Back in 1997, the console wars were mainly being duked out by the Playstation and the N64. Even though the Saturn was still around, it was quickly faded, and many had considered it already out of the running. However, Sega still had one last ace up it's sleeve. The team that brought us Lunar: The Silver Star and it's sequel, Eternal Blue (Game Arts) had been working on a top secret RPG project for the past 3 years or so for the Saturn. It was supposed to be the game that would bring the Saturn new fans, and possibly breathe new life into the failing system. At the time, Square had released Final Fantasy VII for the Playstation, which enjoyed record-breaking success, so Sega had high expectations, hoping that Grandia would do the same for them.
After much hype, the game was released in Japan in December of 97. American RPG fans who owned a Saturn pleaded that Sega of America release the game in the US, myself included, but unfortunately, our pleas fell on deaf ears, and the game never saw the light of day on the US Saturn. As for the game itself, despite glowing reviews and good word of mouth, the game was a disappointment, sales-wise in Japan. The Saturn just did not have enough support from players for the game to meet the sales that were expected of it.
Flash forward two years later. Strangely enough, the game that was originally designed to compete with Playstation has finally come to America on...the Playstation. In early summer, Game Arts brought Grandia over to the PSX, and Sony has wisely not made the same mistake Sega did, and has translated it for a US release. Now, everyone can get to see what Saturn owners were talking about all this time. (The lucky few who imported the Saturn version, that is.)
As I mentioned earlier, this game is by the same team who created the Lunar series, and this game is similar to that series in the sense that this quest is not started because the world is threatened or a princess needs to be rescued. The quest begins due to a young boy's love of adventure. The hero of this story is Justin, who lives in the village of Parm with his childhood friend, Sue. Justin's father was a great adventurer who died years ago, and his mother is a former pirate, who now runs a local restaurant. His dream is to go out and see the world, just like his mother and father did in their youths.
One day, the curator of Parm's museum gives Justin a chance to visit an ancient ruin nearby which is being excavated by a group of soldiers from the Garlyle Forces. Justin and Sue anxiously head to the ruin, hoping to find some fascinating adventure within, but their dreams are cut short when they arrive at the ruin, and are forbidden by three soldiers from the Garlyle unit to enter. Not letting that stop them, Justin and Sue sneak past the many soldiers excavating the ruin, and soon find themselves in the deepest depths of the ruin, where no one has entered for hundreds of years. It's there that they meet a mysterious woman surrounded in a beam of blue light who calls herself Liete. She tells Justin that the Spirit Stone he wears around his neck, which was given to him by his father, might be the key to unlocking the secret of an ancient civilization long thought extinct. This begins a great adventure, which will ultimately hold the fate of Justin's world in his hands.
The game's graphics are very good. There's lots of animation and facial expressions for the character sprites. The graphics are a mixture of 2D sprites and 3D surroundings, kind of like in Xenogears, only much smoother-looking. Like in Lunar, there are portraits of the characters next to the text box, and the expressions of the portraits change as to what the character is saying. There are cinemas in the game, but they are sparse and far-between. Not quite up to par with the cinemas in Square games, but they get the job done.
Gameplay is simple and easy to learn. You build up experience points, but your weapons and magic spells can gain levels as well, the more you use them. You can also combine spells to make new magics. (For example, water + wind magic creates a Blizzard spell.) Like in the Lunar remake for PSX, the battles are not random. You can see the enemies walking around on the map. However, it's easier to avoid fights if you want to in this game, than it is in Lunar. Also, how you approach an enemy affects the battle. If you come at an enemy from behind, or if the enemy doesn't see you, you'll get the advantage, and get to move first. But, if the enemy surprises you, or touches you from behind, they get the upper hand when the battle starts out.
When it comes to sound, this was one of Grandia's big selling points when it originally came out for the Saturn. Game Arts understood Square's error in not included any voice-sampled dialogue in Final Fantasy VII, so they added hours of dialogue into Grandia, performed by some of Japan's top voice actors in the anime industry. Unfortunately, for the domestic release, Sony has not done as well. I've heard worse acting in a video game, but I've definately heard better. Some of the characters in the game aren't bad (like Feena the adventurer and Justin's mom, Lilly.) But some voices like Justin, Sue and Colonel Mullen are so bad that you want to strangle them. When will American companies start hiring some real actors? As for the music, it's good for what it is, but nothing memorable.
Another aspect of this game I like is its great story and light-hearted atmosphere. This game is definately more comedic than most RPG quests. (This is evidenced by Justin's mother, Lilly, constantly hitting him on the head with a large serving tray each time he does something wrong, or upsets her.) Of course, the game does take a more serious turn during the last half. What really impressed me about this game is how balanced it seems to be. The enemies give a good amount of experience and gold, so you never really feel pressed to stay in an area too long, building money or experience, like in some RPGs. The game's quest is lengthy, too, spanning 2 CDs. (And unlike the Final Fantasy series, the CD space is not taken up by flashy CGI cinemas.) It should take a good 30-35 hours to see the end of this story.
Overall, Grandia is a fun, light-hearted RPG that should definately be played by just about any RPG fan. It's nice to see this game finally get a release in the States, even if the voice acting and the translation could have been better. If you were a fan of Lunar, you'll probably like this game as well, as it shares the same sense of adventure behind the storyline. It's a shame that Grandia II had to abandon everything that made the original so enjoyable, and go for a more serious approach. But, that's another review...
Overall Score: 9.0
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