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.
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--the low-detail 3D models and simple-looking environments reveal the game's console origins--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, so much so that soon enough, technical issues such as the low-resolution textures and occasional slowdowns in the frame rate won't really bother you. What can be a bit more distracting is the way the game makes use of full-motion video effects, either for cutscenes or even right in the middle of battle--unfortunately, the video looks grainy and washed out compared with the rest of the graphics. Grandia II supports resolutions up to 1024x768, so as a matter of fact, the PC version can look quite a bit better by direct comparison with the Dreamcast and PlayStation 2 versions.
The audio in Grandia II might rub you the wrong way. In keeping with the game's not-too-serious approach, the musical score is generally lighthearted but is not without some suitably darker or more melodramatic themes. 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, except for the extremely loud footsteps of your party. 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 the way that 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 at the tail end of 2000. The PC port is essentially the same exact game, and while it shows its age, the intactness of the translation is ultimately a good thing. The PC doesn't have too many Japanese RPGs available for it, so by default, Grandia II is one of the better ones. There's no guarantee that the game will appeal to fans of conventional PC role-playing games--Grandia II's linear gameplay, "young adult" sensibility, and anime artwork aren't likely to impress someone looking for another Baldur's Gate II. Still, Grandia II can be fun if you're used to Japanese RPGs to begin with or if you approach it with an open mind. Its great combat system and its colorful cast of characters are enough to recommend it to those who have been intrigued in the past by the Final Fantasy series or other Japanese RPGs. If that's you, then consider this a good opportunity to try out a solid Japanese RPG, without having to own a console.