Grandia II isn't a landmark game by any means, but it comes pretty close to being an amazing role-playing game done in the traditional style. It looks great, has solid gameplay, great characters and a well-written story, but it's basically as straight-forward a role-playing game as you're likely to find. The game's last 10 or so hours don't live up to the game's first 20 hours. The game is at its best when the characters are in the thick of their journey—fighting monsters, exploring the world, helping people and learning about each other. By the end of the game, Grandia II falls into everyday role-playing game territory as the promising story and character relationships deteriorate into silly genre-specific dialogue such as, "Petrified humans like you cannot rule divinity!"

However, Grandia II outdoes its contempories by not coming up short in any one area—its just a well-made game all around. The characters aren't shallow and boring as in The Legend Of Dragoon—rather the characters in Grandia II care about each other, have feelings about their world, and their world view changes as the game progresses. By the latter half of the game, the characters consider themselves as family—an idea that you just dont see in games much, especially in more typical RPGs.

The beautiful graphics in Grandia II help distinguish this game from others in the genre. The detailed, colorful and wonderfully designed 3-D environments put you in an actual world—one filled with life and texture rather than pre-rendered backgrounds that make it look as if the characters are walking on top of a matte painting. Almost as if the developer, Game Arts, wanted to make a point of this, the game is filled with little objects you can bump into, knock over or interact with in one pointless way or another. It does make a difference though when the world your characters inhabit has real depth to it. The world of Grandia is so nicely realized in Grandia II that you'd swear the places you visit could actually exist somewhere—at least in most of the game. I never feel that in most other RPGs that use flat, overly fantastized landscapes to build their worlds. Anyway you cut it, the suberb 3-D graphics make Grandia II's world more believable and more fun to play in.

Even the gameplay in Grandia II is more thought-out than that of other RPGs. The way you play the game is no different than in, say Final Fantasy VII. You still take your party on far-away adventures, fighting hordes of monsters along the way. However, the fighting action in Grandia II is no where near as repetitve and formulaic as the best-selling Final Fantasy series. The battles in Grandia II are more involving and action-packed—all the while staying simple in their design—so the gameplay stays interesting from beginning to end. The fighting system is nicely designed, and there are numerous ways to customize and enhance the abilities of your gang of heroes. Also, you can see the monsters roaming the landscape before you fight them, so there are no unexpected and annoying enemy encounters, and you can sneak up behind monsters to get the advantage—a very simple concept that not enough RPGs today are aware of.

Grandia II retains the same structure and fictional game world as the original Grandia, which was originally developed for the Sega Saturn in Japan but was later ported to PlayStation and released in America. The sequel plays the same and keeps all the signature gameplay elements as the first game, but Grandia II introduces an entirely new cast and a new storyline.

The story involves a young adventurer called Ryudo, who works as a "Geohound"—a silly name for a swordsman for hire. He travels the land with his talking bird companion, Skye, taking any job he can to eek out a living. In the town of Carbo, he is hired by the Church of Granas to serve as a bodyguard for the young Elena, a young priestess who is sent on a journey to the far-away church capital to assist the Pope in a ritual to halt the coming of the unholy demon god known as Valmar. On their long and typically perilous adventure, Ryudo and Elena go from complete strangers to close friends, meet new friends and visit the far corners of the country.

At first glance, the premise seems like ordinary RPG stuff. In the beginning, Ryudo appears as the everyday, run-of-the-mill, cynical, spiky haired, fighting brat hero that fronts every other recent role-playing game on the market. However, an interesting dynamic forms between Ryudo and Elena once the game gets going. Quite simply, its an unlikely pairing of a girl whos a servant of the church and a boy who has no faith and thinks those who do are incapable of thinking for themselves. As the game goes on, the two begin to fall in love, but the nature of their callings in life prevent them from confronting each other about it. I was always interested in where the situation between Ryudo and Elena was going next. It felt to me like a boy-girl relationship done right for once in an RPG.

The game also uses their relationship as the basis of a running commentary on the effects of religion on society. Overall, I liked how Grandia II incorporated religion into its story. At times, I felt it was merely scratching the surface, using the neverending conflict between the followers of Granas (the church) and the minions of Valmar (darkness) as simply another war between good and evil. The whole light versus dark thing has been done to death in role-playing fantasy. I would have liked to see the game talk more in terms of God versus Satan. I didn't think of Valmar as a Satanic figure—Valmar is just another generic evil force that we've seen in one form or another in other games. And although the Church of Granas mirrors Christianity in many respects, the game never makes a very compelling deity out of Granas.

Perhaps had the game set a more convincing belief structure into place instead relying on simple mythological tales to support its story, I would have got more meaning out of Grandia II's use of religious narrative. However, the game does have its moments in this regard. I liked how it depicted the effect a corrupt church can have on the people, how it criticizes genocide and the condemning of the innocent carried out in the name of God, and how it addresses the plight of the common peasant—who comes to depend on his faith to help him in times of need instead of helping himself. When that faith fails, what is that man to do? How do you help the helpless?

The are also points in the story when everything isnt so black and white in a world torn between the righteous and the wicked. What happens when you dedicate your life to serving the church only to discover that there is no God? The game's main point and moral is that theres a little evil in all of us, and that only those who accept their humanity and live with a pure heart can survive. This isn't exactly a new revelation or anything, and at the end the game treats this idea with a heavy hand and in overly sentimental fashion, but I still appreciated the fact that it approached the subject matter at all, even if it didn't fully explore all the issues.

Of course, Grandia II's story revolves around religion, but various subplots invariably enter the game as well—practically one for each character. I won't reveal any here except one, which involves the enigmatic character Millenia. Millenia is Elenas alter ego. Just as Elena is a servant of the light, Millenia is a servant of darkness—specifically, she is the Wings of Valmar. She takes Elenas place every once and a while to cause trouble and join your party in the fighting. Her main role as far as the game is concerned is to create a love triangle between Ryudo, Elena and herself. However, the nature of Millenia's existence is never clarified and doesn't make much sense. Her devilish personality definitely adds some energy to the story, and I appreciated her fighting abilities in battle, but I never knew what to make of her relationship with Elena and Ryudo, even at the end when everything is supposedly resolved. Millenia seemed more like an afterthought and a distraction, and I wondered what the game might have been like had it concentrated solely on Ryudo and Elena.

The most enjoyable part of the game for me was watching the cast of characters get to know each other and talk amongest themselves. All throughout their long journey, Ryudo, Elena, Mareg, Roan and Tio break from their adventure to set up camp or stay at an inn—taking the rest of the evening to sit around a fire or dinner table to discuss their lives, their hopes and their fears. You watch them grow closer—you see their relationship deepen. I like how Grandia II actually finds something to do with its cast when they spend the night at an inn. Instead of the screen simply going black and suddenly its the next day, staying the night at an inn is as important to the game as fighting monsters. Just like in the first game, when you stay at an inn, the party gathers in the hotels dining room to eat—only after theyve eaten do they all retire for the night. Watching the characters each eat in their own little way while chatting about the day's events is an absolute trip. It keeps the atmosphere light and fun, and you learn things about the protagonists that you wouldnt otherwise.

I wish more games would show their characters doing everyday things like eating. It makes for a strong connection when you get to see them doing something that everyone does through the course of a normal day. It also helps when theres a small, clearly defined cast to observe. Unlike most RPGs, Grandia II doesn't have a revolving door for a legion of heroes. You stay with the same small group for pretty much the entire game, and as a result you get to know them better and become more comfortable with them. Its much better than having to deal with different characters constantly leaving and rejoining your party.

Overall, Grandia II tells a decent enough story. The quality of the writing is good, but a more focused effort on how to tell the story wouldve been nice. Most of the story is told though character portraits above text boxes, but there are also scenes in which the text is read by voice actors (and fairly well at that), while other scenes are rendered in full-motion video animation, while still others merely consist of static 2-D artwork. I'm sure that the choice to limit the amount of voice and animated sequences was to keep the game from going to a second disc, but to randomly drop voice here and animation there without any rhyme nor reason keeps the story from moving along smoothly and having a central narrative. What can you expect to see when the magnificant vista along the Granacliffs is shown in computer-rendered animation, and then the giant whirlwind surrounding the powerful Granasaber is shown as a 2-D drawing?

Grandia II is one of Dreamcast's best games, and being that it's one of the few RPGs available for the platform, I consider it worthwhile entertainment. It doesn't quite charm you the way Skies Of Arcadia (Dreamcasts other great RPG) does, but it plays better and delves further into the relationships between its characters—something I absolutely crave in games that tell a story. Had the game possessed a more clear understanding of where it was going with its ending and not fallen back on conventions, I would have easily given it an "8.0." I was impressed that so much was crammed onto a single disc (about 40 hours of gameplay), but there was really no need for the storyline to drag on like it did without ever coming to a meaningful conclusion. For me, it didn't live up to the promise shown earlier in the game. I felt a little shortchanged and cheated at the end, and too much was left hanging in the air unresolved. Without ruining the game's outcome, to say merely that the human heart will endure (over and over again) just wasn't a big pay off for me. For a game as long and as competent as this one, I expected a little more. Rating: 7.5 out of 10

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