine this was because a flat plane made the floors and paths easier to draw for the VDP2 chip (capable of SNES Mode 7-like graphics), it would have been nice to see some buildings stacked up against the side of a mountain. But that's just something I wanted, and really would have had little bearing on the experience of playing the game.
Finally, the 2D battles are clearly not for everyone. Final Fantasy VII was such a success that anything less than 3D will turn more people away than it will attract. And full 3D battles may have made the magic look better too. But this is already being addressed in Grandia 2, so maybe it was very good planing to have 2D battles, so that the sequel is able to differentiate itself more clearly!
Just a quick note here to say that I can read and understand very little Japanese. This is why this review has no story rating, as although I can see the characters go through their actions (and this did impress me to the point that I was frequently emotional), it is irresponsible to place a percentage for something I don't fully understand. But to play the game it is worth taking time to learn katakana, the 46 text characters that the Japanese language uses to represent foreign (like English) words and made-up names. That way a Grandia player will know when a villager is telling them to go back to to certain town, as almost all locations and people have names in katakana. With this tip, and the common role-playing sense to speak to everybody around when stuck, the game can be beaten in reasonable time without the aid of a walkthrough. But one further recommendation is to locate a walkthrough anyway, just to try and get the most out of the magic and skills leveling up system, in addition to having the plot explained more comprehensively.
Warning: Playing this game on a 50Hz (PAL TV system) Saturn will destroy the sound in the video clips. Users of PAL Saturns are advised to look into getting a 60Hz switch installed.