Grandia, a world of adventure and mystery. A world experiencing an Industrial revolution which has allowed the Joule Foundation to undertake excavations of many of the world’s strange and ancient ruins. With an epic adventure spanning two discs, as well as anime sequences, a soundtrack by composer Noriyuki Iwadare, and an intuitive and original battle system, Grandia seemed poised on the brink of greatness… then I got it.
I don’t mean to make it seem I didn’t like Grandia; I spent most of my Thanksgiving break playing it. However, it didn’t live up to what I was expecting. But I shall explain all of that in my review.
The world of Grandia is a lot like 19th century Europe at first. The town of Parm, on the Messina continent where you begin the game is a highly industrialized port town, with steam engines, factories, and sheet metal all provided by the capitalist Joule Foundation. Into this world you are thrust as Justin, the requisite 15 year-old idealistic youth who seeks adventures so that one day he can be just like his father. If it sounds a bit like previous RPGs, all I have to say is that Game Arts really likes an established premise.
You start the game on a scavenger hunt with your good friend Sue and her pet… thing, Puffy. It’s basically a way to introduce you to the town and get you used to the controls. When you finally find and deliver all the items to your rival, Gantz, you’re treated to dinner and exposition by your mother, Lilly, who just happens to be the owner of a restaurant, as well as an ex-pirate. During dinner you get a heaping serving of back story, including tidbits such as the museum curator’s request for your spirit stone, and the origin of the spirit stone itself. When Justin finally visits the curator, we also find out that Justin is enraptured by the legends of the ancient Angelou (pronounced An-ge-low) civilization that was rumored to have existed millenia ago, as well as the mythical winged beings known as the Icarians.
As thanks for letting him see the spirit stone, the curator gives Justin a pass to visit the ancient ruins at Stult being dug up by the military arm of the Joule Foundation, the Garlyle Forces. Here we are introduced to three very cliched females, Nana, Saki, and Mio. These Charlie’s Angles wannabes are a general pain in the rear throughout the game, but deep down they really believe in Mullen’s work. Which leads me to the next of our cast, Colonel Mullen, the dashing young commander of the Garlyle Forces under the leadership of his cyber-eypatch wearing pop, General Baal. Mullen is the ambiguously aligned character who, at times, both helps and hinders our plucky heroes.
Getting back to the story, deep in the Stult ruins, Justin finds a door which mysteriously reacts to his Spirit Stone, and through which he and Sue enter, to find a mysterious being named Liete. She gives a brief tour de Angelou and then asks Justin to seek her out in Alent. Unquestioningly, Justin sets out to get there, but as he is leaving, Colonel Mullen and his aide-de-camp Leen stumble upon our hero, who outwits them and escapes. From then on it’s a quest for Alent and the mysteries of Angelou. Justin’s adventures will take him across the sea where he meets up with the greatest adventurer of the new world, and requisite love interest, Feena and will eventually discover the mysteries of Alent and Angelou.
Fortunately, the story gets better from there, at least until the end of the first third of the second disc, and the characters are truly interesting… if you’ve never seen their type before. Unfortunately, if you’ve played Lunar or Lunar EB, you have. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a solid formula, but it’s still a formula, and this time the characters don’t have either the witty comments or accomplished voice acting that gave the Lunar characters so much personality. Instead we get a merely passable translation and painful voice acting which give the cast about as much depth as a kiddie pool.
Graphics are usually the first thing you notice in a game, and Grandia’s are, in a word, nice. The characters are sprites, which I personally like, and they are expressive sprites at times. Though not on par with those found in SaGa Frontier, they are still well done and can convey emotion and unconsciousness when necessary. Fortunately, the brunt of the emotional cues, since not found in the voice acting, and not completely in the text, are provided by the character portraits that accompany the dialogue. Game Arts always does a great job with visually expressing emotion using their character portraits, and Grandia is no exception. Each character, whether major or minor, has at least 2 different facial expressions, and most have 4 or more. These expressions range from joy to sorrow, fatigue to surprise, and they all help to make the characters a little more endearing. One example in particular that I recall is a subtle illustration of Feena in which you can sense she’s on the brink of losing it, but it was also effectively used for embarrassment. And I’ll never forget that huge toothy grin that Justin flashes every time he’s happy.
The world itself is made up of the typical painted polygons that make trapezoids and squares seem like mountains and fields. You can rotate the camera a full 360 in most areas, which is a definite plus, and I rarely had any problems seeing anything important. The only complaint I have with the overworld is that, since most areas are huge and the foliage or rock face obscure paths, it is very easy to get lost. And, though there are scattered map-viewing points around the fields and dungeons, they only offer a local view, which rarely ever helped me out. Overall, though, the world graphics are delivered with a solid presentation.
The in-battle graphics are simple, but they work. The polygonal battlefields are nothing special, but they do capture the feel of the map area. Your characters appear as their lovely sprite-based selves with weapons drawn, and the enemies are pretty much the same story; they are sprites who have decent movement animation, just like your characters. However, most of the enemies will get the pallet swap treatment sometime in the game and reappear as a totally different and more difficult enemy that looks almost exactly like ones you fought before. But I suppose it’s to be expected, since most RPGs do it. The animation of spells, while nowhere near the quality or length of most of the spells in Final Fantasy 7 or 8, for better or worse, are still nicely executed. Some in particular, such as Gadwin’s Dragon King Slice, are visually pleasing, while others, such as Liete’s Magical Art spell, are fun to watch. The battle graphics get a general thumbs-up from me.
Finally, we come to the cut scenes within the game. From the stunning opening movie to the sprinkling of event-enhancing cinemas, Game Arts delivers a very nice visual package. While not as stunning as FF8’s beautiful CG or Lunar’s anime, Grandia’s cut scenes convey a good sense of the game world. Anime is seamlessly blended with CG, or at least CG-esque graphics, and they all come together accompanied by Iwadare’s score, which brings me to category 2, sound and music.
I liked the music in this game, but unfortunately I found nothing memorable. Most of the music seems to have a very 70’s anime-ish feel to it, with lots of violins and trumpets playing a modern/heroic sound. The title theme accompanied the opening movie well, and all the tracks fit the locations they played in. I have a theory, though, to why the music didn’t grab me, and that is because it seemed very repetitive. I don’t mean that there was a lack of different tracks in the game, but rather that each track seemed short, so the tune would loop soon after beginning. I would like to have seen more added to the tracks, but they get the job done.
The sound effects are great, though. You spend a lot of time traipsing through jungles and forests, and there is no question, aurally, that you’re in one. Grandia captures everything from the nuances of the wind, to the rustling of the bushes, to the rain in the desert. The spell sound effects fit well: ice crackles one way, fire another, and earthquakes rumble nicely. The weapon attack sound effects are a little lack-luster, but that can be overlooked. It’s also fun to note that when you interact with certain parts of the background, they make their own sounds, sometimes normal, sometimes just strange, but always enjoyable.
And now I come to the part that I dread, namely the voice acting in the game. It’s just plain bad. I have seen worse, but not a lot. Only Symphony of the Night and Shining Force 3 come to mind as being below Grandia in terms of voice acting. I tried so hard to like the voice acting, but I just couldn’t. There is a lot of emotion in Grandia, which just doesn’t get expressed due to the poor voice acting. No wonder they don’t give the name of the person who did Justin’s voice in the game: he probably didn’t want his house burned down by angry gamers. There are a few exceptions to the overall lackluster voice acting but, unfortunately, those moments are rare. They are mostly the comments made in battle before casting a spell or using a skill. Usually I can tolerate bad voice acting, but in this game, the only solution for redemption would be to take it out.
Now that we’ve left the worst part behind, let’s move on to something pleasant: the gameplay. Grandia’s gameplay is wonderful, in that it’s FUN. Yes, kiddies, that word that so often escapes RPG creators’ minds is included in Grandia. Everything from the battle system to the experience system is fun.
Let’s start with the battle system. In Grandia, battles occur when you touch an enemy on the dungeon map (the world map is traversed by moving a quill pen from place to place rather than exploring). This means that you can see where your enemies are and avoid them if you want to. If you touch them before they notice you, you get a preemptive attack. If you touch them after they notice you, (indicated by the enemies flashing red) it’s a normal battle, and if they notice you and touch one of the characters in the back, they get a preemptive strike. Once in battle, you see a little gauge on the bottom of the screen with facial shots of your characters, as well as representations of the enemies you’re fighting. This is your IP gauge, and it is akin to the action meter in games such as FF6 and 7. Each enemy or ally goes moves at their own rate towards the right side of the gauge from the left. When they reach a certain point you can issue your party members their commands, and, depending on how experienced your character is in a spell or skill, he or she will move the remaining distance on the IP bar and at the end, execute the command. This goes for the enemies as well, and it lets you use strategy when fighting. For instance, if you see one enemy is farther along the IP gauge than another, you could chose for your character to attack that enemy.
You also have to take into account movement rates when fighting. To get from where your characters start and where the enemies are, you have to run from point A to point B using something akin to movement points. Some characters move slower, or can’t move as far, as others, so it’s important to use this knowledge to your advantage.
Next there is the experience system. In Grandia, the characters gain levels, not only for themselves but for their weapons and spell elements as well. Each character can use certain weapons, out of the following: club type, sword type, dagger type, throwing/bow type, whip type, and axe type. Each character builds up experience for the weapon types by using them in battle. As the weapon levels rise, you unlock new skills that you can use by spending skill points in battle. Often, you need to reach certain levels in two or three weapons to get a new skill. In addition, each weapon type has a certain attribute that it imbues upon the characters upon leveling up. For instance, each level you gain in mace-type weapons gives you an extra 2 HP and an extra point of endurance. So it’s not just important to buy and use the most powerful weapon, but also to make sure you are well rounded in all the weapon types you can use.
Spells function similarly to weapons. There are four elements, wind, water, fire, and earth. Each element can be built up in level by using it in battle. As levels rise you get new spells, which you use by spending magic points, and just like weapons often a combination of two elements are needed to gain a new spell. These combination spells have their own elements: fire and earth make explosion, water and air make ice, air and fire make lightning, and water and earth make forest. For some special skills, you need a certain level in a weapon type and a spell to unlock it.
Unlike skills, there are three levels of spells (and I don’t mean bolt, bolt 2, bolt 3). Each spell level has its own number of magic points, up to 99, that spells on that level can be cast with. Obviously, the higher the spell level, the more points that are needed to cast, and the fewer there are available. Through using the spells of a certain level, you can increase the number of magic points available on that level, and as you increase the level of the element(s) that make up the spell, you increase the casting speed of spells that use those elements. This goes for skills, too.
What all this comes down to is a really fun game to play, and with some skills and spells requiring levels in the 30s, you’ll spend a lot of time fighting to unlock them. The problem I had with this is that enemies don’t come back once you kill them unless you exit and re-enter the field or dungeon. This can be time-consuming and annoying, but I was able to get all my characters all their spells, except for Feena’s Time Gate, with a minimum of tedious level-building.
Finally, I need to rate the plot of this game, and I find this a very difficult task. For all its cliché, Grandia does have some really interesting plot elements. The End of the World wall as well as the whole Gaia situation are not necessarily new concepts, but they were presented and dealt with in a fun and interesting way. While the game sort of slacked off near the end, with only the would-be touching moment with Leen to break the stale air of it, the ride up to that was sweet, and the story moved along at a decent pace. The plot suffered horribly from the boring voice acting and sometimes-cheesy dialogue, but the strength of the story held it up off the floor. If the end game had been better I would have been able to give the plot a better rating, but I think that an 87% is pretty good for what I saw.
Overall I would have liked it if Grandia had gotten a better translation. Since it didn’t, I’d have to say that, overall Grandia is a good, fun game to play with a not too hackneyed plot and nice graphics and music. It won’t win RPG of the year in my book, and it doesn’t live up to the hype it got, but it’s a solid and long game that fans of the genre and Game Arts shouldn’t pass up.