Grandia is without a doubt the finest RPG to grace the Saturn. It's also the best effort yet by master game makers, Game Arts of Japan totally eclipsing their Lunar RPG series. Just what the heck is so good about this game???
Although this game is only available in Japanese it is pretty universal and most of the story can be figured out by anyone.(an English version is very unlikely to surface. There are rumours of an improved version being developed for the Katana...) From what I can tell (with my limited knowledge of the Japanese language) the story is pretty good in this game and grips you by the throat throughout the 40 - 60 hours of gameplay; once you start, you don't want to stop.
You take the role of Justin, your typical 15 - 17 year old with access to weapons of destruction you wouldn't find freely in most countries. Apparently, Justin's dad was an adventurer who went missing and all that's left of him was a generic magic stone with mystical powers and such. One day, while Justin and his cute little neighbour, Sue, venture into some ancient ruins and this stone of his starts glowing. I'm not sure what happens next (language barrier) but I think that Justin learns of some ancient civilisation / distant world with some sort of powers / technology and maybe even an answer to what happened to his father. Only problem is, Justin's mom isn't too keen on him going off on a trip. So.. he runs away from home. THAT's where the real adventure begins.
Unlike other RPGs, the story in Grandia is told beautifully. The afore-mentioned 'running away from home' sequence was done so well (with really good violin music, special effects, cutscenes, all very well directed) that it brought tears to my eyes. It was very moving. You just have to see it with your own eyes. This is only a small example of what is to come as your adventure proceeds. This game is sort of like an Indiana Jones movie; it's full of interesting places to visit, interesting people to meet, humour, drama, action and a bit of romance... (unlike other RPGs which tend to be warriors versus evil empires stereotypes)
The graphics in this game are the best possible on the Saturn. You get fully polygonal towns with very intricate designs and architecture, not just shoeboxes with doors, along with seamless and very VERY detailed texture mapping. There is a lot of variation as well; you will never come across two towns which look alike. There lots of memorable buildings / structures in each town too. For example, Justin's hometown, Parm, has a train station with an elevated track which runs around the city. On a ship, you can go to the engine-room and watch huge gears, pistons and arms moving around like the ones in the Titanic. The world of Grandia isn't a lonely place either... in towns, you can see children playing on the street, people sitting by fountains, street vendors selling their goods, etc... You can even interact with some of the scenery; you can play with plants, disturb camels, lift dumbells, etc... On the technical side, there is some slowdown (the game runs at about 12 frames a second) but other than that, you'll never find another game on the Saturn with 3D environments as 'solid' as these (no polygon break-up, flicker, draw in, perspective errors or jerky scrolling and zooming). The characters themselves are 2D sprites but they have much more frames of animation than an average Anime series and have something which polygon characters cannot provide; character. Just take my word for it, this game is beautiful... and it gets even better in the later areas!!!
The battle sequences look amazing as well with some really cool spells and attacks; most using transparency effects. They take place on a 2D backdrop mainly because a lot of polygons are used for certain magic attacks. The screen zooms in and out during battles like a John Woo film and really heighten the action.
Most RPGs around have been noted for their excellent music (the Final Fantasy series comes to mind) but never before has an RPG been noted for it's sound effects! While most RPGs have virtually ZERO sound effects during the dungeon / town areas, Grandia is loaded with very high quality sound samples (at the train station at Parm, you can hear all sorts of mechanical sounds, hisses, whistles... what you'd hear in a real train station). It's in stereo too! When you walk past a pot boiling on top of a stove, you first hear the clanking noises and boiling sounds on your left and then on your right. This is VERY atmospheric; unlike any other RPG the worlds in Grandia seem more real because you hear them as well, there are background sound effects like this throughout the game. The sound effects during battles are equally impressive. Your characters even announce to the whole world what magic spell they're about to release and even moan / scream / shout while they're attacking or when they're hit. It is worth noting that the sound was mastered by Skywalker Sound (the guys behind the Star Wars trilogy)
The music is very well composed. It's not your usual orchestral pieces; they involve the use of strange sounding instruments to match the character of each town or dungeon. Unlike some RPGs which try their best to imitate movie soundtracks (often sounding ridiculous) everything here matches the game perfectly and like the graphics, there's a lot of variation; from spooky sounding tunes to happy ones, heart-pumping tunes to soothing, emotional ones. Easily the best RPG soundtrack ever on the Saturn (it beats Sakura Wars, Azel: Panzer Dragoon, Lunar, Shining Force, Albert Oddessy and the others hands down). For a rough idea how good I think it is, it's better than the Sakura Wars soundtrack which is available in different versions on CD; and lots of people (mostly anime fans) who've never played the game buy it!!! The only bad score in the entire game is the opening music which (as a first impression) kinda sucks.
Grandia employs a very advanced battle engine and magic/experience system. The interface itself is very easy to use. You have two types of standard attacks, a special attack and magic attacks. Standard attacks are divided into normal attacks (multiple blows) and critical attacks (single blows with less overall power than mulitple blows but they slow down enemies a lot more). Special attacks require SP units and are divided according to types of weapons (each character can use different types of weapons. Using more of each weapon gains skill and activates new SP attacks, some requiring a combination of skills from different weapons. Magic attacks use MP units. Each character can only use magic based on the 4 elements; wind, water, earth and fire after they've installed a 'Mana Egg' to themselves. Magic can be used to heal party members, kill enemies, stun them, reduce their attacks, etc.
The battles are turn-based; but this time the order of when who attacks changes all the time during a battle! This is an explanation of how it works:
i)There is a timer at the bottom of the screen in the form of a bar with pictures of all the enemies and all your party members. They scroll from the left to the right of the bar.
ii) The left side is the 'wait' section of the bar where you can gauge when and who is going to attack next. Towards the end of the bar is the 'command' section where you give commands for your characters to attack, retreat, protect other party members, use magic, etc... after a command is issued, the picture of the corresponding character will move to the end of the bar where the command will be carried out.
iii) The speed at which each character moves across the bar varies. Some are lightning fast whereas some take their own sweet time. Their progress down the bar can be slowed down when they are attacked or can be pushed backwards by 'Critical' attacks. Even different commands take different times to move from the 'command' section to the end of the bar. Normal attacks and SP attacks are near instant but most MP attacks take a bit of time to connect. How quickly they connect depends on how much experience you have with the particular spell; use it often and it's fast, use it once and it crawls.
As you can see, a lot of 'real' strategy and planning is required (unusual for an RPG) and some bosses, with multiple segments which attack at different rates, are really difficult to beat; you have to learn their patterns / weaknesses and if you die, it's because you're really bad at the art of war.
If that isn't enough, even the position of your characters count. For example, if you target an enemy who's standing a mile away from you with lots of other enemies in between, you'll need some time to reach him during which you can be either obstructed (thus wasting a turn) or you can be whacked up by an enemy who was activated while you're running across the screen.
One thing I love about this setup is that you can have a few people attacking at the same time, thus forming combos which look spectacular!!! Unfortunately, your enemies can do the same.
BELLS AND WHISTLES
The loading times in this game are exceptionally quick. Never more than 5 seconds without anything going on, about 2 seconds most of the time. The music even plays while the game loads (not sure if it's streamed of the CD, PCM samples or MIDI tunes - they just sound great... and very REAL) The overall presentation is very classy, no cheap-looking solid colour backgrounds on info bars, options or dialogue boxes; lots of transparencies and option screens which zoom in and out, portraits of characters (with matching emotions) which appear while they talk... in short, this game feels like it was in development for years; very polished. The dungeons are also very well designed, impossible to replicate with CG renders or 2D backgrounds. They really add to the adventure as well (as opposed to dragging the adventure as in most RPGs) and for once, they are actually interesting! Can you believe it? Dungeons which don't bore you to death? One complain though, the cutscenes aren't as good as the ones in the Lunar series; they use in-game graphics instead of full screen, fully animated anime-style cutscenes. They look much better than average but I expected more. FMV scenes (also only a few of them) look really good, though.
This is an epic game. It will be a while until you get to play a game like this again. I loved it from start to finish (almost exactly 50 hours). So much in fact that after passing the 40 hour mark, I didn't want it to end. I wasn't in a hurry to finish it but yet I couldn't stop playing it. When you watch the end credits roll by, you feel as if a part of your life has ended. You get so involved with your characters that you actually feel for them, not since Lunar: Eternal Blue on the Mega-CD (also by Game Arts) have I felt like this. I didn't manage to get all of the characters' spells nor did I visit all of the extra areas and dungeons. I guess I needed a reason to play this game again if I have the time. And believe me... when I do, as with Lunar: Eternal Blue, I WILL PLAY THIS GAME AGAIN.
Review By: Christopher Chong