Growlanser: Wayfarer of Time
Genre: Real Time Strategy RPG
Developer: Atlus/Career Soft
Release Date: 07/31/12
As a long time Langrisser fan, the Growlanser series has always been kind of a disappointing series to me. Career Soft, before they were acquired by Atlus, is the development house behind both franchises, but the games are wildly different from one another to a point where it’s hard to believe the same developer was involved. The Langrisser series was a complex series of turn-based strategy titles that mostly involved commanding one main commander and numerous subordinate units into battle against enemies, and despite its sole US release, Warsong, generating little attention, the series was generally fantastic. Growlanser, while a fine enough series, has seen three of its games released to the US, through Working Designs’ last release, Growlanser Generations, and Atlus’ release, Growlanser: Heritage of War, and while all of the games have been fine, they haven’t hit the same consistent level Langrisser did. Growlanser Generations, a compilation of the second and third titles in the series, generated mild interest, but Atlus’ first attempt at bringing one of the titles stateside, the fifth game in the series, met with mixed reactions, and Atlus opted not to port the PSP remake of the first game or the PS2 release of the sixth game to the US. Well, Atlus has opted to give the series another go with the PSP re-release of Growlanser IV, dubbed Wayfarer of Time in the US, and while the system the game has been ported to may be a dying console, it turns out that this might actually be a good reason to break it out one more time.
Put simply, Growlanser: Wayfarer of Time works.
The plot revolves around a war waging across the land of Noyeval, which is originally between the nations of Iglesias and Dulkheim, though it by no means stays that way. The protagonist, Crevanille (though you can rename him), works as a member of the mercenary brigade Alten Schwartz as the game begins, as they are turning an adequate profit off of the various conflicts going on across the land. Crevanille has a secret, however, as we discover during what should be a routine mercenary mission when it turns into a massive bloodbath due to the appearance of an Angel. Crevanille discovers, through various points, that he is a Ruin Child, a child placed in suspended animation by a society wiped out two thousand years prior by the Angels and awakened in modern times for one reason or another. He also finds out from his surrogate father Dixon that he is expected to be the land’s savoir from the Angels, though how he is expected to do so is unclear. Crevanille is hardly alone on his quest, of course, as people come and go from his party, like his young, similarly orphaned friend Reums, fellow Ruin Child Frayne, and his helpful familiar, whose name you can choose. The plot of Wayfarer of Time is interesting, in that it changes directions often and does so in a way that’s sensible and surprising. You’ll find your allegiances changing frequently enough in about the first half of the game to keep you on your toes, and the plot doesn’t degenerate into a mess of clichés in the end, which is always good to see. There are also variances in the plot based on choices you make, and while the variances don’t have huge effects on the rest of the story, that they’re there at all is novel.
Visually, Wayfarer of Time is the last game in the series to use the sprite-based style of the original games, before Heritage of War made the transition to fully 3D visuals, which were somewhat less than well received. The 2D visuals actually look quite good on the PSP, moreso than on the PS2, largely because the PSP screen makes the visuals look cleaner and less pixilated. The characters and enemies you face are also well animated and have a decent amount of personality in their actions and poses, and the spell effects look solid on the small screen, especially the more powerful ones. The environments are also nice to look at, though some can become repetitive as the game progresses (especially the forest environments), and while some of the lower level enemy designs repeat as you go, they’re not repetitive enough to be annoying. Aurally, the game music is fitting, consisting of strongly composed orchestral scores that change to fit the tone of the area, as well as when the player enters into combat situations. The music meshes with the tone of the game well, and several of the tracks stand out as being very good, especially the more ambient, ethereal tracks that play during quiet moments of exploration. There’s the odd bit of voice acting here and there throughout the game, though it’s mostly relegated to the cutscenes, and while the game apparently featured a good bit more voiced dialogue in the Japanese release, what’s here works fine and the missing voice work isn’t missed all that much, to be honest. The sound effects are also generally solid and fitting to the environment, from battle and casting noises to the standard interaction and menu navigation sounds, so nothing is problematic or offensive in that regard.
Growlanser as a series is essentially something of a real-time strategy game that allows you to pause the action when needed to deliver commands, giving the player the mechanical options of a turn-based game while resolving everything in real-time. Wayfarer of Time follows this concept similarly; you’ll spend a good amount of time wandering the game environment until either a random or scripted battle comes before you, at which point you’ll send your allies to smite your enemies until one or the other side fails. When walking around the game world, the D-Pad and Analog stick move your party (the pad walks, while the stick runs), X interacts with things, Triangle opens the menu, and Square and Circle allow you to modify your movement speed (Circle moves fast with the D-Pad, Square walks with the Analog stick). In battle, your characters tend to move in the most direct path toward a target, but the pad and stick can be used to move through menus or to make a custom path if you want to avoid something (or the AI gets stuck), X confirms actions, Circle cancels actions, and Triangle brings up the menu to modify battle commands. In battle, you can manually assign commands to your characters or press Start to have everyone go into full assault except the main character, depending on how concerned you are about tactics, but as noted, you can modify your tactics at any time, so even if things need to be changed up you can do so on the fly. The game is also pretty good about explaining how the mechanics work and it offers you several tutorials in the beginning to get you used to things, allowing you to ease into the mechanics at your own pace.
Wayfarer of Time is somewhat simplified mechanically in other ways, so as to allow players some easier concepts to work with while managing the combat mechanics. For example, characters only have two equipment slots, one for armor to boost their defense and resistances, and one for “rings”. Rings act as weapons in the world of Growlanser, as the characters can focus on the rings to generate magical weapons through them. Now, the rings themselves are functionally identical from one to the next, meaning that rings don’t increase weapon power or attack damage; rather, each ring comes with built-in statistical improvements depending on the ring, as well as three slots in which spellstones can be affixed. Each ring has a rating and a color assigned to each of its three slots; the rating determines the maximum level of spellstone the slot can take, while the color determines the appropriate type of stone to affix. Spellstones come in three colors: green, which teach your characters Spells, red, which teach your characters Knacks, and yellow, which teach your characters inherent traits. Each spellstone also comes with its own special benefits on top of the skills characters can learn from them, so two different red spellstones might teach the same skill but have different advantages, for example. As you win battles the skills you’re learning slowly gain experience, and your characters keep the highest level of each that they’ve learned even if you remove the associated spellstone. Spells can be cast in or out of combat so long as the character has the Magic Points to do so, Knacks have a set number of uses that can be recharged by resting, and inherent skills are “always on” and don’t need engaging. Your characters can also learn “Limits”, special skills that allow them to perform combat actions when certain conditions are met (dropping below certain health levels, being attacked at certain points, and so on) to improve your odds of winning. Limits have three levels, where the first level is basically given to you, the second is learned by triggering the first consistently, and the third is found through special means throughout the game. Your characters, as you’d expect, also gain experience points in battle, which works in the standard RPG fashion, where earning enough experience points gains your character a level and improves their statistics, but, as noted, rings can also add additional statistical improvements, so you’ll want to bear this in mind. Also worth noting is that, unlike spellstones and armor, you generally don’t buy rings; instead, you find them randomly during battles (quite regularly, in fact), selling the garbage ones and holding onto the ones that are of most use. Since the slot colors, slot rankings and stat improvements on rings are generally random, you could end up with some very awesome (or terrible) rings at the end of even the most basic battle, making destroying everything you see profitable beyond simple experience and financial benefits.
Once you’re in battle, as noted, you can either set everyone’s commands manually or have everyone but your main character go on full assault, depending on the needs of the moment. When you bring up a character’s command list, you’re offered the option to attack a target, cast a spell, use an item or Knack, defend, change your gear, move in a set path, or have the character go into Auto attack mode. Characters will then perform the designated action until they reach a “stop” point, at which point the game will then bring up their menu automatically for reassignment. When manually attacking, for example, once the chosen target is dead, anyone assigned to attack that target will pop up their menu for new directions, while when spellcasting, once the spell is cast they can be reassigned, and so on (Auto and Defend being the only exceptions, as they’re never “over”). Each character has a cool-down between most actions, so once a character attacks or uses an item or what have you, they will then stop and recharge before repeating the action or performing the next action you’ve assigned. Most of the options in combat are basically common sense in their operation, but spellcasting and moving require some mild explanation. When you choose to cast a spell, you can also choose a level of spell to cast from what levels you have available. The character then begins casting, leaving them vulnerable to added damage if attacked, until the spell is ready. At this point, you can then choose to cast the spell, have the character wait and charge another level if there are any available to go to, wait until you manually have them cast the spell, or stop casting altogether. As such, you could choose to cast a level one spell, then delay another level if you don’t need it at the moment as needed until you DO need it, as spells cost the same value regardless of level. The Move command, on the other hand, allows you to specify a path for a character to follow, allowing up to three waypoints to be assigned if you want to avoid traps or move around allies that may be blocking you. If you run out of waypoints you want to assign, you can dump all of the remaining waypoints on the same spot, but either way, this allows you to work around the occasionally spotty pathfinding or the occasional traps that pop up if you want to get somewhere specific.
Random battles pop up frequently throughout the game, against various grunt enemies, and aside from slaying the enemies and collecting their loot, there’s nothing of note to these battles. Missions, on the other hand, are plot-specific battles you’ll take on that influence the storyline in one way or another, and they also come with a Battle Bonus counter more often than not. This counter starts at fifty and slowly ticks down, marking how much time you have left to complete the mission with some form of a bonus attached. Basically, fast mission completion times offer bonus money and experience points, while slower times offer no bonuses, and can even subtract points. Any battle you fight will also grant Ability Points to each character based on their performance, by casting spells, killing enemies, and so on, which grants added rewards and more experience points to the character in question. These are taken away if your Battle Bonus timer goes into the negatives, however, so keep that in mind. As you progress further into the game, you’ll also learn skills to aid you in battle further, such as Permanence, allowing you to place a spell in a location that triggers when characters walk into the field, or Joint Spells, which allow two or more characters to cast a spell together for more damaging or area of effect spells. Using these skills can take time and burn resources, but the effects can mean the difference between winning and losing as you progress, so they’re handy to have.
Your character also gains a Familiar early in the game, which will grant you additional useful bonuses as you play, assuming you can keep your Familiar around. Your Familiar can be one of a few different personality types, based on the answers you provide when discussing what kind of Familiar you want early on, but their functional abilities remain largely the same. Familiars learn various skills as you upgrade them and progress, including the ability to find treasure boxes in the game world, how friendly you are with your allies, how people view the main character, and whatever plot events are going on at the moment (so if you come back after a long time you’re able to get up to speed). You can upgrade your Familiar in her Dollhouse, which is generally kept in your bedroom (wherever that is in the game at the time). Upgrades can either be purchased by burning Catalysts, which can be randomly found throughout the game world, or by using stored energy, which is earned by winning battles. Using energy allows you to choose different options to train your Familiar, which can modify her stats in different ways and grant her new skills. You can also find the odd costumes around the game world which, aside from changing her appearance, can also modify her stats… and, occasionally, dress her up as characters from other Growlanser games, which is novel.
Your Familiar has one other ability of note: she can show you the alternate fate of characters whose fate you’ve altered. Wayfarer of Time is actually the enhanced edition of the original Growlanser IV, and among other things, it allows you to potentially save the lives of characters who were fated to pass on at various points. Should you manage to do so through your actions, your Familiar will inform you that you’ve altered the character’s fate, and you can then view what would have happened if you failed. This, in turn, can also affect the ending you receive and how it plays out, based on who lives and dies, albeit in minor ways. Your friendships with various characters can also impact the ending, as you can potentially end up with various characters inside and outside of your party at the end of the game. Depending on the events you perform with different characters and the way you answer questions, characters will change their opinion of you (which your Familiar can helpfully check for you), either for good or ill. The objective is to improve the opinion of anyone you might want to be close to at the end of the game, through seeing special events with the character, completing quests for them, using items to improve their favor, and so on. The game also allows you several vacations you can take with your allies, allowing you and your crew to putter around for a couple days, which also allows you to see special events with party and team members to improve their opinion of you. You can improve the favor of several characters at a time, of course, so it’s not wholly a “one and done” sort of deal, and you can quite readily have several choices at the end of the game available depending on how you perform.
The core game will take you anywhere from forty to sixty hours to plow through, depending on how much grinding you do, how much effort you put into altering character fates, how many sidequests you go on, and so on, as there’s a decent amount to see in a single playthrough. The game also offers multiple added bonuses, such as special armors and Limits for your characters, an arena where you can earn prizes for slaughtering enemies, and other novelties. Best of all, the game offers a New Game Plus option, allowing you to carry over items, rings, armor and spellstones to a new game and go for an all new ending. You can’t carry over your levels, mind you, but given that rings have no statistical impediment preventing them from being equipped, some spellstones offer significant statistical improvements, and Blessing Bells can be carried over… well, this honestly doesn’t matter so much. With all of this in mind, Wayfarer of Time offers a lot of worthwhile reasons to come back to it after the first playthrough, which can be problematic for RPG’s. Given the option to gain additional endings, end the game with party members you may have missed, locate items and skills you may have passed by, and more, makes for solid incentive, and since you can do all of this with as little or as much challenge as is interesting to you, this makes the idea compelling to players who might not feel as such otherwise.
Which is not to say that Wayfarer of Time isn’t without its hiccups. The pacing in the beginning of the game is good from a plotline perspective, but frustrating from a gameplay perspective. For the first ten hours or so you’re constantly dealing with a revolving door of allies outside of the main character and Remus, which gets annoying in a hurry until you finally get Frayne in the second chapter and things stabilize a little. Further, if you’re not the sort of person who enjoys grinding and exploiting all of your available options, you’ll find Wayfarer of Time can get frustrating, as you’ll generally want to spend time maximizing your spell levels and armor between plot important battles, and even then you may have to repeat battles because of changes in conditions you were in no way prepared for. When the game is challenging because it expects you to learn lessons and use strategy it can be quite a lot of fun, but in the odd cases where the game is challenging because it changes the rules on you or because you’re overpowered without warning, things can get frustrating. The odd missions that pop up where you have to survive against an overpowered foe, run from enemy forces or keep NPC’s alive can also be annoying at times, for entirely different reasons, as the victory conditions often rely on performing tasks that are just frustrating to actually complete. Finally, the game can be obtuse in odd cases with what it expects you to do, and while this isn’t common, it pops up a couple times throughout the game, making for some immersion-breaking moments where you feel like you’ve missed something when you haven’t.
By and large, however, Growlanser: Wayfarer of Time is quite possibly the best game in the series, is certainly one of the better games to release on the PSP, and is well worth checking out if you still have the PSP or a Vita available (though its Vita compatibility can be spotty at this point). The plot is engaging and surprising at times while putting in good effort to flesh out the characters, and the game looks and sounds pretty good overall on the PSP. The gameplay is an interesting mash-up of concepts that give the series its own charm, and the gameplay is easy to learn but offers plenty of room for depth as the plot and the various battles you face progress. There are also plenty of customization options through rings and spellstones, multiple endings to see, a strong New Game Plus mode to play through, and plenty of sidequests and hidden novelties to find that keep the game interesting for a good long while, even after you’ve completed it. The pacing of the game can be a bit wonky in the beginning, the game can be unreasonably challenging if you don’t approach it in the right way, and a few instances can pop up that don’t make your next step readily obvious, but the rest of the game manages to do a good enough job of overcoming these issues. If you have a PSP or a Vita handy, Wayfarer of Time is a good investment for it, as it’s a lengthy and varied RPG that should please series fans and newcomers alike, so long as you can accept its flaws and plan accordingly.
Balance: ABOVE AVERAGE
Appeal: ABOVE AVERAGE
FINAL SCORE: GOOD GAME.
Short Attention Span Summary:
Growlanser: Wayfarer of Time, as one of the last releases for the PSP, is also one of the better ones, as it offers a solid real time strategy RPG experience to players that’s lengthy and robust, if you can ignore the odd issue or two along the way. The plot is engaging, varied, and staffed with enough compelling characters to carry the game along well, and the game looks and sounds good on the PSP. The gameplay does a good job of making itself easy to grasp on a basic level, but offers enough tools and mechanics as the game goes on to expand on your strategic options quite a bit as you progress. There’s a good amount of length to the main campaign, a large amount of extra content floating around for those who are interested in exploration, and a fully functional New Game Plus option built in that offers a whole new ending and as little or as much challenge as you’re interested in with some minor planning beforehand. The pacing can be awkward in the first ten hours or so, the game can be onerous in difficulty if you don’t approach battles the right way, and the game can occasionally be obtuse about what it expects of you. Overall, however, Wayfarer of Time is a fun, challenging and robust game, possibly the best in its franchise, and certainly a worthwhile acquisition for genre fans and series fans alike.