If any import game deserved a second chance, it would be Game Arts' Sega Saturn RPG, Grandia. Four years in the making, it was at the top of a great many RPG fans want lists as it neared completion. I remember staring at screenshots, and being amazed at all the colors there, and it was hard to believe the news about the fully rotatable 3D world, complete with solid and convincing-looking structures, and loads of realistic detail. Even harder to swallow was the fact that Sega of America refused to translate the game, instead opting to send the Saturn to a far too early grave, in favor of it's new system, first called Black Belt, then Katana, now the Dreamcast. Porting the game over to the Playstation was out of the question, due to the system's tiny amount of texture RAM (a big design mistake in the system, I think!), and it looked like yet another great game was destined for "It woulda been nice to see" status...Until now.
Almost two years later, Grandia arrives on the PS, and right away, you can see all the hard work that went into squeezing this game onto the system. From the sweeping camera shots that open the game (after the amazing main title credits), to the superb music and sound effects that fit perfectly (a big hand goes to Skywalker Sound, by the way!), you can't help but be pulled in by what's here, and only those with cold hearts won't find something to like about the characters in this game. This isn't the usual angst-ridden, "world-is-being-threatened-by-evil" plot that's been in almost every console RPG for who knows how long- nope, Grandia is just the story of a young boy looking to become an adventurer, like his father before him.
The game starts out simply enough as the main character, Justin, his friend, Sue, and her pet, Puffy are running around Parm Village on a scavenger hunt of sorts. This is a great touch, as it lets the player get used to using the fantastic camera system created for the game! You use the top shoulder buttons to rotate the camera, which allows you to see everything in Parm, and a tap of the square button zooms in a little bit more. This allows you to find items, people and areas that you'd normally miss out on, as well as giving the places you visit a deeper sense of realism. Parm Village is huge, and you'll spend a bit of time there looking at every detail, and speaking to a wide cast of townsfolk. (if you think Parm is big, wait until you hit the New World later on!). Soon, you head off on the first of many adventures, to an archeological dig, where you get a taste of the vast, multi-pathed dungeons. Everything in Grandia is impressive in it's color, shape, and scale, and you really get the feel that you're in the game, despite the anime look to the characters.
Justin finds out that he's the owner of a very important key of sorts, and he soon meets a very mysterious woman who tells him his future lies in the New World. this event sets up the next one, in which Justin and Sue seek out Java, the old adventurer, who sets them a task in an old mine. After completing the job, Java ends up having to rescue the pair, and after an amazing (non-controllable) mine cart ride, he quietly tells Justin to leave Sue behind on his quest to the New World. The next sequence, which leads up to Justin's leaving home on his voyage, are so well done that it seems as if you're watching a really good movie. The game is full of scenes like this, such as the unexpected return of Sue and Puffy, the arrival to the New World, and the introduction of the new party members you'll meet during your adventure. Each of these moments are scripted nearly flawlessly, with touches of humor added whenever possible. The translation is done quite well, as well as the voice acting- it's still far from perfect (some of the characters sound as if they're reading lines from a script), but it's a tiny flaw.
Combat is handled quite nicely as well- there are no random battles in Grandia.You can see, and avoid fights at almost any point in the game, but leveling up is crucial to your success later on! It's impossible to be defeated in the early portion of the game, another nice touch, as it gives you time to learn the slightly complex battle system. Similar to the Active Time system in the last few Final Fantasy games, you attack, defend, or use items based on bars charging at the bottom of the screen. At first, one can ignore them, and use the normal Combo or Critical attacks for most of the enemies, but doing this will only limit you to learning a few new battle skills. Similarly, players who rely too much on one weapon will find it most impossible to learn stronger attacks. You'll soon find yourself switching, and leveling up different weapons, just to see what Combos you can learn- although with only 12 item slots per character, it makes it hard to carry more than one or two extra arms. Magic is handled pretty much the same way, and you don't get to use it until you reach the New World, and find the "Learn Magic" icon in certain places. After that, it's all up to you to pick which spells you want to use, and it's a good idea to try to learn as many as you can- the easy beasts in the first hoursof the game give way to some fearsome, well designed (and hard to kill) creatures!
There are some brilliant, short CG movies in Grandia that amaze me even more, considering how long ago the game was made. These cutscenes make the game world even more solid and believable, without taking up too much game time. I could go on and on about how well designed each of the areas is in the game, but this is for you to discover on your own. Let's just say that Game Arts' artists have style to spare, and only Squaresoft has been able to top them- with pre-rendered backgrounds! You'll most likely spend a few minutes in each new area, in awe of the detail! Game Arts has been making great software since Alisa Dragoon on the Genesis (a great character who needs to make a return, by the way!), and Grandia is their best work yet! With the exception of some of the voice acting, there's nothing wrong I can find with Grandia, and RPG players, or anyone looking for another classic will have to look no further than this game as one of the best of the year, period.
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