This weekly column looks at classic video games both in how they looked back in the day and how they stand up today. Though scores will be assigned, our tough review standards will be relaxed a bit for these games to give a general overview instead.
All retro games come courtesy of Retro Games Plus, located at 1761 Post Road East in Westport, CT. If you’re in the northeastern part of the United States, please give them a look.
When a series disappears from the public’s collective attention, we tend to forget just how well rated the games in said series were. The Grandia games were extremely popular in America as they came out around the time that JRPGs were in the middle of their Final Fantasy VII-inspired boom, and they featured interesting stories and one of the best battle engines seen in JRPGs at that point in time. Though the first two games are considered classics in the genre, the series fell off soon after that: Grandia III‘s story was laughably bad, and Grandia Xtreme didn’t have a story to speak of, instead focuisng on the battle engine in a dungeon crawling environment. Grandia Online, which puts the engine into an MMO environment, went into beta in Japan back in 2009 and hasn’t even a hint of a release in America, likely for good reason. With the series hitting a lag that it doesn’t look ready to recover from, we look back tonight at the original to see if it stands up as well in 2012 as it did in 1999.
HOW WAS IT THEN: Grandia was great. While the gaming public at large was busy sucking up Final Fantasy VII and VIII at the time of Grandia‘s release, Game Arts’ classic was quietly a superior game with a better battle system, more interesting characters, and much less pretension.
The battle system in particular was praised, using a timing-based method to turn-based combat. Regular attacks had no charge time, and power attacks required charge and actually did less damage (fewer hits), but would stop an enemy’s own attack if executed properly. The same principle was used for magic: it didn’t have power moves, but it did have a long charge time in some cases that could be stopped completely if the character was hit at the wrong time. It was an ingenious system created during a time when Active Time Battles were still a big deal.
There was also a method to improve skills, both physical and magical, by using them. This was better than the old standard of just gaining experience and made players balance the need to get new skills with the ability to use them (i.e. can’t improve an ice skill in an icy area unless you want to waste magic). Using weapons also increased proficiency, and using all of the base skills and weapons combined with the other proficiencies to create newer, better spells. It was only possible to cast the really good spells a few times: there were both skill points for regular skills and a Final Fantasy I-like level system for actual magic, but they were worth it and were satisfying to unlock.
Add all of the fundamental improvements to the genre on top of a well-loved story with outstanding characters, and you had one of the most beloved RPGs of the golden era of that genre.
HOW IS IT NOW: Role-playing games tend to age better than most genres. For example, it’s easier to step back into Legend of Dragoon than the original Tomb Raider despite the latter being a superior game in its day. Grandia is no different, as it stands up well to modern scrutiny… with some glaring exceptions.
The battle system is still as genius as it was in 1999. While battle systems have grown much more complicated over the years, they haven’t necessarily gotten better, just more glitzy. Only Game Arts could turn what is a staple of a standard JRPG and make it work successfully in a dungeon crawlers like they did in Xtreme. However, there are dents in the balance. It’s hard to level up spells at times since using them costs a lot of MP, and they have to actually hit (i.e. if they’re ineffective, it doesn’t help) for them to gain experience, whereas most random battles involve just using melee attacks. That means it’s necessary to meticulously plan around improving magic, especially since it’s hard to know what’s going to be truly necessary without a strategy guide.
Speaking of which, Grandia has the characters learn magic through mana eggs. This is a great idea that’s executed well, but there’s a structural flaw: the mana eggs can get very hard to find later in the game. Since these are the only ways to learn magic, gaining these eggs is of critical importance. This is made more difficult by the well-outdated 3D graphics, the lack of any sort of map, and the cumbersome and difficult compass system that tells you effectively how to get to and from areas but grows highly disorienting in later dungeons. Simply put, maps and/or a strategy guide are critical for getting the most out of Grandia, and most of the good maps I found were on ancient web sites on public hosts.
Another flaw with the mana egg system is that magic has to be built up even later in the game. That means that when you teach Justin that fire spell he’s been waiting on, you have to use the lowest form of that spell in order to unlock the others. Since you’re using them on enemies ten times stronger than the ones you learned initial spells on, it becomes a matter of intentionally grinding on enemies that should be easier than they are in order to build up experience. Unfortunately, the poor balance in this makes this process take longer than it should. Also, since mana eggs are finite, resourcing them is critical, which is a problem since one of the early characters leaves the party permanently and any magic this character learned is gone for good. Again, unless the player is using a guide, no one would see this coming.
Despite this, the story is still good, and all the characters are still likable. The mains stand out: Justin is an idealistic kid that borders on grating at times, but the concern he shows when he gets serious is something to behold. Ultimately, Grandia is a coming-of-age story with a twist that early players wouldn’t see coming, and although the content of the story is somewhat trite and lightweight compared to what we’d see in 2012, the ending is satisfying. However, the biggest, most grating problem with Grandia, and the main thing that makes this more dated than it is already, is that the voice acting is atrocious. There’s no getting around it; not one voice actor was even so-bad-it’s-good competent at their job, and the voice work was bad even for the time. Sue in particular is literally physically painful to listen to at times, and since there’s no Japanese voice option—which was unheard of with the limited disc sizes of the PlayStation and Saturn—the only option is to mute the television if it gets too bad.
Grandia has an outstanding battle system that stands up today and is enjoyable to play despite its few yet highly notable flaws. It doesn’t stand up quite as well as other JRPGs due to the stretched limits of the hardware, but for $9.99 on PSN, it’s worth the trip. (Those looking for a physical copy from a trustworthy seller can expect to pay about $40 on eBay.)