This is a review of a Dreamcast classic ported to the PS2, and the sequel to a fan-favorite PS1 game. It's also on my list of 2012 targets, so I'm extra glad about this one. Introducing Grandia the second.
I have a great appreciation of Game Arts. They made the Lunar series, the first two of which are stellar oldschool RPGs, and have had their hand in a surprisingly robust number of titles, including Super Smash Bros. Brawl and the entire Silpheed series. They've also made every Grandia game, which are a mixed bag of overall quality that everyone seems to agree has one of the best battle systems of any Japanese RPG.
Quick series overview: I beat Grandia in college when I was on a PS1 tear, I think in fall of 2008. Grandia's characters were mostly RPG stereotypes and they were consistent with Game Arts' colorful aesthetic that invariably involves anime humans and beastmen working together, but I still enjoyed it. I didn't like the characters or story as much as Lunar, but the battle system lived up to its lofty reputation - more on this later. Grandia Xtreme is considered below-average by pretty much everyone, and Grandia III is supposedly bland in story and characters but makes up for it with the best refinement of the Grandia battle system ever. I haven't played either one. Grandia II is the best-reviewed of the four Grandia games, and it represents the series' strengths and weaknesses perfectly - fantastic turn-based combat, somewhat generic everything else.
So what is this magnificent battle system that I've alluded to thrice already? Check two paragraphs down, because first I'll get into Grandia II's narrative. Grandia II's storyline has a bit of a religious theme, as the story centers on the efforts of the world's church to prevent the evil god Valmar's return. The game stars Ryudo, a special type of mercenary known as a Geohound who is hired to accompany Elena, a songstress of the church, on a pilgrimage. Over the course of their journey they encounter Millenia, a dark emissary of sorts of Valmar (avoiding spoilers), a young traveler named Roan, a wandering beast-warrior named Mareg, and a sentient android named Tio. And that's your party.
Grandia II's story and characters aren't bad, but they definitely aren't above-average. The cynical Ryudo is an entertaining anti-hero of sorts, and his love triangle with Elena and Millenia is a great subplot (Millenia was probably my favorite character). The other three party members don't add anything terribly interesting to the story. Grandia II's villains and NPCs don't seem like anything special at first, but a few of them show surprising layers when their motivations come to light. Nonetheless, I'm probably making this game's cast seem better than it is. Grandia II has its bright spots in story and characters, but it's nothing special when you compare it to RPGs with truly excellent writing.
But we all know that Grandia II's real strength is its battle system, right? Right. Combat in Grandia games takes place on a 3D plane where character position is very important. There is no free-run option or similar, but many spells and special moves have areas of affect where position is key. At the bottom of the screen is a meter with different icons representing characters and enemies - the different characters move up the grid at a rate corresponding to their speed, and take their turns once they reach the 2/3 mark. The last 1/3 of the grid is characters charging up their spells or special moves, with a rate dependent on the attack's casting time (instant for normal attacks, lengthy for powerful spells, etc.).
The real fun with Grandia II's battle system is manipulating enemy meter positions. Certain attacks can stun enemies, knock them down the meter, or cancel their turn (if they're charging an attack when a canceling move hits them). Intelligent use of the game's many status spells and canceling moves can keep an enemy pinned and give the player a great feeling of control over the battlefield. On the flipside, unwise management of spells and moves with long casting times can backfire on the player, as enemies can use many of the same techniques that your party can. This system is easy to learn and gets really fun. Add in some significant SP and MP costs and limitations for different moves and the end result is a turn-based battle system that somehow feels fast-paced while focusing on time and resource management.
Characters can learn and upgrade hundreds of spells and skills and a few dozen special moves by spending Special Coins and Magic Coins earned after every battle - interestingly, upgrading spells and special moves won't increase damage, but rather speeds up casting time (maybe more important in the long run). Character stats, equipment, and passive skills are the factors contributing to damage. This system 100% works, and is a major improvement over the skill learning system of Grandia I, which had players casting status spells like Snooze and Def-Less every battle just to upgrade elemental levels. Not cool.
Grandia II's versatile, enjoyable battle system makes the game reasonably easy when mastered. A typical dungeon will be medium-sized (2-3 large rooms, rotatable camera) and usually not so long that the new setting wears out its welcome; the abundance of healing and save points also help to kill the frustration factor a bit. Regular encounters are always manageable (difficulty spikes here and there), but boss fights are usually on another plane of difficulty and require skillful meter manipulation. This is a good thing. All enemies are visible in the field (often avoidable), and encountering them from different angles can give you extra initiative or leave you surrounded. Not unique, but definitely not bad.
The worst aspects to Grandia II are probably its visuals and audio. The soundtrack is unspecial, with its highlights being a handful of catchy overworld themes and some peaceful choir music. I can't hum, whistle, or beatdrop any of the game's tunes from memory, which is a fair indicator. The visuals are bright and cheery, but the polygons haven't aged well at all. Especially outside of battle, the models look pretty jagged and occasionally there's painful slowdown, usually in towns. The anime look of the game is okay, but never really takes full advantage. There are anime scenes for story cuts and a few powerful spells and skills, and they're among the best-looking parts of the game - if the entire game looked as good as the animations and cutscenes for its coolest spells, then I'd be singing a different tune.
I played the game on a 51" screen, so Grandia II's visuals looked (even) worse than they did originally. It's also notable that I played the PS2 version of the game, which is definitely not as strong visually as the Dreamcast original. Game Arts started out as a Sega-first studio, and Grandia II was made for Dreamcast. I have no doubt at all that the A/V quality was better on a DC, but I don't own one anymore so I can't make a direct comparison.
I'm glad I finally got around to finishing Grandia II. It's a charming, fun RPG with decent characters and fabulous gameplay that absolutely holds up. I don't think it's as good as Lunar 2 - my favorite Game Arts game and a classic beloved by many - but it's definitely better than the first Grandia, which I liked just fine. And hey, it's another target game off my list.
Games Beaten: 2012 Edition
1. Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins
2. Radiant Historia
3. Mass Effect
4. Mass Effect 2
5. Breath of Death VII: The Beginning (Hard mode)
6. Grandia II
Well, that was a nice birthday present to myself. Next I'm going to wrap up a quickie I picked up on Steam, then probably start on another target game for March; not sure which one yet, but I'm thinking either Wind Waker or another PS2 RPG. Anyhow, everything else is getting put on hiatus once Mass Effect 3 comes out.