Grandia III is the fourth game in the line of console Grandia games. While the games are debated among the hardcore, those with numerals in the title seem to be favorites, although Xtreme didn’t receive the same open armed welcome as the others. With their latest entry into the series, GameArts has managed to craft a game that’s incredibly fun. It’s far from perfect, however.
Grandia III follows the story of Yuki, a boy in the village of Anfog, living alone with his mother. Ever since seeing a movie of Sky Captain Schmidt as a child, Yuki has wanted to follow his dream and become the greatest pilot in the world. Not that it’s working out very well for him. Having gone through nearly twenty iterations of planes, he’s finally got one that stays aloft with him inside of it. It doesn’t fly extremely well, or fast, but it does. Unfortunately, on his test flight, his mother sneaks aboard, and he can’t gain altitude. They stumble across a girl being chased and crash nearby. The girl is Alfina, a communicator, and after they agree to travel with her to the mainland, all hell breaks loose.
The story in Grandia III is really nothing all that special. It’s the standard ‘save the world’ shtick that you’ve seen time and time again. The first disc features some great character development, especially between Miranda and Alfonso, who’s a bit of the lovable scoundrel type, and a bit older. The emotional scenes in the first disc are really striking, especially with the great dialogue. While it’s nice to see actual development between adults, later on, the story is relegated simply to Yuki and Alfina. The ‘meal conversations’ return from previous games, which give quite a bit of insight to the characters. It’s a little bit more convincing character development than the average RPG. The first disc of Grandia III is both humorous and somber, but everything takes a dive when you see that screen that says ‘insert disc 2’ about 10 to 15 hours in. Everything becomes very, very disjointed on the second disc. The two ‘permanent’ party characters, Ulf and Dahna, aren’t emotionally connected to Yuki. It shifts from viewing Yuki and Alfina’s puppy love to Alfina’s struggle with her brother, Emelious, and the struggle to save the world. It’s unfortunate that GameArts decided to take this path, as the first disc held some very good moments.
None of this emotion could have been portrayed half as well without the voice actors. The acting is good as a whole, though there are some stinkers. It’s nothing on the level of Final Fantasy X’s infamous laughing scene, but there are some bad scenes in there. Miranda and Alfonso in particular are rather charismatic, it’s unfortunate that they’re unseen after the game’s first disc. Some of the battle cries are simply odd, however. Ulf screams, “Fiery death from the heavens! Eat it up!” It’s a contrast to the generally good tone of the voice acting. The music, on the other hand, is, to put it bluntly, crap. What happened, Iwadare? Some of Sakuraba’s uninspired elevator music is better than this soundtrack. Hell, even the Gyakuten Saiban 3 score is better than this, and it was done with the GBA! It’s really very unfortunate that the excellence from some of Iwadare’s other scores didn’t rub off on Grandia III.
Shifting gears, Grandia III is one gorgeous game. The anime-styled visuals really shine, both during battle and during cutscenes. Most cutscenes use the in-game graphics engine, though there are some FMV scenes scattered about, few and far between. Characters animate superbly, with their emotions obvious. Occasionally it switches to the characters’ battle models during smaller scenes, usually with minor NPCs, which don’t have the same kind of face articulation, making the scenes look a little goofy. While the battle models don’t have the same kind of articulation or polygon count as those in the cutscenes, they still look awesome in battle. The spell animations are really something, though after you’ve seen Absolute Zero a few times, you’re ready to skip it.
On the field, characters share the same models as they do in battle. Yuki can run about the dungeons and plains and smack whatever he wants with his sword. If he happens to cleave an enemy, the battle will start with a surprise or a full-out ambush. Players’ IP gauges, which determine when they can act, start either accelerated or at the action point. That’s not saying that the enemy can’t do the same to you, as if they catch you from the side or the back, they have the same chance at advantages. If you want to avoid battle, Yuki’s sword will stun enemies for a short time. Watch your distance, though, as you can unwittingly enter combat with an enemy early if you try to strike from too close. Yuki can also cut portions of the environment to achieve puzzle solutions or to find loot. The environments themselves look great, except for the few generic ‘evil’ dungeons.
Even though Yuki has his own plane, gameplay in Grandia III is very, very linear. While there are some sidequests to do (including the easy-to-break casino), mostly you’ll just hit your next location from the plane, not bothering to look at anything on the map. If you can’t travel to a location on foot, it will only have a short description of the place for you to read. Players can intercept transmissions from other pilots as they fly about, which adds a bit of color to the game’s already colorful environments. Even the dungeon designs are linear. Yuki starts out with intimate knowledge of the entire zone he enters, so there’s no reason to explore beyond where you need to. Save points are marked on the map, and you generally know where there’s a save point, there’s an exit or a boss battle. The dungeon designs are really disappointing, especially with the overly lenient automap feature.
Combat in Grandia III is easily the highest point of the entire game. A mixture of turn-based and real time elements, Grandia’s battle system focuses on the IP gauge. Characters’ symbols rotate around, and when they reach the action bar, they can select their commands. A standard attack, a weaker attack that damages the opponent’s IP position, magic, special abilities, defend, and items all find themselves in your characters’ menus. When players are performing actions, or charging up to do so, their icons rotate through the action area. If an opponent hits them with a cancel attack, they lose their turn and start again about halfway on the IP meter. Because stronger attacks take longer to charge, you’ll need to protect your casters by canceling opponents’ attacks as well. Defending actually matters in Grandia III. Because you’ll often not have anyone on the IP gauge in time to cancel, defense can keep your character alive to see the next turn, as it does significantly decrease the damage you take.
That’s not nearly all, though. Grandia III adds Aerial Combos and Aerial Finishes to the mix. Players’ critical attacks can launch enemies into the air. If another character comes along with a combo or critical attack, they’ll do a special ability in the air – the Aerial Combo. This will do damage above and beyond a normal attack, and if players manage to slay the monster in the air, they’ve got extra cash and the chance for rare items to drop.
Players won’t learn abilities in a linear fashion in Grandia III. Although they’ll level up and gain stats, they’ll also see levels in the amount of magic they can equip, and the level of Mana Eggs and Skill Books they can equip. Mana Eggs and Skill Books will raise a character’s affinity for a particular type of magic or a certain skill type. Players won’t learn their new spells and skills naturally, though they will with special abilities. Skills will change a player’s abilities in battle, from a counter-attack to extra damage against lizard-type enemies. Spells…are spells. They’re obtained two ways: either buying the spell from the shop, or extracting it from a Mana Egg. After the first two towns, I never found myself having to buy spells; I always extracted them from eggs I had sitting around. You’ll also be able to fuse the eggs together near the end of the first disc, and most of these can also be extracted. There’s a built-in safety for the eggs, as you can’t equip the higher level ones until you reach that magic level, but you’ll be able to equip the magic extracted from them no matter what.
While this battle system and customization are great fun and will keep you going throughout, there are some major balance issues present in Grandia III. Difficulty is one of them, as it fluctuates not like a sine wave, but more like your little brother’s crayon scribble on the wall. Sometimes, enemies will be noticeably stronger than in other areas; otherwise, you’ll fly through portions of the game. Grandia III never really finds a balance between difficulty and the learning curve. When you gain the ability to fuse two mana eggs together and then extract the spells they hold, you’ll rule the game for a few hours. As I didn’t extract anything from my eggs early on, I had a massive stockpile to fuse together and extract from, giving my casters spells that would tear through bosses in two or three casts. Once you unlock the new things in the casino in the second disc, it becomes even easier to get magic. Because it’s easy to break the casino, and it is, seeing as I did it in about 15 minutes without a FAQ, you’ll be able to stock up on mid-level eggs to fuse and then extract even more magic from. Luckily enough, you can’t gain money from the casino – you can just turn in the tokens you win for prizes, much like Pachinko. That magic extraction won’t stop enemies later in the game, however. If there are more than two quick-acting enemies on the field, you’ll sometimes never have a chance to strike more than twice before you see that Game Over screen.
It’s not that the game’s battle system is overly difficult: it’s that it’s just plain unfair. Because many enemies move much faster than you, you’ll lose more party members during a random skirmish than you would in a boss fight. And because pretty much every encounter on the second disc gives somewhere between 1,000 and 1,500 experience, leveling up becomes gradually harder. It’s often easier to skip through most random encounters and use the battle system to your advantage during boss fights.
Despite the shortcomings, Grandia III really is a damn fun game to play. It is short, though, especially if you’re an RPG speed demon. I was able to knock it down in about twenty hours, but I do run through games extraordinarily quickly. The average gamer should hit the end of Grandia III around thirty hours of play. While it may not be the best in the realm of the story or even graphically, the unique Grandia battle system is even more fun to play than ever. I’d even say it’s more fun that the real-time “Tales of…” battle systems, and more strategic to boot. If you’re a fan of previous Grandia installments, step right up and pick up your newest installment.