Can a fantastic combat engine and great visuals save an otherwise standard adventure?
February 10, 2006 - Okay, so I'm surprised. Square Enix's Grandia III isn't quite the massive, epic RPG that most of us thought it was going to be. Despite the various reports out of Japan that it was short on length, skimpy on the sidequests, and strange in the plot department, I was hopeful that Game Arts would give us the Dragon Quest treatment and add (or extend) a couple of things for the American market. Long story short, it didn't change a thing.
But what does that mean for the U.S. player? Well to start, it means that they'll get their hands on one of the single best RPG combat systems around. In fact, some could even argue that Grandia's fundamentals are THE best in the genre (and I wouldn't be inclined to disagree). Bold statement aside, what is it exactly that makes the so-called "Ultimate Action Battle" mechanic so fantastic? It's a number of things really... but at its heart, it's the system's ability to give users fast-paced, action-oriented combat while still providing them with the options and tactical tools to adjust their strategies.
How does it work? Well, if you've played 2002's Grandia Xtreme then you already know. Almost identical to that system, Grandia III's combat revolves around two different circular interfaces that give you all the flexibility you need. The first tool, known as the IP gauge, uses facial icons for every onscreen character (both allied and enemy) and those are then used to illustrate which combatants have the initiative. Once a character's portrait moves into the "attack" portion of the gauge (colored red), they can issue a command in a semi turn-based fashion and carry it out once they've approached their target. But here's where the strategy comes in -- if a character is hit with a strong enough attack from an enemy before executing their own strike, it will cancel them out of whatever action they had planned (and their placement on the gauge is reset). Figuring out who to assault and who to defend against is very important with this kind of system.
The combat itself is setup in a similar fashion, with a "Command Wheel" that has all the traditional RPG icons like 'item' and 'defend.' Players can also choose to initiate 'combo' or 'critical' attacks using this wheel, and when used in conjunction with allies, can put together some truly crazy enemy-killing maneuvers. Add unique skill types, character-specific special moves, several weapon styles, magic, and the all-new ability to perform aerial combos (and juggles) to this already deep equation, and you can see very quickly how robust Grandia is. As an added bonus, random battles are gone too. Players can directly engage or surprise their opponents just as they could in 2005's Radiata Stories.
Another one of Grandia III's great strengths is that it looks exceptional. Boasting unique character designs and nicely-directed cutscenes, the game has a lot of visual personality. The environmental detail is just as impressive, and while the characters themselves aren't as well-crafted, their animations are. It's just too bad that Game Arts opted not to include a widescreen or progressive scan option -- it would have been fabulous to see the game's terrific backgrounds in a much bigger light.