Back in the heyday of Final Fantasy VII, Sega fans around the world hailed the coming of Grandia. Now, nearly two years later, PlayStation RPG fans can finally see what the hoopla was all about. Grandia is a role-playing masterpiece that delivers in all of the ways that really matter. While perhaps a little behind in the technology curve, Grandia's innovation, atmosphere, and story make it one of the most noteworthy RPGs in recent memory.
Long before humans claimed world superiority, the benevolent Icarians ruled the world in peace. After dividing the world in half with a great wall, they used their vast knowledge to transcend the bonds of flesh and become beings of pure light and thought. After their departure, humankind and a horned, feral race developed independently on opposite sides of the world. While humans embraced technology, the other race embraced religion and magic. Humans developed a strong government, and out of that government grew the Garlyle army. Under the corrupt leadership of General Baal, the Garlyle army has been scouring the world for bits of magic and technology that will lead it to the ancient capital of Arent and its secrets. Destined to come into conflict with the army's plans, a precocious 15-year-old, Justin, and his friends, Sue and Feena, stumble on the Garlyle army's plans and begin a globe-spanning race to discover what happened to the Icarians and stop General Baal and his lackeys from awakening a deadly secret.
Grandia is more interesting, playable, and satisfying than most RPGs. To top it off, Grandia is an enormous game, requiring around 60 hours of play time to complete. But what could keep a game so interesting for so long? Three things - the story, the battle system and the world itself. While the story isn't the most original in the world, it is well done and, like GameArts' flagship Lunar series, focuses on a handful of well-developed characters instead of on the fantastic events that surround them. The story has a charm and sense of wonder built in that makes you feel as though you've actually accomplished something upon reaching a new area, acting as a kind of pacing that rewards you for every advancement. As notable as this is, Grandia's battle system is what really makes the game shine. While many RPGs tend to string a story together with a series of battles that may or may not be fun, Grandia's battle and experience system is just about as fun and rewarding as it gets. Unlike many of today's customization-heavy RPGs, your party is determined by the story. While some would say this limits the customization of your experience, it forces you to get to know the characters that are so central to the story. Additionally, this lack of customization adds a level of familiarity with your characters' individual abilities and strategies - something customization-heavy RPGs tend to ignore.
When wandering the myriad dungeons, you can see monsters approaching to attack, similar to Square's Chrono Trigger. If your party isn't ready for more fights or you just aren't feeling belligerent, you can usually evade these attackers, reducing the frustration found in many random-encounter RPGs. This said, however, many times you will welcome or even seek out encounters to strengthen your party; the battle system is that fun. Grandia's combat system merges bits of Square's Active Battle system with pieces of Lunar's system, all presented from an overhead 2D view. Time constantly flows during battle, pausing only to let you issue a command. The handy IP bar in the bottom right corner of the screen lets you know who's attacking and when - a vital feature, considering that time is a commodity. In addition to the standard RPG elemental and weapon distinctions, you will also have to factor distance into the equation, resulting in a slightly more strategic battle system. Because every character can attack at the same time, battles are generally shorter than those in most RPGs. Because Grandia's story forces you to spend an extended period of time with only a handful of characters, the game's magic and character-development system become especially important. You'll start out with no magic but will find mana eggs not far into the game. Mana eggs can be hatched at weapon stores to imbue a character with one of four elemental affinities and one spell to start with. Repeatedly casting spells of a particular element will further the character's understanding of that type of magic, gradually opening up more spells. Before you reach the game's CD-switching midpoint, you can expect for at least one character to have all four elements at his disposal. After acquiring multiple elements, characters can begin learning multi-element spells - mix proficiencies in water and air and you've got ice magic. Each character can use a handful of weapon types; mastering each of which will deliver new attack techniques. Eventually, the magic and weapon systems will merge, opening a final tier of battle-readiness and elemental-attack techniques. By the end of the game, you'll have access to more than 80 spells and attack techniques, and each character's library of skills is based on that character's personality. Justin's spells tend to be more offensive, while Sue's tend to be more defensive, for example.
So, the story and battle system are good. To top it off, Grandia's vast world is interesting and fun in its own right. Even though the current trend in RPGs seems to be headed for darker, more serious adventures, Grandia flaunts the fact that it's the complete opposite. The game's world is warm and inviting, filled to the brim with personality and details that many games seem to forgo. In many RPGs, overworlds are used to provide filler time and random encounters between the interesting bits. Grandia sports no such overworlds. Instead, it connects pertinent areas with only a hand-drawn world map and lets you travel instantly to any available destination. Brightly colored throughout, each town and area has a look all its own, giving you incentive to explore and enjoy all the fantastic artistic detail the game has to offer. Each environment is presented in painstakingly textured real-time 3D from an overhead perspective. As in Square's Xenogears, the viewpoint rotates any way you like with the L and R buttons. While this is a useful feature for really exploring and finding hidden items, overuse can result in the loss of your bearings, even with the help of the compass pointing you toward the dungeons' exits. Grandia doesn't stack up today as well as it did when it was originally introduced two years ago, but its pervasive art style is still attractive and compelling. While its 3D environments don't have as many polygons as Xenogears, Grandia's sprite characters are more completely animated and varied. While the imaginative town designs look fantastic, a number of the dungeons are fairly bland looking, sporting endless hallways with a tiled-rock texture. Even though the PlayStation is more proficient with 3D than the Saturn was, it struggles just as much with the 3D towns, dropping a number of frames in particularly intensive areas. The PlayStation handles the transparency-laden spell effects with far more panache than the Saturn did, but some of the spell effects have actually been toned down for the port. The spell effects themselves are pretty low on the wow factor by today's standards, but they do their job and execute quickly enough as to not be annoying. The game's few instances of full-motion video are effective, showcasing the game's impressive sense of style more than any real rendering mastery. Sound is where Grandia really shines when compared with the competition. With sound design by Skywalker Sound, Grandia's audio is as detailed and complete as its visuals. Grandia's music is typical GameArts RPG fare, featuring upbeat and engaging tunes. For those that get tired of hearing the same battle music over and over, Grandia gives you an all-new, higher-powered battle anthem on the second CD. It's a nice, if unnecessary, touch.
While it's a fairly minor point, Grandia's translation is pretty inexcusable by today's standards. With companies like Atlus and Working Designs turning out such impressive localizations, it's a little disappointing to see a better game like Grandia get so little attention in this department. Grandia's text is grammatical, but that's about it. Because the game's not dark and could theoretically attract a younger audience, Sony has taken a rather Nintendo-like approach with its translation. For example, what was once alcohol is now coffee. A few innuendoes remain, but the text has been sanitized as not to glorify anything Americans might hypocritically consider immoral. As with Ape Escape, Grandia's voices are uniformly terrible and blandly recited. To make things worse, the voices are used a little too often and the characters, who sounded "cool" in Japanese, come across sounding more annoying than anything else.
Translation aside, Sony has a real winner on its hands and it probably doesn't even know it - Grandia is every bit as worthwhile as Final Fantasy VIII, just in different ways. While a more casual RPGer might opt for Final Fantasy VIII, as Sony's sad ad campaign admits, Grandia is a fantastic game for anyone looking for a lighthearted, truly satisfying adventure.