Consider this a good opportunity to try out a solid Japanese RPG, without having to own a console.
Japanese role-playing games have no place on the PC. That's not an argument--that's an observation. Several years ago, a couple of games from the popular Final Fantasy series were ported to the PC platform. But these games just didn't take off on the PC anywhere near like they did on Sony's old PlayStation system, which is probably why Square's presence vanished from PC gaming. So, with the exception of a couple of console-style RPGs from last year--Summoner and Anachronox--there's basically been no chance for dedicated PC gamers to play anything from Japan's unique take on the role-playing genre. Good thing for Grandia II, a Japanese RPG that originated on Sega's now-defunct Dreamcast. Ubi Soft published the game in this country not just for the Dreamcast, but also recently for the PlayStation 2 and now for the PC. It's a direct translation from the original--like most console RPGs, it doesn't let you save just anywhere and it's very linear. Grandia II is also not quite as serious of a game as most PC RPGs try to be. But if you can deal with the culture clash and with the typical shortcomings of translations from consoles, then you're likely to find that Grandia II can provide plenty of charm and plenty of fun.
Grandia II is obviously a sequel, though it has little to do with the original game. If you've played other Japanese RPGs or seen some anime, then chances are you'll find that the game's setting, plot, and cast of characters seem pretty typical. You play as Ryudo, a young but seasoned bounty hunter who's always looking to sell his sword to the highest bidder. At first he comes across like a bully. But as you might expect, over the course of the game, Ryudo shapes up into a more suitably heroic form as he travels the land with Elena, a princess who becomes stricken with an unusual curse. Elena is quiet and Ryudo is likable enough, especially when he banters with Skye, his talking hawk friend. Though some of the game's dialogue is spoken, most of it is written out on the screen, subtly pausing at times to give a sense of how the characters are probably inflecting. Some of the dialogue is actually quite good--you'll probably appreciate Ryudo's cynical interjections during some otherwise generic conversations about the usual sorts of problems that always seem to plague fantasy realms, like that of Grandia II.
Grandia II is a fully 3D game that uses a floating 3D camera angle, which is fixed at a rather close-in, isometric vantage point. You can rotate the camera about the main character--you constantly have to, because scenery will often obstruct your view--but you can't zoom out or tilt the camera at all. There's an onscreen compass that helps you get your bearings in the game's somewhat bland 3D environments, but the tight view angle makes the places you'll explore in Grandia II seem rather small, which undermines the sense that you're on some sort of epic journey. Each area in Grandia II doesn't just seem small, but each actually is--there isn't much room to explore before you find the next point you're supposed to go to in this linear game. For what it's worth, if the scenes were any bigger, you'd probably end up getting lost more often; as it is, you can concentrate on forging ahead.
Grandia II's combat system is one of the best aspects of the game. You won't find the numbingly repetitious random battles that can be found in most Japanese RPGs, because Grandia II does away with random encounters completely, and the combat system itself is considerably more interesting than usual--it's very dynamic and looks and feels almost as much like a fighting game as an RPG. You'll watch as your characters constantly move about the battlefield, getting into the best position to attack their foes. The action occurs in real time and pauses only when one of your characters is ready to act. At that point, characters have a variety of options--they can perform an attack combo on the selected foe or go for a critical hit that's faster than a combo but less damaging overall. Characters can use different kinds of magic, as well as items and powerful special abilities. They can dodge and defend too. Grandia II uses a system of initiative--once you select an action for your character, your character won't act right away. The same rules apply to your enemies, so if you see one of them setting up a special move, you may have the opportunity to counterattack for extra damage and cause the enemy to lose its turn for good measure. Whatever the case, battles are smoothly animated and visually impressive as a result, even though the polygonal characters look blocky.