A flood of nostalgia sloshes through my skull as the intro music starts playing and I’m given the option of starting my game; I perplex myself over the fact that these memories are 14 years old. Grandia II Anniversary Edition is a remake of a JRPG developed by Ubisoft for the Dreamcast back in the year 2000, going by the name Grandia II (it was then ported to the PlayStation 2, a year after). I was quite surprised by the release of this remake because I was under the impression this was a forgotten title on a forgotten system, but it appears I was wrong.
This game was critically acclaimed when it first came out but its sales were still quite low. It was popular enough to warrant a PC remake 15 years later so it obviously wasn’t forgotten. I played this game when it first came out as a wee little lad with miniscule knowledge of the world and reality and now I’ve played it again as a big oaf of a man with miniscule knowledge of the world and reality. The task of sanding off my own nostalgia bias to take a smooth objective look at the game wasn’t easy, but I have to say it was fun fitting the muzzle on the mouth of my past self.
The game starts with the protagonist, Ryudo and his surprisingly deep-voiced talking bird companion Skye procuring some stolen goods from some thieving monsters. Ryudo is a Geohound, which is essentially a jack of all trades. Geohounds are stigmatized and Ryudo has an impressive carefree nonchalance about his position and essentially everything. I personally felt quite close with the character until his story arc turned him into a sensitive hero figure, constantly going on about the power of the human heart. Anyway, Ryudo accepts a job from the local church to be a bodyguard for the second member of our party, Elena. Ryudo takes them to a tower where they are supposed to perform a ritual to ward off evil spirits but the ritual goes horribly wrong. All of Elena’s friends get killed and she gets possessed by some dark force. Ryudo takes her back to the church where she rests. Then you are attacked by a girl named Millenia, who overpowers you and you have no choice but to lose. It turns out Elena has been possessed by the ‘Wings of Valmar’, a section of the evil god Valmar who is the opposing god to Granas, the god of light that Elena worships. The Wings of Valmar manifests itself as Millenia who occasionally takes over Elena and you get to play as her for certain sections.
This mechanic empowers the player because you first are shown how strong she is by facing off against her and losing, then you get to play as her and use all the attacks that made her so powerful. Your task at this point is to take Elena to the Granas church capital where she can get treatment. You are quickly introduced to Roan and Mareg, who become members of your party. Roan is a kid who employs your help to get back a stolen valuable then ends up following you afterwards and Mareg is a battle-axe wielding strongman with a charm and sophistication about him that mistakes Ryudo for the man who destroyed his village. These four (well, five if you include Millenia) travel all over the world to get Elena her treatment and to discover the meaning behind a growing danger of apparent dark forces.
The story is all about merging opposing ideals. It sets up a basic ‘good vs evil’ plot then does everything it can to grey the areas of black and white. Millenia is supposed to be a product of pure evil but she occasionally does good things for people, not because she’s good but because she finds them fun. The followers of Granas are depicted as good, holy people but then you come across a point where soldiers are willing to burn down an entire town of innocent people because a piece of Valmar is hiding out there. There are more subtle examples like the character developments of Ryudo and Elena. Ryudo starts off as blunt and uncaring and Elena starts off serious and determined; then over time they both learn from each other. Ryudo starts taking stuff more seriously and Elena becomes more carefree. Another example of the same idea is Maregs tribesman; who live in the jungle as a peaceful and primitive people, but they are also depicted as wise and secular. They don’t chose to worship either the light or the dark and are better off for it. This idea of merging opposing ideals resonates through the whole story and at every point you can pick out where the story is making you challenge the norm, but the problem that arises from that is predictability. It is very easy to predict any twists that occur because as the game tries to challenge preconceptions it makes the direction obvious and if you’ve ever played a JRPG you’ve already experienced a lot of what this story has to offer.
The presentation behind Grandia II is quite dated at this point but I can imagine it being mind-blowing for the time. It adopts a smooth anime style like many games of the genre but it also keeps a blocky, early 3D look to it, which I suspect is more of a choice through limitation than an actual artistic direction. The life of a character is portrayed through an anime drawing of the character that pops up next to their speech bubbles when they talk, which makes their actual 3D character models feel more like avatars than the actual characters. The only feature on most of the character-models faces are just big eyes which makes the two or three characters that have more facial features look out-of-place and weird. I wouldn’t say the character models do a bad job though. They still look alright and have an eye of style about them.
I was very intrigued by the voice acting. In some places it was atrocious which is to be expected of the time but for most of the game it’s quite good and very recognisable, for instance Elena is voiced by Jennifer Hale who played Commander Sheppard in the first Mass Effect trilogy and Skye is voiced by Paul Eiding who voiced Colonel Roy Campbell in the Metal Gear Solid series.
The music also had me perplexed, for some of the tracks were amazing, but the one that gets played the most, and is the main adventuring theme, made me want to kill myself. Also, some sound effects are quite off and distracting, as they would be given strange emphasis and overpower all other sounds.
The overall feel of the game fluctuates between light-hearted and very dark. The colouring is quite well-done with lots of bright, contrasting colours everywhere, and most areas are quite well-defined. The dialogue can be very serious at times, then at others it’s quite humorous (I actually found myself laughing quite a bit which I really did not expect). I like this setup because it creates a feel of uplifting with very dark undertones. It keeps you resting on the surface while danger swims around below you.
There is one addition to this game that I haven’t seen in an RPG before and that’s the option of sitting down and having dinner with your party members at the Inn. During dinner you can engage in casual conversation with everyone and it’s all quite quaint and interesting. This mechanic is completely unnecessary and can be argued as a waste of time, so I imagine not many players will even bother with it; but I stopped at every Inn throughout the journey for dinner-time. It makes the game feel like you’re more a part of these characters lives instead of just watching the journey play out like a movie. If you ever wanted to know how a particular character felt about what just happened in the story, you can and I think that’s a very inclusive idea. When you aren’t running around towns and sharing your thoughts around the dinner table you are most likely dodging enemies in the wild or beating them to death.
Grandia II has a turn based combat system like most JRPG’s, but instead of random encounters you can actually see the enemies before they attack you, or you attack them. I much prefer this to random battles because you actually have a choice of how you want to approach any situation, whereas random battles just feel like mild, annoying jump scares. Because the battles aren’t random, the maps are designed as big expanses instead of linear corridors like a lot of JRPGs of the time. This was good because it gave you the option of dodging the enemies you didn’t want to fight, but they screwed up when it came to the camera. The camera is way too close to you so you never have a good view of what’s around you. It also zooms in when you stand still which is a useless and ridiculous idea because now whenever I needed to wait for something I would have to constantly run around in circles just to keep the camera still. Instead of fixed angles, the game lets you rotate the camera around you which makes it quite easy to get lost because you’re not given a map; you are given a compass that just points in the direction you have to go which means that instead of visually memorizing an area you just follow an arrow the whole time.
The combat is quite interesting. You have an active time bar that determines when you and your enemies’ turns are. When your character reaches the COM stage you get to choose your move, it then proceeds to the ACT stage when the move takes place. Instead of just a basic ‘Attack’ command you are given, ‘Combo’ and ‘Critical’. ‘Combo’ does more damage, but ‘Critical’, when timed to hit when the enemy is between the COM and ACT stages, cancels the enemies attack. This opens up a unique level of strategizing. You have to be mindful of the time it takes to execute attacks and where your character is in the arena. I had fun exploiting this mechanic a bit, in some hard boss battles I would just wean out all the weaker enemies than wail on the boss with Critical attacks and the boss wouldn’t be able to get any attacks in.
An addition made in the Anniversary Edition was that they made the battles run at 60 frames/second, which is weird because the rest of the game runs at 30 frames/second. I found it a bit bothersome because it felt like listening to a song with a fluctuation tempo; it’s hard to groove to. I later realized that you can choose in the options whether you want the battles in 60 or 30 FPS but after playing the battles at 60 it was really lame having them at 30. It would have been great if the whole game ran at 60 FPS.
I really liked the experience mechanics in this game. Unlike most RPGs where you just get EXP that levels up your characters, in Grandia II you get three sets of experience, EXP to level up your characters, Special Coins to level up your skills and Magic Coins to level up your spells and you have a lot to spend it all on. Upgrading a spell or skill makes them stronger and lowers their cast time, and they all cost different amounts of coins depending on their power. You also obtain books that let you spend SC and MC on attributes that boost the characters specific stats so you can also mould your character into whatever type of fighter you want them to be. These mechanics are a blending of modern and old-school RPG mechanics and they’re done very nicely.
Grandia II starts off interesting and has a lot of very cool ideas but as the story gets closer to the end it leads itself more into a bland cliché. Some developments felt like they would fit perfectly in a soap opera and a lot of the major reveals were easily predictable, but I can’t say that I was completely untouched by the story. It definitely had a lot of heart and soul in it and enough stakes to keep you interested with a resolve that ties everything up nicely and neatly. You would have to be pretty cold to not feel something when a robot discovers what it is to feel emotions or a child king finds the meaning of good leadership.
The biggest problem I had is that it is incredibly linear. You only have one direction to go the whole game and you never travel back to any place you’ve been or discover any hidden stuff. It’s all just the main story. It would have been nice to pick up a few side quests here and there so I would have reason to travel back and get to the know the world a bit more. I felt no connection to the ground beneath my feet which I felt was quite lacking for a JRPG. On the other hand the game was very fun to play. The battle mechanics weren’t too complicated to understand and were simple enough to pull off making strategizing natural instead of a chore. I didn’t find myself lazily mashing the ‘Attack’ command like I do in most JRPGs. I’ve been a fan of JRPGS all my life. I have played countless titles and Grandia II sits just above the average. It offers enough to keep a player engrossed but it just isn’t enough to contend with the greats.
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