High adventure has always been a hallmark of Game Arts' role-playing games, but the legendary company wasn't always so renowned. In the days of the Sega CD, Game Arts' first localized effort was Silpheed: a mildy successful, if not shallow, shooter. It wasn't until the release of Lunar for the selfsame console that the fledgling company had finally earned critical acclaim as well as a comfy niche in a relatively unexplored genre. The adventures of Alex and co. would become a fan favorite, prompting Game Arts to capture the heart of that wondrous quest to create an adventure about… adventure. From this desire, Grandia was born. While Lunar was a simple tale of a boy living out his childhood dream of becoming a hero, Grandia told the story of three children caught up in an unforgettable journey across a fantastic world. The fundamental theme of youthful adventure that made Lunar memorable was kept in trust with Grandia. The incredible voyage of Justin was an experience that most RPG fans would never forget.
Several years after the release of Grandia on the Saturn, Game Arts felt that, along with the evolution of technology, a new adventure was needed. Hoping to keep apace with aging fans of the series, Grandia II sought to bring a more mature perspective to adventure; and while that sequel sported a much older cast, the game still highlighted the series concepts of trust, faith and friendship. The revolutionary battle system pioneered in Grandia was overhauled for Grandia II, becoming an instinctively addicting exercise. Sadly, Game Arts sought to streamline their storytelling, making Grandia II short-lived at less than half the size of the original. Despite this, the game was a huge hit on Sega's Dreamcast and became one of the most popular console RPGs ever. When Sega left the hardware struggle to Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony, Game Arts adapted to survive. Before long, Grandia would find a new home on the PSOne with Grandia II PS2-bound. While rumors of Grandia III have been flying around for years, no true sequel has yet to be revealed. Instead, Game Arts brings us an exclusive PS2 Grandia adventure courtesy of our friends at Enix. How well does Grandia Xtreme measure up to the name as well as our lofty expectations? Let's take a look.
Every child knows the pressure of expectation. Many of us try to live up to the images of yesteryear; from the athlete father to the supermodel mom, promising children of accomplished parents always bear the heaviest burden. Final Fantasy X touched on the topic with Yuna and Tidus: two teens trying to live outside of the shadows of their renowned fathers, yet ultimately facing and overcoming their self-imposed stigma. In Grandia Xtreme, Evann suffers from similar circumstances. Son of a renowned Ranger (practitioners who can control the elemental spirit streams of the earth), Evann was left without instruction or solace when his father died. Since that time, Evann devoted his life trying to learn the ways of his heritage, but without his father's guidance, his ability to control the geo-streams was limited. When Evann's skills as a Ranger are called upon by the Nortis Army, his confidence is thrown further into question. Why him? He wasn't a fully fledged Ranger? Destiny's call went unanswered, and to the poor boy's dismay, she always gets her way. After refusing to respond to his draft notice, Evann is ambushed and summarily beaten about the head and dragged off into service. Ouch!
The world of Grandia Xtreme had been the home of a centuries-old war between the humans of Nortis and the elven Arcadians. But that atmosphere of political intolerance and racial hatred came to an abrupt end when natural calamities began to rage out of control, killing indiscriminately and leaving thousands homeless. These disturbances would come to be dubbed the Elemental Disorder: an unnatural aberration of weather than threatened to destroy Nortis and Arcadia, as well as the Hazman tribes. A reluctant cease-fire was called, bringing all three races together in an attempt to put a stop to the disaster. Through months of research, the Nortis Army finally discovered that the source of the destruction lay within four elemental ruins scattered across the land. The Nortians devised a plan to neutralize the Elemental Disorder, but would require a crack team of adventurers and a certain unwilling Ranger.
Under the order of the coldly beautiful Lieutenant Diene, Evann and a rag-tag group of Nortians, Arcadians and Hazmen must venture into the four elemental dungeons and halt the mechanisms causing these calamities. While Evann is reluctant, he complies due to the importance of his mission, as well as hoping to living up to his father's name. When he discovers that an old rival is commanding the operation, Evann questions the motives behind disturbing the ruins, but continues for the sake of the world.
Is Evann really saving the world from nature run amok, or is he opening the door to even more disaster? Only through his journey are these questions answered, but the cost of the truth is a high price to pay. For, as loyalties are revealed, fears become founded and only the power of friendship can stop the unthinkable from occurring.
Grandia Xtreme does a respectable job of weaving an interesting tale, but suffers from many fundamental problems. The linear nature of the game as well as the brevity of the quest doesn't give gamers much chance to identify with the characters nor become invested in the quest. While each of Evann's companions has personal reasons for participating in the expedition, the player is only given a brief soliloquy of individual motivations with minimal character development. The in-party bickering between Jaid the Arcadan and Brandol of the Nortis Army is limited to one or two heated conversations before their enmity is passed over. Evann's hatred of his commanding officer and childhood rival, Col. Kroitz isn't terribly compelling in light of some of the more promising personal conflicts that were possible in the plot, but who can out-angst the hero? NPC conversations outside the scripted cinemas are virtually non-existent, negating a classic opportunity for character building. Sadly, this portrays many of the players in the tale as two-dimensional and contrived despite a sound, if unoriginal, plot. A polyglot party putting aside nationalistic differences to stop a world-threatening disaster isn't my idea of revolutionary storytelling. The plot twist at the climax of the game was disappointingly obvious to the point of being insulting.
Despite these flaws, Enix America did a fantastic job of the localization with a clear, concise translation of each character's dialogue. Their attention to the text gave many of the characters some semblance of personality. From Brandol's bravado to the quiet Titto, the entire cast is well written, though limited by design. While the plot is average, there are a few enjoyable elements despite the tale's complete lack of surprise.
Grandia II was lauded as one of the most beautiful RPGs on the Dreamcast when released in late 2000, but earned disdain after a visually flawed PS2 port a year later. The Dreamcast automatically provided a touch of edge anti-aliasing while the PS2 had no such hardware optimization. The graphic difference between the original Grandia II and the PS2 port of the game was evident, with Sony's box suffering from jaggies, polygon tearing, transparency issues and ugly texture redraw. When I learned that Grandia Xtreme was a PS2 exclusive, I prayed that Game Arts would learn to adapt to the platform in time to avoid another hardware pitfall. Thankfully, they seemed to have done some, but not all, of their homework.
Grandia Xtreme features the same graphics engine as the previous game: a world rendered in real-time with super-deformed anime-style polygonal characters. While the game is nearly as attractive as Grandia II on the Dreamcast, the visuals suffer slightly due to the PS2's architecture. The dreaded polygon tearing reared its ugly head during a zooming panoramic in the opening sequence, but has since disappeared completely from the game. Game Arts finally managed to create true transparent textures lending to occasionally impressive architecture and variety of eye-popping spells. While the game still suffers from slight aliasing, the severity has been significantly reduced and does very little to detract from the scenery. Oddly, the colors in Grandia Xtreme are also much more sedate than the vibrant hues that ran rampant in Grandia II.
With designs by Kamui Fujiwara, manga artist for the Dragon Quest VII comic, Grandia Xtreme is blessed with a colorful, if not stout, cast of characters. The super-deformed polygonal models are respectable renditions of Fujiwara-sans illustrations, but they're a tad simplistic for dramatic uses. A great deal of Grandia Xtreme's tale is told in real-time cinemas using the in-game engine, and these blocky actors do a poor job of conveying any real emotion. The creature models have quite a bit more promise with boss encounters being objects of stylistic awe. The monstrosity lurking at the conclusion of the Tsunami Trench dungeon was a complex and artistically inspiring entity. The roaming monsters range from garden-variety to passably interesting, with most being palette-swapped creatures from Grandia II. Despite the rehash, character animation is brisk yet smooth without any evidence of flickering or slowdown. With combat sequences involving upwards of a dozen participants flinging blades and brimstone, having a solid frame rate was a testament to a competent graphics engine.
The variety of environments Game Arts managed to pack into Xtreme is worthy of praise. Even with an extremely limited selection of locales, each dungeon has several distinctly different areas; a few of which glow with artistic originality. Sadly, the architecture throughout the game is extremely simplistic in comparison to Grandia II, but most locations enjoy remarkably clean textures.
Fans of FMV will not be disappointed, thanks to the extra space provided by the DVD-ROM format, as Grandia Xtreme has a respectable amount of crystal clear cinemas throughout the game. Those hoping for a return to the anime sequences of the original Grandia will be disappointed however, as Game Arts opted for pre-rendered CG over cel animation.
Even though Grandia Xtreme uses a dated graphics engine, the game remains bold and attractive. The super-deformed characters are utilitarian but match their surroundings well, despite the in-game dramatics resembling LEGO pantomime. The slightly muted palette in the game was unusual, but I feel that was more of a limitation of hardware than a design issue. What was curious was the variable degree of monster modeling, which lent to an extremely mismatched bestiary. Thankfully, the game is respectably diverse despite its limited scope and there are a few locales and encounters that are quite beautiful. Game Arts overcame several of the problems they had encountered when last they worked with the PlayStation 2, but still have much to learn before they've mastered the platform.
The Grandia games have always been home to revolutionary methods of combat, and Grandia Xtreme continues the tradition. While real-time turn-based combat has always been a hallmark of the Final Fantasy series, the Grandia games streamlined the concept to near perfection. The latest in the series takes the groundwork laid by the first two games and tweaks the hell out of it. Coupled with the absence of random encounters, combat in Grandia Xtreme is sheer joy.
During an engagement, players refer to an action timeline for making their melee decisions. This gauge is a representation of time and is divided into two main regions: action execution (red) and recharge (blue). Enemies and allies are graphically represented on this timeline via icons. As an ally's icon reaches the end of the blue field, you may then select an action for that character. Once a command has been issued, the icon enters into the red portion of the gauge. When the icon comes to the very end of the red region, the action is executed. These temporal rules apply to the enemies also. Though combat sounds relatively simple, there's a great deal of strategy involved. This system is almost identical to the one developed in Grandia II, but this time the IP (initiative point) gauge is curved from a linear battle graph into a circular combat clock. This takes up less space on-screen and is easier to follow. Unfortunately, in their rush to reinvent the wheel, Game Arts made the IP gauge shrink during actual combat. Avoiding screen clutter is commendable, but the resized clock was a tad too small for my tastes. Thankfully you can disable this feature, saving you from hours of squinting.
In battle, players have several combat actions available to them during their turn. Combo is the standard attack of a short, quick flurry of blows. Critical is a single powerful, yet slow, attack that is primarily used to cancel an enemy's special move or spell. A Critical is only effective if it is performed before your opponent's technique is executed. If timed correctly, this move will not only cancel their pending maneuver, but effectively robs them of their combat turn by knocking them back along the IP gauge. If used intelligently, a player can keep damaging spell-casters and technique bullies at bay almost indefinitely. While a Combo doesn't have that kind of stopping power, it's effective in stalling an enemy enough so that an ally's Critical has enough time to be executed. Since combat is executed in real-time over a field map, the distance between two targets is also critical. Choosing to break a monster's concentration with a Critical may be a logical strategy, but if your character has to telescope around other combatants to reach their target, they may never get the chance to strike. Players will have to use common sense as well as strategy in order to be successful in battle.
Grandia Xtreme also features character-specific special attacks that have a wide range of effects from an ultra-flashy Critical to area-effect tactical strikes. In many ways these abilities resemble spells in that they have a much longer execution time than regular attacks and require Skill Points (SP) to execute. Unlike Mana Points (MP), these are not ordinary resources; they are earned by engaging in successful melee combat. Thankfully, they can be stored and carry over from fight to fight. As a character repeatedly uses a technique, the skill will level-up, increasing in power while decreasing in execution time. When abilities reach their maximum level, they are executed almost instantaneously, making for particularly devastating counterattacks. To add even more madness to the menagerie, Grandia Xtreme borrows from Chrono Trigger in that characters who frequently fight together will learn to execute special team attacks. Complicated enough for ya? But wait… there's more.
The ability to use magic in Grandia Xtreme is granted by equipping Mana Eggs. These elemental nuggets are found throughout the game and can be equipped onto any character. While certain characters, such as Jaid, can wield several, most can only hold 2 or 3. Each egg comes with an MP capacity and a small complement of magic. Spells are entirely reliable on the MP pool of their native egg and if all of that mana is expended, the player can no longer cast from that egg. In this situation you may chose to either select another egg for casting, or return to town to rest: restoring MP to all drained eggs. Since some of the dungeons require a great deal of spellcraft, it is important to equip as many eggs as possible. While most of the Mana Eggs littered around the ruins house basic elemental spells, they can be junctioned together via the Magic Shop to create new, more powerful eggs. Once a new type of egg is created, the recipe is saved for future reference. Aspiring players will no doubt heed to the great call of "Gotta find 'em all!"
No we're not done… there's more. Grandia Xtreme also allows players to customize their characters via Skill Books. When equipped, these items grant slots that can be filled with specialized skills that range from statistical improvements to status protection. There are even exotic skills that increase the chances of learning a group technique during combat. These skills are found as vellums dropped by monsters or in chests, and must be translated and transcribed in the Skill Shop before they can be used. These skills in turn will increase in level the longer they are equipped during combat. Like Mana Eggs, Skill Books are interchangeable and never lose their acquired experience. Though unlike the mystical tamago, the books can be sold for points in the Skill Shop. These points can then be used as currency for ultra rare equipment from the Skill Master.
Following series tradition, the amount of experience awarded is based on performance during combat. Finishing an encounter without taking any damage or finishing an opponent with a special technique etc. will grant substantial bonuses to the base reward. Aptitude in battle will also determine how quickly your Skill Book abilities improve, as they are also awarded points at the end of the fight. Maximizing your point potential will take patience and a great deal of strategy, but lazy gamers can always defer to the new party AI for hands-free combat.
The structure of Grandia Xtreme is simplicity itself, as the game is comprised of no more than the four elemental ruins, two tiny towns and a final multi-level dungeon. Since the purpose of the journey is to neutralize each ruin, there's no room for sightseeing. Navigation is a snap, for players have only to choose their destination on the world map and they're off. RPG fans craving wanderlust should look elsewhere, as the series has always used an overworld map for transport. The party uses the town (and I use that term loosely) of Locca as their base of operations, and may journey to Escarre via railroad to keep tabs on the Nortis Army. Since some of the dungeons are sizeable, Evann and co. can warp back to Locca via the extremely rare GeoGates found throughout the ruins. Players who thought Grandia and Grandia II were too easy due to a multitude of save spots will be pleased to know that you can only save by talking to your smarmy subordinate in the Locca barracks. To these players I simply say, "I hate all of you."
But in the end, Grandia Xtreme delivers a nice, solid kick to the groin once the final dungeon is revealed. In a shady attempt to increase playtime, players are "encouraged" to visit all four dungeons again before tackling the final ruin. After besting the four ruins with a party of level 17 characters within 10 hours, I was faced with the last dungeon with less than 50% of my abilities. Talk about poor design. Players hoping to see the full potential of their adventuring party will have no choice but to return to the earlier dungeons to train. While backtracking in the game is an entirely personal option, players may not have enough junctioned Mana Eggs to be competitive. Therefore, players are painfully coerced back through the four elemental ruins to farm crucial items and experience. To add insult to injury, the GeoGates activated on previous visits have been deactivated, and are now only one-way warps from a dungeon back to Locca. Those hoping to re-supply will have to start from the beginning of the dungeon if they chose to teleport out. To keep things interesting, this second go-round will feature new treasure as well as stronger monsters. Joy… The degree of repetition of this aspect is nauseating and totally unnecessary.
Grandia Xtreme takes the already applauded combat system of the series and refines the engine to a cutting edge by incorporating a windfall of new features. Though the main structure of the game is extremely rigid, gamers will spend most of their time thwacking baddies and loving it. The only significant disappointments besides the extremely limited locales were the knee-biting dungeon revisits. Most players who avoid this pitfall will be able to complete the quest with difficulty before fifteen hours of playtime. Those seeking to clobber their opponents with uber spells and world-shattering techniques can spend upwards of forty hours before the credits roll.
What can be said about Noriyuki Iwadare and his talented team, TWO-FIVE? Having scored the previous Grandia games and the Lunar series as well, his compositions are reliably wonderful. Iwadare-san's acoustic vision of Grandia Xtreme is that of orchestrations bursting with brass, string and wind. While many of the classic Grandia themes are present throughout, many of the tracks denote a distinct militaristic flavor. The evangelical hymns of Grandia II have been replaced with meaty marching anthems, but the more mystical tracks feature vaporous chanting. Battle music begins with an acoustic guitar before the synthesizer and horns come into play: a rich ballad for beat-downs. Though combat takes center stage in the game, I rarely got tired of Iwadare-san's call-to-arms. As inspiring as much of the music was, many of the dungeon backbeats grew tiresome on return visits.
One of the largest advertising points of Grandia Xtreme was the recruitment of seemingly top-notch voice talent for the in-game cinemas. While Dean Cain (Lois & Clark) and Mark Hammil (Star Wars) are respectable actors in their own right, they do a questionable job in portraying Evann and Kroitz. Cain's voice fits Evann's youthful, if not sarcastic, countenance, but many of his lines are mistimed and over-accentuated. His overall performance is good, but certainly not great. Hammil, on the other hand, had a hard time with Kroitz. This was a disappointment, because Hammil has a great deal of voice-over experience; having artfully portrayed The Joker on Batman: The Animated Series for several seasons. For a character that's not much older than Evann, Hammil portrays Kroitz as a much older and very gruff-sounding bureaucrat. His performance was admirable, but he seemed to be trying too hard. Lisa Loeb, however, did a simply stunning job as Lutina. Compared to some of the extremely poor performances of the ancillary characters, she shone like a diamond. Unfortunately, players won't encounter the lovely Arcadian officer and assassin till the final hours of the adventure. Mark my words… she's worth the wait.
Grandia Xtreme is played from the same 3rd person ¾ perspective as Grandia II, except when in dungeons. The game shifts to a much closer behind-the-back view commonly seen in 3rd person adventure games. Players will be able to shift to a 1st person perspective to look around via the L2 button, rotate the camera with L1 and R1 and center the camera with R2. Unfortunately, the camera does not adequately rotate to keep track of the surroundings, forcing the player to steer the camera as they move. This becomes instinctual with practice, but shouldn't be necessary. To make matters worse, they decided to enable analog sensitivity on the shoulder buttons, lending to extremely slow rotation unless you jam on your Dual Shock 2. Movement in Grandia Xtreme is handled in true analog via the L3 stick and no digital control is supported. Though the game supports the vibration function on the controller, it's used sparingly. While this may change in the final release, our review copy employed the Japanese button configuration with X as the cancel button and Circle as accept. The Triangle button will pause the action by going into the menu screen.
Players familiar with the Grandia series will be right at home with Grandia Xtreme's GUI (graphic user interface). Game Arts has always used simplistic menus and colorful icons which streamline complex actions greatly. Besides the revamped IP gauge, players will now have an "Xtreme" gauge to the lower right-hand side of the screen when in a dungeon. The meter serves as an indicator of encounter opportunities and enemy strength. When the gauge goes red, the Dual Shock 2 will pulse in your hands, signifying an upcoming gang beating. Grandia Xtreme handles attack initiative differently than the previous games in that players have a direct influence via the controller. Other games in the series used visual cues to indicate when an enemy was tranquil or alert but Grandia Xtreme allows you to brace for impact by holding down the X button. This maneuver puts Evann into a battle-ready stance and greatly increases chances of forestalling your enemies if attacked (or attacking) in this position.
Not necessarily new to the series, but used to a much greater degree in Grandia Xtreme, is the concept of background interaction. By using the Circle button, Evann can slice open mushrooms, seaweed etc. to reveal hidden items and enemies. Interactions with key objects are handled in the same fashion and are indicated by bright flashing arrows and icons. There is even a musical mini-game in which you make the lovable Carro's dance to the beat via DDR-style controls.
Grandia Xtreme does an excellent job providing the player with useful information via simplistic menus and easy control. Though having to play your own cameraman was exhausting, there were no glaring issues that prevented enjoyment of the game.
To be honest, I wasn't very impressed with what I had heard about Grandia Xtreme and my first few hours with the game weren't terribly compelling. The extremely limited scope of the game, the dated graphics, and the passable voice acting were initial disappointments. The combat engine was better than ever, so I took solace in what little incentive I was given to continue playing. Surprisingly, the more I played the game, the more I came to appreciate what the title had to offer. The graphics certainly don't hold a candle to anything recently released on the PS2, but they're still pretty. The consistency of the animation and the lack of any significant visual flaws was a respectable sign of solid engine. The depth of combat strategy and character customization were simply mind boggling. The music, while occasionally repetitive, has a touch of Game Arts nostalgia and is pure TWO-FIVE goodness. The vocal performances were a mixed-bag with accomplished actors that seemingly didn't have time to rehearse, as well as the odd ham. To my utter amazement, Lisa Loeb saved the entire vocal performance from mediocrity. While I found Game Arts' subterfuge in compelling me to redo the bulk of the game insulting, I sadistically enjoyed developing my characters into a crack squad of bad asses. The storyline was remarkably average, but thanks to some excellent writing, many of the plot sequences were actually enjoyable.
While nowhere near the size of Grandia, nor the scope of Grandia II, Grandia Xtreme was a pleasantly addicting adventure, despite a few rough spots. In retrospect, I can say that the game was definitely designed for the casual gamer. Hard-core fans can rest assured that, despite the super-streamlining, Xtreme remains true to the Grandia name. The game may not be their cup of tea, but tastes always differ. In closing, I say to all my fellow RPG fans looking to continue their gaming buzz after Kingdom Hearts, " look no further than Grandia Xtreme: same great gameplay, way less filling."
|Join Geomancer Evan as he tries to save the land from evil spirits.
|The battle system will look familiar to Grandia fans.