Growlanser: Heritage of War
In the last few years the Japanese RPG has slowly began to evolve. Traditional turn-based efforts have become more and more niche as the big companies such as Square Enix and Namco have moved down ever more real-time and MMO-influenced avenues. And yet, the traditional JRPG is still very much alive in Japan, with smaller developers such as Nippon Ichi and Gust still creating such titles in abundance.
Growlanser: Heritage of War is a game which comfortably falls between the two markers, with its quaint 2D backgrounds and its forward-thinking real-time combat. It focuses on the Peace Maintenance Brigade; a team of passionate warriors who seek to preserve peace and diffuse nationwide conflict. Taking place on an isolated continent, the seas are impassable due to being inhabited by vicious and near-invincible beasts named Screapers, leaving the continent’s three kingdoms to war amongst themselves and fight over the meagre scraps of land. Taking control of a typical band of skinny, oddly stylish youths, you venture across the land searching for a way to bring about a peaceful end to the conflict and defeat the Screapers.
Heritage of War‘s combat is moderately similar to that of Final Fantasy XII, in that battles happen in real-time, although rather than actually controlling the characters you can issue orders and sit back and watch the encounters unfold. It’s a fairly robust system which allows a multitude of tactical options and allows you to take advantage of characters’ strengths, as you can direct each of up to four party members specifically or just deliver more general orders. Enemies rarely deviate from directly attacking, although their strength and the overall combat balancing is spot-on, so kudos to Atlus in this regard. The difficulty is very well refined; generally remaining challenging enough to keep you thinking about how to best your enemies, although rarely will you see a Game Over screen unfairly. You can always go back and try a different approach to the fight, which lends a minor but notable layer of strategy to the proceedings, and keeps it from getting too frustrating.
Story-wise it’s fairly typical RPG fare, but that’s hardly to the game’s detriment. Character development and scripting is actually better than a lot of alternatives, although usually attempts to get too serious and convey convincing emotion eludes this effort. The voice acting isn’t great, but I’ve seen (or heard) worse. The cast are a little underdeveloped and their motivations could do with being a little less black-and-white, but on the whole they are reasonably well presented and likeable. The soundtrack is very strong; without doubt one of the game’s best elements, with a variety of enjoyable tunes for each different situation.
Your inventory and item management is simple to use yet with enough depth to allow careful management. Weapons and armour can be purchased at intervals, as you would expect, and spells are bought and equipped. Other abilities such as strength increase or poison nullification can be bought and equipped two at a time, and abilities can be learned by using items called Plates. Overall it’s an adequate system which doesn’t try to push the boat out but is very useable and refreshingly uncomplicated. The game is also lightly peppered with puzzles; none of them are particularly challenging but it makes for a nice change in pace, and is a welcome chance to partake in something a little more cerebral. Usually they involve splitting your party up which inevitably leads to surprise attacks, but the attempt at implementing a little variety is welcome indeed.
Graphically, Heritage of War very much harks back to the PS1 Final Fantasy games (in particular VIII), with 3D polygonal characters over pre-rendered backgrounds. Although things have moved on significantly since then, it’s still a dependable and useable interface and there are no technical problems I noticed, such as slowdown; plus loading is always pleasingly brief. Neither the backgrounds nor the characters are particularly detailed, yet it never comes across as a problem. The game features a collection of attractive animated sequences, which is a nice element that brings back memories of PS1 classics such as Alundra and Wild Arms. If you want an RPG with excellent graphics then this is not the game for you, but if you’re after good gameplay and a solid structure, Heritage of War is a commendable effort.
It doesn’t seem wholly fair to examine this game on the same level as I would something like Final Fantasy XII or Rogue Galaxy, because its obviously been developed by a much smaller team on a fraction of the budget. That said, Heritage of War is an unexpectedly enjoyable title where I was wrongly and somewhat cynically expecting it to be disdainfully average. It’s hardly the most progressive RPG available and suffers from cliché overload a little at times, but if you want an enjoyable, dependable and very unmistakably Japanese RPG which successfully blends the old and the new, you could do a lot worse than this. Charming, competent, and most of all, very enjoyable.