After experiencing a bout of ennui regarding my current roster of videogame distractions, I decided to revisit a fondly remembered relic of the scene’s late Nineties “Golden Age.”
Created by Game Arts (the folks behind the beloved Lunar series), Grandia was supposed to be the Sega Saturn’s moment to truly shine — an epic, visually stunning role-playing game capable of going up against the Final Fantasy VII juggernaut headed to the rival Playstation console.
Much of the hype was colored by wishful thinking and the traditionally unwillingness games have about admitting they backed the wrong side in the current Console War. Nothing was going to so much as dent FF7′s success. Square’s decision to switch camps from Nintendo to Sony was itself a confirmation that the PSX was the top dog of that generation of gaming machines.
Still, Grandia‘s combination of pedigree and exclusivity was enough to raise the hopes of the Sega faithful and even net it a special callout box in the import dealer ads which ran in EGM and other gaming mags of the era. It was certainly enough to convince me to spring for a copy of the Japanese release (with a fancy cloth map I still have around somewhere) when it became available at the end of 1997.
I generally steered clear of import role-playing games, as the language barrier made navigating the mechanics a frustrating chore. In a genre where the narrative and characterization are the main attractions, it didn’t make much sense to muddle through with only the slimmest of contextual clues and copious amounts of trial and error. I did subject myself to it for Grandia, though, as both a gesture of loyalty and a testament to the game’s overall quality.
There was also the assumption, shared by my fellow faithful, that a localized version of the game would soon follow. It never happened. The Saturn entered 1998 as a dead platform walking. Its final months were marked by a pre-extinction of stellar first-party releases, but no Grandia. The numbers couldn’t justify the effort and expense required to prep it for the American market.
Some diehard fans floated an amateur translation effort, but all that came out of it was a massive typo-riddled script dump that I worked my way through during the dead parts of my work shifts. It was useful for picking up some of the names and bits of backstory, but mostly it just made me even more disappointed about the lack of an English language version of the game.
Ironically, the game that Grandia was supposed to “kill” ended up providing its second lease on life. Final Fantasy VII‘s success brought the JPRGs to the (fringes of the) mainstream and established the Playstation as that console generation’s pre-eminent vector for the genre. The trickle of JRPG releases for the Playstation turned into a steady stream, and Game Arts decided to hop onto that bandwagon (and perhaps recoup some its development costs) by announcing a slightly downsampled port of Grandia for the console — and this time around, it would be followed by a localized release.
It hit the shelves in the fall of 1999, and my excitement for it eclipsed Sega’s recently released “next gen” Dreamcast machine and much-hyped Final Fantasy IX.
So what’s the big deal about Grandia? Even discounting for old biases and fuzzy nostalgia, it’s easily one of my favorite JRPGs of that era. Only the first two Suikoden games and Panzer Dragoon Saga come close, and even then Grandia edges them out by a wide margin. The game managed to blend style, substance, and tone in a way that few of its peers ever have.
The game take place in a rapidly industrializing world where the Age of Exploration has given way to tourism and complacency in the face of a mysterious wall which supposedly marks the end of the world. Justin, a clueless but enthusiastic teen, is the son of a famous explorer and dreams of following in his footsteps. He is assisted by his surrogate little sister Sue, who alternates between encouraging Justin’s whims and serving as a voice of caution. They run away from home in order to discover the secret of the End of the World and fall in with Feena, a teenage girl who happens to be the “world’s greatest adventurer.” There’s also a mildly evil empire in search of something ominous and other colorful characters the group crosses paths with during their quest.
There’s no heavy or obtuse philosopy behind Justin’s quest. It’s a coming of age tale driven by the thrill of discovery, in both the geographic and personal sense. It’s light-hearted yet not shallow. There are no shortages of epic threats or poignant moments, but the Grandia‘s breezy tone serves to emphasize their significance instead of rendering them into yet another esoteric plot point of moment of canned pathos. The game is infectiously charming, and draws strength from that instead of resisting it. It’s the story of a starry-eyed kid going from backyard play “adventures” to the genuine article, growing into his responsibilities while still trying to hold on to his childhood dream, and it’s a tale worth experiencing.
The emphasis on exploration and discovery is enhanced by its visual presentation. Unlike Final Fantasy VII and other JRPGs of the era, Grandia didn’t adopt the template of polygonal characters set against pre-rendered backdrops. Instead, it took the opposite approach, with sprite-based characters and monsters set against polygonal playing fields with a fully rotatable camera angle. At the time, some gamers saw it as regressive design choice, but it has helped Grandia’s visuals age better than its more “forward thinking” peers. It also eschewed the use of CGI cutscenes, apart from a few brief sequences.
What you see on the field is what you get, and most of it still looks pretty stunning some two decades later — especially the ancient dungeons which draw from both Polynesian and Meso-American influences. Grandia‘s dense misty forests, bustling towns, and bizarre ruins are large, awe inspiring, and feature multiple levels and all manner of moving parts to heighten the atmosphere. As I said above, there’s a consistency between the audio-visual style and narrative substance that puts other JRPGs to shame.
Grandia‘s combat mechanics are extremely deep, maybe excessively so in light of what’s actually required to succeed in most encounters. Enemies are visible with in the game world, and can ambush or be ambushed depending on the player’s positioning and thumbskill. Combat plays out in real-time, with a slider at the bottom of the screen showing the participants’ acting order. Striking an opponent at the correct moment can interrupt, cancel, or counter their action depending on their current place on the slider. Characters can choose between taking a two-hit combo attack or a single heavier attack, or opting to use magic, item or combat skill.
Each character can wield a few weapon types and learn four types of elemental magic. Each weapon and spell elements has its own experience table, which unlocks more powerful abilities at higher levels. In addition, reaching certain levels with multiple skills will unlock further combinations — such as a “forest element” spell combining water and earth to cure poison, or a lighting blade attack by combining air, fire, and sword skills. To make things even more complicated, each individual skill or spell can then be leveled up through repeated use.
It’s can be more than a bit overwhelming and grindy at times, but the bulk of it is optional for progressing through the game. For the more obsessive and completist types, however, it offers another immersive hook to explore.
The convoluted leveling mechanics were the reason I held off on revisiting Grandia for such a long stretch, but they’ve ended up being less of an obstacle as I’d anticipated. The general flow of the non-combat parts of the game has been a bigger problem. After a decade of having on-screen prompts and virtual “breadcrumb trails” to provide quest guidance, it’s tough getting going back to the old school “just wander around and talk to everyone” approach for advancing the storyline. It’s been tough enough deciphering the ambiguous clues in English. I can’t believe I managed to pull it off in the Japanese version. (To be fair, I had a lot more free time back then.)
When I started this current playthrough of Grandia, I figured it would be a timewasting side project, something to dick around with for a while before abandoning it a quarter-way, through. Instead I ended up getting caught up in it to the point where I’ve been ignoring other games-in-progress in order to dive back into it. Grandia is one of the rare cases where my nostalgia undersold the actual product.
(Also, the relationship arc of Feena and Justin — the accomplished, slightly older woman who sees god-knows-what in a brash, clueless teen even though he’s too oblivious to pick up on her obvious hints — resonates with me for some inexplicable reason.