Grandia IIlikeTBC Developer Game Arts Publisher Ubisoft Genre RPG Platform OTHER Release Out Now Retro Recall - With Final Fantasy XIII baring down on the west in the coming months, I find my enthusiasm for JRPG games soaring. And with that; I felt compelled to revisit one of my favourite RPG titles of all time. Grandia II was originally released in 2000 for the Dreamcast, since then it's been ported to Playstation 2 and, rather unfortunately; PC, which is the version I've been re-playing the game with. Grandia II was released to very little fanfare and very little reception greeted it, yet it is a highly rated RPG and everyone who has ever played it will attest to it's greatness.

Battle scene with the Wait/Act bar
Grandia II takes place in a fictional world where the world is recovering from a cataclysmic event that took place hundreds of years ago; The Battle of Good and Evil, as it's called. The 'God of Light'; Granas and the 'Devil of Darkness'; Valmar fought for dominance. It's from there we follow the adventures of a bounty-hunter named Ryudo, a Church choir-girl named Elena who, after a strange ritual fails is possessed by a piece of Valmar, many of which have been sealed away all over the world in an attempt to prevent Valmar from awakening and destroying life as they know it. Cutting a long (22 hours on a semi-knowledgeable re-play) story short; they go around, meet a load of people and monsters until they try and banish that what possesses Elena.

The story of the game is what you'd probably call; 'cliché'. But considering I liken Grandia II's story to that of Final Fantasy X's, I'd say that's probably not an awful thing. Characters are endearing, but seem to jump all over the place emotionally, story seems to move at a fairly consistent pace, with the game being split up between fields, dungeons and towns. You'll never find yourself tiring of your surroundings as you'll never be forced to really re-trace your steps. If you don't know towns very well, however, you can easily spend a good 10 minutes trying to find out where the hell you're supposed to go, or not be silly like me and find out the Compass, which is always on-screen during fields and dungeons, can direct you to any key location you need it to.

Progression is an entirely linear affair, the game sticks heavily to the 'Gain experience', 'grow levels', 'have raised stats' method which JRPGs have been accustomed to for some time. You have very little sway of how your characters grow their statistics, a pre-defined level-curve will do that for you. You can often find Seeds which increase these stats and you have a wealth of equipment ranging from Swords to Mana Eggs that can help you mould your character to your liking. You can even help out your character by investing in Skills from Skill Books, helping a range of stats including Movement speed, Attack Power or even adjusting your MP or SP.

[Just so we're clear: Mana Eggs give characters magic that they can cast, but only magic which the Egg 'knows'. These eggs can be powered up and given new magic abilities using MC, Magical Coins. These coins, along with SC or Special Coins are dropped when defeating enemies in battle. Special Coins power up Special Moves, moves which characters know and can perform regardless of Mana Eggs or equipment and consume a character's SP, much like magic consumes a character's MP. Skill Books can take either SC or MC depending on the abilities you can learn from the Book. These can be equipped to any character.]

Field with snaking following characters
The game's linearity doesn't end there, dungeons and fields are very one-way orientated. If you take the time and explore the map, choosing to take a route off the beat-and-track (which way the compass is pointing), you'll often find goodies for your trouble. However, most attack-based items are useless to you. The game can also, for the very most part, be completely over-powered by simply engaging every enemy you see in battle and putting SC directly into each character's first moves to get them to their maximum level is also a great strategy for powering through the game. So I suppose what I'm telling you is that the game's difficulty is left wanting, until the second-but-last boss, which will completely annihilate you regardless of skill, level or any other variable. That boss is pure luck.

On the field you'll usually encounter enemies. Enemies are an unusual entity, many of them will act differently to you as you approach them. Most will only get 'enraged' and approach you (changing colour to red in the process) if you're in their direct eye-line. So it is possible to sneak up on enemies by ploughing into enemies by from behind or just touching them without them turning red usually does the trick, this gives you a tactical advantage against the enemy by clumping them together and having to wait longer for their turn. Conversely, if enemies touch any of your following players (each character in your party follows you in a 'snake' like fashion on the map, making your ability to avoid enemies more difficult, however is a mandatory evil, as you cannot drop characters once they're in your party. Also, your party is strictly story-driven) you will be snook-up on and have a disadvantage against the enemy.

Hm, roasted demon hide.
Of course, you'll spend equal time in battles. Battles are really where the game pushes away from JRPG standard-ness and becomes an awesome experience. The battle follows a sort of 'timeline'. You have a move-bar in the bottom corner which is split up into two sections "Wait" and "Act", separated by a "Com" phase. All characters start off in the Wait bar, randomly assigned a position they must take (throwing any kind of definite strategy out the window). When they reach the "Com" phase, you can issue commands to these characters. They can use items, magic or special moves as well as basic attacks which come in two varieties; "combo" which hits twice with 'normal' power and "critical" which gives one, powerful attack which also has a "cancel" effect.

When in the "Act" section of the bar, there is a wait time between the character tacking action. This varies depending on what action you've ordered, what skills are helping a certain action (items and magic can have their "ACT" boosted), what level the magic or special move is for the action you've taken and how high the character's "ACT" status is. Enemies and player-side characters share the bar and the restrictions which go with it. The game's all about strategy and forward-thinking. When anybody/anything is in the "Act" phase, they can have their action Cancelled by a critical hit or a special move with a Cancel effect. This becomes most useful against bosses who can have their most annoying attacks stopped so long as one character has enough time to cancel it through a Critical hit or a special move. Most the time, however, the best laid plans go south and you end up with all your characters clumped one-end of the Wait bar while enemies are the other side with your players too late to stop any devastating attacks.

Regardless of the system's flaws, it feels much more involving. You actually feel you have control over your fate in the battle, where as in traditional Turn-based RPGs, you simply do not. The boss will spam the most powerful attack at you and you can do nothing but try and heal yourself out of difficulty, here you can prevent the damage in the first place. It adds a whole layer of tension to the game's cartoon-y appearance and somewhat laughable 'seriousness' the game tries to pass off through the story.

And there's the infamous character wait bottle neck in force.
Visually, Grandia II is very, very dated. But for a game nearly 10 years old; it's not half bad. If you attempt to compare the game to say; Final Fantasy X which was released but a year later, then the game looks extremely dated. However, if your imagination can look past the Lego-like character models, rough character animation and get used to multi-tasking between reading text, looking at character face icons and the 3D models on-screen, then everything kind-of works. The game then relies heavily on very-90's-like CGI for strong magic moves and significant story events. Altogether, it's not a bad looking game, as it does portray a very vibrant and colourful world.

Audibly, Grandia II is spectacular. From the nearly-flawless voice work for a game during game voice acting infancy, something which Square Enix has difficulty with 10 years later; Ubisoft (the translators/localisation-ires of the game for the English language) did a very, very good job casting. The score for the game contains some of my favourite video game music of all time, a mix between orchestrated and alternative music styles gives the game a unique 'voice' per se. You'll need to work in order to listen to such music, however. As it gets progressively better the more you progress through the game. As I said before, linear. One off-putting thing about the game however is an abuse of sound effects; Footsteps, for instance. Why did they have to be so loud and why do you have to always hear footsteps? It becomes tiresome listening to the same odd-sounding 'mushing' sound in parts of the game, let alone out of place in serious story scenes. Also, the noise when browsing menus, that sound finds a noise which will hurt your ears after just a few repetitions.

Overall, Grandia II is a wonderful title. The game's length and pacing is perfect. The game will throw some pretty big plot-twists at you, some which I don't quite get the full impact of having knowledge of the game from a while ago. And sure, the game doesn't look that great against today's RPG games and field design isn't exactly challenging, but you know what. None of that impacts on the fun of the game. It's a solid title with solid story and gameplay and that's all you really need.

So, if you're looking for a great RPG game to tide you over until a certain RPG game with XIII at the end of it, why not go and find Grandia II. Preferably for Dreamcast, but if you do not have one; there's a version on Playstation 2 but not as good... Or as a last ditch-attempt there's a PC port, which is quite frankly; horrible. But it's better than nothing, even if it has horribly compressed CGI videos, non-looping music and strange glitches with the audio and model transparency. However, should play well on any modern PC, even with Integrated Graphics.