Originally a 1997 release for the Sega Saturn, GameArts eventually took the cult-hit JRPG Grandia to the more popular PlayStation in 1999. The first version didn’t make it outside of Japan, though the latter did. Now, this PSOne Classic is available on PSP via the PlayStation Network, giving genre newcomers a look back at an interesting representative of late-90’s RPGs.
Grandia‘s definite highlight feature is its interesting combat and accompanying growth system. Fights begin with enemies and allies appearing on a battlefield in various places. For most attacks, the characters will have to get close to enemies before they actually hit, though the running is done automatically. For physical attacks, each character has the option to go for one big hit or a combo of two, less powerful strikes. While there’s often no difference in the early going, there are later on some noticeable advantages of using one over the other. Specifically, combo attacks get off faster and can carry over to another enemy if the first strike kills it, but the single, big hit has a greater chance of stunning the enemy. A bar on the bottom shows each battle member’s progress towards their next turn. Selecting to attack an enemy who’s in prime position lends a greater chance of stunning that foe. Given that every attack, special move, and magic spell takes a different amount of time to actually launch after selecting it, this bar creates elements of timing and strategy hat make battles quite fun.
Characters have different skill levels with various weapons; continued use of an axe, for example, will raise Justin’s level with axes. So what does one do when he finds a sword with way better stats than Justin’s current axe? Time to make a decision: go with the sword and deal with being a lower level for a bit while working towards the goal of surpassing the previous weapon, or keep the axe and its proven level of awesome? These kinds of things add variety and fun customization to the game. Special moves have levels just like weapons. The more they’re used, the higher their levels will get. Tying into the aforementioned weapon levels, a high weapon level will lead to characters learning more skills with that weapon type. Using a second kind of EXP gained after battles, players can read from the list of available skills and put the points towards learning skills of their choice.
For all this great customization and unique combat, Grandia sadly doesn’t offer a whole lot of challenge for about 90% of the game. Boss battles can get tough once in a while, and perhaps the first few fights within a brand new dungeon will wear one down, but in general, experienced RPG players will probably not have a problem with Grandia. There are optional dungeons that are fittingly tougher than others, but they don’t do much to make up for an overall easy game. Selectable difficulty levels may have added a great layer to this game. It’s just slightly sad to spend time carefully considering how to spend one’s precious weapon XP, ponder what exactly to equip, and balance the limited inventory space only to see so many enemies dropping dead in one or two hits.
To the long-time gamer that missed this title within its era, Grandia is quite a sight to behold. Its graphics might look like a lot of other RPGs of the time, but the real kicker was that it looks that way while allowing manual, 360-degree camera rotation. Other PlayStation RPGs have certainly looked shinier, but the majority of those use pre-rendered backgrounds (the PSOne’s numbered Final Fantasy games, Chrono Cross, and so on) or only allow limited camera rotation (Breath of Fire III). Being on the systems it was while doing what it did, in 1999, Grandia was visually quite impressive. The character sprites are slightly pixelated by today’s standards, but on the PSP’s small screen, it still manages to look good enough.
Music in Grandia is nothing special. The tunes within the towns and dungeons are sufficient while playing, but over extended play sessions, can get somewhat annoying. When the game is turned off, there’s not a whole lot that would inspire a soundtrack purchase. On the up side for the sound department is that a lot of the story segments include voice acting, which is yet another area where Grandia was a little bit ahead of its time. The voices are generally well done though there is the expected amount of Japanime cheese — a common ingredient in JRPG voice acting.
This game’s story is about as cliche as it gets. A boy named Justin and his token female sidekick decide out of the blue that they’re going to “go on an adventure.” The townspeople and his mom are all cool with this. “What’s that? Going to the mines to put your life in danger fighting mutated bats and challenging trained warriors with your dull sword? ‘Kay, be back before dinner.” Justin’s encounters with the requisite evil organization are sometimes interesting, but overall, Grandia‘s story isn’t why it’s considered a classic. One keeps waiting for it to really take off, but it never does.
While it won’t knock anyone’s socks off, Grandia is an interesting little pickup for those wanting a window into some of the PlayStation’s non-Squaresoft RPGs. Its story isn’t that great, but it does have a battle system and character upgrade interface that are still decent. On the whole, it ends up an enjoyable, if unremarkable experience.
PlayStation LifeStyle’s Final Score
– Forgettable story
– Equally forgettable music and sound