The Switch is right smack in the middle of an ongoing trend of bringing our favorite JRPG franchises of yester-year- back for veterans to enjoy again, while providing the same opportunity for younger generations to experience them for the very first time. The Final Fantasy re-releases continue to sell very well, with the most recent Final Fantasy VIII Remastered enjoying the same success. Grandia is another franchise from the same era that is revered by its fanbase, although it isn’t as discussed as the Square Enix IP’s.
Grandia’s original release on the Sega Saturn met with critical acclaim, however the commercial success could only parallel the fate of the Saturn itself-underwhelming. The game was later re-released on the PS1, where it had the opportunity to find new life. Grandia was once again a victim of circumstance, as localization issues led to the game going toe-to-toe with the likes of Final Fantasy VIII just as it was riding the avalanche of hype brought on by the success of Final Fantasy VII. Grandia was once again lost in the shuffle, despite being practically even (or better) in terms of critical response.
Developer Gung Ho has decided to play hero and attempt to give the franchise the recognition it deserves by giving franchise staples Grandia and Grandia II a High Definition release on the Switch. Thank goodness they did.
Visuals and Sound
Grandia never had the distinction of being a game driven by its aesthetics. The original release sported very “muddy” visuals, with extremely simplistic sprites and especially murky environmental textures. With that said, Gung Ho has managed to spit-shine Grandia into a very respectable-looking title. The blocky models and fuzzy lines have been smoothed out and are now much more presentable. The game screen has been modified to accommodate a 4:3 HD ratio and it holds up in both handheld and docked mode. However, there were a few instances after cut scenes in which the camera seemed to be zoomed in and the screen became stretched too much, with the blurring remaining until the camera panned back out to its comfort zone.
Battles take place on a separate screen with an isometric view. Oddly, the camera will perform a very strange wobble as it zooms in and out as your party attacks. I found this to be a strange, minor detail, but there were actually times that the wobble was so bad that my wife- a diagnosed epileptic- couldn’t watch me play. I don’t offer this tidbit of information as criticism, more a word of caution to any reader that may share the condition. The development team clearly had its hands full with the task of modernizing Grandia’s appearance but there is very little to complain of here in terms of execution.
The original, catchy soundtrack of Grandia returns relatively unchanged. Upbeat, toe-tapping tunes accompany the player on the adventure from town to town. It is very noticeable that the tunes play on a continuous loop, however, as I couldn’t help but hear the pause between loops that almost reminded me of a CD skipping. Minor gripes aside, The songs and sounds fit right in with the game’s feel-good essence.
Grandia is very much a traditional turn based JRPG at its core, but it has a few subtle nuances found throughout its battle system that allow the game to overcome the generic, untimed string of button presses that was a franchise staple for its time.
As previously mentioned, battles take place on a separate screen with your party standing adjacent to the opponent. An attack gauge is displayed on screen conveying the order in which each battle participant will make their respective moves. Your options consist of the standard RPG staples, such as items, attack, spells and abilities. Grandia, however, throws a most innovative wrinkle into the tried-and-true system: party members also have the ability to attack for a “critical” hit or a “combo” hit. Combos usually result in the most possible melee damage that a party member can inflict. Landing a successful critical, on the other hand, leads to the opponent being forced backed on the active attack meter.
Timing criticals for the sake of withstanding as little damage as possible from the opponent is…well…critical within the combat system of Grandia. It’s a very simple component that I believe has led to the longevity of interest in this title being reintroduced to a new generation. Having said this, you’ll learn rather quickly that the game becomes somewhat easy once the critical/combo system has been grasped. Challenges are then few and far between until you meet an opponent that is only vulnerable to magic or elemental type attacks.
On the topic of magic, spells level in the same way that your party does in Grandia. Spells are categorized by element and have to actually be used regularly in order to become more powerful (level up). You’ll likely discover this the same way I did: It’ll seem that a spell you’ve only occasionally used has all of the sudden became very weak. This can lead to some frustrating periods of grinding in order to level up spells rather than characters. Each dungeon or locale outside of battle typically contains environmental hazards that cause damage to Justin and the party. I found myself purposely taking the damage for an opportunity to level up heal spells- an effective tactic, but a burdensome one, as well. Grandia’s sequel perfected the spell leveling system, though it’s a shame that Grandia had to be the guinea pig. If you are playing the first entry, I invite you to check out some of Ben’s gameplay videos for a leg up in spell leveling.
The battle system is a major plus for Grandia, but it doesn’t mean squat without great dungeon design. The original Game Arts team were very much on their game while designing dungeons for Grandia and Grandia 2. Each dungeon usually features multiple paths to the goal. One or more may contain environmental hazards, fewer or stronger enemies (enemies are visible on the map), and some extra treasure to obtain. Unfortunately, treasure is usually nothing more than basic common items that lead to you cycling through an already cramped inventory system. I can’t recall finding a single piece of weaponry or armor in a dungeon that I couldn’t buy at the nearest market.
Dungeons also contain multiple spots in which Justin can use to obtain a top down view of the map. This becomes useful when attempting to plan out a route through the level.
Grandia chooses to forego the typical “stone-faced, but good-at-heart hero who becomes hell-bent on stopping an adversary” in favor of a more lighthearted adventure. Young Justin is set on being an adventurer like his father. Even at a young age, Justin’s thirst for adventure would land he and childhood friend Sue in more trouble than they (or Justin’s very patient mother) would’ve liked. Sue is kind of the little sister that Justin’s never had- she looks up to him and follows him around everywhere he goes. In a very heartfelt moment (minor spoiler ahead) Sue realizes that Justin is coming of age and his latest adventure is simply too dangerous for her as an 8 year old. She sadly bows out of adventuring with her best friend and understands that Justin desires to accomplish things on his own.
This is just one small example of how Grandia offers some of the absolute best character progression scenarios that I’ve ever played. The game is filled with moment after moment of sentimental layers and growth for each character. I fully recommend continuing each “dinner” or “campfire “ conversation as long as possible in order to learn some of the best deeper character moments within the story. There is one during the first 2 hours of the game in which Justin’s mother tells the story of how she and Justin’s father met. This little story alone might garner some DLC in a modern RPG. Grandia is full of these heartwarming moments. Saving the world is fun, but Grandia’s slice of life approach is just as refreshing.
Younger JRPG fans that have enjoyed the likes of Octopath Traveler and even Xenoblade Chronicles can likely trace some of these games’ mechanics right back to Grandia. The nuanced turn-based battle system holds up to this day, and I have faith that the younger generations will love it as well. The refreshing, lighthearted story reminds me of the moment that I finally figured out that the legendary anime Dragonball Z wasn’t simply the story of Goku, but a collective experience for all its cast members. Similarly, Grandia is NOT Justin’s story so much as it is the story of the impact that he has on those that he encounters during his quest to become an adventurer. The gravity that comes with his determination, pure heart and strength manages to carry Grandia into a special category of JRPG greatness, one well-worth a recommendation.