Several of the Saturn’s best titles came out at the end of its life, especially in the case of those JRPGs that had managed to squeak their way into stores in NA such as Shining Force III and Panzer Dragoon Saga. Conspicuously absent from that list, however, would be Grandia. Released in Japan, it would not come to NA because of the Saturn’s demise until it was picked up by Sony for their PS1. But to many (including myself), it would be well worth the wait.
The first Grandia stands out as one of my favorite JRPGs on any system. Taking the often used “boy saves world” story arc that seem to be a staple of JRPGs, developer Game Arts had managed to take a cliched formula and punch it up into a fun experience filled with great characters inhabiting a vast and colorful world. From the epic opening theme by Noriyuki Iwadare to a real time gameplay system that pulled players into the action, Grandia would be a title that would hold a special place in RPG history for its fans.
Follow ups to the series would not fare as well, especially when the title began to move into 3D. In playing Grandia II, it felt as if the world had shrunk as one result. In addition to this, the characters were not as likable and the story wasn’t as engrossing as the first. I skipped Grandia Xtreme, but will probably get into it when I finally find more time.
However, with Grandia III, the first official sequel to the core series, Game Arts’ newest addition to the Grandia franchise would also mark a return to the traditional RPG underpinnings that were present in the first two. Fans salivated over the tantalizingly detailed screens that would trickle out from Japan, Famitsu magazine scans, and whatever else would find itself out on the ‘net. I made it one of the “must play” titles on my list.
Grandia III was buried in a dungeon somewhere beneath my PS2.
It’s one thing to have your typical opening cinematic, but when its theme is sung by a professional musical artist, it can be something that can begin drawing the player into the game right from the start or make them hope that the rest of the game isn’t like it. In this case, the sugary styling of J-pop artist, Miz, takes on the duty of introducing the newest chapter of the Grandia franchise which is a huge departure from the classic styling that its predecessors had normally opened with. It was also translated and remixed in English, sung again by Miz, which is also the source of some debate as to which version was better. While the translation doesn’t sound ‘bad’, some of the lyrics sound as if they were squeezed to fit the song leaving me to wonder why Square-Enix opted to have the translation done in the first place. In any case, the track does fit in with the high flying spirit of the title as it puts you in the shoes of Yuki, a young ne’er do well pilot living in peaceful village with dreams of flying high in the skies just as his hero, Schmidt, had done years before.
On his maiden flight with a plane that both he and a buddy of his, Rotts, had managed to cobble together after several (try 19) previous tries, he runs across Alfina who is on the run. After a few misadventures, he manages to get her to safety and promises to bring her to Arcriff where she was trying to go before being chased. It turns out that Alfina is a Communicator, a special medium who can speak to the Guardians, and Arcriff is the temple where the Communicator can speak to them. The Guardians, in turn, are mighty creatures that take the form of stylized beasts that protect the world. Only a Communicator can hear their words and speak them to the masses that await their guidance. Why Alfina was being chased and what happens next is something that Yuki and his friends will soon get pulled into. No good deed goes unpunished, something that will come to haunt them as they eventually find themselves racing to save the world from a terrible evil.
Players don’t have to have played any of the previous Grandia titles to understand what’s happening here. Grandia III is a stand alone title, much like the Final Fantasy series.
When I started the game, it was literally more than several minutes of exposition before I was able to finally control my character. Although it does a nice set up introducing the player to the main character, it was also an introduction to the first of many scenes that tell the story in between your moments of freedom. Despite how pretty the world might seem with its deep forests, high mountains, and secret ruins, many of those locations also have a lot of subtle fencing put in to keep players from wandering too far off the beaten path. The game is rife with cut scenes, although not on the level that Xenosaga or its sequel are known for, and there’s an option that you can set to allow you to skip many of these.
The world of Grandia III is explored on foot and, eventually, from the air as you guide Yuki and his team from one locale to the next. A handy map showing open corridors, marked exits, and save points helps keep you focused on where you may need to head to next. The camera is pretty easy to use, although it can get caught up in tight spaces and show you a face full of textures on occasion. Saves are handled at specific spots indicated on the map and by glowing spheres, some of which are capable of restoring the party to full health and spell points.
There are also a few simple puzzles to figure out as well as a lot of breakable items to smash up. There are plenty of treasure chests scattered around the dungeons including vases and pots just begging to be turned into expensive garbage, many of which hide valuable items. There are also a lot of “interactive” spots where you can hit the “X” button on your controller to take a closer look at certain things to get a character’s perspective. The “X” button is also used to talk to the large number of NPCs in the world, most if not all of which have something new to say every time your characters pull off something big. For completists that have to hear what everyone says, quite a few hours can be spent on simply reading all of the dialog that the game has to offer.
Yuki also has a sort of ‘scan’ that he can initiate that sends a wave of energy out around him to highlight stuff that he can interact with from rocks to treasure chests. You can even see some of these highlights through walls, giving you an idea that there is treasure still to be found. It’s pretty useful if you’re stuck somewhere and have no idea what to do next, when all it might take is pushing a rock or a tree over. While it can also make exploring a dungeon something of a ‘find the blue glowy’ instead of being a prudent explorer, simply knowing that there’s something there doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be just as easy getting to it.
Aside from the typical RPG trappings, the real meat of the game is its customization and combat gameplay system. The combat is simply great to look at but each character can be modified to match whatever role you want them to play. Some characters will simply be better at some things because of their stats, separating them out into your usual warrior and mage camps. But Grandia III‘s system takes it several steps further, refining the system.
The Grandia franchise has been known for its portrayal of RPG combat and Grandia III takes it to another level with a continuation of one of my favorite combat systems. Combat has significantly become a more balanced and challenging affair in comparison to what was given to fans in Grandia II, much of this because of the changes done to the its combat gameplay. For those that have just gotten into the whole Grandia experience with the third one, it goes something like this: instead of lining up your characters for their orders, the system dynamically shows the results of your decisions in a free flowing field of combat where characters run, shoot, and throw their way across it.
Outside of combat, encounters are seen in real-time with wandering monsters representing groups that you can either fight or avoid. You’ll also be able to use Yuki’s sword to stun these encounters to make it easier to get by, or set off booby traps that can also help do the same thing. You can surprise monsters by stunning and then engaging them, or they can surprise you by coming in from behind. Unlike its predecessors, however, surprise attacks no longer allow you to get an early strike on your enemies, only position your party so that they surround them. This was probably a compromise made because of how easy it is to stun your foes, but it makes the entire concept of surprise pretty useless unless you just want an easier time in avoiding certain mobs.
The system makes use of an IP (Initiative Point) gauge that tracks the time it takes for your characters’ turns to come around from when they had last performed an action to when they will have the opportunity to try something else. Part of the gauge, indicated in red, indicates the time it takes from when someone receives an order to execute it. Some actions can be immediate, while others will slowly grind through this zone before they execute. Your enemies also share the same gauge, their icons traveling along it until they reach the point where they can act. They can also use their own set of special abilities and spells, but if they’re moving through the red part of the gauge in waiting for their action to execute, its possible for your characters to use a special “Critical” attack or special move ability to cancel what they have planned and delay their next attack. But although your characters may run around and execute your orders, you can’t really position them yourself, only lure them to other locations with attacks on the battlefield to get them out of the range of certain area targeted attacks by your foes.
Through combat and experience, your characters will improve in a variety of ways. Not only will they improve their attributes via levels, but they will also improve the number of spell and skill slots that each character has. In addition to this, they will also learn unique abilities that range from bone crunching attacks to support tricks that can pull the team out of trouble. A “specials” meter is also assigned to each character in support of these unique moves. Unlike spells, these particular moves draw from their own pool which only regenerates during combat as characters get hit, attack, or survive without getting a scratch in battle. Even recovery at one of the save spheres won’t restore a depleted abilities bar, forcing you to carefully gauge how often you should use them in one battle so as not to leave you short in the next.
Aside from these unique abilities, other skills and spells can pretty much be shared between all of the other characters. The more powerful of these will require more slots, slots that improve themselves in what seems to be a pretty haphazard way. Despite the manual stating that the use of spells and abilities will improve the number of slots as well as your skill point pool capacity, it isn’t always the case. It seems to be a pretty random application, where regular combo attacks may result in an improvement…in spell slots. However, using the same special moves over and over again will eventually improve the speed at which they execute as well as their power. Unfortunately, there’s no way to tell how far along certain abilities are when it comes to improving them. In both Grandia I and its sequel, there were certain parameters where you could keep some track of this but its missing here. The only indication that an ability has improved itself through use is when the character says something onscreen and a new icon is added to the ability itself to show the change.
If you think that’s a lot, there’s even more. Mana eggs make a comeback and they’ve gone through a change of their own. Grandia III brings in a fusion system that you can use later in your quest, something that’s especially useful as you can’t buy mana eggs…only find them from monsters or dungeons, or make them here. Mana eggs provide two major benefits to your characters: equipping them can vastly improve the power of the elements that your spells are based on, or you can extract rare and powerful spells destroying the egg in the process. The game tracks what eggs you’ve discovered, although it doesn’t track which two you combined to make them. You can easily spend quite a bit of time experimenting with eggs to discover powerful ones to use and extract spells from, further adding to your party’s arsenal.
Skill books are another part of the customization craze that Grandia III seems to feed itself on. They’re like mana eggs, only far more rare. Like mana eggs, you can’t buy them, but you can buy individual skills from Skill Shops much like spells. Like mana eggs, skill books can be destroyed by extracting skills from them. Rare and powerful, high level, skills are only attainable this way making it another case of where you have to decide whether or not keeping a certain skill book will be worth it in the long run. When equipped, skill books improve general skill ‘attributes’, improving the skills themselves. Certain skill books, like mana eggs, improve certain areas to their fullest extent while weakening others. Unlike mana eggs, you can’t mix skill books together. And once a skill book is destroyed, it’s gone.
Swapping around skills and spells adds a large dimension of strategic play that makes Grandia III‘s system particularly deep. It’s also like something out from a William Gibson novel. For example, although you might buy a spell or skill, it doesn’t mean everyone has access to it. Its treated like a piece of equipment, traded and slotted which makes the characters feel more like programmed RPG bots than as characters that you should be more concerned about. It’s still a lot of fun to play around with, though, and the game only truly shows how fun it can be once you’ve managed to work through its nuances.
Looks and Sound
When you finally get to play the game, one thing that becomes immediately evident is that the world of Grandia III is a lush and vibrant place. Game Arts’ 3D engine brings much of the world in the game to vivid life with detailed wilds and characters, incredible special effects for spells and special attacks, and a generally polished feel to the visuals as a whole. The artists have done a nice job in making many of the areas in the game look good, and this work also extends down to the anime look that many of the NPCs, monsters, and especially the characters that join Yuki on his quest share. The cinematics by ROBOT, a name familiar to fans of the Onimusha series among others, continue the anime inspired design opting to paint within the lines laid down by Game Arts’ designers backed with lively animation. The character portraits used in text dialogs and in their status screens look good as Ghost in the Shell: SAC animators, Production I.G., lend their illustration talents to the game.
There’s also a lot of well voiced dialog in the game. This is also one game that I can honestly say that the acting was better than the actual story being told, but more on that later. The actors do a great job with the material that they’ve got, but two of the female leads in the game had voices that somehow didn’t quite fit in as well…mostly due to the dialog they were forced to deliver and the overacting that was sometimes delivered in certain scenes. Long time Game Arts composer, Noriyuki Iwadare, returns to score the game. His music helps to set the mood for many of the ‘boss’ battles that you’ll run across including the general gameplay, although nothing particularly stands out which I felt was more than a little unusual.
As mentioned before, to really enjoy Grandia III, you have to learn how to use its deeply detailed combat system. This is the real meat of the game and one of the main reasons for you to keep playing. This is almost a necessity because of how flat the story itself is. While surrounded by a host of technical achievements, the narrative that they are all supposed to support was surprisingly lacking. Despite the fighting and character development system aging well, the formulaic and linear approach that it makes with both the narrative and the actual gameplay haven’t.
The original Grandia took a typical formula and made it into a memorable experience thanks to the strength of its story, characters, the world around it, and its presentation. Grandia III seems to take some of the most common elements in anime and roll them into a narrative that doesn’t quite break completely free of the stereotypes that they are known by, falling back on what feels safe. The storyline is probably the weakest out of the others at this point, riddled with spots that simply feel as if they drag the momentum of reaching them back down, some due to the lethargic dialog, other parts due to the gaps in logic that it leaves to the player to try and rationalize. Although you get to know your party members somewhat through the “dinner” scenes that they occasionally have with each other giving them some much needed personality, such moments are few and only serves to emphasize how vacant everyone else’s personality is in the game.
One of the key elements in the story is the concept of love and the power that it has to change people. The actual fairy tale execution of how it comes around in Grandia III has, instead, created something of a blanket excuse for sending the player to the ends of the world. After discovering the backstory for the Guardians and digging up some of the skeletons from their closet, you’re pretty much expected to simply accept the vague reasons that they give to go traipsing off to the next leg of the quest. This generic treatment also extended down to those that should be the villainous stars of this production and instead fail to provide any real compelling raison de etre for the player to care about their motivations other than in standing in the party’s way. They look cool and fight well, but that’s all that you’ll come to expect from them.
The motivations for some of the characters are also clouded by personality changes that are supposed evoke surprise and fear. In Grandia, the main characters were driven by the need to explore and to adventure, concepts that any RPGer can easily identify with accompanied by enough information to flesh out the reasons why. Here, many find themselves suddenly driven by whatever the story thinks needs to be done right at that moment with little to no warning and failing to make much sense. By the time I was close to the end, I didn’t care as much for the story as I was in trying to decide what best mix of skills and spells would keep my party alive to see it.
None of this is helped by how empty the rest of the world seems to be, made worse by how linear the overall game is. At one point, you can fly, and you can fly around the world and actually see places on the ground that look interesting and realize how little there is. You can even listen in on the occasional radio broadcast while up in the air. Of course, since the game may not have progressed far enough for you to land at a location that you may have found on the ground, you’re simply not allowed to land there. While some titles, as linear as they are, make some attempt to disguise the fact with branching sub-plots and in allowing some exploration and discovery, Grandia III‘s formula seems to simply fall back on a straightforward adventure with little room for anything else.
There’s only one large city in the entire world, something that simply makes the game feel even smaller, and forget side quests. There are one or two that you may stumble across, but if you’re looking to take on a host of adventures to discover while exploring the skies a la Skies of Arcadia, you won’t find them here as Grandia III completely misses the opportunity to include a few. Once you pass through certain areas, there’s really little reason to go back through them unless you want to play the part of a reporter and catch everyone’s reactions to your latest exploits by talking to them or fuse mana eggs. You’ll see lots of doors in the city and the towns that you visit, lots of doors that don’t open.
Despite being solid in some respects, it simply doesn’t come up to the standards set by its predecessors or its rivals. It still falls short even if you take it as a stand alone RPG without the benefit of its lineage. It does finish off with a decent ending that follows the typical Grandia tradition of showing the aftermath of your actions and what had happened to the main characters which is always a nice touch, providing some satisfaction at the end for another tale told. When the final credits roll, you might find that you’ve spent anywhere from between thirty to sixty hours of gameplay depending on how much you had wanted to explore, fight, or in how many NPCs you had gone back to talk to.
Grandia III has its moments of fun but only when you can really get into the deeply customizable skill and spell system that pulls you into the dynamic energy of the combat scenes. This never made combat feel old and kept the title entertaining for me. For newcomers to the franchise, this really the only reason to get into this chapter. The meat of this RPG should have been the story, but it doesn’t quite come up to the same level, leaving it to players to fill in the gaps in a surprisingly weak storyline whose pacing can occasionally drag down the enthusiasm its characters seem to have.
This is its greatest fault and not exactly the kind of challenge that both newcomers and RPG enthusiasts look forward to spending the kind of time that it will eventually demand. Iwadare’s score tries to keep things lively and it generally does a good job in adding color to the action, but it doesn’t quite keep up the tempo that was started up by Miz’s opening theme. The illusion of a vast an open world is further hampered by the linear approach that it really doesn’t try to hide. This latest chapter seems to have been split between two different worlds, one where the gameplay has been further polished and the other where the actual story has failed to advance along with it. For fans and enthusiasts, the final result is not something that has the best of both worlds, leaving this fan wondering when the rest of the magic will finally return to the series.
– World 1-1