Granstream Saga is a partly traditional and partly action RPG from new developer Shade. It is an innovative game that sadly falls short in most aspects of its presentation.
"Find the four orbs."
You take on the role of a young adventurer named Eon, who was raised as an orphan. The only clue to his past is a mysterious scepter that is attached to his arm. The story begins on the world of Shilf where Eon lives. We learn that the Imperial Army has again attempted to destroy the four floating worlds of Granstream, which are held aloft by four orbs empowered by an ancient ritual. As Eon learns more about the circumstances surrounding the sinking of the four worlds, he finds that it is his destiny to save them.
Overall, the story in Granstream Saga is rather weak and muddled. At times it tries to get overly philosophical about the dangers of having too much power. And at other times it tries to throw in rather poorly conceived humor, usually at points when humor is not needed or wanted. And it is because of this disparity in tone that the supporting characters in the game seem to change their core personalities at will. You never get a true sense of their characters. Instead you get varying stereotypes of personality that just leave you with a sense of confusion rather than a sense of character depth that they were probably trying for. The main character doesn't suffer from this problem, but he also suffers from a complete lack of personality. He is taken straight out of the typical young, say the perfect thing, do the right thing RPG hero mold that we've seen before and will likely see again. He is a cardboard cut out with little reason for doing what he does other than the concept that it is the right thing to do. While those traits are noble, they are nevertheless quite boring.
Story has always been a driving force in great RPG's, and when story is ignored to the extent that it is here, it really shows. It almost feels like they had a checklist that they were going through when they were plotting out the story. Everything is there from the noble hero to the two lovely ladies vying for his heart and right down to the wise cracking sidekick. And even though these are typical character choices, they could still provide an intriguing story if given some sense of personality. Unfortunately, they never get that chance. They stick to the checklist all the way through with the exception of one or two minor plot twists; the story is very predictable from start to finish. You might even find yourself speaking the dialogue before the characters even say it.
Now don't get me wrong because the story isn't a total loss. The concepts of the sinking islands along with the orbs and the process of making the islands rise again were very original. But it never was truly played out. The game is very short and you hardly get to explore the islands or their history, or the history of the wise men and the floating rituals. They are briefly spoken about but never in great detail. You only visit one town and one Shrine on each island and that's the extent of your explorations. The whole story can be described as a story that dwelled on the meaningless and flew past anything interesting.
"Were you looking at me in the shower?"
Like the story, the graphics are a mixed bag that leans more toward mediocrity than beauty. The game graphics are made up entirely of polygons. Landscapes are made up of textured polygons while the characters are gouraud shaded. And I mean entirely gouraud shaded, to the extent that they don't even have faces textured on. They are completely blank with only shaded skin tones. Not only is it disturbing to look at, but it is entirely unnecessary. The Playstation can handle much more than this game demanded of it. The graphics are unnecessarily simplistic and not the least bit enjoyable to look at. The landscape graphics are a bit better with some nice textures, but they are repetitive and weakly designed. With the exception of Stalagmite Castle, none of the areas you explore make you want to linger and check out every nook and cranny. After you've seen the first screen of that particular area, you've pretty much seen the whole area.
The majority of the game is in an extreme overhead perspective that can only be rotated in a 360-degree circle, not up or down. You're stuck looking down on your character from above and it gets very annoying after awhile. You have to wonder what the point of an entirely 3D environment is if you can't actually move in 3D. The only time it changes is during a battle when it goes to a ¾ perspective that isn't much better than the overhead view.
The characters are fairly well designed and original looking. Their costuming also fits in with their surroundings, which is very nice for perpetuating the reality of the world. The monsters you battle are also very well designed and quite unique, but there simply aren't enough of them as they consist of maybe 5 or 6 monster designs that receive a palette swap and a name as you move on in the game. There is only one word to describe the in-game graphics and that is, unfinished.
One high point is the anime cut scenes scattered throughout the game. They aren't the best quality anime I've ever seen, but they are a nice addition to the game. They take almost no time to load and enhance the story and flesh out the characters in ways that the in-game graphics cannot do. The animation is somewhat choppy and some scenes are repeated, but they can be skipped if you don't wish to see then over and over.
The music is interesting and one of the better aesthetic aspects of the game. The compositions are simplistic but fit the game well. They don't intrude upon scenes, but merely accompany them nicely. The sound quality is excellent and the game features some of the best dungeon-crawling music I've heard. You know it's good if it can keep you going through the repetitive and boring mazes that the game offers.
The voice actors in the cut scenes are fairly decent and on par with your standard anime dubbing actors. They handle the characters well, but not much emotion is required by the script so you never get the chance to hear them stretch their skills. One thing that would have been nice is if the voice acting was used throughout the game. It could have very easily been done since there is little text and the game is quite short in length. It would have gone far in giving the characters more personality than they had.
"Parry and thrust."
The gameplay is not quite traditional, nor is it entirely action based. It fits somewhere in-between the two genres with parts of both contributing to the whole. The battles are fought in a real-time setting in which you can move all the way around your opponent, attacking and defending. Battles are a lot of fun at first, but there are very few different monsters that you can fight. Once you learn the patterns of the 5 or 6 different ones you face throughout the game, battles get very boring. Opponents usually give away their moves just before they attack, giving you time to move or defend and then counter attack. You can attack physically or with magic.
Magic and weapons are found in a rather unique way. Throughout the game you will find discarded pieces of metal that were once items or spells. Now Eon's scepter comes into play. It can read the history of the metal and reproduce that item for Eon in battle. You can find swords, armor, shields and spells hidden throughout the game. Each item will have a different effect in battle. Heavier items will do more damage but will slow you down and make it harder to dodge attacks. You're usually better off with lighter items since it is easier to dodge and then counter than to defend repeatedly and counter only when your opponent lets you.
There are various puzzles throughout the game, and most of them are unnecessarily time consuming. They are usually extremely simplistic and only require you to move from place to place fighting battles until you meet a certain requirement. A few puzzles are extremely difficult and unfair in that the clues reveal nothing and are intentionally misleading. Solutions to them usually only are found through trial and error that really gets boring after 3 or 4 attempts.
Overall, the gameplay is innovative but not quite fully realized. It had tremendous potential for expanding the horizons of real time RPG battles, but fell short due to lack of variety in opponents.
In summary, Granstream Saga is a game that had a chance to be great but the developers ignored the surrounding pieces of the puzzle. It is a game based on an innovative battle system and anime cut scenes. Both are well done and make the game worthy of notice as something a little different. But this game really shows the difference between the great developers and those that haven't learned their lessons yet. Every part of a game should be treated with the same importance as the parts that make it unique. Granstream Saga only focuses on those unique aspects and merely fills in the blanks for the rest.