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Review by · August 17, 2010

No RPG fan, no matter how luxuriously free from responsibility, has played and beaten every RPG. Even taking on just one subset of RPGs (JRPGs published in North America), the statement holds true. Any one person’s judgment of one RPG is colored by what they have played, and there may be “holes” in their critiques created by missing out on some other landmark RPG.

Case in point: me. I’ve beaten well over one hundred RPGs in my short time on earth. Among them, about 25 to 30 are PlayStation (PS1) RPGs. When you consider how influential that time period was on the genre, it’s probably fair to say that I should have that number doubled before I can speak as an “expert” on the 32-bit era of JRPGs. There are plenty of important titles I have yet to touch: Suikoden II, Valkyrie Profile, Dragon Warrior VII, Breath of Fire III and IV, Persona 2… you get the idea. And don’t even get me started on my comparative lack of exposure to the vast array of PS2 RPGs.

This is all to say that I highly value the PSOne Classics service. It’s given me an opportunity to replay some of my favorite games and newly experience others that I missed at their initial release. Grandia falls in the latter bucket. Though I’m well-versed in Game Arts’ other big franchise (Lunar), I had never really gotten into the Grandia series. Yes, as a teenager, I did own Grandia, but I had hardly gotten through the opening sequence before some other game distracted me, and eventually it fell by the wayside, and I’m not even sure what happened to my old copy of Grandia.

For $10, I was able to download it to my PSP and finally fill this hole in my Otaku resumé. After 35 hours of leisure play around the house and while on vacation, I finished the game, and though it can’t quite compare to the grand productions of today, it did leave me feeling quite satisfied. Let’s discover why.

Undernauts: The Labyrinth of Yomi PS5 Advertisement
Undernauts: The Labyrinth of Yomi PS5 Advertisement

I suppose I should start by talking about the game’s strongest point: combat. Without question, the first Grandia title had a fantastic combat system. Compare it to any other RPG of its time and it’s just shocking how novel the concept was. In fact, compare it to most RPGs today, which are mostly Action RPGs because the developers can’t figure out how to work in a turn-based system that keeps the ADD-addled player interested, and you’ll see that Grandia’s combat system comes out on top.

What is the combat system, you ask? Good question! It’s an individual “turn-based” system where every party member, and every enemy, has their time and status tracked on one bar (in the lower-right corner of the screen). In this bar, you can see the speed at which each character approaches their action. Markers are placed along the bar, showing the different places a character might be. At the far left is a “cool-down” time that you may enter after using a high-level ability. Then there’s the bar you return to after using “defend” or a less time-consuming action. Near the right, there’s the “command” marker, which is where your party members will choose one of about seven different basic actions. In the short space between “command” and “act,” the most crucial space of all, allies and foes are both in a prep time that can be, potentially, cancelled with certain abilities or critical hits.

Add to that the fact that pretty much all damage taken knocks you back a bit on the timing bar, and all damage dealt will knock the enemy back a bit, and that there are status effects that can hasten or slow the time spent in wait, or the time spent between “command” and “act,” and you see the delicious complexity begin to form in your own mind. Smart players can hold the enemy at bay for several cycles, but that enemy will eventually get their shot (if they don’t die first). Will you be savvy enough to defend in time, or will your whole party get knocked back and give the enemy two rounds in a row? Do you buff first, or attack first and try to buff in your second round, or just skip buffing altogether? Lots of decisions to be made, and the type (and number) of enemies faced will form a large part of how you decide.

Earlier I mentioned critical hits. As it turns out, that’s not a randomly-produced number. Two of your command options are “combo” and “critical.” Selecting “combo” allows the player to attack two (or more) times on the selected enemy. If the enemy dies on the first hit, the second hit will be carried over to another enemy. The critical hit is one single hit whose damage generally does not exceed the two normal hits, but will often cancel an enemy’s prepared attack or knock them back significantly on the gauge. Note that a critical attack will also make your own subsequent turn take longer than the combo hit.

A couple other things add to the mix. First: actual movement and positioning. You have no direct control of where your allies stand on the field. But, unless your character wields a ranged weapon, using your weapon to attack will force your ally to run up close to the targeted enemy before attacking. This “move” time accounts for part of your command-to-act wait time, and depending on how you are geared, that movement may be slow or fast. Some special abilities allow you to simply warp to the enemy rather than run to them. Also, when you select “defend,” you can select “endure” to stand your ground or “evade” to run away from all attacks and stand as far away from the enemies on-screen as possible.

Too long; didn’t read version of the next two paragraphs: how you use your characters, and how much you choose to use certain abilities, determines their advanced abilities for endgame. So pay attention, and try to diversify!

Leveling is also complex. Alongside standard experience points that lead to “leveling up,” affecting all base stats, you earn increased skill levels in both weapon and magic. This gets tricky, but is ultimately very interesting because of the unlocked “combo” abilities. Let me explain.

Each character has a pre-set list of allowable weapon types they can equip. The protagonist, Justin, wields swords, axes, and eventually maces as well. Feena uses whips and daggers. Using these weapons in standard combat increases their skill level. Increasing skill level unlocks special weapon-based abilities (which consume SP). Using these abilities more makes those abilities stronger, and sometimes acts as a catalyst for unlocking further abilities. Now, throwing magic into the mix, things get really crazy. There are four basic elemental magic types (earth, fire, wind, water… but no “heart”). All characters can gain all four elemental magic types by finding “Mana Eggs” throughout the game. As you use the first, basic, level 1 magic, you’ll learn level 2 and level 3 magic. If you have high skill levels in certain weapons, you will sometimes unlock special weapon skills that have that elemental affinity. But wait, there’s more! Having higher magic skill in two types of magic can net you one of a variety of “combo” elements. Fire and earth = explosion. Wind and water = ice. Fire and wind = lightning. These combo elements will get their own magic spells, and sometimes that combo element has an associated weapon skill as well.

As far as I’m concerned, the combat system is nearly perfect. Boss fights are wonderfully diverse and challenging. Standard battles are often a place to “skill up,” though you have to be careful not to just use all your weakest attacks or you may be overwhelmed. It’s just fantastic, and since most of the game involves battles, I’d say that most of the game is great.

But then… there’s the rest of the game. And depending on the kind of things you enjoy, or expect, in an RPG, you may not like what you find.

First of all, there are issues regarding linearity and exploration. This game is very, very linear. Painfully linear. There are no endgame subquests of which to speak. Most of the minigames that appear throughout the adventure are mandatory and not much fun (such as the “mopping” minigame during the game’s first boat ride). Dungeons are not memorable, unless they are so large that you are forced to remember them (no main map, so remember which fork you took!). Puzzles within dungeons are usually too boring to recount, though a few near the end of the game are downright frustrating. Time spent in towns is, generally, just flagging the right events by talking to the right NPC. And though some people are annoyed when a game holds your hand, I promise you that you’ll be more annoyed in the town events where the game does not hold your hand. Ten minutes wasted just because you didn’t know you could walk through that east gate and reach the manor with the village elder? Not cool, guys. Not cool.

Next, there are issues with the sound. While the soundtrack, composed primarily by Noriyuki Iwadare, is totally excellent and memorable, there were issues when they originally ported this game (in Japan) from Saturn to PlayStation. The PlayStation version has inferior sound quality; there’s simply no question about that. Compression and compatibility issues are to blame. And, since you can’t adjust volume between music, sound effects, and voice acting, you’ll generally find the music to be too quiet compared to the rest of the audio, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Voice acting is… hit or miss. Actually, it’s largely miss. Grandia was localized internally by Sony’s North American branch, but there is little question in my mind that Working Designs would have done a better job, despite the misgivings people have about them. Comparing either of the Lunar titles’ localizations to Grandia’s localization makes this clear. There is some hilariously bad voice work from the game’s “honorable villain,” Colonel Mullen. The protagonist, Justin, is mostly on-point with emphasis and context, but is also an outright annoying character. Most of the voice actors carry their character’s stereotypical role too far, to the detriment of the game’s overall quality. As I played the game, I tried to keep everything in perspective: VA was a relatively new thing for gaming back then, and it was impressive that there was any VA at all. But that doesn’t make up for the fact that I would’ve preferred muting the VA and turning up the music if I had been given the ability to do so. If it weren’t for the game’s wonderful soundtrack, I’d have ranked sound far lower than the 80% I gave.

Graphics are, well, 32-bit RPG graphics. I’ve likely used this analogy somewhere before, but it’s still true. The 32-bit era is more than just an adolescent stage for gaming – it’s something like growing your hair long. If you cut your hair down to “buzzed” level (8-bit graphics in our analogy), it looks cool. Simple, but cool. Now, if you want to grow your hair out to some appropriate length for styling, it’ll take you a couple months to a year, depending on how quickly your hair grows. And as your hair grows, there will invariably be times that you can’t “do” anything with your hair, and yet its natural look is also awkward. That time, for gaming, was the 32-bit era. People were attempting 3D, but it was ugly, and “detailed” 2D sprites were a lot more choppy than they should have been.

So it is with Grandia. The simple, pseudo-3D pixelated towns and dungeons are on par with Xenogears, which is to say that they are little more than functional. The game’s few FMVs aren’t that memorable either, nor were there nearly enough to justify spanning two discs – I assume VA is what caused the second disc’s existence. To be perfectly frank about it, I think Lunar: Silver Star Story’s graphics are superior to Grandia’s, if only because they allowed that game to be fully 2D and very simple. It was easy on the eyes. In Grandia, by contrast, it’s not always easy to look at the screen and understand exactly what is happening.

Per our scoring rubric, that leaves the story. The overarching plot is the typical “save the world from nebulous evil forces,” mixed with some mildly interesting mythology. Long ago, humans lived alongside creatures called “Icarians” (that is, “winged ones,” something akin to angels). But humans wanted too much power (see: the apple in the Garden of Eden). That ended up causing a huge tragedy. Technology was lost. Paradise was lost. The Icarians seemed to disappear, and the “Spirits” of the world seemed to abandon humanity. Thousands of years later, enter newbie, pubescent adventurer Justin to save the day!

The game’s story doesn’t thrive on the big religious and political stuff. It’s about the individual character interactions that they try to sell you on. Unfortunately, much of the cast’s potential for charm is lost thanks to weak localization (see voice acting critique above) and poor planning. Like many JRPGs from this era, the game was front-loaded with a lot of dialogue to introduce you to Justin, his aunt Lilly, his “sister” Sue, and eventually, a green-haired love interest named Feena. But it isn’t long after Feena joins the party that the dialogue becomes less about true character development and more about moving the plot further along. By disc two, it’s just a cycle of town-to-dungeon-and-back quests with little said between the characters. The interactive dinner sequences, where you can talk to people over dinner and learn more about them, become fewer and further between by game’s end, and they become less interesting too, even as they’re introducing new characters like Rapp and Milda.

Forgive me for making the comparison, but it’s just too easy to do: Grandia is no Lunar. While Lunar didn’t have a particularly impressive battle system, it thrived on its characters and story. Grandia seems to do the opposite: sell itself on a fantastic combat system and the promise of a big adventure. It falls a little short of that latter goal, but it’s definitely fun to play. The game holds a satisfying, if a little too happy, ending cut scene. But even with this relatively satisfying resolution, I wouldn’t say it’s in the top 30% of RPGs I’ve played in terms of story content. But if you’re not big on story, then this is your game. You’re likely to enjoy the combat, regardless of whether turn-based systems are your cup of tea.

For ten dollars, it’s certainly a worthwhile game to download. As with all PSOne Classics, I would highly recommend making Grandia an “on-the-go” game. Get it on your PSP. These games weren’t built for high-definition TVs, and they generally look awful running through a PS3. The added portability is nice, and hey, it’s one more reason to dust off the aging PSP. If you’re like me, and hadn’t played this RPG yet, I recommend that you do so. Only rarely did it feel like a chore. Most of the time, I was enjoying the ride, even as I took notes on what I would critique when finally writing this review.

Overall Score 82
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Patrick Gann

Patrick Gann

Therapist by day and gamer by night, Patrick has been offering semi-coherent ramblings about game music to RPGFan since its beginnings. From symphonic arrangements to rock bands to old-school synth OSTs, Patrick keeps the VGM pumping in his home, to the amusement and/or annoyance of his large family of humans and guinea pigs.