The latest entry in the Growlanser strategy series, Growlanser: Heritage of War, features many trappings of a true dramatic saga: adventure, romance, betrayal, revenge, and the tragedy of war. Unfortunately, this game fails to put it all together into a cohesive experience, and it suffers from a disjointed and often crazy story, as well as frustrating gameplay, and a character-advancement system that makes no sense. Every aspect of Heritage of War is decidedly average in execution--that is, when it's not actively working to make you hate all things Growlanser. There's a lot of content to work through here--even a few tidbits to tide you over after you've finished the main storyline--but it's a shame that the whole package doesn't hold together better.
In Heritage of War, you assume the guise of Haschen, a mysterious teenager with a mysterious power. Well, eventually you'll assume the guise of Haschen--the game kicks off with the journeys of a fellow named Seldous, who we know absolutely nothing about aside from the fact that he thinks war is bad (he's one of those pesky war orphans) and so is seeking a way to end it. He meets up with a serious-looking fellow named Isaac, along with Professor Pernagi, who is short, furry, and an expert on ancient technology. While stumbling through a ruin, they discover an old but quite powerful weapon, and decide to fix it up as a means of coercing the continent's three nations into peace. They dub it the Admonisher, and once it's launched into the air, the peace is achieved faster than you can say "army-obliterating laser that also cuts an unattractive canyon through the countryside." Seldous, Isaac, and Pernagi become the founders of the PMB, or Peace Maintenance Brigade, and they commence the maintaining by holding regular diplomatic meetings and keeping the business end of the Admonisher pointed at all parties involved. Needless to say, the "peace" is a bit strained. It's also complicated by two facts: the continent is surrounded by an impenetrable magical force field that no one knows the origins of, and the seas are ruled by giant creatures named screapers that apparently survive by eating people and that regularly invade the beachfront property where people insist upon making villages. Oh, and the earth is rotting, so the little arable land left is gradually eroding away, which means that eventually everyone will starve.
You pick things up about 17 years later as Haschen is about to join the PMB. In short order, the seaside town where he was raised (as an orphan, of course) gets attacked by screapers, and Haschen receives serious wounds. He survives only due to an operation that keeps him on medication for the rest of his life, but that also for some reason gives him the side effect of being able to negate the powers of screapers. You discover the reasons behind this particular talent much later, but your character is otherwise one of those silent types that are largely just along for the ride or to select dialogue options. The story unfolds in a haphazard way, mixing perspectives of various characters but never quite making sense. Why does no one care that the continent is locked behind a magical barrier? Why is the land covered in countless ruins that no one's ever opened before? How can one character betray the PMB about 5 separate times, but no one thinks this is strange or a matter that requires any sort of redress? The game presses a lot of its plot manipulations under the "war is bad" banner, but due to the ham-handed way they're scripted, you never quite shake the feeling that a lot of the characters are just outrageously stupid. There are some nice dialogue pieces between certain characters, but otherwise the narrative is almost totally without depth.
Gameplay isn't much of a redeeming factor, either. Battles take place in real time and fall into one of two types: mission battles with victory criteria or regular battles that occur as you move from place to place. You travel the world mainly on foot, and monsters are scattered across the countryside waiting to mangle you in the manner of monsters everywhere. You can usually choose to avoid random encounters if you really want to, but of course you'll have to fight a good deal to level up. You can either guide your main character yourself and let the artificial-intelligence settings take care of your party members, or you can issue everyone orders manually through the command menu. Once you issue an order to a character, it will move to the proper monster and inflict the hurt--if you're lucky. Characters and terrain in Heritage of War are both solid, which means that if there's a bottleneck in the map and someone's filling it, you'll be blocked off until you clear it out.
Although this is somewhat reasonable when dealing with enemies (and in fact, using your characters to physically block the advance of enemy forces is a useful tactic on certain maps), the annoying bit is that your own characters can get in each other's way, and not just in cases where you're blocking a narrow passage. Characters can and do get stuck behind the main character around simple curves in terrain and don't attempt to find a path around you, which means that you have to manually move your character (which cancels out any assigned actions that would have been performed). Also, any time a character is on the way to somewhere else and encounters an enemy that deals some damage, he or she will usually attack it--which is useful if the enemy is blocking the path that the character was going to take, but not so useful if you're working with a timed map and trying to get someone to flee instead of smacking every monster that looks at him or her sideways.
Pathing and movement issues aside, there can be problems just trying to use your menus efficiently. One of the most pressing problems is that mission battles (encounters that advance the story) have conditions for varying conditions for victory that you need to follow, which you check from the system menu. The command menu is your constant tool in battle, because this is where you can select your characters and order them to attack, cast a spell, or use an item or special ability. You can even swap armor and weapons in the heat of battle, defend against an attack, queue up movement, and so on. Notice that the system menu and command menu are not the same thing. So you can only check the conditions for victory after you're finished assigning actions to your party members, and manually accessing the system menu is the only way to see your objectives, which often change mid-fight and on some occasions change multiple times. The game itself only gives a generic "Conditions have changed" message when this happens. The changes themselves vary wildly over time, as a battle might go from "block their advance" to "kill enemy x" or "save character y" or the notorious "prevent character z from escaping", where if you don't move your party almost instantly, you can quickly lose.
That's a bit irritating, but also take into account the fact that special abilities for both allies and enemies temporarily pause action on the screen while they animate. This means that if there's a string of special attacks queued up, you won't be able to access any menus (command, system, or otherwise) at all until the animations are all complete. This can be a problem on maps where you have to save certain characters--there are situations where your important personage is near death, but because enemies on various parts of the map are using their screen-freezing special moves, you can't access your menu to do anything at all. When you have to back out of 4 command menus and then have to wait for enemy special attacks to go off and free you to access the other menu, it's entirely possible that you're already too late to perform the required actions when conditions change.. Also, each character has a certain amount of recovery time between commands, and if you want to change their orders, you can bring up the command menu and reassign them. But if you bring up the menu before their recovery bar is up, even though you can assign an action, once their bar is up the command menu will pop up a second time. There's a lot of wasted time having to give a character orders twice because it doesn't queue up commands.
When the menus aren't getting in your way and the characters are moving around intelligently, there are some bright points. The game's system for casting spells is a neat twist. Although you can learn several ranks of a given spell, the magic points cost to cast it always remains the same instead of increasing. What actually increases is the cast time needed for each additional rank, so instead of trying to conserve MP, you'll need to carefully place casters so they're shielded from enemies, given that attacks push back cast time. It's an added strategic element that works well and gives you a different way to consider how you use magically inclined characters.
You'll level up naturally by defeating monsters and earning experience points, and all spells and abilities learned by your characters are acquired through the ability tree and from plates. Plates are spells and abilities that come attached to weapons and armor. When you equip weapons and armor and go into battle with them, those plates become available for that character to use. Plates are then placed on the ability tree anywhere you want them, provided that it's next to another plate. Once you've set the abilities down, you have to put points into them to actually learn them, and these are mysteriously called knack points. You get knack points by defeating monsters. This system doesn't sound too exotic yet, but it gets better.
First of all, to put points into the plates, you have to set them to "active flow," which means that points are being distributed to that particular group of plates. Second, the "flow" is determined by how you place the plates next to each other; each plate has an up or down arrow that forks the flow either northeast or southeast. As long as the arrow points to another plate, the knack points will flow to that consecutive plate. This means that your placement of plates is dictated to some extent by the arrows. You have to make sure that the plates chain properly and that you don't take up all your room with a meandering up-and-down line of abilities, because you have a limited amount of space to work with and you want to cram as many abilities in as you can. There are even items that let you change the directions of the arrows, but the problem is that you don't get that many of them to start with, so you'll be limited to sticking stuff you want to learn wherever you can make it fit. There are other items you can get later on that let you unhook plates and move them around, but this is just a function of the fact that the plate system is cluttered and nonintuitive.
Having to spend money on items to go in and rearrange your crazy ability trees is not a really good fix for a visually bewildering and wonky system. (Trying to follow a line of plates by eye on a full ability tree that's totally crammed with elongated hexagons is a sadistic endeavor.) Not to mention the fact that even after you max out the levels of all your abilities, they're only half effective unless they're part of the "active flow." This means that the best way to maximize your spells and abilities is to group like to like so that you've got different ability sets that you can switch between when you change the flow--something you simply cannot do until late in the game when you have access to all the plate-manipulation items and you feel up for going in and rearranging your whole tree. Some people relish this sort of thing, but it's totally bonkers. Fortunately, you can make do with a somewhat ugly ability tree.
Visually, the most notable and detailed items are the character portraits used during dialogue, which are large, bright, and favor extremely shiny hair and possibly illegal amounts of bangs flying every which way. There's a bit of variety in these to allow for some emotive connection to the current mood, and they're appealing. The game environments are predominately lots of nondescript forest, with a bit of mountain, desert, and snowfield thrown in for good measure. There's some variety in the ruins you'll explore, but on the whole the environments are super plain. The same is true for the character models, which have limited animations. There aren't very many visually impressive abilities, either. Most special melee attacks warrant just a couple of sparkles and swishes (certainly nothing worth freezing up the command menu for), although there are some end-game spells that have ridiculously long cutscenes that you'll happily skip because of how terrible they look. Voice acting is of a generally acceptable quality, with some strong and bad points depending on the character you're talking about. The music suits the various towns and such decently enough, and it stays out of your way the rest of the time, fading into the horn-predominated tunes that serve as background battle music.
The game clocks in at the standard 40-hour mark, and there are a few extras you can play with both during and after the main game. There's a fairy contest you can compete in for your magical fairy pal; there are a number of different outfits you can earn for the fairy if for some reason you really need to see her in a nurse's uniform and such; there's a battle arena; and there are some side quests. Depending on your dialogue choices during the game, you can build up your relationships with party members, which will influence the ending you get to see. There are also certain characters in the game you'll encounter that have a separate playable scenario that you can unlock for a little extra story action. The limited-edition package of this game includes goodies such as a keychain, buttons, a DVD, and some lenticular cards. But in the end, it's not the lack of content that mars Heritage of War, but the quality of it. You can truck yourself through this game and still have a good time despite some of the low points, but even at its best, this Growlanser sequel is decidedly average.