A Tactical RPG for People Who Hate Tactical RPGs?
HIGH Executing a flawless plan of attack in an important story battle.
LOW Sitting through the first ten hours or so as the game sets up its predictable story.
WTF Do I really want to find and try on different outfits for my bad anime-inspired helper?
Sony's PlayStation Portable (PSP) might be dead as far as most gamers are concerned, but don't tell the folks at Atlus. The company follows up the recent release of strategy role-playing game (SRPG) Gungnir with yet another tactical adventure in the form of Growlanser: Wayfarer of Time.
This newest Growlanser title is only new for American audiences—the game was originally released as the fourth installment of the series back on the Japanese PlayStation 2 way back in 2003. Those who haven't played the previous Growlanser titles (several of which turned up on our shores during the PS2's lifespan) shouldn't be put off from this experience. Wayfarer of Time works quite nicely as a standalone adventure. The game certainly shows its age in spots, but the overall package should appeal to fans of Japanese role-playing games (JRPG).
The title's story sticks to the genre template early on. Players take control of Crevanille, a young mercenary who was found as a child outside of a ruin. This will make him mankind's biggest savior when angels appear one day and start destroying everything on the planet. Crevanille will use his special powers to combat the angelic threat and team up with his ragtag band of compatriots to (hopefully) save the day. Ho-hum.
Wayfarer of Time's story is arguably its weakest link. Anyone who's experienced a JRPG in the past decade will instantly be familiar with what's going on. The characters aren't particularly well-drawn—they're mostly archetypes—and the opening ten or so hours are a slog as the game bogs down repeatedly with extended story interludes. Unfortunately, the story isn't interesting or original enough to spend this amount of time on setting it all up.
Those who stick with it will eventually be rewarded as Growlanser does open up and actually lets players play the game instead of sitting through dreadful dialogue and pointless cutscenes. This is where the title begins to work its way toward redemption.
Unlike the standard SRPG which is a grid-based chess-like affair, Wayfarer of Time is much more freeform. Think of it like a jazz solo in comparison to a carefully conducted classical concert. The traditional SRPGs spend lots of time with precise movements and turn-based combat—something that's technically proficient, if a bit staid and predictable. Growlanser, meanwhile, attempts to open up the gameplay and speed players along through what are usually lengthy campaign scenarios in a much more engaging way. The result is a solid tactical RPG that feels designed to cater to people who don't really like tactical RPGs.
There are no grids on the game's battlefields and no traditional turn-based combat. Instead, players are free to move about the map at will with everything based on a timer gauge. Players will issue commands and the characters will perform them whenever the time gauge allows them to act. They will then continue these actions until they're instructed to do something else (which is a mere button click away and can be activated at any time during a combat engagement). While this freeform approach is a welcome change of pace, it does have one minor drawback: the game occasionally feels like it's playing itself. Part of the allure of SRPGs is being the general and micromanaging the troops. That's possible in Wayfarer, but the game does have a tendency to run quite well on autopilot.
The combat gets a little more robust as the game advances—it features rings that can be customized to add different sorts of attacks and defense instead of weapons and armor—and story interlude battles often require far more resource management than the standard field fights (primarily because they feature more involved objectives than just "kill everyone"). That being said, compulsive tinkerers might be disappointed by the "hands-off" elements of the gameplay in much of the early going.
The bigger story fights are really where Growlanser shines—although objectives aren't always quite as clear as they could be. This will lead to mission failures and restarts so that the player learns how best to attack a particular scenario. Unfortunately, there's not a lot of deviation in how the AI handles those fights—so the second go-round is likely to be just like the first, eliminating some of the "thinking on the fly" elements that make these sorts of experiences so engaging. The upside is that players shouldn't ever get stuck on a mission for any extended length of time.
Those complaints aside, Wayfarer of Time does manage to create an interesting variation on the traditional SRPG combat formula. It's not perfect, but once it gets rolling it did keep me involved.
When not in the field, Growlanser keeps players busy advancing the plot through conversations (and after the weak opening, the story does eventually come to feature some twists and turns) and working on interpersonal relationships that affect the game's ending. There are multiple endings (over 40 in all) to be experienced in Wayfarer of Time, so the decisions matter. It will reportedly take four playthroughs to see all of the endings.
Issues aside, it's hard to discount the feeling of nostalgia that permeates Growlanser: Wayfarer of Time. Gamers like me, who experienced the golden age of the JRPG firsthand, will undoubtedly enjoy this title despite the occasional misstep. It's easy to say that they don't make JRPGs like this anymore—but at least companies like Atlus are willing to port them to modern hardware for an appreciative niche audience. Gamers looking for a trip down memory lane, an interesting reminder of the good ol' days of the form, or one last hurrah for their PSP will want to give Wayfarer of Time a shot.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via the publisher and reviewed on the PSP. Approximately 55 hours of play was devoted to single-player modes (completed 1 time). There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood, fantasy violence, mild language, and suggestive themes. Parents will want to take note of Wafarer of Time's Teen rating, but there's nothing overly objectionable in the game as a whole. Sure, the busty anime chick stereotype lives on in the game's world, but it's not particularly risque. If your kid likes JRPGs and plays them regularly, there's nothing to be too concerned about here.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: The game's standard scenes are presented in text—but unfortunately the anime cutscenes (which are big moments in the narrative) are voice-acted. I could not find an option to turn on subtitles for them, meaning hearing-impaired gamers will be missing out on a big part of the experience.
A film critic by trade, specializing in Euro-horror, cult exploitation, and Asian action cinema, Mike has written reviews for a diverse group of print and online publications. He covers horror news, movies, books, and games at TheHorrorGeek.com and Horrorsquad.com and spent two seasons as The Horror Geek on Comedy Central's pop-culture game show, Beat the Geeks.
Mike's childhood was spent playing videogames any time he got a chance. His parents had a Pong console and his grandmother had an Atari 2600, where Mike cultivated his skills by playing hour upon hour of games like Space Invaders, Berserk, and Asteroids. From those early experiences Mike learned one thing: he loved games.
In 1999, Mike became a staff reviewer at Cinescape Magazine's website where he spent a year learning the craft of game criticism. After internal changes led to Mike leaving Cinescape in late 2000, he joined up with RPGFan in 2001 and spent several years writing reviews for them. Happy, but looking for an opportunity to expound on a wider variety of titles, Mike joined GameCritics.com and hopes to help Chi, Dale, and the rest of the GC staff bring a higher level of respect to the field of game criticism.