The Grandia series has quite a legacy considering it spans only two games. Game Arts' role-playing series has hopscotched across no fewer than four different consoles over the span of nearly half a decade. The first Grandia game was published only in Japan for the Sega Saturn back in 1997, and at the time, it was probably the only role-playing game (RPG) that compared favorably to SquareSoft's groundbreaking Final Fantasy VII. Nearly two years later, Grandia finally made it to these shores, though solely to Sony's PlayStation system. The following year, Grandia II debuted on the Sega Dreamcast. So apparently now that another Sega system has been discontinued, another Grandia game has found its way onto another Sony console, courtesy of French publisher Ubi Soft. There's little doubt that Grandia II shows its age in the PlayStation 2 version--you can tell it's a direct translation of an older game. But the game itself actually holds up quite well, and it's well suited for those who haven't let Final Fantasy X raise their standards too high.
You don't need to be familiar with the original Grandia to get into Grandia II. If you've played other 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 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 such as that of Grandia II.
Grandia II is a fully 3D game that uses a floating 3D camera angle that's 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 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 all use a variety of 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.
Though combat in Grandia II is briskly paced and enjoyable, oftentimes it's entirely avoidable. You'll generally see your foes skulking around each area, and they'll come running for you as you approach. Sometimes you can sneak up on your foes from behind, in which case you'll get the first attack during battle, but your enemies can do the same to you, so if they get you while your back is turned, expect a beating. Grandia II isn't a particularly difficult game--your characters are strong and versatile, and they don't need to specialize. Ryudo can be both your best fighter and your best healer. That's because character advancement in Grandia II incorporates an open-ended system that lets you turn any and all of your characters into real powerhouses. While characters gain experience points after every fight and gain levels when they've earned enough experience, each battle also yields points that can be used to unlock new spells and special abilities and to power these up. You have a pool for these points--characters don't earn them independently as they do with experience points--so you can dump them all into one character or spread them around, as you prefer.
Grandia II may not look like much from a technical standpoint--disappointingly, the game actually looks a bit worse than the original Dreamcast version--but its visual design is well done. Expressive animations and nicely drawn still portraits are used to give your characters a lot of personality, and some of the game's scenery is actually quite beautiful. The whole game has a cohesive look about it that helps you get immersed into the proceedings, such that soon enough, technical issues like the low-resolution textures and occasional slowdowns in the frame rate won't really bother you. Also, you'll likely enjoy the game's occasional use of full-motion video, either for cutscenes or even right in the middle of battle--some spells feature suitably dazzling, drawn-out effects.
The audio in Grandia II might rub you the wrong way, but you can tell a lot of effort went into making the game sound good. In keeping with the game's not-too-serious approach, the musical score is generally lighthearted but not without some suitably darker or more melodramatic themes. If you're a fan of RPG soundtracks in general, chances are you'll feel strongly about the music in Grandia II one way or another--if nothing else, the music is quite loud and almost drowns out the other sound effects. As for the voice acting, the performances are about as overdone as the character designs themselves are. In the end, the voices fit the roles well and help bring the characters to life. Ubi Soft got some recognizable talent for the parts--several of the main characters' voices may sound familiar either from other games or from cartoon shows you've heard.
In general, there's a good amount of variety in Grandia II. Besides fighting enemies and talking to people in towns, you'll of course visit plenty of different types of places, from mountains on down to dungeons. Sometimes you'll need to solve some basic puzzles to proceed through an area, which aren't frustrating and make for a pleasant diversion. The game itself doesn't let you take many detours from the main storyline, so while more-experienced RPG players might be disappointed that they don't have much free rein, chances are you'll appreciate how the game is generally clear about whatever it is you're supposed to do next. That, along with the fact that Grandia II's areas are compact, keeps the game from bogging down. Though things move along quickly, Grandia II isn't a short game, and it should take you a good 30 hours or so before you reach the conclusion.
The original Dreamcast version of Grandia II was released more than a year ago, and it's technically superior to the PlayStation 2 port. But the underlying game is the same, and that's a good thing. The PlayStation 2 still doesn't have too many RPGs available for it, so by default, Grandia II is one of the better ones. Its great combat system and its colorful cast of characters are enough to recommend it to those who might have overlooked the Dreamcast version. If that's you, then consider this a second chance to try out an RPG that's well worth playing.