Who knew that Vanillaware, a new company that fell under the radar, created one of the most gorgeous and enjoyable game I have played on Sony’s PlayStation 2. Odin Sphere quickly gained a lot of attention for such a niche game and I quickly became a fan of the company’s work. Prior to its release in both Japan and the United States, Grim Grimoire was released in Japan back in April. Thanks to the fine folks at NIS America, Grim Grimoire came to US shores and this time, Vanillaware graces us with a console RPG/real time strategy hybrid.
Grim Grimoire is the story of a young lass named Lillet Blan. With her talent in magic, she was invited to study in the Magic Academy located at the Silver Star Tower where young, gifted magicians reside. She wants to be a great magician in order to support her younger brothers back home, and spends the first few days learning various types of magic, along with meeting teachers and fellow students. However, on the night of day 5, the archmage is released from his prison, and Lillet becomes the sole survivor of his onslaught. By luck, she winds up going back in time to her first night at school, with all her memories intact and with the grimoire she had received. Lillet uses the chance to learn the secrets of the school and try to save everyone.
The premise may be interesting, but the plot is on the shallow side. It remained a bit too simple for its own good and was not very deep either. On the other hand, it kept me interested due to the good characters. With a small cast, there is a good amount of characterization for each of them, each being unique and memorable in their own way. While the timeline repeats itself every five days, you rarely see the same event, as Lillet takes different actions each day, seeing completely new moments. This can also lead to learning new things about the other characters or even seeing them in a new perspective. In these short five days, the supporting characters, particularly the students, managed to help give some character development to Lillet.
What I found to be the most interesting aspect is Lillet’s character development. She still retains the “good girl” personality, she can be quite crafty as she gathers information while exploiting the time loop, manipulating her peers (in a good way!), and making some bold moves whilst remaining calm. It was fun at times to see what she would do next.
I always liked NIS America’s localization and this title is no different. They always provide a quality script and make the characters full of personality. Like with Odin Sphere, you have the option to revisit any cutscene during the course of the game, which is always a great feature.
On a gameplay level, Grim Grimoire is an unusual RTS, as the levels are all vertical, and the main focus is on the combat rather than resource management and building. There are four types of magic in the game: Glamour, Necromancy, Sorcery and Alchemy. These magic’s work in a rock-paper-scissor format, meaning one magic is weak to one type, but strong against another, giving the game a more strategic edge. There are three grimoires for each magic type, and as you get them as you progress through the game. Each grimoire can summon a rune which is needed to summon various types of familiars.
In order to summon these familiars, you need mana, which is the game’s only resource. Units known as “gathering familiars” can obtain mana via mana crystals, which they obtain by setting up a station. Gathering familiars from different magic types can’t harvest from the same crystal. There are other requirements needed to advance a certain unit. Each rune can level up, enabling you to summon better familiars and also provide upgrades. These upgrades occur during the stage only, and they range from buffing, to learning new abilities, reducing build cost, increasing attack range and more. As you complete each stage in story mode, some grimoires automatically gains levels, unlocking a new familiar and upgrades. Each grimoire caps at level five (with the exception of two). Each familiar has its own set of skills and traits which have their own uses in various situations. Even with a type advantage, enemies can pull off some mean tricks.
The game’s objectives mainly consist of destroying all enemy runes. Sometimes you have to survive for a certain amount of time, and on rare occasions you have to destroy runes from a specific person. The difficulty of these missions can vary. One mission may be a cakewalk, while in the next the enemies can crush you like a grape. The difficulty level is uneven and it can be disheartening at times. Fortunately, the game does let you choose a difficulty before starting a stage. Upon completing the level, you get a score and rank which only serve as bragging rights. Like with cutscenes, you also have the option to replay any mission.
Even on easier settings, the game can be brutal. The enemy tends to be aggressive and a bit of a kamikaze nut, as he or she sends wave after wave of enemies to wear you down. The enemy can be quite stupid too, as their units can sometimes just stand there and not do anything; even when attacked they won’t bother running, even when dying.
Some units are also quite broken and easy to exploit, particularly the overpowered dragons and chimeras. There are units to counter them, but numerous times the enemy won’t bother using them, so these units are free to wreak havoc, at least on easier difficulties.
Another bummer is the game’s length. Story mode only has 25 stages, and it took me about 10 hours to beat. As you beat each stage, a bonus stage gets unlocked, adding 25 more stages in the end. They are ranked from one to five stars and mostly consist of “destroy all runes” objectives. To spice things up, each stage sets certain conditions and obstacles such as completing the stage by only using unicorns. It doubles the playtime, but after these bonus missions there isn’t anything else. The only unlockable in the game is obtaining hard difficulty, otherwise, there isn’t much replay value since you can revisit anything.
The biggest concern for an RTS game is the interface, especially for a console RTS. Fortunately, the controls fared well with me, utilizing the PS2 buttons well. Initially I found it awkward and confusing, since my experiences with most games in the genre involved managing my units and going all over the place. You use the analog to move and the d-pad serves as a shortcut to toggle between unit types or select them all at once (but only to those you see onscreen). Alternatively you can select multiple individual units by holding square. The shoulder buttons are used to zoom in and out and can select choices. The game pauses when you select something, thus making it less hectic for the player to plan accordingly. It would’ve been very nice if you could set up rally points to make things easier, but I had no qualms with the control after getting the hang of it.
As in Odin Sphere, Hitoshi Sakimoto composed the music with his trademark orchestral style, but this time took a lighthearted approach rather than his usual drama. There are some good songs, but in view of his other work I found this to be his weakest outing. I just didn’t find the tracks very memorable, and there is a huge lack of variety. Aside from the opening theme, there are only three stage tracks and a few, forgettable themes for the cutscenes. It’s disappointing considering what an accomplished composer he is.
As with all of NIS America’s published games, the game features a dual language option. The Japanese VA is good, but I enjoyed the English voice acting quite a lot. Each voice actor fits his role quite well, and really adds a lot of personality to the characters, especially the more shifty ones such as Advocat. There is the occasional awkward execution of some lines, but that’s uncommon.
Vanillaware really knows how to do 2D graphics. The character portraits are massive and well animated, plus the fact that the portraits showcase breathing really made it striking and lifelike. The sprites are also great with unique designs, good animation, and like the portraits, the sprites also breathe. It’s always nice when artists add these kinds of little touches to make their work more dynamic.
Like in the music section, the stages seriously lack variety. There are only two stage designs in the entire game, the others achieved by tweaking the stage structure. There is one stage design for the story mode and the other is for the bonus stages. It makes sense considering the entire game takes place in the school, but with their talent, they could’ve spiced up some things to give more variety to the stage designs. At least there is cool looking scenery during the in-game cutscenes.
What I find to be surprising is that there is no slowdown whatsoever. Even with a lot of things going on, the game remains constantly smooth, a feat Odin Sphere didn’t manage. And, while it lacks the exotic style Odin Sphere had, Grim Grimoire is certainly a looker!
Grim Grimoire is not a deep RTS, but it is a fun one. With multiple difficulties, it can be easy enough to attract newcomers to the genre and cater to hardcore RTS players at the same time. Since the game is quite short, even with the additional stages, a rental may be for the best, but it’s worthwhile to play it at least once. I am not much of an RTS fan, but I had a good time. I look forward to playing more of Vanillware’s work in the future.