It feels very difficult to review Grand Guilds after having played and penned a review for a game that released in relatively close proximity to it, called Children of Zodiarcs. What both of these titles attempt to implement in the realm of tactics is fairly similar – the addition of deck-building mechanics in this subgenre is something that adds an element of uncertainty that is more tangible and potentially even exploited than percentage-based hit and damage calculation. That’s not to say that deck-based mechanics are better, but if you have read my Children of Zodiarcs review, then you probably know which method I prefer. After giving that game high marks for its unique world-building, engaging mechanics, and lovely aesthetics, I feel as if my analysis of Grand Guilds will need to be a bit more gran(d?)ular in nature, as there are some very specific details that help one eke out over the other in terms of quality and diversity.
Grand Guilds is a tactics game with a focus on selecting the right units, the right cards for said units’ decks, and the right cards in battle in order to achieve success in battle. Grand Guilds starts slowly, introducing the player to every one of its mechanics at a steady pace, so that they can fully understand the options they have available before, and during, a battle. Combat is grid-based and also possesses multi-leveled terrain, which can factor into damage dealt and the reach of some attacks. You only have a ninety-degree camera turn to work with, so environmental design attempts to avoid obscuring characters, though this doesn’t always work perfectly.
While in a skirmish, each character has a set amount of action, or mana points, and come outfitted with a basic movement and attack option that cost one and two points, respectively. You’ll draw a single card each turn, but you start with a hand of four, which means you can easily exhaust your specialized options if you keep using more than a card per turn – this is meant to be mitigated by your basic commands, however. That being said, each character’s primary utility comes from their deck build, so you’ll want to play your cards wisely.
Outside of battle, you’ll have the opportunity to take on side quests scattered across the world map, which amount to a number of more formulaic skirmishes and rarely possess an objective other than routing the enemy. These side quests are not lacking in strategic consideration and substantial reward, however, as every quest rewards the player with an in-game currency used to purchase new cards from a store of options. In the customization tab, players can view all currently available and locked cards for a single character. However, this in-game currency is shared across all purchases, and some locked cards can fetch a pretty price. You’ll need to do some saving, which prevents players from investing in broken deck builds in the early game.
There are some characters who demand more options than others, however, and the game fortunately allows the player to craft a number of custom decks per character in case you’d like to make slight or drastic variations to the basic setups. Further complicating this are each character’s passive skills, which come on a separate page and possess their own unique form of equipment currency – some of these options cost more than one “slot” on a character’s list of passive skills, and you’re only granted an additional slot every five levels gained. This might seem dizzying, but it also allows for a very impressive degree of customization…until your options start getting out of hand.
Narrative and Aesthetics
Grand Guilds’ narrative is a mixed bag of tropes and odd moments of world building, resulting in a mish mash of fantasy elements that are united by… some pretty grand guilds, I suppose. The reason for the existence of these guilds is explained in the opening cinematic, and though the plot is initially triggered by a violent attack upon a guild, it never feels as if this element is essential to the plot, only allowing the protagonist Eliza a reliable cadre of allies to call upon for combat purposes. It does make for a nice, Final Fantasy-like alliteration and logo, however.
Characters bounce off one another with brief and stilted lines of dialogue that comprise lengthy text-based cutscenes. The end result is awkward conversation that, once again, leans upon the basic personality traits of each character rather than nuanced depth. Though protagonist Eliza is given a tragic backstory, it only seems to fuel her desire to protect, as she maintains a no-nonsense and curt demeanor otherwise. The guild setting might be the best excuse for such a varied collection of playable characters, as those who fall in with Eliza clash in terms of personality incessantly.
In the end, Grand Guilds doesn’t offer much in the way of compelling dialogue or narrative, but this is made up for somewhat with the game’s aesthetics. While the 3D character models are nothing all that impressive, the game features a very distinct art style that feels wholly original and favors the unique character designs. Each character’s appearance matches their personality traits rather well, and this is further enforced by a few voice lines for each party member. These clips manage to fit the age and tone of each character, as well as the aesthetic of the world.
Unfortunately, the game’s lackluster character models are paired with some equally disappointing animations. The game’s running animations feel slow to start up, and the animation effects either trigger too quickly, or come across too flat on the Switch, even in docked mode. This is unfortunate, as there are some genuinely cool animations present here, such as Eliza’s powerful downward slash, and taking a look at videos of the game on the Switch eShop and the game’s Steam page, it seems they are running some stronger-performance build of the game. Things are, unfortunately, a bit too awkward to sell the game’s epic premise, though it is important to understand that the game has been developed by a small and extremely ambitious studio.
Impressions and Conclusion
Grand Guilds’ systems offer a great deal of promise at first, but progressing further into the game reveals some problematic storytelling elements that end up muddying the experience. The game often limits certain party members from joining story-based quests, which means your favorite characters – and the ones you may have invested the most time and money in order to make dangerous – might not even be able to come along for the ride. Experience is not shared across the entire party, which means that this problem can only become greater as you’re forced to limit your preferences when your squad can only run three characters in a skirmish.
Train up all members of your party in side quest missions, then, as you can never truly anticipate when they might be called into battle. While this answer might seem easy enough, it’s impacted by how few unique side quest skirmishes there are, making grinding an even more predictable and tedious task. You’ll need to craft specific decks in order to combat the hefty number of enemies that are often featured in these small skirmishes, as well, which often makes these battles feel a bit stacked in the favor of the enemy. It’s a shame that what is arguably the most unique and appealing element of Grand Guilds – its numerous, diverse character archetypes and the possibility of constructing unique builds for each of them – also ends up being the game’s crux. If you’re looking for deck-based tactics, there are better options, and if you’re looking for budget tactics, I’d argue there are more compelling titles out there, with better performance. That being said, if you go into Grand Guilds with some tempered expectations, you might find the combat system and character designs worth loving.