When I was a little tyke growing up in Barbados, my family didn't have much money and we didn't have amenities like TV and videogames, so for fun, kids did something now perceived as nearly unthinkable; we played outside! Luckily for me (and most other kids on the island), the beach was only a few minutes away and there were countless hilly fields and rocky areas for us to explore and adventure. I was an adventurer and did plenty of capering every day after school -- and to be honest, I did quite a bit of adventuring even while in school, much to the chagrin of my mom. But what can I say, I was really into discovery. I always went into new places (especially when I wasn't supposed to) looking for new things to see or experience. This filled the days of my youth back home. Once my family moved to America, all that was put to an end. The combination of being in an unsafe neighborhood and my introduction to TV put an end to my adventurer days. That's probably why I'm so empathetic to the protagonist in GameArts' Grandia. Even though we are a decade apart in age and I'm corporeal and he's just a bit of code, young Justin and his best friend, Sue, has an obsession with being adventurers that is contagious and stirs up memories of my own youth "adventures."
As soon as I started playing Grandia, I ran into a few issues that are worth pointing out. For one, Grandia is a 2D/3D-hybrid game where the characters are 2D sprites and the environments and most objects in them are 3D. But in its defense, these elements are handled better than they were in newer games such as Enix's Star Ocean 2. Speaking of 3D, it's strange to see Grandia's 3D-engine slow and sputter along on the 3D-powerhouse that is the Sony PlayStation. The effects of this are definitely noticeable as the more detailed villages and areas cause the framerates to be inconsistent. One final negative is the voice-acting, which left a lot to be desired. It felt like the actors were reading right from the script and into the mic. On top of that, the acting is paced to keep up with the subtitling so there were uneven pauses that ruined any dramatic impact.
Normally, things like this would lower a game's ranking a few points, but not so with Grandia. What GameArts gets right with this game overshadows all the miscues. The graphics may be in 2D/3D, but they are some still of the best to grace any system despite their age and GameArts incorporated huge (and I mean HUGE) worlds for you to explore. And these are worlds that any young adventurer would be thrilled to search in. Each is ripe with unique creatures and loads of characters and people to run into. I guess the lack of frivolous FMV movies and other nonsense enabled GameArts to go after the less visceral aspects of an RPG. In this case, it's the character interaction and development that GameArts is known for. There are no apocalyptic tales or melodramatic stories of love and loss, but instead I get to play, essentially, as 3 young people off to find adventure in the world and grow with each adventure. This is certainly one aspect of the game worthy of purchase alone.
As soon as I started Grandia, I should have known what I was in for. Justin and Sue immediately jump into an adventure, albeit a pretend one, with the village nemesis, Gantz. It was like one of my own pretend adventures where I had to find hidden treasures around my neighborhood. The thing is that I don't recall was having as much energy and ambition as young Justin had. His naivete is endearing and through this, I got past the fact that I was playing as 2 kids (plus a very young woman you meet up with later). And as with kids in general, they may say things that seem silly at times, but being that this is an RPG straight from Japan, the kids become adults rather quickly and actually say things that may be wholly unbelievable to be coming from a child. Sue's constant reference to herself as a 'woman' can be cute, but other times it borders on being downright silly (come on girl, you're barely out of diapers!). Speaking personally, there always seemed to be an adult trying to stop me from adventuring. In this game, however, the adults seemed resigned to the fact that these kids will do whatever they want anyway. Thankfully, there is no real pretense about them being anything more than ambitious kids out to explore the world. If anything, Justin and Sue simply stumble onto things as neither character is ever billed as some sort of preordained human-god half-breed or genetically enhanced fighter. It's in this way that Grandia reaches a level of innocence and humor right from the start that only strengthens the amount of growth that the characters go through as the game progresses.
Anyone who has played RPGs over the years has noticed stagnation in the battle systems; a few games are released here and there with new features and minor changes, but none of which are revolutionary. The battle system in Grandia is one of the best I've ever seen and this is all the more impressive when one considers that the game's two years old now. Everything in the battle mode is set up to reduce the passiveness associated with traditional RPGs. First off, enemies are always onscreen so I could pick and choose my fights, most of the time; when I got into a fight I never got down because battles in Grandia actually meant something and weren't just random events to wipe out my health. Grandia's battlefields are totally different from the norm. Instead of the characters being lined up in formation on one side of the screen, they are free to move around (once given commands) the battlefield and chase enemies or run and hide. (Those who played Star Ocean 2 may be more familiar with this mode of play.) This, in itself, is worthy of praise and it gets better.
Early in the game I found items called Mana Eggs. These are hatched into magic and come in four basic elements: fire, water, earth, and wind. During a battle my use of each elemental spell increased my ability to use that particular one. For example, if I stressed water spell attacks, then the skill points tallied after every battle will emphasize my proficiency in water magic. As I leveled up, more spells were learned and things start to get interesting. Grandia comes with a unique option to let me combine the four elements. Fire and Earth combine to make Explosion; Water and Wind combine to make Ice; Water and Earth combine to make Forest; and Fire and Wind combined to make Thunder. This adds a level of customization and strategy that I previously thought was impossible in an RPG.
For the icing on the cake, GameArts added a turn-meter called an IP gauge to show the order of turns for each character on screen (including enemies). It only paused to let me choose an action whether it's casting a spell, using a weapon, running, or whatever and then started back up to show me how long until the action is performed. Considering the size of the battlefield, I would have to be choosy about what attack I used; if I used a weapon attack then I'd have to use up time on the IP gauge to get closer to an enemy who was on the other side of the screen. As I mentioned earlier, the enemies are also on the IP gauge and while I was unable to attack, the enemies could. That meant timing could be critical and I had to consider the length of the attack (which was measured on the IP gauge too), the distance of the enemy, as well as its own position on the IP gauge. But GameArts added a little feature I like that can balance things out. If I could predict when the enemy was going to attack, I could time my attack to coincide with it; that opened up the possibility for my attack to cancel out the enemy's attack or, in some cases, I could perform some sort of counterattack. These features are nothing short of ingenious and, again, when considered with the age of the title, they are all the more spectacular.
Grandia has a lot going for it. It has beautiful graphics and sounds that could just grab a gamer and has a clever battle system that any RPG fan would fall in love with. But, ultimately, I think it's the focus on the characters and the growth they experience that takes Grandia over the top. The angle the designers took for Grandia as a more lighthearted and anecdotal adventure is refreshing. It never overwhelms like the newer, over-ambitious efforts that are out there but rather, offers up the less tangible part of gaming. The sense of mystery and adventure is always palpable and a bit contagious (I hear that that is one of the 3 reasons why Lara Crofts' Tomb Raider series is so popular—you can probably figure out the other 2). I cannot believe that this game was never translated and released in this country until now. Consider how many other gems are still sitting out there never to see the light of day in this country. You may wonder if I spend some time exploring with my free time now that I'm an adult? Well, to paraphrase the great thinker that is Homer Simpson: "The weight of the world has crushed my spirits". But I am happy to live out adventures through videogames and it's always better when they are games as excellent as this one.