30 Days of Dreamcast – Day 13: Grandia II

Grandia II
Developer: Game Arts
Publisher: UbiSoft
Genre: Tactical RPG
Release Date: 12/6/2000

Since well before I started writing for Diehard GameFAN, we’ve basically made one major point when it came to the Dreamcast: the average gamer didn’t know what they were missing. While the Playstation era was getting all of the mainstream attention and hits, Sega’s little box that could was coming out with truly innovative stuff. Was there not one, but TWO 3-D fighters that redefined the genre in different ways (Soul Calibur and Power Stone)? Check. The advent of online gaming, and a legitimate Madden killer all in one (NFL 2K)? Check. A game that had you creating life from the molecular level years before Spore was conceived (Seaman)? Check again. When it came to pushing the boundaries, even the Dreamcast’s failures like Shenmue were a lot better than some of the samey stuff that the Playstation was getting.

But that leaves a question: what about the games that DIDN’T push the outer limits of what was accepted in gaming at the time? What about games that more or less stuck to accepted norms, and concentrated on perfecting the proverbial wheel instead of inventing a new one? What about a game that, while Shenmue was trying to reinvent the RPG as we knew it, kept to the standards that made earlier titles like Lunar the legendary names they are today?

By the time the year 2000 rolled around, Game Arts had built up a resume of top-notch titles that was hard to overcome, especially to the more hardcore clique of gamers. One series has become revered to the point where the mere mention of it still sends shivers up the spines of RPG fans worldwide: Lunar. Just below Lunar on Game Arts’s pecking order, and probably a bit underrated in it’s own right, was Grandia. It had fun, whimsical characters combined with an outstanding battle system, and is still regarded as a cult classic today. With that said, not many people played it, with the game’s curious release date (1999, two years after it’s release in Japan) hurting it, as well as the fact that it wasn’t named Final Fantasy. Game Arts and Ubisoft were taking a risk in releasing Grandia II to the Dreamcast, banking on the fact that it wasn’t competing with Squaresoft. The result was an instant classic; RPG fans flocked to the game, some of whom bought the Dreamcast for the right to play the game. It’s still regarded fondly by people that have played it.

However, time hasn’t been fond to the franchise. The death of the Dreamcast prompted Ubisoft to port Grandia II to the PS2 and PC, handing the project to a secondary development team (Rocket Studio). The port met with disastrous results; the PS2 port, in particular, was awful, with a severe downgrade in graphics and a severe upswing in glitches and performance issues. This was followed later that year by the Enix released Grandia Xtreme, which was basically the great fighting engine of Grandia II put into a dungeon crawler’s chassis, with decidedly mixed results. Finally, fully under the control of the merged Square-Enix, the highly anticipated Grandia III came out. I don’t quite recall was critical reaction was to that game, but I do remember that I couldn’t get past the absolutely putrid story, nor could I suspend my disbelief enough to accept that Miranda was the mother of Yuki. I disliked Grandia III so much that it caused me to invent the term “Squeenixed” to describe series that the new behemoth had gotten ahold of and summarily ruined (other “Squeenixed” games: Valkyrie Profile: Silmeria, Star Ocean: Till The End of Time, and Final Fantasy X-2, among others). Grandia then went silent, until word of a Grandia MMO named Grandia Zero surfaced, with an open beta scheduled for any time this month. Lovely. I wonder if it will suck only as much as the Megaten MMO, or if it will loudly and spectacularly crash like every MMO failure I chronicled in January.

As we chronicle the Dreamcast for the glorious ten year anniversary, the question stands: does the only real version of Grandia II still stand up, nine years after release? I can definitively say that it not only puts the other games that came after it to shame, but it still stands up on it’s own merits today.

The story of Grandia II starts off with the main character Ryudo and his talking bird Syke acting as Geohounds. This is nothing more than a fancy term for mercenary, and like most mercenaries, they’re very low on the social order; even the people that pay them for jobs hate their guts. Ryudo is the typical anti-hero; he doesn’t care for anyone but himself and the pay he receives for a job, and gives the invective thrown at him back two-fold. Syke is basically the straight man, keeping Ryudo in line and being the calming influence. They accept a job from the Church of Granas to escort the Songstress Elena to the Gremia Tower for a ceremony. Predictably, Elena is very naive about the world, and is your standard ditsy healer/religious chick. Predictably, things go wrong, and it’s Ryudo’s job to save Elena. The resulting quest ends up taking them around the world, taking in new party members, meeting new people, and ultimately defeating the source of evil set to take over the world. Along the way, the story takes turns showing some blurred lines between good and evil, and the bog-standard “tainted church” angle. We view a lot of these things as the standard in 2009 and have seen a lot of the story elements – both with the base story and the characters involved – before, but one thing Grandia II does extremely well is not take itself too seriously, or too comically. The story is equal parts serious and light-hearted, with ample time for comic relief. Furthermore, while the story does incorporate bad guys within the so-called infallable church, it doesn’t do so in as dark a manner as Final Fantasy Tactics, or as pretentiously and high-handed as Xenogears. Grandia II, from start to finish, remains a charming game.

The characters themselves go a long way towards establishing the nature of the game. Though the story does eventually get serious, the characters themselves are always bantering among each other, keeping things fresh and entertaining. Though a lot of the results are things we’ve seen before – Ryudo will learn to be a real hero, Elena will find her inner resolve, Millena is really a good person, blah blah blah – anyone going into this with an open mind will not care one iota about any of this, as the characters and their dialogue are both wonderfully written. When you sit down for meals at night, you’re able to expand the conversation past what you normally see during the game, which really helps you to get closer to the characters, something you can’t say about other RPGs of this era such as, say, Suikoden. If there’s one problem I can find with the characters, it’s the voice acting. This is one area where we’ve definitely improved since 2000; the voice acting, for the most part, is overdone and distracting. It’s not all bad – Ryudo and Elena are voiced by big-name voice actors (Paul Eiding and Jennifer Hale, respectively), but the rest isn’t up to par.

The big deal of a Grandia game – and the main reason it was able to be semi-successful as a dungeon crawler – is the combat system. It shined in 2000, and nine years have not darkened that lustre.

At the bottom of the screen, there’s a meter, attached to which are icons representing everyone in a battle, both friendly and enemy. The last part of the meter is a wait period. When someone gets to the line before that, they determine the command that they’re going to perform. For friendly units, physical attacks can either be combo or critical strikes. Combos are useful for doing damage in multiple strikes (with strikes being moved onto other enemies if your target goes down early), whereas criticals are useful for cancelling enemy moves. If someone is struck while charging their moves, they can either be countered (for additional damage) or cancelled, meaning they have to charge again before getting to re-input their command. In addition to standard physical attacks, there’s also magic, and skilled moves. Moves and magic are basically two different sides to the same coin, they both cost points (either SP or MP), and both are more powerful than regular attacks when used offensively. They can be built up by either skill or magic coins, and in addition to those, there are also skills, which can be learned from books and have a support effect attached to them. The skill/magic system is very intuitive and gives a measure of stat management that is important but isn’t overbearing, but what combat in general does, when all is said and done, is prevent any battle from becoming boring. Battles are not random – they’re more like Chrono Trigger than Final Fantasy – and at the end of every battle, you’re graded, with the goodies at the end being dependant on said grade; therefore, it’s important to fight every battle effectively to minimize the amount of grind-time necessary to get sufficient amounts of gold/experience/skill coins/magic coins. Most RPGs, combat is a necessary bore, but in Grandia II, it’s something that is often approached with glee.

If there’s any complaint I can have about the battles, it’s that they’re ultimately a bit easy. Once you figure out the cancelling mechanic and get your cancellable skills to the maximum levels, there’s not much else to do other than constantly cancel attacks, fight enough to keep your levels at the normal range for whereever you are in the game, and simply pay attention. If you can do all these things, you’ll run through this game.

On the map itself, there’s a really nice compass and a marker that changes size as you get closer to the place that you’re supposed to go. This is a great addition that helps with running around and raiding treasure chests, as it’s almost impossible to get truly lost. Better than that, in towns, you can point the pointer to go to anywhere you want to go. Having problems finding the inn or the next objective? Change it up, and the compass will take you right there. There are some puzzle elements to certain aspects of the maps you come across as well, with some parts of the world being interactable. Most games try half of the things that this game seemlessly integrates into gameplay and screw them up.

It took me under thirty hours to get through Grandia II, though I was aided by a guide and hampered by deadlines; most gamers can expect about thirty-five hours, which I feel is about the right length for an RPG. The modern day games which sometimes ask eighty to one-hundred hours apiece to get through them, I feel, are only for the truly dedicated or the truly mad, whichever side of the spectrum you fall into. With that said, there’s no room for deviation; there’s no side quests, and the game itself is linear, so those that like to go wandering off the beaten path will be disappointed. Furthermore, once you beat the game, that’s it; there’s no New Game +, nothing else to unlock, and no new reasons to go through the game other than the fact that the game is so enjoyable to play, so replayability is going to be stung a lot. Grandia II is very old-school in that, and a lot of other, senses. It certainly isn’t original in any sense I can find – even by 2000 standards – but everything it did, it did well. Think of it more as evolution instead of revelation.

The music in the game – composed by Noriyuki Iwadare of Lunar, Phoenix Wright and Smash Bros. Brawl fame – is gorgeous. The game comes with a soundtrack CD, and there’s not a bad track on it. The battle music itself – usually boring in other games since it’s heard so often – is one of the most energetic earworms in video game history, and the Dreamcast plays everything beautifully. Nothing is drowned out; everything comes across crystal clear, and more clearly than the audio in modern games in many cases. Graphically, on the other hand, Grandia II was mediocre in 2000, and hasn’t done itself any favours over the years. The polygon models have not aged very well, and there’s no outstanding battle effects that make you go “wow”. The best thing to say about them are that cutscenes aren’t separate; they all use the game’s regular models, and don’t rely on FMV the way other games like Final Fantasy VIII did.

The Scores
Story: Above Average
Graphics: Poor
Sound: Very Good
Control/Gameplay: Classic
Replayability: Bad
Balance: Good
Originality: Bad
Addictiveness: Good
Appeal Factor: Mediocre
Miscellaneous: Great

Short Attention Span Summary
Grandia II is simply one of the best RPGs of its era. It compares favourably to almost any other RPG of it’s time on the PS1 or even the Dreamcast, and performs against most other PS2 RPGs as well.
Anyone with a Dreamcast should have this in their collections without a doubt. It’s light enough, yet well-made enough, to potentially convert non-RPG fans.



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One response to “30 Days of Dreamcast – Day 13: Grandia II”

  1. […] already talked about Grandia II earlier in the month. I have past experience with Grandia, and it’s hard to believe that it […]

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