Console RPG developers GameArts is definitely one of those companies that fall into the “love ‘em or hate ‘em” category – there seems to be no middle road when gamers discuss the company. Some folks really love the unique style and production values that the Japanese developers have brought to their Grandia and Lunar console franchises, while others accuse the company of poor production values and questionable language translation skills.
One thing that most gamers will agree on however is GameArts’ Grandia II for Dreamcast was one of the most original and pleasing console RPG’s to be released for the failed platform – or perhaps for any platform. And while Grandia II’s epic storyline and detailed environments were certainly big parts of its success, its major contribution was its innovative and inspired battle system. The system melded the excitement of real-time battle with the tactical requirements of turn-based combat to create what is in my opinion the best battle system ever to grace an RPG – whether it is console or PC.
So for Grandia Xtreme – Enix and GameArts’ latest RPG collaboration for the PS2 – the developers smartly decided to make their top-notch combat routines the prominent focus. At least, I’m sure it seemed like a good idea at the time. Unfortunately, Grandia Xtreme proves that a console RPG is nothing without a compelling storyline and likeable characters, and a good battle system alone simply isn’t a good enough reason for gamers to want to drudge through 50-60 hours of exploration and combat.
For all its tactical brilliance, Grandia Xtreme seems more like a technology demo for its incredible combat system rather than a full-blown console RPG.
Grandia Xtreme centers around the character of Evann – a reluctant ranger who finds himself in charge of a band of bickering and adversarial adventurers on a quest to stop something called “Elemental Disorders.” The disorders are basically major storms that destroy everything in its path, and these tempests are terrorizing the citizens of Evann’s homeworld. In order to stop the destruction, Evann and company must travel to several ruins and conquer the bosses within. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
Evann’s rag-tag group consists of six characters (of which you can choose two that will accompany you into the various missions), each with different strengths. Some excel in hand-to-hand combat, some are proficient in the magical arts, and others rely on stealth and quickness to achieve their goals. While these skills all play a major role in combat (you’ll definitely need have a well-balanced party), they are next-to-useless in other aspects of the game. Your allies are nothing more than “wingmen” for your encounters, and have anemic personalities when it comes to the exploration portions of the game.
In fact, the lack of character personalities (other than typical RPG stereotypes such as “big fighter” or “wise magician”) lend to the overall emptiness of Grandia Xtreme. There’s an overwhelming feeling that the game is more of a “wireframe” as opposed to a fully fleshed-out fantasy. The cutscenes are overlong and uninspired, and really didn’t pull me into the story at all. As a matter of fact, I think GameArts would’ve been better served positioning Grandia Xtreme as a fantasy tactical combat sim than as a role-playing title due to the dearth of actual role-playing involved.
As if a weak plot and poor dialogue wasn’t enough to sink this ship, GameArts throws in some very inappropriate “80’s new wave-ish” music to further add to the awkwardness of the title. Mark Hamill, Dean Cain, and Lisa Loeb also contribute their vocal talents to the proceedings, often to subpar results. Hamill’s performance of Evann’s arch-nemesis Colonel Kroitz is especially cringe inducing – the character on-screen looks to be about 19 or 20 years of age, but Hamill’s voice makes Kroitz sound like a cigar-chomping 50 year-old.
One of the bright spots production-wise for Grandia Xtreme is its in-combat graphics. Both the good guys and the various beasties are well-rendered, and movement and animations are very fluid and attractive. Outside of the battles the graphics are a little less-inspired, but that’s forgivable given that most console RPG fans have evolved past the “graphics are everything” phase.
As mentioned earlier, at the core of Grandia Xtreme is an incredibly robust combat system that almost (but not quite) does the near-impossible job of taking carrying the entire game on its shoulder. The battle methodology and control scheme is nothing short of the best in the business. It’s very complex, and a bit difficult to explain on paper (or on screen), but I’ll try my best…
Combat is based around “Initiative Points” (IPs), which are represented on a circular gauge during combat. Your characters’ icons circle around this gauge until they reach a “command point” at which time you’ll be able to issue commands. Once commands have been given, your icons continue to circle around the gauge towards the “action point,” at which time your commands are carried out.
Certain combat actions are meant to inflict maximum damage on your foes, while others are meant to knock your foes icons backwards around the circular gauge, causing their attacks to either be delayed or cancelled. Throw an advanced spell casting system, item management, combos (moves that can only be performed with more than one character), and skills (which are learned from skill books, and give adventurers various bonuses to defense, magic, and combat), and you’ve got yourself an incredibly detailed and rewarding combat system.
All the commands entered are played out graphically on the screen giving combat in Grandia Xtreme an almost rhythmic and dance-like quality to it. And believe me when I tell you that you’ll be spending a very large amount of time within Grandia Xtreme’s combat system, almost more than even this excellent battle engine can withstand. No matter how wonderful the mechanics are, you’ll still find yourself trying to avoid combat after 10 or so hours of playing this game – it just becomes tedious. If Grandia’s battle system is a “good thing,” then this is definitely a case of “too much of a good thing.”
If there is any fault with combat in Grandia Xtreme, it is its lack of intuitiveness. Mixing “mana eggs” to concoct the right magic spells, managing equipment, assigning skills and skills books, and performing other necessary character management can almost get overwhelming. The inclusion of a solid interactive tutorial would’ve been great, but instead we just get a few paragraphs of on-screen text that attempts to explain the intricacies of the control scheme. That’s just not good enough, and the lack of a good tutorial jacks up the learning curve of Grandia Xtreme quite a bit.
While the included paper manual is thorough, it reads like a textbook and will put you to sleep faster than physics lecture at a yawning convention. It’s a shame GameArts gave its own brilliant combat engine – the crown jewel of the game – such short shrift by making it so inaccessible.
In the end, Grandia Xtreme and its much-acclaimed combat scheme cannot save itself from the linear storyline, poor production values, and counter-intuitive gameplay that ultimately keep Grandia Xtreme from rising to the level of its predecessors. Gameplay becomes tedious even after only a few hours, and you’ll barely be able to care about the wooden characters and mundane storyline.
GameArts has proven in the past that it can generate fantastic console RPG’s with a unique sense of style, but unfortunately they failed to do so with Grandia Xtreme. Gamers who haven’t checked out the Grandia combat system owe it to themselves to at least rent the title for a weekend, but I cannot recommend a full purchase. There simply isn’t enough plot or character development to keep the hardcore console RPG fan interested.
Poor production, an unintuitive control scheme, and a sleep-inducing plot overwhelm Grandia Xtreme's second-to-none battle system. Gamers should definitely rent before they buy
Rating: 5.8 Flawed
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company for review.