Ah, the Grandia series. Where games such as Final Fantasy and Xenosaga focus their plots on brooding, serious adventures, the Grandia series has always prided itself on being a tad more whimsical and light hearted. Grandia III (G3) starts off in quite the same way, this time focusing on the dreams and ambitions of up and coming pilot Yuki, his mother (!) and the standard love interest in distress, Alfina. The game starts off with a mighty bang and it is easy to get swept into the fun and enjoyable plot but, as the game progresses, the plot takes a side seat to the other, more attractive side to the Grandia series: the amazing battle system. If you go into G3 with the expectation that your focus on what you enjoy about it will change throughout, you are definitely going to have a good time with this game.
First off, the gameplay within G3 does not evolve a whole lot from previous incarnations in the series. Those who have played Grandia 2 will slide right into the gameplay with the greatest of ease. You will perform the standard wandering around, going from dungeon to town, buying new weapons and items, etc. G3 has basically 3 elements you must keep track of and constantly advance as you move throughout the game. The first, weapon and equipment management is both the simplest and also the most generic. While you are quite often given the choice on whether to equip a magic oriented or attack oriented weapon and accessories ( and these can do some interesting things), for the most part item management sticks to the genre norm. Where G3 skews a bit off the path is with its skill and magic management.
Skills are an important part of how to play G3. You can acquire skills by making purchases at a skill shop or extracting them from skill books. Each character has a set amount of skill slots that will grow as the skill level increases. Skills do not always require merely one skill slot and it quickly becomes important to pick the right skills for any given situation. Skills such as “Fire Mastery” (lowers the amount of magic points needed to cast fire spells) and “Berserker” (allow you to perform more attacks using a combo attack) use up a fair amount of skill slots but can become incredibly powerful and useful as you progress. Add to the slot management the fact that skill books can either be used to boost the effect of a certain category of skills (of which there are 3) or consumed to acquire the skill books’ innate skills and you have a fairly complicated system that allows you to really customize and improve your battle party.
Similar to the skills management system, magic uses slots to assign spells and eggs to boost certain forms of magic (there are 4 types of magic: water, wind, fire and earth). With magic, you still acquire spells by making purchases or extracting from eggs, but things are changed slightly by the fact that you can combine eggs to create more powerful eggs at a fairly early time in the game. Once you have access to combining eggs, a little work should render you able to create the most powerful spells in the game at that point. While this means that you can be firing off screen clearing spells such as “Galactic Bang” and “Absolute Zero” before you hit the second disc, they will cost so much of your magic points that using them more than once or twice without healing is rather unlikely. However, this sort of situation does lead to some fairly unchallenging boss battles (until near the end, where the difficulty definitely ramps up).
Once you have your party setup, it is time to get into the best part of G3 (or any Grandia game for that matter): the superb battle system. The system works like this. When any battle starts, each combatant on the field of battle is put at a certain point on the battle circle. As the fight progresses, the different pieces on the circle (your party and enemies alike) move around the circle at a certain rate. When they reach a certain point in the circle, it will be their turn to act. Certain actions take longer than others to get going however, and this is where the system truly becomes interesting. If an enemy is currently acting, but the act they are using takes a bit of time to perform, your party members are free to strike at it and potentially cancel the move altogether! Now, the enemy can do the same thing to your own characters, so using the right attack at any given time is absolutely crucial.
Certain attacks can cancel easier than others as well. While there are two main attacks, combo (attack with a number of strikes that will not cancel an action) or cancel (attack only once but cancel the action of the target if they are getting ready to use said action), the game further enhances the experience by throwing in techniques. Each character has a set of unique techniques that require SP to use, rather than MP. SP is harder to come across in that it won’t be completely refilled when you heal your party; you have to earn it through winning perfect battles and recharging over time. Each technique is an instant cancel against other enemy’s attacks but some techniques require more time to use than others. Techniques are further complicated by the fact that they can improve over time through use, allowing you to learn secret functions and to strike harder and faster. Eventually, techniques become the ultimate canceling machine as they can strike instantly, regardless of how far along the wheel the character is.
While the gameplay in G3 is quite exciting and fun, the plot suffers from a bit of the “been there, done that” vibe. It starts off with a promising tale of Yuki wanting to become the world’s greatest pilot (airplanes and RPGs, superb!), but quickly degrades into the classic “must save omnipotent beings from greater evil in order to save the world.” That’s not to say that the plot is un-interesting, it is actually put together quite nicely, but just don’t expect anything mind-blowingly original. Character interaction runs the gamut from amusing and thoughtful (particularly Yuki’s mom) to cheesy and stale (Yuki and Alfina’s interaction). That being said, the script is quite coherent and the characters are memorable, but compared to the absolute polish of the rest of the game, G3 slides a little bit in the plot category.
Graphically, G3 is absolutely stunning. Screen filling, beautifully rendered cut scenes intersperse into a solid, very nice looking game engine. Beautiful, diverse environments contain some of the most wonderful scenario backdrops you are likely to see on the PS2. Fine details such as leaves blowing in the wind and spectacular, breath taking sunsets are standard material in G3 and those who have just finished the equally beautiful Dragon Quest 8 will note that G3 gives it a run for the money as most graphically amazing RPG on the PS2. The character designs are also top notch, with each character standing out in his or her own way without being as overly flamboyant as series such as Final Fantasy. The enemy designs are also fairly decent, although they do suffer from quite frequent “palette swapping,” which is unfortunate. I say unfortunate because near the end you will be confronted by some very intimidating, unique enemies that I would have loved to see more of. The bottom line however, is that G3 is a beautiful game that will be a pleasure to witness.
Thankfully, to go with the amazing graphics, G3 has a very solid soundtrack. The first time you let the game stay at the start screen for a few seconds and are greeted with the stunning introduction accompanied by a fully vocalized pop tune, you will know you are in for something special. Fitting, light hearted and well orchestrated music accompanies most of the game and never seems to get old. The developers even took the liberty of making sure individual pieces such as the battle theme do not get stale by changing them up come the second disc. Effects such as this lead to excitement over the new tracks and also regret that the old tracks are gone, since they were amazing to begin with. The voice acting is somewhat average. While certain pieces come across very well, there are a few strained scenes (particularly from the female voice actors) that I could have done without. All in all however, G3 is quite sonically competent.
For me G3 was over entirely too quickly. Looking at my game clock stating I had indeed spent almost 40 hours playing, I had a hard time believing it to be true. I felt as though I was just getting into it and it was over already. Games such as this, where you truly lose track of yourself, are amongst the best in the genre. The pacing is put together in such a way that, even though you have made it to a save point, you want to make it just a little bit further; be it to make it to the next destination or to confront the next uber enemy. G3 is a very polished game and will appeal to both newcomers and stalwart RPG players alike. I highly recommend picking up G3; you will not be disappointed and it stands out as one of the PS2’s most fine tuned, RPG playing experiences.