Genre: Real-Time Strategy
Publisher: NIS America
Developer: Vanilla Ware
Release Date: June 26, 2007
Last year, Atlus and Nippon Ichi published two games from a single developer — a developer that seemed to not know that the Sega Saturn had, in fact, actually died. One of these games was Odin Sphere, which mildly shocked the gaming world at large by proving that, hey, huge, colorful sprites still had a place in this day and age. Critics' awards were heaped on it, its relative success helped Vanillaware keep their jobs after risking everything on a game they'd spent roughly a decade developing, and it was good. Now they've got a Wii game on the way.
The other game, however, got far less press, which is a bit of a shame. Whether it was just too specialized, or because its genre was less conducive to button-mashing than Odin Sphere, who knows? Still, when one looks back on it, Vanillaware actually managed to craft a brand new genre with GrimGrimoire. This wasn't due to them being overly creative, or game design geniuses, or anything like that, mind you. It's simply because no one else was crazy enough to try what they did, to the extent that they did.
GrimGrimoire is a 2-D, sprite-based, real-time-strategy game. These have existed in the past, but all on an isometric plane. GrimGrimoire, however, is as flat as a sheet of paper. Pitch this idea to anyone in the gaming world today, especially in the West, where the RTS concept was pretty much perfected, then spruced up to heck and back, and you'd be laughed to your face in the midst of being told what a positively stupid idea it was.
What's so standout-crazy about GrimGrimoire, then, is that Vanillaware largely managed to make the concept work. The idea was no longer stupid. It had a name, it had an identity, and darn it all, despite obvious limitations, it was actually not bad in practice, either.
Even the story has a pretty nice hook. You play as Lillet Blan, rookie sorceress, who arrives at a magic academy the night before a horrible tragedy befalls it and its inhabitants. Somehow, Lillet is saved, and much like in the timeless comedy "Groundhog Day," she ends up replaying the same day over and over again in an attempt to prevent what only she knows will happen. As she does this, she ends up learning new spells, skills and battle tactics during her repeated "first days," powering up enough to play her part in resolving the impending crisis.
If you're familiar with the way RTS games work, odds are you'll be impressed with Vanillaware's approach given the circumstances. As mentioned before, this is a flat 2-D RTS, something that hasn't been attempted to date with such earnestness or sincerity. All of the staples of an RTS are here — gathering resources from various stocks, building units over time, amassing hordes of these units and sending them against the enemy. There's a lot of scrolling involved, especially with the bigger battlefields in the later stages, and the fog of war in these is just as intimidating as always. Once you're done with the game's tutorial missions (there are more of them than you might think because not only is this a new approach to an old genre, which requires some readjustment, but the game goes out of its way to fist teach people entirely new to RTSes how to play them in general, and then adapt them to the 2-D mindset), it's actually not hard to keep track of.
That is, provided you play the game consistently over time. Despite how well Vanillaware executed this product, their choice of genre was a double-edged sword. RTS vets will certainly have to adjust because the 2-D engine results in a lot of wasted motion, if you will. Flat terrain means lots of scrolling is needed to survey the area, and it gets worse if you're sending out scout units or leading diverse troops into battle.
Speaking of diverse troops, prepare for lots of super-frantic controller motion because since there's obviously no mouse support, managing armies of units has become clunky, even given the decent interface. The bigger the army you're managing, the more running around you're going to have to do in-game. Since GrimGrimoire's set up in such a way that you're constantly watching your units' lives (unit caps are pretty rigid in this game), you'll often be going back and forth to your home base as battles are taking place, making replenishment units to either send into battle or defend your home. Deciding which to do is a chore in itself, but when time is on the line, and it takes so much extra time to make a unit perform your desired function or move to a desired territory, the game experience suffers for it.
GrimGrimoire certainly looks and sounds quite nice. It runs on the same engine that was used to power Odin Sphere, the PS2's latest and possibly greatest 2-D tour de force. It's hard to tell whether or not there's more of less animation packed in here, but the sprite work is no less a treat for the eyes than in Vanillaware's action-RPG offering.
Finally, the game boasts plenty of replay value in the form of "extra" scenarios that pop up alongside the game's main story. Many of these are For Super Players and should not be attempted until you're sure you're positively comfortable with the core game works. For those who are, however, these scenarios should make the game last another good few weeks before you finally put it into your archives.
GrimGrimoire is one of those games that demands to be checked out, no matter what the circumstances. Its story and characters contain charm, its premise is tolerable and fun, it looks good, and it's a neat twist on an established genre, even if there hang-ups due to said twist. For what it's worth, I actually enjoyed this game far more than Odin Sphere. Then again, I'm nuts like that.
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