Since playing Grandia II, I got a chance to give Skies Of Arcadia a good run through. Had I not done that I would have been quick to proclaim Grandia II the best RPG on the Dreamcast. Nevertheless, I still believe that it is one of the better RPGs to be released in the last couple of years and the second best RPG on the console. It has the graphics, above average voice-acting and an appealing story that really grabbed me. Ben touched on the major points (on which I agree), but there are some tidbits that I feel are worth mentioning.
After forcing myself to sit through Final Fantasy VIII and The Legend Of Dragoon, I appreciate any game or developer that does away with prerendered 2D backgrounds. Though not always as pretty, 3D graphics like those found in the game add a level of interactivity—and dare I say realism—that the aforementioned titles were missing. Ben mentioned one of my favorite things about the Grandia series—the fact that objects fall or jiggle when you walk by them. It's a subtle gesture but it's one that can change a static environment made of polygons and textures into a real place that I felt I could interact with. Like Ben, I took issue with the intermittent use of CG and what appears to be cel animation in the game. Both had a grainy, low-resolution quality to them and their sudden appearance interrupted whatever continuity there was to the story telling. Given their brief appearances in the game, I wonder why they were used at all.
Grandia II scored points very early on when I realized there were no silly random battles to contend with. It won me over further once I got to try out the wonderful battle system. Game Arts once again allows players to move about a predetermined battle area, removing the constraints of the battle formation so popular in other RPGs. It is such a kick to be able to chase enemies around during a battle, attempt to predict their moves and unleash attacks. It adds much needed excitement to an area of the genre that has seen the fewest innovations over the years. And like Ben, I really enjoyed the level of customization that Grandia II affords players. Different rings, gems and spell books affected the kind of spells and attacks a character could pull off; this compounded with the diversity of spells and attacks already in the game makes for a system that is more about strategy than just upgrading weapons and armor and accruing experience points.
Ben and I are in almost total agreement on Grandia II's story. We only differ in the degree to which we tolerated its faults. Was the game a bit preachy and overly simplistic at times? Yes. Did it drag on a bit too long? Yes. But I was able to look past this more than Ben, largely because such content is practically unheard of in video games. I've found that Japanese developers are less shy about portraying religion in less than flattering ways—often the localization process sanitizes such works. So it is really something to see this kind of content make it to gamers in its intended form. By video game standards, this is an excellent handling of the subject matter.
As far as the characters go, Millenia was my favorite—mainly because her story was potentially the most tragic. In order for her to get what she wanted she would realize her destiny and destroy the world (and her new friends) or sacrifice herself—it was a surprisingly hard decision for Millenia to make considering she was technically evil. Its a portion of the story that kept me glued right until the end. Ryudo (who sounds a little like Matthew Broderick) was my least favorite though. He was the typical anti-hero found in almost RPG I have played recently. And what's more, Game Arts seemed to have problems making him as endearing a character as they would have liked right up until the end. As they tried to maintain his trademark callousness, they would interject moments of tenderness and it would come off as uncharacteristic. The only thing I didn't like about this little clique was how their dialogues could degrade into overly philosophical diatribes. Considering most of the characters are 17 and under, I found this to be a little unrealistic that they could be so thoughtful.
The camera proved to be a constant nuisance in Grandia II. When navigating caves or wooded areas, it was always too close to the action. It wasn't always easy to see where I was going and it was very easy to get a little disoriented. It didn't fare much better in battle either. Many times it would zoom in on most of the characters leaving nearby enemies off the screen. Since members of the party arbitrarily run around the screen after an attack, it is easy to lose track of them. When it got really frustrating was when an off-screen character would attack an off-screen enemy. With both out of sight, I couldn't tell whether or not the attack was successful or how many HP were taken off as a result.
Another area that would have made Grandia II a lot more enjoyable—especially during periods of exploration—would have been the inclusion of a map. Even something as simple as a small square that could be turned on and off and sit in a corner of the screen would have saved me a whole lot of hassle. Without one, I found myself doing a lot of backtracking through the largely, indistinguishable environments. The on-screen compass that Game Arts supplies definitely does not do the trick since the layout of the environments can lead you in circles.
Game Arts seemed to have made it a point of making this one of the easier games to get though, it's length not withstanding. Everything is provided ahead of time, sometimes long before you actually need to use it. Essential potions and herbs are relatively cheap leaving you with plenty of cash to buy armor and weapons. Anyone who spends the time to thoroughly search every inch of a cave or outdoor area, is bound to find enough items—and gold laying about—to get through most of the game. Then again, with so many of the bosses possessing thousands of HP—sometimes per bodypart—you'll be grateful to have so many recuperative items at your disposal just so you can outlast the them.
And finally there is the voice-acting. It's not perfect—to no one's surprise—but it is very well done. Metal Gear Solid fans will be pleased to know that the people involved with the voice-acting in Konami's espionage thriller, were tapped to do repeat their success with Grandia II. The vocal work was limited to key dramatic sequences, but it works rather well. Most of the actors involved really knew how to deliver lines during the most dramatic moments so Id have to say that it was well worth the effort.
In the end, Game Arts and Ubisoft have a solid release. Having sat through a lot of cookie cutter RPGs in my time, it was time well spent to play through the world of Grandia II. The characters are great and the battles and character customizations are very enjoyable. Sure, the game could have been a little shorter and perhaps a little more concise in its story telling, but given the infrequency with which subject matter like this is portrayed in a game, I was more than willing to overlook its flaws.
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