Easily the most hyped and delayed 32-bit RPG, Grandia is a role-playing masterpiece that delivers in all of the ways that really matter. Grandia makes up for its comparative technological inferiority with innovation and a strong character-driven story.
Long before humans could claim world superiority, a benevolent race 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. Following their departure, humanity and a horned, feral race developed independently on opposite sides of the world. While humanity embraced technology, the other embraced religion and magic. Humanity developed a strong government, and out of that government grew the Garyle army. Under the corrupt leadership of General Baal, the Garyle army has been scouring the world for bits of magic and technology that will lead it to the ancient capital of Arento and its secrets. Destined to come into conflict with the army's plans, a precocious 15-year-old, Justin, and his friends, Sue and Fina, stumble upon the Garyle army's plans and begin a globe-spanning race to discover what happened to the ancients and stop General Baal and his lackeys from awakening a deadly secret.
All story similarities aside, Grandia is an entirely different, and ultimately more satisfying experience, than Final Fantasy VII. As in GameArts' flagship Lunar series, characters play a vital role in the game. You will immediately get a sense of the characters' personalities and the feel of the world. For example, while most of the game's conversation takes place in standard text form, important segments feature lively voice acting, adding another level of character familiarity. Up to four story-chosen characters can occupy your party. While some will say this limits your customization of your experience, it forces you to get to know the characters and their abilities, something Final Fantasy VII's materia system ignored, while adding a personal touch to the story. Unlike FF7, Grandia's world is warm and inviting. Brightly colored throughout, each town has an architectural style all its own, giving you an incentive to explore, which Final Fantasy's static cookie-cutter towns lacked. Enhanced by an amazing attention to detail, you will spend plenty of time wandering around the game's locales, mostly without regret. Grandia is an enormous game, yet these seemingly small items help keep the game interesting throughout the 60+ hours it will take an experienced, somewhat Japanese-capable role-player to complete.
Technologically, Grandia is one of the Saturn's more impressive titles. However, the technology is not just for technology's sake. Each environment is presented in real-time 3D from an overhead perspective and painstakingly textured. Using the L and R buttons you can rotate the viewpoint any way you desire, with a few exceptions. A useful feature for exploring and finding hidden items, overuse can result in the loss of one's bearings, even with the compass that points towards the dungeons' exits. Various enemies roam the environments, collision with which will result in battle. This gives you the chance to escape from battles before they even begin, a nice feature when the party is in desperate condition or you just aren't feeling belligerent. Grandia's combat engine merges bits of Square's Active Battle system with pieces of Lunar's system, all presented from an overhead 2D view. In battle, time constantly passes, only pausing for your commands. When planning attacks, you must also factor distance into the usual equation. This usually results in shorter-lived battles, as all four of your characters can attack simultaneously. While Grandia's spells lack the jaw-drop quotient of FF7's, they still remain impressive and take less time to execute.
Because Grandia's story forces you to spend an extended period of time with a handful of characters, the game's magic and character development system become especially important. You start with no magic but will quickly find Mana Eggs, items exchanged in stores for magic in one of the four elements. Casting spells within a particular element will gain you experience, eventually resulting in new spells and, later in the game, multi-element spells. In addition to magic, each character is proficient with a variety of weapons. Like the magic system, you receive new attack techniques from weapon experience, eventually merging with elemental levels to produce even more powerful attacks. Once equipped with all of the elements, each character's library of spells fits his personality - Justin's spells tend to only be offensive while Sue's tend to be more defensive, for example. As a result of this distinction, you will ultimately have over 80 spells and attack techniques at your fingertips.
Overall, Grandia is top-notch graphically, save a few exceptions. While the imaginative town designs look fantastic, a number of the dungeons are fairly bland looking. In a number of areas the Saturn is visibly strained when rotating the 3D terrain, resulting in many dropped frames. Grandia's transparency effects are surprisingly good for the Saturn, however, and these are often used in both the overworld and in spell effects. Finally, the game's few uses of full motion video suffer from a choppy compression codec (much like most other Saturn FMV), greatly reducing the effect of the movies' content. With a sound system implemented by Skywalker sound, Grandia is an aural feast. Grandia's music is typical GameArts RPG fare, featuring upbeat and engaging tunes and more battle themes than any other RPG. The oft-used voices and sound effects are clearly sampled and unique for each purpose, be it spells or the closing remarks after a battle.
Grandia beats out FF7 in all of the ways that matter. Grandia is not only longer, with a more engaging cast of characters, but it lacks the lulls that so many RPGs have because of these merits. It's a shame that US Saturn owners will be denied what this reviewer believes to be the best RPG in a long time. Grandia is relatively easily played without knowledge of Japanese, making it an extremely worthwhile import for RPG fans.