Whilst the Grandia series has won a lot of respect for its excellent (and often replicated) battle system, the individual game titles are somewhat forgotten gems on the Playstation systems. Solid and well-made RPGs in their own right, the original had the misfortune of launching on the Sega Saturn just as Final Fantasy VII was launching on the PSOne and garnering a lot of attention, despite receiving excellent reviews at the time. The original Grandia is a 2-Disc epic that manages to mix action and adventure with the spirit of fun.
Developed by Game Arts over a period of two years as a successor to their previous RPG classic Lunar: Eternal Blue for the Sega Mega-CD, Grandia was originally destined for a similar home console release before the Saturn came out and attention shifted over to the new console. Though the Saturn edition was big on release in Japan the western world wouldn’t get to sample the game until its eventual port to Playstation where it joined a plethora of other RPG classics. Today it’s available on the Playstation Network for PSP and PS3 use at a bargain price.
Visually Grandia falls into two categories with both sprite-based characters and objects overlaid onto fully 3D environments. These are explored by the characters taking on a number of walking animations for different angles and the camera can be rotated in 90 degree chunks to better get a look at what is around you. Though it was released in the early days of polygonal 3D design the environments are colourful and well defined in a period where greys and murky browns were starting to become the expected ‘realistic’ palette of choice. 2D art for conversations is excellent and in a typical Manga style that should please everyone without taking on a particular artist’s style of the genre. Each face shown has multiple expressions so that emotions on portraits match those seen on screen and in dialogue. This was a rare treat for the time. Design overall is colourful and the characters have a well-pitched uniqueness between them that makes them stand out. The lead character’s blue tunic and hat for example make him stand out in most scenes.
Musically the work of Norijuki Iwadare is excellent, with a standout being the Grandia Theme that he reportedly wrote in one night after seeing the concept art for the game. Other tracks are memorable and will stick in your head long after playing the game has finished, especially the little tune that plays while characters eat and converse. The game also features voices for some scenes and in battle, which was a rarity for the time. In Japan veteran voice actors from major Anime releases were cast into the roles of principle cast, leading to an extremely high quality production. Sadly the western world drafted in a crowd of less than stellar actors who utterly fail to inspire any emotion in scenes and are only passable in battle scenarios. This does bring the experience crashing down for western gamers and thankfully these occurrences are few and far between.
When it comes to story, Grandia neatly side-steps the more heavy emo-inspired conventions of the time to bring us a light and fluffy experience enjoyable by everyone and is pitched somewhere between a Saturday morning cartoon from the 90s and an Anime of considerable standing in tone. Justin is a young boy who wants to be an adventurer, growing up alone with his mother who was once a great pirate queen after the death of his father who was an adventurer himself. His mother now cares for him and his friend Sue whilst running a diner in the shipping port of Parm. When Justin is given his father’s amulet back by a professor who had been examining it he discovers that it’s a Spirit Stone. When the military come to inspect the local ruins he and Sue slip inside to see what all the fuss is about only for the stone to react to something in a mysterious manner and for the military to take a sudden interest in him. What follows is a series of mis-adventures and clashes with enemy forces as Justin, Sue and a famous teenaged adventurer called Feena race across the continent in an attempt to unravel the mystery and stay a step ahead of Colonel Mullen and Lieutenant Leen, who happens to be Feena’s sister. Overall it’s a great story that has both high and low points without delving into misery and overtly adult tones.
Gameplay is a mixture of exploration and puzzle solving elements couples with a robust combat system. This is where the game really shines with each character able to use a few weapon types in which they gain experience and become more powerful with, whilst learning skills. These skills themselves earn experience with use to become more effective and fire off faster after use. Speed is an important factor in Grandia games because the battle system revolves around everybody moving along the same active timer and selecting actions at a certain point before completing the journey along the timer to fire that action off successfully. Critical hits that are well timed can cancel some enemy attacks whilst combos deal higher damage but don’t slow them down. Even blocking has its uses. You can hammer enemies with the right combination of attacks and levelled skills, coming away unscathed if you’re skilful enough. Placement on the battlefield also has an affect with many spells targeting areas, and spells themselves are a lot of fun to use. Skills and Spells use different points (SP and MP) with spells being impossible to learn unless characters have equipped a Magic Egg allowing them access to one element. Mixing attacks and magic can lead to the discovery of cool new moves and choosing a second Egg allows for crossover magic that blends the two. Fire and Wind for example give you Lightning which might be the coolest thing the game has to offer, whilst Water and Wind make Ice. It’s a deep but never needlessly complex system with much of the hard lifting being handled under the hood to keep your experience as stress free as possible. The game also makes visiting inns an active element of storytelling, with some inns offering meals where characters chat about their motivation and recap story elements. This would work fantastically for a mobile game because it allows for a relatively involved story to be picked up after some time has passed between sessions. Monsters are visible on the field when exploring and battle advantage/disadvantage is decided by how you connect with them, or you can choose to ignore them entirely. The choice really is yours and a lot of people who dislike random encounters will appreciate the way in which this has been implemented.
Grandia deserves its place at the head of a massive legacy, but nothing has ever really taken off as powerfully as other JRPG franchises despite the relative success of each instalment. An MMORPG prequel, indirect sequels in Grandia II and Grandia III and side-story in Grandia: Parallel Trippers or Digital Museum were also released with Grandia III and Grandia Extreme never making it into European hands after Grandia II underperformed at retail. With Grandia’s release onto PSN however there’s never been a better time to launch yourself into one of the most fun experiences RPGs has to offer and for such a budget price to download you’d be a fool not to.