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Grandia
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Grandia, a game originally for the Sega Saturn and re-released for the original Playstation, is a grand, beautiful and lavish affair that's quite possibly superior to every single game Squaresoft and Square Enix have ever put out.  The game starts out innocently enough, but its hold on me quietly slipped in under the shadows, and before I knew it, I was hooked and had to keep playing until the very end.  As much as I love the RPG genre, this is something that's actually quite hard to do.
 
Part of the success of this game lies in the way it tells its story.  Many RPGs, particularly the Final Fantasies, paint in broad strokes and branch out like trees.  In many RPGs it's not long before you're given many choices, but the result is often the story losing focus.  Grandia moves along like a laser beam.  It keeps its focus on character and story with not a hint of an annoying mini-game in sight.  The result is akin to flipping the pages of a story.  Once one scenario is over, that chapter is closed, and it's time to move on.  Enough said.  The way the overworld is done also adds to the illusion.  Instead of wandering around a huge world, you move a quill pen around a beautifully hand drawn map and pick locations much like in Panzer Dragoon Saga.  Then you move into the scenery to interact with characters or fight monsters.  There are also a lot of instances where areas are grayed out and can't be accessed.  It keeps things more focused but still doesn't limit your ability to go back to an area to "level up".  And speaking of scenery and interacting with characters, Grandia is a very detailed game.  Every town bustles with energy and has its own unique architecture.  You truly feel like you're interacting with real citizens instead of useless background sprites.  And the dungeons are certainly very complex and challenging.
 
Grandia is also a bright breath of fresh air when compared with the mechanical and daunting nature of Final Fantasy VII, this game's closest competitor.  It opens on the small seaside town of Parm, where normal, well-adjusted Justin and his friend Sue are out playing.  It all seems harmless, right?  Well the way it all unfolds is simply brilliant.  Grandia has a sense of high spirited fun and grand adventure that most RPGs lack.  It celebrates the thrill of discovering new places and people.  Nothing is given away to the player straight away.  There are no plot twists you can see coming a mile away.  The musical score is fun and rousing and brilliantly fleshes out every wonderful scene.  I was also amazed at the quality of sound this game squeezed out of the Playstation, considering how stifled and midi-like the music of Final Fantasy VII was.  Grandia also masterfully blended drama, humor, and a modest amount of romance that's not overdone.  Sure, you have the typical RPG trappings thrown in.  Fetch this item.  Talk to this person.  The evil villain.  But all the elements seem so much more refreshing than most RPGs.  I really loved how the developers animated the backgrounds and sprites to set the proper mood of each scene instead of relying too much on anime sequences.  And it isn't long before Justin's quest turns from a simple "find the ancient civilization" to something far more dramatic and world-affecting, leading up to a long and soul-churning stretch with almost apocalyptic themes.  Also, if an RPG's quality is determined by its villain, then Grandia on this level succeeds, as he's brilliantly fleshed out and well thought out.  His brand of evil comes in stages, like a manic person slowly succumbing to his illness.  I often found myself angered by his actions and words.
 
Another element that elevates this game above most RPGs is its combat and character development system.  Grandia has a variation on the "time bar" system made popular by Final Fantasy.  But instead of watching a bar slowly fill up before a character can do anything, the icons of your characters and of your enemies scroll across one bar at the bottom, when a character reaches the "command" point, the action pauses and a character can enter an action.  There's also a gap between command and execution and because different commands require different amounts of time to execute, there's a certain level of depth and strategy not found in many RPGs.  In this game, defending actually makes tactical sense because you can see which enemy is going to attack which character, and if you were lucky to reach the command point before the blow came, you could block and hope for better luck on the next turn.  And the more you leveled up, the faster your actions came.  Each character also had two different forms of attack--a common combo attack that did the most damage, and a critical attack that pushed your enemy's icon back down the gauge or would even cancel a command already in progress.  Of course the enemies could also do the same to you.
 
The character development system is also refreshing.  Instead of requiring characters to keep progressively more powerful weapons of one type suited to that character, most characters used two or three types of weapons, and you were encouraged to swap weapons and level up each type to increase different stats and get different special moves, not necessarily keeping the most powerful weapon at that moment.  I also enjoyed the magic system.  Instead of getting new spells at different levels, you had to scour the dungeons for mana eggs, which you used to give a character one of the four elements.  Then as you leveled up each element by casting spells, differents stats would increase again.  The menu would also show what levels of which elements would unlock the next spell or special move in the skill tree.  Also, in many RPGs I find the magic system to be near useless.  Grandia replicates that joy I felt with the very first Final Fantasy in figuring out the most potent spell to cast.  Spells are not only useful and potent, but encouraged to get a well-rounded character to weaken the tougher enemies in the later stages of the game.  It's the combination of these two concepts along with traditional leveling up that allows for powerful characters, and since different people have different play styles, no two games will ever be the same.
 
There are some notable snags here and there.  Slightly annoying slowdown in heavy areas.  Pressing a button next to a disguised background item to trigger the next event.  And now and again I found myself staring at the resemblances of traditional anime RPGs.  But it doesn't detract from the overall grandeur of the game.  It has a sense of fun, high adventure, and attention to character many RPGs lack.  I enjoyed the fun personalities of Justin and Sue and Feena far more than the brooding cliches found in Final Fantasy VII.  And after the final battle, Grandia finishes with one of the best and most cheerful endings I've ever seen in an RPG and closes with a very refined and poignant "The End".  I came away thinking "Huh.  Now that was great game."  I was left wanting more and sad to see the characters go, but I didn't feel deprived or empty by the close.  Truly a masterpiece.
 
Grade: Superb

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