Review: Grandia II

Verdict: Overall, a pretty good RPG that gets right what several of the RPGs I’ve played relatively receently got wrong.

Some minor spoilers ahead, but as you’ll see in the review, that’s not really a big deal.

Grandia II is a PlayStation 2 game (ported, I believe, from the defunct Dreamcast). The main character is Ryudo, a Geohound, which is Grandia II-speak for “gun for hire.” And by gun, I mean sword, because this is a RPG, after all, and the main character in an RPG always has a sword. He’s hired by the local area’s church of Granas to escort Elena, a Songstress and sister of Granas, to a nearby tower so she can take part in a secretive ceremony. Things, naturally, go awry, and you soon learn that Valmar, the evil being that the god Granas had defeated in the Battle of Good and Evil, is trying to revive, and worse yet, Elena has become possessed by the Wings of Valmar.

And that’s just the first dungeon’s worth of plot.

In general, the plot of Grandia II is pretty decent. Not surprisingly, it starts off as a sort of “travel from town to town saving the day by defeating the local Body Part of Valmar,” but gets varied enough with subplots to keep from getting stale. One thing I like about the storyline is how it avoids the idea that killing the big nasty evil guy will save everyone. For example, Millenia, the personification of the Wings of Valmar, doesn’t really seem like a bad person at all, even though her ultimate goal is to revive Valmar. The source of misery in most of the towns isn’t so much caused by the regional Body Part of Valmar, but the fact that everybody seems more or less resigned to their fate instead of fighting to improve their situation. Near the end, it’s even suggested that Granas, the god of light, may not have been an entirely good influence on mankind before the Battle of Good and Evil, and Valmar, the god of darkness, isn’t necessarily to blame for all the world’s problems. For an RPG, at least in my experience, that’s pretty unusual.

Which isn’t to say that the storyline doesn’t have its problems. The main annoyance I had with it was how many of the “plot twists,” “shocking revelations,” and other storyline elements are telegraphed long before they occur. For example, as soon as you see the first exchange between Ryudo and Elena, you know there’s going to be some sort of relationship that develops between the two. It’s pretty obvious who the Eye of Valmar is going to turn out to be when you come to the village where people are falling into comas, even though it takes your characters far longer to figure it out. I could go on, but the game doesn’t need my help in overforeshadowing plot developments.

Even though, despite that problem, the plot is pretty good, the place where Grandia II really shines is the battle system. It gives you a feel for the chaos of battle without making you feel like things are out of control. Your characters and the enemies move around on the battle field, and the travel time needed to get from point A to point B is factored in to the sequence of events. This opens up a lot of strategy: a well-timed attack can delay an enemy’s attack or send them reeling, and they can do the same to you. The question of whether to use a combo attack, trying to cancel an enemy’s coming attack, casting a spell or using a skill, or defending relies heavily on the timing of battle and where everyone is on the battlefield. The best strategy is rarely to just have everyone bash on one enemy until he’s dead, then move on, like it is in so many other RPGs. It’s a little overwhelming at first, but a multi-part tutorial helpfully introduces the basics of the system before revealing the more advanced wrinkles that make it interesting.

Another thing I really like about the game is how much dialog all the NPCs have. Not only does everyone usually offer several message windows full of conversation, but they are also aware of the various developments of the plot. Every time a plot point happens, everyone has something new to say, usually reacting to what just happened. You can spend a lot of time just going though towns again and again to see what everyone has to say. It usually isn’t necessary for knowing what you need to do, but it adds a lot of color to the game.

The layouts of the various dungeons are good, too. All of them are decorated differently and have different gimicks to them to keep things interesting. Some may be roughly linear, others may involve a lot of backtracking or changing them somehow to open new paths and close others. You rarely go through a dungeon without seeing something you haven’t before.

Grandia II also does a fantastic job of placing save points. It might seem like an odd thing to congratulate the makers on, but I’ve played plenty of RPGs where save points were usually nowhere to be found when you really needed them. Grandia II reliably places save points at the beginning of each dungeon, in the middle of particularly long ones, and right before boss battles. Every time. So not only do you usually have a good idea of how far to go until you can save again (helpful to know if you have to go to class in half an hour), but boss battles never catch you unprepared.

Of course, this isn’t to say that Grandia II is without its faults. The most noticeable of these is the various graphics glitches that often appear. Some areas suffer from polygon popping, textures in other areas won’t look quite right, or will disappear and reappear sporadically, and a few times one of my characters lost all coloring during battle. Also, there’s definitely an inverse relationship between the complexity of the graphics in an area and the speed of the game; in detailed or complex areas, you move slower, the camera shifts slower, and even the text in the message box appears more slowly. I presume that this is all a side effect from porting the game from different hardware. Graphics glitches aren’t a deal-breaker, but they certainly do make themselves noticed.

Another odd thing about Grandia II is how linear it is. You won’t find any side quests here, and the extent of exploration you’ll do is finding all the treasures in each dungeon. The path you trace on the overworld map is unmistakably linear, and the chance for backtracking is frequently cut off (though not without warning). There’s only one area in the game that I saw that you weren’t required to go through, and even that was just to provide a way to level up near the end of the game. (And even that was just an area you had been to before, and the game even tells you explicitly you don’t need to go back through to finish the game.) As a result, you don’t get a whole lot of say on what you’ll be doing.

A less important complaint is that the game is a bit on the easy side. Remember how I lauded how well thought out the save points were? Well, I never needed them for anything other than healing up and leaving to go do something more important than play video games for a while. I never got my party wiped out once, and only in one or two bosses tough enough to pose a serious threat to my characters’ health. If you aren’t an utter item packrat like me and actually make use of the gobs of treasure you pick up during the game, you’ll have an even easier time.

One thing that struck me as odd was the use of voice acting. Voice acting seemed to be reserved only for some of the important scenes, though I remember it happening in some scenes for no apparent reason too. The acting wasn’t horrible, but the use of it felt somewhat inconsistent. It might feel better if it were used either more frequently or not at all; as it stands, it’s almost a distraction. “Oh, suddenly there’s voice acting, even though it’s the middle of an ongoing conversation. That’s odd.”

I could probably go on with more good and bad things about the game, but I think I’ve written enough about a game released three years ago. In the final analysis, unless you love wandering aimlessly throughout an expansive world and shudder at the thought of having to follow a fixed, sequential path through the game, Grandia II is worth a try. As an added bonus, you don’t have to put up with any annoying mini-games like the Final Fantasy series (especially FFX-2) likes to do. (OK, there’s one mini-game-ish thing in Grandia II, but it struck me more as a parody of mini-games in RPGs than anything else.)

[Wow, that's way more than I expected to write.]

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