After what seems like an interminable wait, Dreamcast owners can finally get their hands on the English version of Grandia II, the sequel to one of the Saturn's most beloved RPGs. Although supposedly a sequel, Grandia II does not pick up where the first Grandia left off. Instead, the game presents an entirely new storyline, replete with new characters, revamped visuals, a simplified experience system, and pseudo real-time combat. At the outset, it should be noted that Grandia II is an easier, more middle-of-the-road game than its predecessor, but there's still plenty to love about the game, whether you're an RPG newcomer, a veteran, or a dyed in the wool Game Arts junkie.
Thousands of years ago, the gods of good and evil, Granas and Valmar, engaged in a fierce battle for world domination. Granas defeated Valmar, but not before their battle shattered the world and split the continent of Silesia in half. It was a small price to pay, however. Evil was defeated, Valmar's remaining body parts were sealed away, and centuries of peace and love followed. Grandia II picks up moments before this happy-go-lucky story goes to hell in a handbasket. It seems that for the last few years, evil monsters have begun repopulating the land. Seeing no end to the bloodshed, the Church of Granas in Carbo decides to do something drastic - perform a resealing ceremony on Valmar's wings. A young girl, Elena, the gifted Songstress of Granas, is the key to the ceremony. Hired to escort Elena to the ceremony, you'll play the role of Ryudo, a ne'er-do-well jewel thief and renowned bodyguard. Of course, things don't go as planned - the ceremony fails, evil is unleashed, and Elena is left with a rather interesting form of schizophrenia. Pursued by the forces of darkness, you must speed Elena to the Cathedral of Granas, humankind's last, best hope for peace. Along the way, you'll find yourself caught up in the modern-day re-enactment of the battle of good vs. evil, save a few needy souls, and even enlist the aid of a few comrades, such as the stubborn thief, Roan, and the brash battler, Mareg. OK, so it isn't the most original or inspired story, but there are at least a few twists to keep things fresh while during the 40 to 60 hours of your life Grandia II will occupy.
A competent story is an integral building block of any RPG, but an RPG is also only as good as its battle system. Fortunately, Grandia II excels on both counts. The story is told clearly and efficiently, with no minced words or botched translations. More importantly, though, the battle system in Grandia II rocks. Battles progress in real-time, pausing only for command inputs and spellcasting. At the bottom of the screen is a holistic indicator that represents the time between fatigue and attack for both friend and foe alike. When a character's icon is in the first section, they can do nothing but defend against attacks. However, once the icon hits the command section, you can input a battle command. This is where the fun begins. Each character has a number of options, such as combo attack, critical attack, magic, and special moves. Combo attacks do the most damage, but they require a short delay before execution. A critical attack doles out less damage, but it can be executed quickly, and it can even cancel or counter an enemy attack. Magic and special moves are just what you'd expect, powerful moves that eat up a little MP or SP in exchange for devastating the enemy or bolstering your party's statistics.
As the cancel and counter mechanics suggest, the game's battle system involves a great deal of strategy. Since you're constantly timing your attacks to coincide with enemy fatigue patterns, it's sometimes more effective to use weaker attacks to counter an enemy than it is to come at them with time-wasting magic. Suffice it to say, repeatedly selecting combo attack isn't the best battle strategy. In an added twist, the game always shows you the intended attack patterns of the enemy, thus giving you the ability to plan the most effective defense or counterattack. Do you waste an attack to counter a zombie's party-injuring ice prickle move, or do you eat the damage and come back later with your own devastating burnflame? You'll be asking yourself questions like this many times within a single battle. As is standard in Game Arts RPGs, the battles are not random. Enemies are completely visible throughout the game's many dungeons and overworld environments, but they can only pull you into battle upon direct contact - a fact that also plays a role in battle strategy. If you trudge head-on at an enemy, the battle will begin evenly, but if you hit the enemy from behind, you'll gain initiative, earning the right to make the first move. Conversely, if an enemy sneaks up behind you, you'll be surprised, and you may take quite a beating before you even get the chance to input a command.
Gaining experience and leveling up is a good way to improve your movement and fatigue recovery in battle, but it isn't the only way to boost your statistics. At the end of each battle, you'll earn magic coins and special coins, which may then be used to purchase and improve magic attacks or special moves. Thus, your characters aren't automatically forced down the standard paths of warrior, magician, thief, and cleric. If you want Ryudo to neglect his sword techniques for magic, that's your choice to make. Boss battles yield items called mana eggs and skill books. Mana eggs extend your spellcasting capabilities by giving you more spells to purchase and assign, while skill books bolster statistical attributes in a number of categories, provided you have the magic or special coins to earn such improvements. All of this is in addition to the standard assortment of items, armor, and weaponry you can purchase and equip throughout the game. Keeping the party's magic, items, and skills completely interchangeable has its advantages, as you have total control over the strengths of your party members and aren't forced to constantly back up a terribly weak character. Unfortunately, this flexibility has its dark side too, in that you could just as easily make all of your characters overwhelmingly powerful and breeze through every battle without exercising much strategy at all.
Although Grandia II's story doesn't meander and its battles are solid, the same praise can't be given to the game's dungeons. While the first Grandia had lengthy dungeons full of puzzles and side routes, Grandia II's dungeons are more compartmental and linear affairs. Every area has between one and four sections, and each section requires the completion of a puzzle to leave and venture onto the next. Whether you're triggering switches, adjusting water levels, smashing through walls, or hunting down glyphs, getting lost is nearly impossible. Sure, you'll need to rotate the camera with the L and R triggers in order to see everything, but dead ends are few and far between and alternate routes are nonexistent. For those who value exploration or like their mazes difficult, Grandia II's puzzles will be a nontaxing letdown. On the other hand, there is a section of the population out there who just like to battle a lot and get through the story as smoothly as possible. If you're one of those folks, Grandia II's highly detailed, albeit easy, dungeons will prove more than adequate. In any event, by the time you get through the game, you'll have experienced more than 1000 monster battles, interacted with more than 600 quirky characters, and solved approximately 100 unique puzzles. Grandia II may be easy, but it's still a lengthy journey.
From a visual standpoint, Grandia II backs up its twisting storyline and killer battle system with a seductive mix of colorful 3D environments and highly detailed characters. The villages are rife with colorful buildings, towering structures, and wandering people, all of which you can approach and rotate around in all of the scaling glory that the Dreamcast allows. The characters and monsters are a little short on polygons when compared with the jungles and villages they occupy, but this fact is counterbalanced by an attention to detail that includes backpacks, aprons, belt buckles, and shoelaces for humans and flapping wings, tongues, and tentacles for monsters. The spells are a mixed effort. Some use full-motion video, while others are game-engine generated. A few spells even superimpose FMV on top of game-rendered visuals. The overall experience is cool, albeit unsettling at first.
Grandia II's sound is similarly up to task, though it's slightly kitschy at times. The game's tunes are emotional and majestic, well-suited to the task of portraying dank dungeons, harrowing battles, and the heartfelt passing of valued acquaintances. There's plenty of in-battle and text-box speech as well, although the game's voice acting is a bit stiff and frustrating at times. The game's protagonists - Ryudo, Skye, and Elena - are portrayed excellently, though, a fact that mitigates the somewhat less than stellar performances turned in by the voice actors for Roan, Mareg, Melfice, Milennia, and the game's many priests and sisters. Despite the vocal flaws, Grandia II's diverse array of meaty sound effects and towering music should provide enough auditory ambience for even the staunchest of RPG veterans.
In the end, some will say Grandia II is a dumbed down experience with a less than moving storyline. While it is true that the sequel is a more linear and easier affair, there's still much to enjoy. The game's battle system is engaging and full of strategy, the characters are quirky and interact well with one another, and there are quite a few plot twists to break up the tedium of a quest that will eventually bring you face to face with the second coming of Valmar. Along the way, you'll watch as Ryudo comes of age, transforming from a brash thief into a honorable warrior of peace, only to watch in horror as Valmar's return is heralded by someone close to his own heart. Game Arts has put together a solid RPG with Grandia II, even if it isn't as deep or difficult as the original.