When referring to an 'RPG'-style videogame, the game in question is usually a game made in Japan for consoles. The structure of the game is generally that of a group of adventurers traveling through lands, killing monsters and collecting treasure using largely non-reaction based gameplay while an epic story unfolds. Unlike the pen-and-paper Role Playing Games that the genre is named for, videogame RPGs are generally fairly linear in the sense of plot, with the player having little or no control over the actions of the characters. Although the player controls the characters when in battle and decides on equipment and other details, the main plot of the game has a single direction of flow that cannot be deviated from. The focus of the games is usually on the narrative portion of the game, with the story and characters taking top billing from the mechanics of the piece.
This form has now reached an almost baroque level of refinement, with an incredible amount of material shared between various titles. Because of this, RPGs have had to develop an easy way to differentiate themselves from their competitors. For some, it's as simple as their name. For lesser-known games, there is often a 'gimmick' attribute that helps them stand out. What always set apart the Grandia series of games were the battle systems. Unlike other battle systems, the Grandia battle engine is highly strategic and moves at a fast pace, making battles very enjoyable.
With Grandia Xtreme, Game Arts takes a new, battle-heavy direction for RPGs. Traditionally RPGs have been known for their narrative. The narrative arc and development of the characters involved is usually given a high priority, and the most famous RPGs are mainly well known for their stories or memorable characters. It is then a surprise that Grandia Xtreme chooses to downplay narrative, largely glossing over story and characters in an effort to give the player more time in dungeons and battles. It is an intriguing experiment, essentially a completely different take on the idea of RPGs, and it certainly has a good enough battle system to give it a try.
Jumping right into the best part of the game, the Grandia Xtreme battle system is brought over largely unchanged from the earlier Grandia games. For those unfamiliar with the system, it's based around a gauge (this time a circle) on which icons of the party members and enemies travel. When the icons reach a certain part of the gauge, the character (or monster) can act. Various actions take a certain amount of time to happen after they have been chosen. More importantly, some actions can be used to influence actions that have been initiated by others. Since special attacks and magic take a longer time to prepare and the enemy using them is highlighted during this period, it's possible to use quick, 'critical' attacks to cancel out these actions. It then becomes a vital part of the gameplay to use your characters in a more defensive way, trading off damage for the chance to cancel an enemy's attack.
Also, the player must take into account the physical relationships between the players and the enemies. If a character and a monster are far away and moving in different directions, not only will it take a long time for the character to catch the monster, if the character is slow and/or does not have a ranged attack, they might never reach the monster and thus lose their action. Initially it is somewhat aggravating that the player does not have any control over the between-action movement of the characters, but this quickly becomes less of a problem as the depth of the battle system reveals itself.
The battle system is very good. Regrettably, it's not good enough to make the game enjoyable. Grandia Xtreme has reduced plot and characterization to the bare minimum and created a scenario where 90% of the game is interacting with the gameplay. Part of the problem with this is that aside from the battle system, the rest of the gameplay consists mainly of running around in dungeons. Unfortunately, the 3rd-person view used in the dungeon is rather clunky, with the camera constantly catching on walls and corners and obscuring where you are moving your character. The 'grid' nature of the 3D world is also quite obvious as you move, making you feel trapped and locked in. All the wandering in dungeons wouldn't be that bad if the dungeons were interesting, but by and large, the dungeons are uninspired and visually bland, making a significant portion of the game aesthetically unpleasing in terms of both gameplay and visuals.
The characters and the plot definitely suffer from a lack of fleshing-out. Both are basically lifted from a common storeroom of RPG clichés. The characters are all reflections of various generic RPG character-types, with not a single original note being played. The plot is equally derivative, with the generic band of adventurers joining together despite diverse backgrounds to try and save a world suffering from ecological disaster, etc. It's unlikely that any of this is going to be new to anybody who hasn't played an RPG before, and those who have are likely to correctly predict everything that happens in the game.
Another troublesome aspect is that the aesthetics of the game are at best mediocre and at worst just plain bad. The graphics have the look of a first-generation PlayStation 2 title, with the characters lacking in overall detail and textures that are remarkably bland for the amount of times they are repeated. The music is decent at times, although the town music may become grating after some time spent with the game. The voice work, although impressive at times, is hit and miss, with some lines being well delivered but others completely flubbed. The voice acting is definitely not helped by the hackneyed and stilted dialogue, which completely undercuts any dramatic overtones that the game might have had.
The graphics also suffer from a hideous amount of draw-in. Such a conspicuous amount of suddenly appearing stonework hasn't been seen since some of the first-generation releases for the PlayStation 2. It's particularly unacceptable in this situation because so much of Grandia Xtreme takes place in dungeons. There's no excuse for not having a decent draw radius when you're running down a narrow stone corridor. And it's not like the game is struggling to produce draw-dropping effects. When the area is finally drawn-in, it's usually generic wall or stone boulders rendered with an obviously repeating and bland texture.
Furthermore, the 'cutscenes' in the game use the in-game character models, which are blocky and incapable of showing emotion, aside from changing their poses. To work around this, the game presents the dialogue in subtitle format, paired with a manga-style character portrait that displays the appropriate emotion. Not an animation, mind you, but a single portrait of the character looking happy, sad, angry, etc. The end result is this bizarre tableau where you have the voice acting, the subtitles, the emotion-signifying portrait and the character model all on the screen at one time. It's pretty unsettling, and it's very hard to invest in anything when it's presented in such a fashion. Additionally, only a few major scenes actually have voice acting, whereas the rest of the plot is conveyed with text combined with the character emoticon and the in-game model miming along.
Grandia Xtreme also suffers from a decidedly aggravating save system. The game is designed around the character being either in town or in a dungeon. The only place you can save is in town. The only way to get back to town is through several teleportation pads situated throughout the dungeon. But after returning to the dungeon, all the monsters have respawned. This means even more battles than would usually be expected, plus the disadvantage of sometimes not being able to save when you want to. Most of the time the teleport areas, called GeoGates, are well placed within the dungeons. However, in the first dungeon of the game, there are no GeoGates, meaning that you have to play all the way through the dungeon without saving. If the player uses a cautious style, this can mean that there can be up to 5 hours of gameplay without encountering a save point, running the risk of losing quite a bit of game data to a thunderstorm or some other freak accident. An argument could be made that the game's difficulty is based to a certain extent on how the save system works, but it sounds needlessly cheap and the experience of being unable to save is becoming increasingly frustrating with so many of today's games having 'save anywhere' options.
It is a weighty question as to how much RPGs rely on the narrative portion of the game. Games in other genres have typically managed to skimp on the story and concentrate on the player's interactions with the gaming world with remarkable success. Is there really something so essential about narrative and RPGs? It is a question that should be asked, especially since many RPGs are not interested in providing a compelling and original story and/or narrative flow, choosing instead to reiterate the same old hoary stories that have been around since Genesis (Sega, not Old Testament) while dolling them up in increasingly complex graphics and lengthy cutscenes.
The answer is most probably that RPGs are perfectly capable of existing with minimal narratives and the focus of the game directed towards gameplay, but that such an experiment is unlikely to be well-received, due to the heavily canonical nature of the RPG genre. It would be similar to a shoot-'em-up being centered on a plot-heavy narrative, complete with Metal Gear-style cutscenes and conversations. Although such a game is intellectually possible, perceptions of genre within the medium of videogames would make such a game hard to accept.
Aside from public perception, there is also the question of whether gameplay must complement other portions of the game, or vice versa. For example, in the aforementioned shooters, a minimal narrative may be viewed as necessary due to the incredibly fast reaction-based gameplay. Lengthy breaks in the action could completely dull the 'flow' of the game. Alternately, reaction-based gameplay in battle sequences in RPGs has typically been avoided because of the non-reaction-based nature of the rest of the game. It seems unreasonable to expect the player to suddenly jump into action after long periods of periodically hitting a single button.
But it is impossible to draw any conclusions from Grandia Xtreme because it submarines its own experiment. Although you could conclude from this game that RPGs cannot be reduced to gameplay and that the genre depends on the strength of its narrative, that would be a biased result. This is because there are at least two gameplay systems in Grandia Xtreme: the battle system and the system that takes you to the battle system. The latter system is poorly implemented and aesthetically unpleasing. A more reasonable conclusion would be that a good battle system is not enough to make a good RPG when the RPG relies on so much more than the battle system.
An essentially generic nature is why Grandia Xtreme winds up being such an empty experience overall. Although the battle system is unique and entertaining, it is not enough to give the game itself a unique flavor. Traditionally, many games have been able to survive with great gameplay, but it is an open question as to whether that is possible within the realms of RPGs. Grandia Xtreme refuses to answer this question by offering up completely mediocre-to-poor fare in every aspect aside from the battle system. There are no incredible graphics or uplifting music to inspire the player. There is only the realization that the game has been reduced to an excuse to drag the player from one battle to the next. As good as the battle system is, it cannot make up for the dead weight that is the rest of the game.
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