Grandia II – Review

Ryudo Upfront with the Supporting Cast in the Background.

With Grandia II, Game Arts took the formula they implemented in Grandia, simply iterated upon it, which works with me, I loved Grandia and it creates another fantastic Japanese role-playing game with a fun battle system and compelling story. Grandia II, as with Grandia, is set in a, mostly, bright and colorful world.

If I were to condense the themes presented in Grandia, I’d say it focused on adventure and discovery, of exploring unknown territories and learning about new cultures. Grandia II on the other hand focuses more on our spiritual relationships and the role and impact of religion in the world. Grandia II is the story of Ryudo, a gun-for-hire and Elena, a songstress in the Church of Granas. Ryudo is hired to be her bodyguard, but things go awry early on and they soon learn that Valmar (the evil god and Granas’ opposite) could reawaken and bring destruction to their world, what’s more, Elena is possessed by a piece of Valmar, which manifests itself occasionally, and transforms Elena into Millenia. This shape shifting element is interesting and provides for a character that is the polar opposite of Elena, like Granas to Valmar. Throughout the game they meet new party members who give a taste of the different regions in the game and are generally likeable. This wasn’t the case with Ryudo; at first he was a prick and very ignorant of others; the way he responded to peoples questions and concerns was off-putting, but as the game progressed, he became more comfortable with the people around him and as the on-going situations evolved, he revealed more about himself and became a more likeable character. Like, Grandia, Grandia II is light-hearted for the most part, with plenty of humor and fun gameplay, although the progression appears very formulaic, town, dungeon, town dungeon, etc.

Throughout the game, the story unraveled more and more, finally reaching a crescendo of understanding and going pass that crescendo into a surprising twist in lore. Grandia II is a more succinct adventure than Grandia with the game lacking in extra content. There isn’t any reason to go back and play more when done , there isn’t a new game plus mode, and the way the game ends it’s sort of hard to anyways, which is a shame because as with Grandia, I would still go back and battle more If I could.

The battle system, originating in Grandia takes turn-based battles, and added an element of real-time choice to it, creating a satisfying blend of action, which hit a spot in my psyche that loves being in control. The battle system has changed very little from Grandia. There are only a few things off the top of my head that I can think of that changed from Grandia to Grandia II. Instead of leveling up magic and special skills through use, you now attribute points to the individual moves. I thought it very clever in Grandia that special moves and magic leveled up and became stronger through use, thus, I used stat boosting/reducing spells more than I normally would in another JRPG. Also, instead of learning new magic spells by reaching certain requirements with certain elements of magic, in Grandia II you receive eggs which contain 18 preselected spells. There are more eggs than party members so there is always ample choice.

Noriyuki Iwadare returns as the composer and I enjoy his soundtracks a great deal. They are lighthearted and fun, which matches the general tone of Grandia II. Although there are, darker sections of the game, his compositions match the feeling, often, if not always. Familiar tonal themes are repeated throughout the game, with the actual compositions changing up slightly. I can see many people listening to the soundtrack and thinking it is quite cheesy with his ample use of electrical guitar, but I find it befitting the action and look of the game. The appearance, like in Grandia, is very appealing to me; the game is very bright, set in a, mostly, colorful world, with anime-like character designs–this is from Japan after all. The voice acting is fine, although what bugs me is that it isn’t totally voice-acted, barely any is, and this inconsistency always bothers me. The CG is also infrequent, and in most cases, very poor. The CG for cutscenes is almost laughably bad and strangely grainy, but when it is implemented into the higher level magic and special moves, the blend of normal graphics and CG or animation provides a unique clash that, at first seemed off putting, but quickly grew on me.

Grandia II was initially released on the Dreamcast in 2000, and then later ported to the PlayStation 2 and PC in 2002. I completed the Dreamcast version, played a bit of the PS2 version, and didn’t play the PC version. The Dreamcast version comes with a soundtrack CD that has twelve tracks of Grandia II related music, and I say related only because there are two remixes not present in the game. I enjoyed the selections and thought they provided a good cross section of Noriyuki Iwadare’s work here. The PS2 version included new CG cutscenes which take advantage of the hardware better, but still have the aspect of clashing with other aspects of the game. I played the PS2 version on a PlayStation 3 and due to this the game looked much crisper; this would probably be the way to play it. The PS2 version didn’t come with anything extra although the manual is very detailed. One of the main complaints against the PS2 version at its release was a poor port job, with the game hitching at times, I didn’t play very much of it, but did notice the game slowed down at points, but never when it mattered.

Grandia II is one of the finest games on the Dreamcast, and a fine Japanese role-playing game. With a well paced story and an incredible battle system, it’s worth seeking out if you’re a fan of JRPGs.

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Final Fantasy III – Review

 

 

The familiar design harkens back to the “good old days” of Final Fantasy.

 

Final Fantasy III is very traditional; then again, it originally came out in 1990. Within the first hour I had all of my party members and knew the ultimate goal I was aiming for. Luneth, the primary protagonist falls in a hole right away and finds out he is one of the chosen four, destined to save the world. His town elder knew this and when you return back to your hometown, they send you off with a few paragraphs. There isn’t the need for excessive exposition here. All you need to know is what the end goal is, what you’re doing in the current dungeon/town, and how to win battles.

It seems that Final Fantasy is renowned for being a series that one can turn to if they want a detailed or captivating story, and in this aspect, Final Fantasy III is very disappointing. The dearth of detail in the story turned me off; it’s a reason I play video games, and specifically, RPGs. The characters were stiff and lacked detailed personalities, the story was eventful, but nothing ever seemed impactful, a good job wasn’t done on making it seem like every action was necessary. Most of my time spent was zoning out and just battling to progress, and that’s the way I ended up playing the majority of it. I’d plug in a podcast, nothing against the soundtrack which I liked, and play it in bed before falling asleep, and I had a lot of fun playing it like this as I usually do with handheld games.

The party getting information on an early event.

The battle system is simple, lacking complexity, which works. Battles are easy to understand and with the ample amount of job classes, there is a variety of strategies available. Final Fantasy III did a good job of requiring me to try out multiple classes. Some dungeons would contain enemies that would resist physical damage, presenting the need to have your party deal nonphysical damage, via magic with mages or summoning, um… summons with, um… summoners. There were quite a lot of situations like this where you had to move out of your comfort zone; whereas I would usually keep my party full of physical attackers and a white mage for healing, I experienced many different jobs, and by the end of the game, I had a diverse party, with at least half of my party being a class I wouldn’t ordinarily pick.

One complaint I did have in regards to battling was the amount of grinding required towards the end. Throughout most of the game, I’d wager I was a level or two above where I needed to be, and it stayed like this up towards the final dungeon. After losing to the final boss a couple of times, I fought enemies within the last section of the game for at least five hours to level; this difficulty spike is not uncommon with games like this, but was nonetheless annoying when I knew the outcome of the game and only wanted to complete it at

The party battling it out against some early enemies.

this point, granted I handled the final boss ably, but still! This aspect also brought up another annoyance, the save system. The ability to save anytime on the world map is practically a requirement, however there is also a quick save option that allows you to save anywhere, but the save will be deleted when you return. Instead of implementing the ability to save anytime and keep that save, the developers have opted to keep the original spirit of the game intact, for instance, let’s say you’ve been grinding for an hour in the final dungeon and stumble upon an enemy that wipes you out, there went that progress. While this is aggravating, it’s also something that makes you adapt and from that point on, I was exceptionally cautious, and in a way, this difficulty is enjoyable and helps in keeping the game feel as it originally did.

There was no emphasis placed on totally remaking the game for today’s audience, which probably would’ve aged it in different ways as it’s been on the market for four years now, it’s the original Final Fantasy III, slightly redid. If you can appreciate a game designed in 1990, check out Final Fantasy III; it provides a lengthy quest that is sparse with detail, but a fun battle system that is easy to watch the time fly by with.

Metroid Prime Pinball – Review

Remember that DS?

I’ve had fun playing Metroid Prime Pinball. It’s a strange game, and while some might say it would be better off not existing as a Metroid game, at least it’s a quality pinball game. Samus Aran’s ability to transform into a ball lends itself well to a pinball game, even though it is a shallow reason for one. The game is essentially a retelling of Metroid Prime, minus any exposition or context. All the tables are based off of the worlds from Metroid Prime and you fight the same bosses. The music as well is from Metroid Prime, although here it is slightly remixed. Unlocking new tables is confusing, unless what the manual says is correct, but I never pay attention to those things… Anyways, to unlock new tables you collect a certain amount of artifacts, like you did in Metroid Prime, and you’ll get the ability to play on new tables, which isn’t that confusing as it turns out.

The tables are simple, but fun to play, and with time easy to get good at; the same can be said for the bosses; they take time to figure out strategies, but once you do, it’s hard to lose. Having bosses, to me, seems out of place in pinball, but it’s done well here; it ties itself well to Metroid Prime, breaks up the standard goal of focusing on points, and differentiates itself from other pinball games. That said the game can get repetitive. After only a few hours, I had seen all the tables that were unlocked had to offer, and progressing seemed like it would take more luck than skill and so went my enthusiasm. I would end up dying quite early, and I would think I didn’t have enough artifacts unlocked to continue on, so I’d restart. But as I learned the tables and my grasp on my purpose became clearer, it was evident I would need equal amounts of skill and luck, as is often the case with pinball.

The Tallon IV table, one of the initial tables available.

Artifacts come from succeeding at minigames and beating the bosses. The minigames are quite simple; the wall jump for example transports you to a separate area where you alternate the L and R buttons to wall jump, eventually reaching an artifact. Others are played on the board such as activating an enemy battle; space pirates, shriekbats, metroids and other familiar creatures will populate the board and you are tasked with defeating them all within a time limit. You’ll see all the minigames relatively soon, and then they become rote, although there being two types of tables: normal tables and boss tables, play strategies get significantly altered. The game comes with a rumble pack, and that’s pretty much that. It doesn’t seem very powerful and it makes a loud noise every time it rumbles, which can be distracting; it just doesn’t add much to the experience.

Metroid Prime Pinball piqued my interest initially because pinball games are somewhat of a rarity, as I played more I began to get burned out as it seemed like beating the game would require more effort than I cared to put in, once I got to the later tables though, I regained my ambition and trying for the ultimate goal, beating the game, became exciting again. As I do with most handheld games anymore, I played Metroid Prime Pinball in bed before falling asleep each night. I thought it offered enough fun in the relatively short bursts I played it, yet enough content to satisfy longer play sessions. It’s a competent and fun pinball game, its ties to the Metroid universe might as well be nonexistent, but it does nothing to foul the name of the series.  Samus’ Morph Ball ability may be a shallow purpose to play a pinball game, but at least it’s a worthwhile pinball game.

Record of Lodoss War – Review

The US box art for Record of Lodoss War.

Well I think I’m done with Record of Lodoss War. I’ve been playing it off and on for about two weeks now and I’ve had it. It’s a frustrating game where death is frequent; I must’ve saved every three minutes in the seven hours I’ve logged, and you know what I’ve just realized? There isn’t a good enough sense of payoff for me to continue playing, so I’ll stop.

Record of Lodoss War is an action RPG, developed by Neverland and released on the Dreamcast in early 2001 here in the US. The game is based off of a Japanese anime/manga and having no previous experience I’m unaware how, if at all, this relates to the source material. Judging from the setup though, it seems that the game is meant as a side or alternate story. You control The Hero, who has been brought back from the dead. A bad dude has been doing some bad stuff, like deciding to revive an ancient beast that will do his bidding and destroy, destroy, destroy. This is why The Hero has been resurrected, you see, in his past life he was a great warrior and a wise wizard believes he’ll be able to stop this evil. This wizard, Wart, initially sets you up to take over a goblin settlement which then becomes home base, a safe spot to return and do some blacksmithing. The Hero’s quest is ultimately to stop all the bad guys and as far as I proceeded on his quest, I met a few allies and visited a couple of towns and plenty of dungeons. The story seemed dense with detail and it would appear that knowing more about the source material would lighten the load but regardless, the story didn’t capture my interest.

Talking about the gameplay, Record of Lodoss War shares a lot with Diablo. You control The Hero in real time, explore dungeons, do some blacksmithing, etc. Battling enemies usually ended up a frustrating experience. I’d line up next to an enemy and start wailing away on the attack button, watching my health bar and if it got too low, I’d drink a potion. In the event that I ran out of potions, which happened all the time, I’d use the Recall spell to warp back to home base, refill, and warp back to then rinse and repeat. In the event that I was overwhelmed with enemies, which also happened all the time, the game slows down to a crawl and at this point it becomes easy to get trapped in a corner and die. This process led to many deaths and loss of progress, as I thought I’d be okay and go awhile without saving only to run into a strong enemy or get overwhelmed; this process was frustrating, but necessary to advancing.

The Hero battling some skeleton archers.

Equipment and loot is a big part of dungeon crawlers and Record of Lodoss War disappoints. In my time with the game, I rarely happened upon loot dropped by enemies and the loot that I found in dungeons, I generally passed on. At the home base is a blacksmith to whom you can take your equipment and add ancient inscriptions which add stat boosts and special attacks. Adding these effects seemed helpful, if only incrementally and overall the blacksmith wasn’t much assistance, nor was there much depth to blacksmithing. Without this sense of continually upgrading my character, I’ve lost the will to continue playing the game and whenever I’d battle enemies and have it take forever to defeat them, I felt weak, as if I’d been cheated on the equipment available to me. Exploration wasn’t fulfilling either, the few dungeons I’d been in seem very gray, in fact the game as a whole feels very gray. The game has gotten to be more frustrating than fun and even if I had some connection with the source material, I can’t imagine I’d want to continue playing based solely on the story Record of Lodoss War presents.

At this point the price for Record of Lodoss War is relatively expensive; a quick search of Amazon and eBay says you’ll have to pay around twenty-five dollars for a used copy. The manual contains great information, but there isn’t anything outstanding about the overall package. Others might have more patience with Record of Lodoss War, but if you’re searching for an RPG for the Dreamcast, or just an older RPG to check out, there are many better options.

Avalon Code – First Impressions

Avalon Code wallpaper from the official site.

Avalon Code’s premise is initially, very awe-inspiring. The world is going to end soon, but there is a book, The Book of Prophecy, that can capture anything and will remake whatever it contains. Once captured, you can adjust the properties of that thing, be it a person, a key or an enemy and alter it to solve puzzles or assist in battles. Most everything related to The Book of Prophecy is fun and unique; however the actual gameplay was tedious and turned me off after a few hours.

With The Book of Prophecy you are tasked to scan anything that you possibly can. The theory is that the book will aid in the creation of the new world and remake whatever’s inside. But this also adds a clever puzzle element to the game. Whenever you scan something in, it gets its own page. Each thing has a nine by nine grid which contains traits that make that thing up. So a flower for instance might have something forest or nature related and a fire creature might have an evil trait as well as something fire related. This led to some clever, albeit simple, puzzles early on like having to attach a forest element to a key to open a lock. These traits come in different shapes and piecing them in is reminiscent of Tetris. Every time something is added or subtracted, the page is reassessed and it leads to a short load time, which can add up when just experimenting and ultimately turned me away from changing the properties of anything I came across, unless it was necessary

Fighting a Dire Bat in Avalon Code, notice The Book of Prophecy on the lower screen and the info it holds about the enemy.

Outside of The Book of Prophecy you control a male or female character and travel between towns and dungeons, interacting with NPCs and fighting monsters. Rather than a turn-based battle system, Matrix Software opted for real-time action, which makes sense with The Book of Prophecy. Whenever I saw an enemy I generally scanned it in and then began to adjust the enemy’s traits, looking for something that would drop it’s hit points and then I’d attack; the game will pause when you’re using The Book of Prophecy, which takes up the bottom screen. Combat is simple, attacking with either your left or right hand, and enemies respawned as soon they died which discouraged me to even bother fighting them after a few times.

As far as I got, each dungeon progressed the same. They were divided into individual rooms which had tasks and time limits. You were given a task, such as light all candles, and once completed, the door to the next room would open; there were interesting tasks that required The Book of Prophecy but the majority of them were simple. Ultimately this made dungeons feel like a collection of minigames and this turned me off more than anything else I saw in the game.

I only clocked in three hours so I wasn’t able to see what Avalon Code has to offer, but it didn’t hold my interest in that short amount of time. The game is backed by an interesting gameplay mechanic that sets it apart from other games, but Avalon Code’s gameplay became tedious quickly. If it counts for anything though, I am still looking forward to playing more of Avalon Code at some point.

The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess – Review

Link as he appears in The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess.

Like many others, I hold The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time in high regard. I didn’t play it when it was initially released; I received it when I preordered The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker and I bet many others’ first experience with The Legend of Zelda was through this method. It was around this time that I was beginning to get into video games, and those games were a big part of it. To say I was looking forward to The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess would be an understatement; I remember getting hyped about it with friends but when it came out, I couldn’t help but be disappointed. I didn’t finish it then but have come back to it and experienced it all the way through and while it is all around extremely competent and fun game, I still came away somewhat disappointed. A lot of this stems from it feeling too similar to past Zelda titles.

Early on the dungeons advance similar to Ocarina of Time; forest dungeon, fire dungeon and then water dungeon, even the towns are similar; these places are designed in new ways and remain interesting to explore but it seems lazy. After this period however, the game starts to feel different and many of the later dungeons were interesting, both aesthetically and the way they played out. The items are similar as well, but I don’t fault this aspect of the game, wanting one hundred percent different items I feel would be asking too much. Many of the previous items have been slightly altered which changes up their use, both for puzzles and attacking, and there are a few totally new items that are interesting to use, however briefly. One of the things that I like about Zelda games is their mixture of puzzle solving and action and Twilight Princess didn’t disappoint.

Like in previous games, there are plenty of things to do on the side.

Throughout the game is an equal need for brain and brawn. In later parts of the game, I got stumped quite a bit on puzzles and would nearly give up. Then through what must’ve been some sort of divine intervention, something would click and I would figure it out, and that provided a great sense of accomplishment. Adding to the sense of accomplishment was the element of exploration. While traveling throughout Hyrule, I came across many things that I didn’t know how to interact with at that time. So I’d have a notepad handy and take notes. Once I realized what I had to do, I’d return and get whatever it was; this sort of backtracking and tab keeping is very appealing to me. The sword fighting and action in general stays on par with past 3D Zelda titles, but there is little advancement. Perhaps my biggest complaint in regards to Twilight Princess feeling similar is its story.

Link as a wolf, being ridden by Midna.

For me, story is a major part of the experience, I want to follow along and see the story the developers have crafted but Twilight Princess is almost laughably similar to past games, namely Ocarina of Time. Many of the key elements I already know from playing past games, so it’s like a refresher throughout the game. There are plenty of things that separate it from past games, such as the ability to turn into a wolf when traversing the Twilight Realm, but the overarching story doesn’t seem new. That being said, the cutscenes are extremely well done and a joy to watch as they do convey a lot of information, but a lack of voice acting is a major hindrance. The characters in the game are crafted excellently, with unique personalities and an interesting look, and having voices would make them seem more fleshed out.

The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess is a great game and I had fun throughout the adventure, but I still can’t help but feel disappointed. Twilight Princess feels like a compilation of what the developers thought were the best parts of past Zelda games and this sense of familiarity turned me off. Much has been said of Japanese game design lagging behind that of western developers (that the Japanese are very conservative) and in many ways Twilight Princess is the perfect example of that.

Grandia – Review

The title card for Grandia.

That Grandia was released recently on the PlayStation Network is a coincidence to my play through of the game. I had purchased it earlier in the year and finally got around to playing it, coincidentally it was released on the PSN a week or so later so this review is relatively timely. Prior to my play through of Grandia, my only other experience with the series was a play through of Grandia II on the Dreamcast which I remember loving, but I’m unsure if I finished it. Personally I’m a fan of more action-orientated RPGs and Grandia is one of, if not the best.

Grandia opens up in a somewhat bustling port town and quickly introduces the player to Justin and Sue, two young kids who are playful and not very serious. Nevertheless Justin is intent on becoming an adventurer like his father and Sue would follow Justin anywhere so she’s up for it as well. While the initial premise for the game is one that is often used, the game’s story gets deeper as Justin and crew learn of a mysterious ancient civilization that once perished. As they search for this ancient civilization they run into trouble with an army lead by a power monger and go through a few non-permanent party members. The story is very light and comedic, with an overarching sense of seriousness.

Justin and Sue standing next to a save point.

Like I said earlier, Grandia is more action-orientated than a traditional turn-based RPG; however this element of control is kind of a façade as the battles are ultimately a turn-based affair. In a dungeon you can see any enemy before battling, as opposed to random encounters; once you’ve run into an enemy or vice versa, you’re shifted into a battle scene. Along the bottom of the screen is a meter that shows icons representing your party members and all enemies; the icons move from left to right until one hits the command point. Here the battle will pause and you can tell that party member what to do. There is still a bit of time before they enact whatever you told them to do and this allows for strategy and planning as you can delay and cancel enemy moves based on when and what attack you hit them with.

There are many options when in battle: normal attacks, critical attacks which delay or potentially cancel depending on when landed, special moves, magic and items. One of the more interesting, and addicting, elements of battling is that every special move and magic attack has its own level that increases as you use it. The characters level relatively slowly but having all of these moves that are going up frequently gave a good sense of progression and feeling of accomplishment. Of course with any RPG that has magic there are elements of strengths and weaknesses but I never paid attention to this facet, probably due to my want to just level up everything, and this worked for me. The battles were fast-paced and fun, I looked forward to battling every enemy and leveling up many different things made me not want to skip out on fights.

Justin, Sue and Feena in a battle.

The soundtrack, like the story, was lighthearted; many of the tracks were quirky, with unusual sounds and upbeat tempos, matching the game’s tone. There were a few standout tracks that I really enjoyed listening to and I can’t say there were any I disliked. The voice acting on the other hand was quite poor. The voice acting was infrequent throughout the game and when there was any, what the characters said, would never seem to match the tone of the situation at that moment. Grandia is set a 3D world, with characters, buildings and other objects being made of 2D sprites. This mixture of old and new (at the time) graphics give it a feeling reminiscent of the “golden age” of the JRPG, while still progressing technologically. I’ve already mentioned that the game’s story and soundtrack were lighthearted and fun, and the look of the game matches. Grandia is set in a colorful world with interesting character designs and locales.

Grandia cost me fifteen dollars and I put fifty-plus hours into it, and had fun the majority of the time. If you’re someone like me, who likes owning a physical copy of your games and having the chance to look through the manual, I’d recommend seeking out a copy of Grandia rather than purchasing it off of the PSN, but maybe do that as well to support it! Grandia’s manual is robust, and while much of it is explaining relatively basic mechanics of the game, which if you haven’t played a Grandia title will be very beneficial, I did get stuck on a boss and consulting it did help me.

I loved Grandia. It’s quickly become one of my favorite JRPGs and even after I beat it, I can imagine wanting to play more to level up the rest of my party’s stats. It’s a long game with rare feelings of tediousness and overall, it was a lighthearted, adventurous romp through a colorful world, which is a great escape from the current market of more adult, serious games.

The internet's source for Mansion of Hidden Souls.

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