I know it’s not a good idea to play a sequel without playing the original, but that’s exactly what I did with Grandia II. A year after loving the sequel I finally tried out the first game. I wasn’t really sure what to expect with Grandia, but what I got was a simple storyline, an easy difficulty, and the same exciting battle system. In short: the perfect RPG for beginners and an amusing diversion for everyone else.
You take the role of Justin, an optimistic young boy who dreams of adventuring in uncharted continents. Many RPGs focus on the generic “impending apocalypse” theme, and Grandia doesn’t try to diverge from that. What’s different about it is that this cliché doesn’t come into focus for the first half of the game. Instead of saving the world, you’re simply exploring the world just like his adventurer dad did.
The enthusiasm of Justin is a refreshing motive, but eventually it starts to wear thin. After the middle drags on for a while the action picks up considerably. There are a few dark moments in this childish story, and the bright and bubbly optimism is eventually replaced with some fear and anger. This works out perfectly for people unfamiliar to the genre because they get accustomed to the game through the simple and easy-to-follow storyline, and then they’re slowly eased into something slightly more deep. RPG junkies may find the storyline on the very simple side, so don’t expect lots of pseudo-philosophy or techno-babble. Everything is presented outright with very little lying under the surface.
The gameplay also makes things easy for new adventurers by getting all of the basics right without making being convoluted. There’s a lot of dungeon exploring, but that never gets boring. That’s quite a feat considering the sheer amount of time spent venturing through them. What makes them a step above the rest is that they’re more interactive compared to other games. The camera can be rotated 360 degrees and best of all; the monsters you battle are visible on screen. That means there’s none of that walking for a few seconds and then a swirling screen randomly appear. You have complete control of who you fight, and if you run into the monster the right way you even the first attack.
You can forget about all those yawn-inducing battles in other RPGs because the ones here are far from being a bore. There is a little bar on the bottom called the IP gauge that shows a small picture of each combatant. Depending on the speed of the character, the picture moves accordingly fast towards the end and then the character can choose what to do. The game stops completely while you make your choice of magic, moves, items, etc. If you plan your attacks right you can counter-attack the foe. You really have to play the game to understand how fast-paced it is since words are difficult to convey it justly. There are a few moments where you find yourself going “c’mon, I can counterattack this guy in just one second” as you eagerly anticipate your next chance to attack. Battles never drag on to the point of tedium. Even after fighting in hundreds of battles I didn’t tire of the excellent system.
The only problem with the battle system is that the battles were actually far too easy. Now I hate being challenged as much as the next slacker, but in this case it actually lessened the enjoyment. Many of the boss battles can be beaten without sustaining any damage whatsoever! The only time I died was during a relatively tough optional boss battle. Perhaps this was done to help out the beginners, but a self-proclaimed RPG pro like myself wanted to crank things up a notch. This flaw doesn’t prevent the battle system from being enjoyable; it just eliminates most of the tension. Some more excitement would have helped considerably.
Keeping in tone with the rest of Grandia’s uncomplicated features is the leveling system. There’s the standard experience-based leveling up, but then there’s a bit more to it than that. First, you can use your weapons to increase stats and learn new moves. Each time you use a weapon enough to be leveled up, certain stats rise and once you reach a certain level a new skill is learned. The same basic system applies to the magic. After you learn one of the four elements, simply use the spell more in order to learn new spells and moves. It’s incredibly basic, but it works quite well. The only problem is that some of the skills can take a while to learn, so be prepared to endure many, many battles if you want to learn all of them. Since the game is so easy, thankfully this isn’t really required.
The only part where Grandia doesn’t seem to be easing newbies into the genre is with its poor graphics. Granted, this a port of a Sega Saturn game, so too much shouldn’t be expected. Even so, though this may have looked decent in 1997, the port released two years later looked dated at the time, and now it just looks plain ugly. Almost all of the polygonal backgrounds lack any interesting details and occasionally they flicker a bit. I’m assuming the flickering wasn’t in the original Saturn version and is the result of some poor porting. At least the 2D characters fare much better with colorful details and believable animations, albeit plenty of pixelization. There is also a healthy amount of attractive cutscenes sprinkled throughout the game, so the whole game isn’t necessarily ugly.
For a game originally released in 1997, Grandia was on the cutting-edge by having a lot of the scenes contain voice acting. Unfortunately, the voice acting is relatively painful. It sounds as if the actors were forced into acting to be happy or else. It all comes across as so fake and over-the-top. Fortunately, these scenes are relatively limited and the excellent music never disappoints. There’s a bunch of different battle themes, and each one makes the battle feel tense and exciting. The main orchestral theme exemplifies the feeling of exploration perfectly. All of the music is a pleasure to listen to, especially after hearing some of the dismal voice acting.
Much like Final Fantasy Mystic Quest, the enjoyment you’ll get out of this title depends on your experience in the genre. Hardcore fans will find a decent diversion with the excellent battle system, but the simplistic storyline will be a turn-off. However, Level 1 beginners may become hooked on the genre with Grandia because of the easy-to-follow plot and fast-paced action. Either way, Grandia is an alright way to spend 50 hours, but the sequel trounces it on nearly all accounts.