The Sony PlayStation (or the PSone in its later slim, white iteration) was home to some of the biggest and best JRPGs in gaming. From the likes of the unforgettable Final Fantasy VII to Star Ocean: The Second Story to Suikoden II, Sony’s first console rivalled the Super Nintendo in terms of diverse and epic JRPGs. In this Past Blast, we’re focusing on one of the more charming and vibrant releases in the genre during the PSone’s lifespan. This release is Grandia.
Grandia Past Blast [PSone]
Grandia was developed by Game Arts, a company previously famous for their Lunar series, the last of which had been released on the oft-forgotten Sega Mega-CD system in 1994 in Japan. Development began shortly after Lunar: Eternal Blue had been completed, taking a total of two years to finish. Although the game was initially going to be released for the Sega Mega-CD, it was eventually decided to be released on Sega’s next-gen console at the time, the Saturn in 1997. It was welcomed with large amounts of praise from fans and critics alike during its initial release in Japan but, despite a fan campaign as well as massive import sales, it wasn’t released in the West. It wasn’t until the game journeyed to Sony’s magic grey box two years later in 1999 that it was given an official English localization. And for many players, this is where their experience of Game Arts’ classic began. So, what exactly is so good about it?
Well, firstly, there is the charm and character of the game which is not only apparent in its colourful, anime-esque presentation, but also in the shoes of its protagonists. The story follows the escapades of fourteen-year-old Justin, a wannabe adventurer, and his sidekick and childhood friend, eight-year-old Sue, as they travel the game’s world searching for the lost kingdom of the mysterious long-forgotten Icarian race, Alent. This consequently has them lock horns with a private army known as the Garlyle Forces, whose evil leader is looking to seize the secrets of the Icarians himself and use them to take over the world. As is evident, the story isn’t exactly groundbreaking – the game clearly has younger players in mind, after all – but it works.
Even the characters are admittedly not all that original, fulfilling specific archetypes down to a tee, but they’re so well-written (and many of them so well-developed over the course of the game’s narrative) that you are unlikely to care. The energetic, impulsive Justin’s rapport with the relatively level-headed but humorous Sue provides much of the game’s charm, especially in the opening chapters of the game. Even then, many of the later characters such as master swordsman, Gadwin, who acts as a mentor to the younger characters provide a lot of personality to the game, not to mention the teenage adventuress, Feena, with whom Justin develops a budding romance. Their personalities are further amplified by the emotive character portraits that appear during dialogue as well as the game’s impressive range of character animations. In fact, the range of animations – particularly during in-game scenes – are so large and varied, that it makes one think that maybe all games with sprite-based characters should be like for this.
Another area where Grandia is strong is its in-game world. Unlike many of its contemporaries in the genre, Grandia doesn’t use pre-rendered backgrounds for its locations, instead opting to use fully 3D polygonal areas. While this does mean that the areas have a very jagged look about them (and especially noticeable in today’s climate where games are held to a much higher graphical standard), the game’s bright and vibrant colour palette, as well as the variety in location assets, nonetheless make it a joy to explore.
From lively towns to derelict temples to maze-like jungles, the game has it all, with an atmosphere aided by its great music. Now, while the game’s music is something of a mixed bag – shifting between inspired, catchy tunes and atmospheric dungeon music to rather lacklustre bongo drum loops for some of its outside areas – when the music gets good, it gets really good. This is particularly evident during some of the game’s important scenes which employ sweeping emotional strings during key emotional moments and a riveting orchestral score as its main theme. It’s a shame that the game’s soundtrack couldn’t have been completely orchestral, although this is perhaps a result of the limitations of the PlayStation’s disc space.
Luckily though, plenty of disc space was left for battles that are fun and engaging in equal measure. In an interesting twist, the game combines elements from both turn-based and real-time battle systems. During a battle, both the party and their enemies must wait until their icon reaches the midway point of the ‘IP’ bar before they can make an action. When an enemy or player is attacked, this usually means that their icon’s journey to the midpoint of the IP bar is momentarily postponed thus giving an opportunity for the player or enemy to reach their midway point before the other and gain an advantage. If the player manages to attack the enemy while they are planning an attack or spell, they will ‘cancel’ that enemy’s action – naturally, the same applies vice versa.
As can be expected from a JRPG, there is a wide range of special attacks and magic spells for the characters to learn and exploit. In the case of the special moves, these are (mostly) unique to each character and, interestingly, are linked to the player’s use of magic. By consistently using their magic (bought at town shops using special ‘mana eggs’ found in the field or dungeons), party members not only upgrade the vigour and effect of their spells but also their stats and their repertoire of special moves. Similar effects can be achieved through the continued use of different weapons. The nature of this is that it encourages players to switch between different kinds of weapons and to keep using different kinds of spells, working out which spell works most effectively on which kind of enemy. In addition, the prospect of more punishing special moves gives the player more reason to utilise their magic.
The real magic, however, is in the game as a whole. Combining vibrant, colourful locations with brilliant characters, a fun battle system and intriguing lore, Grandia is well-worth a look, even in this day and age. There is a reason, after all, why it is still widely talked about and given that the game is readily available on the PSN network, you really have no excuse! In an era of angst-filled JRPG solemnity, the charm and brilliance of Game Arts’ classic is a welcome one. It’s time for adventure. It’s time to level up. It’s time for Grandia.