Publisher: Square Enix
Release Date: February 14, 2006
If you're a hardcore RPG fan, then your probably starts to beat a bit quicker when you hear the Grandia name. Grandia and its sequel Grandia II drew round praise from RPG fans, primarily for its battle and map system but also for bringing in plots that felt lighter and fresher than the ponderous blood and thunder stories RPGs were starting to deal in. There's also Grandia Xtreme, but that's a game best not discussed in polite company. Grandia III, however, looks like it's going to carry on the brightest traditions of the franchise. The characters are endearing, the story full of adventure and humor, and the combat as awe-inspiringly action-packed as ever.
Grandia III concerns itself with two themes: the dream of flight, and the conflict between desire and duty. Both of those ideas reach full expression with the protagonist, Yuki, a goggle-headed young boy who wants nothing more than to fly an airplane across one of his world's great oceans like his hero Sky Captain Schmidt. His young-looking and generally alarming mother Miranda has been less than encouraging in his efforts, and stows away in his plane on its first flight.
The extra weight causes the fragile plane to crash without making it very far, which just so happens to carry Miranda and Yuki into a forest where soldiers are chasing a strange girl with long ears. Yuki and Miranda do what any good video game characters would do in that situation: bust out their weapons and mad fu, and go to save her. The girl is Alfina, a prim and proper young magic-user who needs to get over the ocean to visit the mainland. So begins a series of adventures that eventually take them over the ocean, and into the heart of a mystery involving earthquakes, people disappearing, fighting monsters and strange bursts of evil energy. It's nothing too out there as RPG plots go, but not quite typical, either.
The real meat of Grandia III is in the combat system, which superb in concept and exceptionally good in execution. As in past Grandia games, the player characters and monsters move freely around a battlefield area while in combat, with the relative speeds and positions of the combatants determining whether or not blows land in time. When a character can act is determined by their Initiative, which is tracked by a circular gauge in the upper-left hand part of the screen. When a character's icon moves around the blue part of the circle and into the red, they can ready an action. You can delegate decisions to the AI if you prefer a more hands-off style of play, or set the battle options such that you decide what every character does when their turn comes up. Depending on what kind of move a character is about to use, they'll stand and prepare their action, immediately run after the target enemy you've selected for them, or take immediate action.
There's a lot of different things you can order a Grandia III character to do in battle. The basic attack command is the Combo command, which simply causes a character to chase after an enemy and enter an attack animation that can land, at most, about three consecutive blows. Most of the time your character will only connect with one or two of those hits, owing to the enemy attempting to run away from you or pursue its target.
There's also the Critical command, which causes your characters to attack an enemy with a single fast blow that launches the enemy into the air. Criticals are perhaps the most frequently-used tactic in battle, because delivering a Critical to an enemy who is just about to attack will Cancel his maneuver and bump his initiative to the back of the gauge. Also, if you properly time your character's attacks, you can have a second character attack an enemy who's been hit by a Critical while they're still in the air. This technique is called an Aerial Combo, which is a barrage of super-powerful blows that one of your characters can automatically land on an airborne enemy. Setting up Aerial Combos is hard, as timing for every pair of characters is different, but killing enemies with them increases your chance of getting rare item drops after your kills. If your timing is really good, you can even chain Aerial Combo moves into each other, allowing you to finish off foes before they even have a chance to act.
You can magic for healing or offense, which consumes your character's MP, or use a Special Technique, which consumes SP. Most characters rely more on Specials than magic, because SP regenerates slowly over time while MP is only replenished when you find a save point that lets you full recover your character. Certain Specials can also Cancel enemy attacks just as Criticals can, and by using a Special frequently you can reduce the amount of time it takes for the move to connect with a desired enemy. Other little-used options include Defending, which is only useful if your turn comes up just as an enemy has initiated an attack on you, and using Items. Later in the game certain weapons will give you the option to use them as items, giving you access to effects like free buffs and free heals.
Everything the player characters can do in Grandia III, enemies can also do. Combine that with a simple elemental magic system and the usual array of RPG status effects, and it makes even the most seemingly average in-game battles chaotic and exciting. You're always watching the initiative gauge, trying to figure out who will get their moves when, and how best to handle the enemies about to get their attack turns. While the free movement of the characters does add a certain random element to battles, trying to exploit the constantly-changing situation also brings a style of strategy to Grandia that is simply unlike anything else Japanese RPGs have to offer. Occasionally it's so abstract it can grow a little frustrating, such as when you've painstakingly set up an Aerial Combo just to have the timing thrown off by your characters running into each other, but these moments are fortunately rare.
As in other Grandia games, the Grandia III world map is relatively simple. For most of the game your characters can't really explore, instead visiting locations connected by dungeon-like wilderness areas in a more or less linear fashion. In the wilderness areas, you're mostly limited to walking along a set path, with both a controllable camera and a top-down mini-map view of the dungeon to help you. Enemies wander around the maps freely, and an encounter begins when you touch one of them. You have a few ways to interact with the environment at your disposal, such as hitting objects with Yuki's sword or using the Search command to scan an area for any hidden items you can interact with. You can also use it to find context-sensitive areas to interact with, such as boulders you can push down a hill or rocks to push over to fill gaps. Search command also helps you detect treasure chests, which can be very hard to spot otherwise in the wilderness areas that involve traveling up mountainsides or through particularly twisty paths.
Grandia III isn't the most attractive game we've seen on the PS2 (Dragon Quest VIII is a hard act to follow in that regard), but the game uses a very attractive visual aesthetic and goes out of its way to make sure characters are using expressive, interesting body language in the cut-scenes. The different character designs are very interesting and distinct that we've seen so far, but it seems a bit odd that the headshot art next to the dialogue balloons is so small. Most of the cut-scenes appear to be pre-rendered in typical Japanese fashion, but the gap between cut-scene graphics and in-game graphics isn't as wide as it has been for some PS2 RPGs.
The different dungeon and town areas you travel through are attractive, although towns sometimes feel a bit unnecessarily small and the dungeons a little cramped. The graphics are perhaps at their best in the battle sequences, which are full of chaotic action from all the combatants and a lot of wild special effects for magic and other special maneuvers. The score is shaping up to be an entirely solid orchestral affair, with synth and electric guitars layered in for battle and other tense sequences. It's perfect for helping immerse yourself in the world, though perhaps not the kind of thing that makes you rush out and buy the soundtrack.
Q1 2006 is shaping up to be absolutely lousy with RPGs, perhaps more hitting at once than even the most die-hard RPG fan could hope to play. Grandia III looks like a title J-RPG fans will want to make sure they make room for among all the other noteworthy offerings. The story and presentation is enjoyable enough, but it's really the fantastic battle system that makes this game into a must-play. Right now it's tentatively set for sometime in March, with a few rumors suggesting a possible a February release.
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