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Grandia II: A Sega Dreamcast Classic Game Review
Grab a sword and save the world ... again
Have you ever anticipated the release of a game so much that, once it is finally within your grasp, you feel nothing but bitter disappointment? For this critical gamer, Grandia II was one such game title. The hype had been phenomenal ("...undeniably the prettiest role-playing game ever to grace a console" - www.dailyrader.com), reviews from both the press and consumers were overwhelmingly favorable ("The level of detail paid to every single moment, circumstance and environment is overwhelming" - Official Dreamcast Magazine), and Dreamcast owners were voracious for new role-playing games. Call me cynical, but none of these factors are powerful enough to persuade me to spout praise about Grandia II. In the following passages, you will see blasphemies directed at the plot, the visuals, the dialogue, and even the battle system.
Nearly every RPG released on a game console contains a vengeful lunatic whose sole goal is to destroy everything. I mean, I love the Final Fantasy and Lunar series as much as the next geek, but let us be honest about their mostly uncreative plots. Thankfully, many of these games introduce other concepts and gimmicks to make up for the "gather a band of whiny, mentally unstable superheroes and begin your quest to thrust a blade through every uncivilized fang-baring being from here to the tower of the main bad dude conveniently located as far away as possible" story.
Before I explain why I believe Grandia II does not succeed on the level of those Lunars and Final Fantasys (or is that Final Fantasies?), allow me to humor you with my version of the plot. Join the antisocial mass-murderer Ryudo (I've heard rumors that he is a close friend of Squall from Final Fantasy VIII) and his horny bird-friend Skye (honestly, he has a horn on his head) on their quest to protect the religious (and zealous) Elena from herself and everyone else while assembling a barely-functional party from the dregs of society in order to do what the all-powerful god Granas could not -- defeat the God of Darkness Valmar. Not surprisingly, our buddy Valmar gets his kicks from punting kittens and destroying things, the entire world of Grandia included. What is surprising, however, is that Game Arts (of Lunar fame, no less) has done little to spruce up the predictable plot.
We're off to see the wizard
Worse yet, the main characters adopt their stereotypical roles early on and never let these go. For instance, the irritatingly optimistic Elena never forgets to remind the rest of her crew that, as a Sister of Granas, she must help aid the suffering of those they encounter. Then there is the minor matter concerning her voice ... ah, but I'll get to that in a moment. You'll also share swords with Roan (a 13 year-old kid whose "oddly adult language endears him to many travelers and passers-by"), the beast Mareg (a warrior who "bases his actions not on theory or logic, but on the natural flow of life"), and Tio ("an automaton...[who] does not possess emotions or feelings"). Excluding the delightful Millenia, each of these characters follows his or her role to the letter, which is a far cry from the fully-developed Lunar heroes.
Where Grandia II really smothers the competition of its time is in its graphics. In exploration mode, you are treated to pseudo-3D towns and dungeons, where objects are made up of plenty of exquisitely-textured polygons. If you or your friends are under the impression that three-dimensional characters and buildings cannot match traditional 2D ones in detail level, Grandia II's gorgeous environments will be a revelation. Unfortunately, the lush graphics come at a price: The environments are extremely static.
Even more impressive is the completely three-dimensional rendering of combat. Your viewpoint is that of the camera, and you whip around to wherever some action is occurring. And where there is action, there are special effects! Each character and monster weaves and bobs as they wait to attack. Once someone gets to act, he either rushes the target and takes a swipe (leaving sparks when the attack is critical), or he conjures a very impressive spell that is guaranteed to dazzle your senses (well, maybe if you can forget the past decade in graphical advancements) . Battles are truly a sight to behold. Again, there is a price: Many of the higher level spells invoke full motion video graphics in place of hardware rendered ones. The problem with FMV is that it is very grainy and looks pasted on top of everything else.
The funky soundtrack in Grandia II is the work of composer Noriyuki Iwadare, who was responsible for the rousing soundtracks found in Lunar: The Silver Star and Lunar: Eternal Blue. I don't find this to be a surprise at all, considering that Grandia II's soundtrack is similar in scope (though it has a theme all of its own). A music CD is included with Grandia II, and it contains tracks personally selected by Iwadare. My personal favorites are "Fight!! Ver. 1" (the main battle theme) and "DangerousZone" (the "get the hell out of there" theme). Other nice touches are the various vocal tracks that play when Elena and/or Mareg's tribe sings.
Ubi Soft was responsible for bringing Grandia II to the States, meaning that it was also responsible for translating any spoken dialogue into English. My opinion is that Ubi Soft has done a remarkable job ... for what little is actually spoken. Strangely, your characters only speak audibly at certain events, some which don't really require spoken emphasis. I find it weird, honestly, but the voice acting easily beats most other Dreamcast efforts.
As others have noted, your main man Ryudo is represented by none other than the katana-wielding Leonardo (voiced by Cam Clarke) from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated series! I find his vocal inflections to fit nicely with Ryudo's sarcastic attitude, though he hams it up a little too much at certain points. Elena (Jennifer Hale) is the real offender, bubbling with "cuteness" and a very high-pitched voice -- I wince in pain every time she speaks. The coolest guy in the game, Melfice (John Cygan), has the perfect arrogant tone that reminds me much of Ghaleon from the Lunar series. Elena's split-personality buddy Millenia (Jodi Benson) also does a worthy job.
RPGs live or die by the combat system
I really want to talk trash about the combat system, but I suppose I better discuss the rest of the gameplay first. Grandia II plays out just like other traditional RPGs. You guide Ryudo (who represents his entire party onscreen) through towns and dungeons, interacting with townspeople and encountering monsters. Controls are fairly straightforward, meaning that it doesn't try to reinvent the wheel like in some other RPGs (Final Fantasy VIII is an obvious offender). The menus are actually very clunky to maneuver through, though I've yet to find a console-style RPG with a user-friendly menu system.
Your characters grow by three measures: Experience points, special coins, and magic coins. All three of these are earned in combat, and they are the methods by which you raise your stats, learn skills and moves, and gain spells. Your party shares this common pool of experience and coins, and you can pretty much choose how quickly you desire each character to progress in their growth. Not the worst system I've ever encountered, though I personally prefer the simpler ones found in 16-bit titles like Phantasy Star II and Final Fantasy VI (III here).
And now for the combat system: I'm willing to bet that gamers will either love or completely hate it. The central concept that guides battle is the IP (Initiative Point) Gauge. Sort of similar to the Final Fantasy semi-realtime battle gauges, the IP Gauge determines when a character or monster can choose an action and when he can act upon it. The gauge shows every participant in the battle (including the enemy). Starting from the left side (in a area called "Standby"), each character (displayed as a marker) begins to move to the right until they reach the "COM Point". At this point, you can choose an action and your marker now enters the "Action" stage. With luck, you will reach the "ACT Point" and your character will carry out his task.
Sound confusing? Wait, there's more!! While most of the possible actions are similar to other RPG games (cast a spell, use an item, defend, etc.), there are two special maneuvers that are completely exclusive to the Grandia series: "Combo" and "Critical". Launching a "Combo" is much like attacking in other games, except that it allows your character to pummel your opponent multiple times (depending on his/her level). Plus, if you land a "Combo" on your target while his marker is in the "Action" stage, then you can execute a "Counter" attack that results in even more damage. "Critical", unlike its connotation, actually means that you do less damage than using a "Combo". However, if you use a "Critical" attack while your opponent is in his "Action" stage, then you can "Cancel" his attack and push his marker way back into the "Standby" stage. Geez, what a mouthful! At least it makes sense after repeated exposure. Unfortunately, I'm very disenchanted with this system, and I'm afraid that this puts me in the minority (in other words: You will probably like it).
Once you put all of the above components together, you are left with the game Grandia II. While the graphics are still noteworthy today, I'm afraid that the "A-B-C-D-End" linearity and the less-than-imaginative plot spoil the fun for me, though. Plus, I much prefer the reigning champ of Dreamcast RPGs, Skies of Arcadia.