Ever since the announcement of its release in the states hit, I’d heard nothing but good things about Grandia II. Most of the hype I chalked up to the overwhelming fan dedication from the original Grandia, and I was skeptical to say the least. However, once I played Grandia II, I discovered that it was an improvement on the original in just about every way, and was worthy of the praises being sung.
Grandia II’s story is completely independent of Grandia’s. As the story goes, long ago, there was a great battle between the god of Light, Granas, and the god of Darkness, Valmar. The battle raged for days until, in the final confrontation, Granas and Valmar collided. The blowback from the battle rent great chasms in the earth, known as the Granacliffs. In the end, Valmar was defeated, his body sealed away from the world, and Granas, weakened by the battle, went away to rest.
Fast forward to the present, where a young Geohound, Ryudo, and his flying companion, Skye, are hired by the church of Granas to escort a young Songstress, Elena, to an exorcism. Though Geohounds are known to be shifty characters, to say the least, a Geohound is the only one who could safeguard Elena, and so Ryudo takes the job. However, when something goes wrong with the exorcism, Ryudo and Elena are dragged into a grand plot that will pit them against man and god alike.
Grandia II’s story is, in a word, “together”. Not only are there actually surprising plot twists and truly interesting characters, but the execution of the story is nearly flawless. I say nearly flawless because there are certain times when you feel like that the characters have gone a bit off track in their mission, though that generally is only to help flesh out the characters. What’s more, though this is a story that’s been told time and time again, it’s told in such a way that it retains your interest throughout without becoming corny, thanks to dialogue from the great characters.
Unlike in the original Grandia, I simply loved Grandia II’s main character, Ryudo. He manages to avoid being the brooding loner or the happy go lucky adventurer with his mixture of arrogance and irreverence. I’ve known people like Ryudo, I can relate to his personality. That’s the mark of a well-developed character. Millenia, as well, is a dynamic personality whom you can’t help but feel for, and Mareg throws off the stereotype of the typical all brawns, no brains beastman with his refine and philosophical bent. Though I can’t say I found much depth to either Elena or Roan, they weren’t detrimental in the least, and at least you know what to expect from them.
As is typical of GameArts games, all of the NPCs have many lines of dialogue and each has his or her own little story to tell, so you can relate to them much easier. All in all, characters do a great job telling the story and keeping you hooked. Kudos to Ubi-soft for their excellent translation job.
The battle system is one of the things that I liked most about Grandia, and the sequel is no different in that regard. The basic structure has been kept almost totally intact. Enemies are visible on the world map, and you enter battle when you touch one of them: if you touch them when they’re not flashing red, you get to attack first, when you touch them when they are flashing red, a normal battle ensues, and when they touch you from behind while they’re flashing red, they get a preemptive strike. Simple enough.
The flow of battle goes like this: at the bottom of the screen is an IP gauge. Icons for your characters and the enemies move from left to right on the gauge at a speed determined by the ACT statistic. When the icon gets to the COM region, the character selects its attack and proceeds to the ACT part of the bar in which the character can take the action selected. The action you choose and your ACT rating determine how fast your icon will go to the ACT part of the IP bar.
There are two types of attack you can choose: combo, which delivers a more damaging combo attack, and critical, which puts more damage into one strike and has a chance of canceling the enemy’s attack, meaning that it pushes them out of the ACT range of the IP bar, back to before the COM part. The latter is very useful for preventing enemies from casting damaging spells or performing special attacks.
Special attacks and magic function a bit differently. In Grandia, using spells and special attacks in battle allowed you to raise their levels, making them faster and more powerful. This time around, you apply magic coins and special coins, which you gain from battle, to magic and special attacks, respectively, in order to increase the speed of using them. Each character has a few unique special attacks, and magic comes from Mana Eggs, which contain certain spells. There are also skill books you can obtain that contain skills your character can equip to enhance their abilities, and which you power up by using magic or special coins.
Both the battle system and magic/skill system were streamlined and easy to work with. I looked forward to trying to max out all my spells, special attacks, and skills, and got very close to doing so. The only down side is, aside from the few special attacks each character has, any Mana Egg and any skill can be equipped on any character, which sort of took the “uniqueness” aspect out of it. However, it’s not a really big complaint and didn’t detract from the gameplay much. Altogether a solid gameplay system. I’m very glad that the changes from the first Grandia’s were minimal.
Moving on to graphics, I have almost nothing bad to say about them. The clean polygon maps and characters generated by the Dreamcast were fantastic and they moved fluidly. The artistry that went into the static backgrounds was decent and helped flesh out the world nicely. Terrains were all textured quite well and I love how certain objects move when you brush up against them, like in Grandia. Nice object and enemy design, though with a console as powerful as the Dreamcast and the storage space of the GD-ROM format, there really is no need for pallet swapping, something which is rampant in Grandia II. It annoyed me, but that’s about my only complaint.
What impressed me the most about graphics, however, has to be the FMV spells used in battle. To the best of my knowledge, this technique has never been used before, and hopefully this won’t be the last. Most spells, when cast, have animations which are actually short anime or CG movies overlain on the battle map, and which are just stunning. Not only a technical achievement, the movies lend the spells a feeling of power in a relatively brief time frame (no movie I saw was over 30 seconds), instead of having to create long, drawn-out spells. Ingenious and beautiful.
The CG cutscene movies, on the other hand, while clean and smooth were just average and had average direction. Graphically impressive, though they were, for some reason the CG I’ve seen in Dreamcast games look odd, somewhere between reality and computerized image, and it freaks me out. However, that may have something to do with the hardware. Otherwise, the movies are fine.
Where Grandia II really shines is in its soundtrack. Noriyuki Iwadare has a different style for the Grandia games than for the Lunar games, and I’m beginning to like the former style better. Though it still seems to hearken back to an early 80’s anime, the score for Grandia II is impressive and well-orchestrated. Not only that, but the variation in genres isn’t out of place. You can have the A Deus hymn playing in one scene, and then switch to a battle, which has the fast rock Dangerous Zone pumping without feeling any discord. Some of these tracks will become instant classics, without a doubt, and all are a pleasure to listen to. In addition, a soundtrack selection CD with 12 tracks, including 2 remixed, comes with the game and is an aural delight.
As far as sound effects go, I have to give good marks to Grandia II, especially when taking into consideration the effects for spells. The lightning crackles with electricity and explosions are huge and full. You’ll want to have this game playing in Stereo to hear all the great sounds.
But what is even better about the sound is the voice acting, which I think Ubi-Soft did a great job with. Ryudo was voice by Cam Clarke, of Akira and Ninja Turtles fame, and Millenia was Jodi Benson, voice of the little Mermaid (and trust me, it’s a BIIIIIG change). But my favorite of all has got to be John Cygan, the voice of Melfice. I think his was the most realistic performance I’ve ever heard in an RPG ever, and it’s just a shame he didn’t get more spoken lines, as I think he would have replaced Ghaleon as my favorite villain voice of all time.
The only lackluster voice talent was Elena’s Jennifer Hale. She didn’t do a very good job of conveying the proper emotion at the right time, and this hurt her character a bit. However I can’t really say she did a bad job, since each VA in the game was head and shoulders above pretty much any other RPG out there, save maybe the Lunar series (and there it’s at least a tie). The professional voice talent was something I’d been dying to hear in an RPG, and I salute Ubi-Soft for taking the time to do it right.
Finally, there’s the issue of control in the game. While it’s difficult to pinpoint anything wrong with it, the general feel was one of discomfort. The camera rotated well enough, but I kept ending up unable to see what I was looking for. The menu rings were also a bit difficult to navigate in battle, as it was almost like figuring out a Rubik’s Cube. The strangest thing of all was that you bring up the menu using the start button, and after having used the leftmost controller button to access menus on almost every RPG I’ve played for the 32 and 128-bit systems, it just seems wrong. I suppose it can hardly be called a huge complaint, still, it could have been better.
In the final analysis, Grandia II is a superb RPG experience that has a very professional air to it, and not just from the voice acting talent. The music and graphics are outstanding as well. My biggest complaints were the short length of the game and the extreme linearity. I beat Grandia II in 36 hours, and by that point I had almost maxxed out all my magic and skills, meaning there wasn’t much more to DO in the game. In addition, there is only one secret area, which gives the game little replay value. The game was also very linear and there was almost no room for outside exploration. You can only go forward, and only on the track that you’re supposed to, making for a very limiting experience.
Nonetheless, Grandia II is a great experience, and it should at the very least be rented and played through. I recommend it wholeheartedly.