Review: GrimGrimoire

Vanillaware is one of those developers that people tend to either love or hate. Those who love them adore the aesthetics of their games, the beautifully hand-drawn sprites and the storybook settings of their games. The haters tend to look over these things and focus on the negatives; namely, the games tend to have playability issues. I tend to be one of the former, even if the games drive me nuts on occasion. Muramasa: The Demon Blade for the Wii even won my coveted* Mount & Blade Good Bad Game Award for 2009.

* – Every single game that’s won this award has gotten me tons of hatemail. If that doesn’t equate to “coveted”, nothing does.

New attention has been placed on the company now that GrimGrimoire, one of their first titles to be brought over to America, was re-released as a PlayStation 2 classic. This was an interesting game for me; I had bought the game months prior in physical form, on the basis of “HOLY SHIT IT’S GRIMGRIMOIRE BUY IT BEFORE IT GOES AWAY”, but I’d never had the chance to try it. With the new version out for a new generation of players, now’s the time to see if this four year old game is palatable in 2011.

GrimGrimoire
Systems: PlayStation 2, PlayStation Network (reviewed)
Developer: Vanillaware
Publisher: NIS America
Release Date: June 26, 2007 (PS2), October 4, 2011 (PSN)
MSRP: $9.99

GrimGrimoire has the player taking the role of Liliet Blan, a talented child magician who is invited to the Tower of the Silver Star by school headmaster Gammel Dore to study various forms of magic. While there, she meets other students, as well as the teachers of various forms of magic, including the devil Advocat and the necromancy teaching Opalneria Rain. In a nod to alcohol afficianados, every character is named after some form of alcoholic drink, such as Liliet’s friend Margarita Surprise, or fellow student Bartido Ballentyne. What’s more significant to the experience is that even though it borrows heavy inspiration from the Harry Potter books, the story is gripping, going in five day, Groundhog Day style “loops” that keep the player guessing from the end of the early tutorial missions to the end, along with as well written characters that are gorgeously acted out by some of the best voice acting I’ve heard. NIS America hired some outstanding talent, and it shows in the gorgeous story sections. Though there’s the option to skip vocal readings, this is a rare localized game where most people won’t want to.

Everything is made that much more engrossing by what the now signature visual style that Vanillaware brings to most of its games. The drawings used in the game, both during story bits and in battles, are amazingly detailed, with beautiful designs. The real beauty is in the story sequences; though the battle sprites look great, by the nature of the game, they’re not quite as striking as they would normally be. The look of the game is combined with a limited but apropos soundtrack that seems to play up the Harry Potter connections.

While the game looks great, and sounds great, there are two parts to GrimGrimoire: story bits and battles. It’s the latter part where things start to fall apart.

There are four types of magic that can be used: Glamour, Necromancy, Sorcery, and Alchemy. These are connected with a rock-paper-shotgun type of weapon square; for example, Glamour is weak to Alchemy, strong against Necromancy, and is about even-up with Sorcery. Each type of magic has three familiars associated with them, as well as five different types of familiars (units) that can be summoned from the various runes. The familiars range from gathers like elves and slimes to minor attacking units such as faeries and unicorns, defensive towers, and major heavy hitters such as a Morning Stars, dragons, chimeras, dragons, and dragons. I’ll get back to the dragons in a bit. Units are summoned with mana, which is gathered by gathering units via crystals, which have to first be claimed by the gathering units of a certain magic type; in other words, once you claim a Glamour crystal, only Elves can gather from that crystal, unless it’s reset by attacking enemies. Each rune has five levels, and levelling up is 100 mana, regardless of level or rune. There’s a unit limit as well, and certain units take up more slots than others, ranging from one to six with a typical limit of 50. The goal of most stages is to remove all of the enemy runes while keeping at least one friendly rune up, though in some cases, the goal is going to be to survive a certain amount of time.

What’s sad is that even with the weapon square, there’s not much balance to be had. Even a group of faeries are going to get worked in rough spots, whereas a demon or two is strong enough to hold against most non-astral (ghost) units. The major units are also unbalanced. Chimeras have to eat allies to stay alive, and Morning Stars have to charge up shots at a mana cost. However, in stages where it’s possible to bring in Hell’s Gate runes, winning is a four step process, no matter what the situation is:

1) Level up Hell’s Gate to Lv. 2
2) Create dragons.
3) Create more dragons.
4) What are you doing? CREATE MORE FREAKING DRAGONS!

The above process is how to win about 80% of the game, and in stages where dragons can’t be summoned, I had to readjust to life without what had become my proverbial binky. “No dragons? What do I do now GAMEFAQS HELP!!!” This is exacerbated by the fact that enemies come on in rushes, and due to the heavily restrictive fog of war, it’s often too late to do anything about them if you get caught with your pants down. Due to this, there’s often a trial-and-error approach to beating stages; I had to learn where enemies were coming from a lot in later stages so that I could build around their placements. The game gives hints if you have to redo a battle as to what to do to beat it, but this doesn’t fix the key problem: winning battles in GrimGrimoire isn’t so much about strategy as it is about attrition. In most stages, the key is staying alive to the point where the player can either create enough units to overwhelm the enemy with sheer numbers, or build enough dragons to nuke the map, and the only way to really know how to do that from about stage 2-4 on is to stumble a few times to learn how the game wants you to beat its stages. It’s like a puzzle, if the puzzle jumped on you within three minutes.

Controlling the action doesn’t help the experience, though Vanillaware gave a valiant effort in trying to make up for the inherent weaknesses involved in controlling a real time strategy game with a PlayStation controller. If similar units are in one area, it’s possible to select one of them, and use the D-pad to press up and select all of them. If various units are bunched up together – which is going to happen often – another D-pad press can cycle between them. Unfortunately, this doesn’t often work as well as advertised or intended, which just wastes time in battles that can often last a legitimate fifteen to twenty minutes apiece. Furthermore, the battle maps are spread apart with no good way to quickly zoom from one end to the other – a mouse and the ability to click a spot on the minimap would *REALLY* help here – and there’s no cue that something’s happening other than by the minimap pulsating in an area where a unit is either being created or where a battle is happening, and there’s no indication as to how units are doing when they’re fighting, so most of the stage is spent doing a soft pause, zooming to that area, and seeing if they’re doing well or not. Worst of all, most of the game is spent playing the slowest game of hide and seek imaginable, especially in stages where eliminating all of the runes is a requirement. The fog of war is very restrictive, and only one land-based unit acts as an effective scout to be able to see ahead, so most of the time, the choice is either to 1) send faeries to their death as they run into a group of overwhelming enemies, who will then attack you in retaliation, or 2) slowly send dragons over to kill everything in their sight. The character limit acts as a ballast for what is ultimately an unbalanced game, but the lack of ability to recall units can get in the way. Did you create too many ghosts to build up mana reserves at the necromancy crystal? Better send them on a kamikaze mission if you want that chimera, then.

The end result of all of these problem is something a game never wants to accomplish: the act of actually playing the game as intended – the playing of RTS stages in an RTS game – is a massive chore, a job that needs to be completed to get to the fun times of the story. I found myself rushing as fast as I could to get through most of the stages. It’s sad because otherwise, this is a well designed game. There’s a great difficulty curve, as Liliet gradually “studies” the magics to learn more tricks (additional levels to the runes). There are some great ideas here, but they weren’t totally recognised, either due to the limitations on a PS2 controller, or due to a couple of balancing issues here and there. There are additional bonus battles that gradually open up as the game progresses, but these are only for the hardcore. For fans of the game’s battles, these can add hours of playability to what is otherwise a fifteen hour game. For the more ambivalent, they will be like the garnish on a dish at an expensive restaurant: lovingly created, but ultimately ignored by all but the most devoted.

Vanillaware’s signature has always been frustrating gameplay issues on top of amazing aesthetic experiences, and GrimGrimoire is no exception. The enjoyment one gets from this game is directly parallel to their priorities when playing video games. Those who care about gameplay above all else, and especially RTS fans, should run screaming. GrimGrimoire will frustrate this player to no end. For those who prefer the visceral and the artistic to the quantifiable, GrimGrimoire’s charms will override its inherent problems. For the sake of the questionable, I fall into the latter category, and enjoyed GrimGrimoire like a good meal, even if a hard bit chipped a couple of teeth.

PROS
* Excellent story and characterization
* Gorgeous voice acting
* Great replay value

CONS
* Tedious, boring battles
* Control issues
* Lack of balance

FINAL SCORE: C

Disclosure: Gaming Bus was provided a code for review by NIS America. The reviewer completed the story mode, every stage on Normal difficulty. He also completed three extra stages.

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Christopher Bowen

About Christopher Bowen

Christopher Bowen is the Editor in Chief of Gaming Bus. Before opening Gaming Bus in May of 2011, he was the News Editor at Diehard GameFAN, a lead reporter for DailyGamesNews, and a reviewer at Not A True Ending, also contributing to VIMM, SNESZone and Scotsmanality. Outside of the industry, he is a network engineer in Norwalk, CT and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.