Review by Rottenwood
Shut Up And Fight
While I'm more of an RPG dabbler than a fanatic, I've always enjoyed the Grandia series. The combat is more interesting than in most console-style RPGs, and the way you equip skills and magic is simple and sensible. The storylines of the first two games were pretty middling stuff, but such is the curse of the ultra-poplular Final Fantasy blueprint that most console RPGs use.
So imagine my surprise as I pick up my pre-ordered copy of Grandia III, only to see the name Square-Enix right there on the cover. I'm not much for sifting through industry news on the Web, so I had no idea that the Grandia series had been swallowed up by the Square behemoth. While this worries me a tad - will Square-Enix eventually hold an RPG monopoly? - I was also a bit intrigued. At the end of the day, though, Grandia III is a fairly predictable entry in the series, featuring the same great combat as before. Alas, it also carries many of the weaknesses we've come to associate with Square-Enix productions, including lame and overdramatic cinema scenes, irksome characters, and voice-acting along the lines of a low-budget Pokemon movie. However, if you decide to simply skip the cinema scenes (which I was unable to, as I had planned on writing this review) and simply get right to the entertaining combat and gorgeous production values, you'll be tickled pink.
The game centers around Yuki, an aspiring young pilot who lives with his tomboy mother Miranda. Both of them are terrific fighters and battle monsters without even blinking, which I don't believe is ever explained. Maybe fighting off vicious fishmen is just a regular routine where they come from. Who knows? Anyhow, Yuki's dream is to become a world-famous airplane pilot, and within seconds of discovering this, I anticipated all of the inevitable cliches: plane crashes, a speech about how flying is like freedom, etc. What a load. Yuki and Miranda eventually end up saving a young girl named Alphina, who is basically a low-budget Princess Zelda knock-off. (Although to her credit, she doesn't have Zelda's quirky habit of cross-dressing.) Alphina, of course, is a very special girl with a special destiny, and before long, you'll be wrapped up in a long quest full of monsters, gods, avenging siblings, and all the rest.
Let me be blunt: the cinema scenes are atrocious, the voice-acting is grating, and the plot is painfully predictable. I know that there are millions of gamers out there who are crazy for this stuff, so I'm not going to pretend that it doesn't sell. But let's face it, all of this stuff has been done before, and these companies keep doing it, over and over and over again. I'm sick of funky-haired, fresh-faced young heros saving the world from dark, ominous bad-asses.. I'm tired of long-lost fathers and brothers and other relatives popping up as 'surprise' characters, as if anyone is surprised by that crap anymore. Why are stores in these games still selling powerful magical weapons and potent sorcery over the counter? ("Hey, Mom, can I have a Hellfire spell for my birthday?") Why are there treasure chests full of goodies in the middle of the woods? All of these cliches have become so internalized that we don't even think about them anymore. Wouldn't it be neat to see just one of these games NOT feature magical orbs or crystals? Final Fantasy-style console RPGs are in a rut, plain and simple. A profitable rut, maybe, but there needs to a revolution somewhere down the road. You CAN make an RPG with a gripping story (Planescape: Torment, for example) that isn't some generic imitation of previous games. Make it happen, guys. We'll give you money! As much as fifty dollars, even!
Mercifully, Grandia III offers an option that lets you skip cinema scenes with a simple press of the select button. Once you flip that bad boy on, you're good to go, as the game still brings the goods in terms of combat and character building. If anything, they've made a few improvements for this installment.
What makes the combat so fun is the chaos involved. Rather than having everyone standing on opposing sides and taking turns hitting each other like the Three Stooges, the fighters in Grandia are moving all over the battle zone. By looking at the wheel thingie in the upper left hand corner, you can see who is about to attack, who will be attacking in 6 seconds, and so on. Because of this, your best strategy isn't always to hack away with potent Combo attacks. Using a Critical attack can cancel an enemy's spell or power while he or she is charging it, so timing these Critical hits properly can save you a lot of pain. Of course, if an enemy rams into your Critical-hitter before he gets to his man, your plan will be foiled.
And yet, there's still more fun to be had. You can knock enemies into the air with certain attacks, and if you have another hero attack that enemy while he's airborne, he or she will pull off a nasty air attack. Air Finishes (killing a foe in the air, natch) can cause enemies to give more money or special items. And, as always, there are the usual spells and special attacks you've come to expect from a Grandia game. Later in the game, you'll get what are essentially summoning spells, using (sigh) orbs.
Character-building is pretty fun, too. You'll gain levels and statistics via experience points, as always. But spells and skills must be found or bought, and equipped at specific places. These powers can be enhanced by equipping Mana Eggs or skill books. (For example, the Blaze Egg makes your fire spells more potent.) In a fun new twist, you can extract (basically, melt down) books and Eggs to get spells or skills from them, and even later in the game, you can fuse them to create entirely new items. What makes this stuff fun is how simple and user-friendly it is. The game happily shows you what will happen when you do an extraction or fusion, so you don't have to burn through have of your rare items just to see what you can find. It's all right there on the screen in easy-to-follow menus.
While I often criticize some aspects of Square's game design, there's one thing they can't be faulted on: production values. These guys make flat-out gorgeous games, and Grandia III is no exception. It's not going to floor you at first, but there are so many attractive little touches in the background that your eyes will be plenty pleased. I especially liked the water effects and the exotic attack animations of the monsters.
The music is nice and subtle, full of gentle melodies that are nice to listen to but don't overpower the action on the screen. I probably couldn't done without the faux electric guitar in the combat music, but you're usually so wrapped up in the carnage that you won't notice. Sound effects are fine, and the voice-acting, as noted earlier, ranges from the almost-tolerable to the flat-out atrocious.
While some will gripe that Grandia III isn't long enough, it was certainly meaty enough for me, as a guy with a full-time job and a girlfriend who qualifies as a second career. If you want a game with dozens of epic side quests, Grandia III ain't for you. It DOES feature a Now-Obligatory RPG Gambling Mini-Game, based on rolling dice and trying to match up with the numbered cards you've selected. As you've probably guessed, this game is entirely dependent on luck and is about as fun as playing "what number am I thinking of?" with your little brother. My favorite quirk of the game is that you automatically lose if you roll two sixes, which seems to happen once out of every three games. Feel the rush! Mercifully, this game is completely optional. (Although if you do win some medals at it, you can exchange them for a staff for Alphina. Why would a little casino in a sailor community have priestly staffs as prizes? Ah, RPG logic. How you amuse us.)
At the end of the day, Grandia III delivers what fans of the series will expect. It doesn't mess with a successful formula, and it's easy on the eyes and ears. Newcomers jumping on the bandwagon because of the Square-Enix name will certainly enjoy the combat and the streamlined power system. It's a shame that console RPG developers aren't putting more effort into creating more interesting and mature storylines, but such is life. You might want to wait for a price drop if you're not a Grandia fanatic, but if you just need an RPG fix, this will do quite nicely.
Rating: 3.5 - Good
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