Throughout most of the ’90s, Game Arts was one of the surest bets in town when they came out with a new RPG, particularly with both Lunar and Grandia. While neither series reinvented the wheel, they both worked to refine some of the core elements of the genre. Lunar offered well-developed stories with incredibly memorable characters. Grandia, on the other hand, focused on presenting an exciting and inventive combat system. I still cite its battle system as one of the finest examples in the genre. So when the two best games in the Grandia series were announced for the Switch, offering enhanced graphics and the ability to take them on the go with a modern console, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on them. Unfortunately, while both games are still worth going back to, or even experiencing for the first time, they lack the modern conveniences we’ve come to expect of ports in 2019, and some elements don’t hold up today as a result.
Let’s take a look at the package as a whole first. When you boot up the collection, you’re given the option to play either Grandia or Grandia II. On that same menu, you can change the voices to Japanese or keep the English voice over. This is a particularly nice touch. I have some nostalgia for the English voice tracks, but they show their age. Both games are full of overblown performances that some might argue enhance the experience, but the Japanese voice tracks are better performed, and the sound quality is even a little stronger. Otherwise, there’s also the option to change the written text to Japanese, and for the first time, French and German.
Both games have also received a graphical overhaul, with mixed results. With Grandia, it appears that GungHo has applied a filter to the sprites to smooth them out, along with brightening some of the colors. When I first saw Grandia at E3 a few months ago, I was more positive on the graphical changes than most. In the comfort of my own home, though, I’ll admit that the characters strike a strange contrast with the backgrounds, and they look just a little smudged. This still doesn’t bother me as much as others, but some will be totally turned off by this change, I’m sure. Alana also noted that the game looks better in handheld mode, and that still holds true with the final product. Grandia II fares better in the upgrade, though, using assets from the PC port a few years ago. The environments look amazing, and so do the character models. However, these upgrades seem to have come at a price: slowdown. Whenever a lot of things are moving on screen at once, the framerate drops from its normal, smooth 60 fps to a crawl. It happened more than a few times during my playthrough, and I hope this is something GungHo works on patching.
Additionally, both games have been changed to a 16×9 widescreen view for the Switch and modern televisions. The change to widescreen is fairly smooth. Rather than completely update some of the FMV sequences in Grandia, however, the developers instead blurred out the right and left side of the screen. It’s not a deal breaker, but I would have liked to see them put some more care into updating the cinematics.
The sloppiness of the FMV sequences is unfortunately only the beginning of what’s “missing” from these ports, though. Unlike modern Final Fantasy ports, or even collections of emulated games on modern consoles, there are virtually no additions in the Grandia HD Collection. There’s no fast-forward feature; no autosave; no save states; no buttons to skip cutscenes, dialogue or the often lengthy spell animations; and no mini-maps for navigating the labyrinthine dungeons. Really, outside of the graphical updates, Grandia and Grandia II are as originally presented. That’s it. I hate to criticize a game for what it’s not, especially because it’s so nice to have these two games on the go, but adding even a few of the aforementioned amenities would help to smooth out a lot of moments where both games show their age.
Of the two games, Grandia feels the most steeped in classic RPGs. Grandia follows the adventures of Justin, a young man from the town of Parm who just wants to go see the world. After discovering his father left him a “spirit stone,” Justin sets off with his friend Sue to unlock the secrets of an ancient civilization. Along the way, Justin helps people in various towns, and others join him on his journey, like Feena, another adventurer (she’s still awesome 20 years later). Compared to most modern games, the story of Justin and his friends is shockingly simple and straightforward. While there is an overarching plot, Grandia thrives on the moments between characters. They are full of personality and life, and they seem to genuinely enjoy each other’s company and what they are doing. As a result, Grandia captures the pure spirit of adventure and optimism as well as any other game I’ve played, and it never takes itself too seriously. In a world of increasingly dark and depressing plots, I wish more games would run with this lighter tone — it still works all these years later.
While the story of Grandia is fun, everyone knows the real draw of this game is its battle system. And let me say, the combat is just as strong as it was when the game was first released. Party members and enemies share an IP bar, and there is an action meter that moves across as you wait. When someone gets close to the end of the bar, they are able to choose their actions. Attacks can pause enemies on the bar or cancel their attacks if they’re about to act. It’s a system that is very easy to pick up but takes a lot of time to master. Timing attacks at just the right moment can often mean the difference between victory and defeat. Grandia’s combat is beautiful in both its simplicity and complexity, and it is still a shining example of a battle system in the genre.
Other gameplay elements don’t fare quite as well, though. The dungeons and towns are brutally difficult to navigate. I even got lost in the opening town for about 10 minutes once or twice. There’s no mini-map to help you out, either. Game Arts did include an arrow that tells you where the next exit is, but it’s not that helpful when you’re winding through large dungeons with multiple branching paths. On the plus side, GungHo added the ability to maneuver the camera with the right joystick in the port (as opposed to just the R and L buttons in the original), which is a nice touch. Enemies appear on the field, but there are so many of them, and there is so little room to maneuver at times, that they are difficult to avoid and will often ambush the party. None of these things make the game unplayable, but the lack of features like fast-forward or a mini-map make the gameplay more painful than it needs to be.
In many ways, Grandia II is the tonal opposite of its predecessor at the start. Ryudo, a mercenary, is tasked with escorting Elena, a Songstress of the Church of Granas (the god of light), to a religious ritual. The ritual goes wrong, though, and Elena is possessed by a piece of Valmar, the god of darkness. The two then set off for the central cathedral of Granas to find out how to cure Elena. Instead of the light atmosphere of adventure from the first game, Grandia II places its characters in a world that is on the brink of destruction almost from the beginning. It embraces every angst-ridden trope found in RPGs. For example, Ryudo is completely dissimilar from the cheery Justin. He’s a classic anime anti-hero: brooding and sarcastic, but with a heart of gold underneath it all. This leads to some amusing one-liners, and when I played this game as a teenager, I thought he was hilarious. Now, I still enjoy how over the top the story gets, but I’ll admit to preferring the tone of Grandia on the whole.
Grandia II largely retains the first game’s excellent battle system, with some small, beneficial tweaks to things like leveling skills and weapons. It also fixes most of the gameplay annoyances from the original. For example, the dungeons are significantly easier to navigate. While there’s still no mini-map, you can adjust the navigational area to certain points of interest, like an inn, to make wayfinding slightly easier. On the other hand, Grandia II introduces some new annoyances, like a few rudimentary puzzles that feel tacked on, and more notably, the spell animations. Every time a character casts an upper-level spell, which is essential in this game, you’re treated to an overly long animation you can’t skip or even speed up. 20 years ago, these animations looked impressive. Now, they make battles take much longer than necessary.
One thing both games have in common is a truly outstanding soundtrack. Noriyuki Iwadare, responsible for the Lunar games’ soundtracks as well, understands what both of these games are and matches their tones perfectly. The original Grandia’s soundtrack is infused with tracks composed in the major key, relying largely on swelling horns to effortlessly achieve the feeling of adventure. Similarly, Grandia II’s soundtrack is much darker, retaining many of the tunes from Grandia I, but adjusting them to match the feeling of the second game. Any lingering issues with the music from the original Western releases has been corrected as well, and frankly, these games have never sounded better.
I know I levied a lot of criticisms against both games. I wish GungHo had worked more to modernize these titles by adding features like fast-forward, or that they’d done a better job of updating the graphics in Grandia. The price tag is also a little high. But this is still Grandia, and even with all their warts, these games are still a delight to play. The battle system may still be unmatched, and the stories, while wildly different in tone and presentation, are still enjoyable. The characters and translations are both excellent, too. If you already own both titles in another format, this package probably isn’t worth picking up, and I’d also give it a pass if some of the old-school elements bother you. Otherwise, this is a solid collection and the best way to experience these two classics.