MAKUHARI MESSE--Amid heavyhitting role-playing games such as Final Fantasy XI and XII and Kingdom Hearts II, it might be easy to overlook one of the other RPG franchises on display at Square Enix's Party 2005, Grandia III. The game is the third official entry in the series that began in 1998 on the Sega Saturn in Japan. Since then, the series has branched out onto the original PlayStation, PlayStation 2, and even the Game Boy Advance. A near-final version of the new sequel was available for hands-on play, and we eagerly hopped on to see what this latest entry in the series holds.
The game's story follows a 16-year-old boy named Yuuki who longs to be a pilot. His adventure begins when he meets up with Alfina, a shaman in search of her brother, Emilious, who has been missing for three years. Unfortunately, the pair comes to discover that Emilious is in fact a card-carrying villain intent on world domination (oops!). As a result, the two adventurers set off on a quest to save the world and put Emilious down in the process.
The version of the game on display at the Square Enix Party let us begin playing from several different saves taken from different points in the game. This varied experience was useful, as it gave us a feel for the different kinds of party members you'll collect and how the battle dynamics will be affected by which character you have along for the fight. The combat system, long one of the highlights of the Grandia games, was showcased well, judging from what we were able to play. As before, combat plays out in a quasi-real-time system that is similar to the time system in the Final Fantasy series. Each character's turn is tracked on a meter that also displays enemy attack times. This time out, the meter has been shifted to a stopwatch-style circle that also displays everyone's status. What we played felt as solid as the previous games, though we weren't able to try out the aerial attack system to see how it works. In addition, the game is set to include a dialogue system that strengthens the team play of party members as they interact.
On the adventure map, the game handled exactly like the previous entries in the series. You'll be able to move around, interact with non-player characters and objects, as well as zip around in vehicles while you explore the land. The previous games had a solid adventuring system, and we're happy to see that it's being refined here rather than discarded. As before, you can sneak up and hit enemies to initiate combat, sometimes getting the upper hand and the first attack in the fight if you maneuver yourself properly. Once you're in combat, you'll make use of an accessible combat ring that has your assorted attack abilities laid out for you. You'll eventually be able to use mystic items as well as elemental objects that you can use to enhance your attacks and even perform combos with the members of your party.
Grandia 3's graphics are looking good. The character models and environments have a nice, boxy look that's a little dated but charming nonetheless. The game's simple look has allowed a more expansive sense of scale to be incorporated into the game, which is a welcome addition. Longtime fans of the series will be pleased to see the slick 3D effects used for spells and skills that remain true to the simple 2D look of the original game. The over-the-top skill and magic attacks have been ramped up quite a bit for this entry in the series and are respectably insane. The only slight hitch is that the frame rate and camera are still a little erratic, but you can get used to those quirks in no time. It was hard to make out the game's audio, aside from the battle cries and spell effects, but we're confident the game's soundtrack will be solid. Composer Noriyuki Iwadare is once again on hand to score the title, so we're hopeful the tunes will be good.
Despite the fact that our time with Grandia was limited, we have to say we liked what we saw. The combat system is as engaging as ever, the graphics are solid, and we expect the adventure to be suitably epic given Square Enix's claims that the game will feature cinematics equal to three movies. Grandia III is currently slated to ship in Japan next month. A US release date or publisher has not been announced.