Live to fight the same day.
Even for the very niche-y, oft-oddball catalog of NIS titles that find their way to American shores—the last one, you might recall, had a musical combat system—this is an unusual one. You’re Lillet, a new student at a famous school of magic offering the usual curriculum—Alchemy, Sorcery, Necromancy and Glamour. On the fifth day of the school year, alas, the magical turds suddenly hit the narrative turbines when the spirit of a formerly-offed archmage rears up and wipes out the entire student body (as a disciplinary exercise, presumably)—the entire student body, that is, save you.
[image1]For some inadequately-explored reason, Lillet is yanked out of the normal temporal flow and into your classic time loop, so that now—in a dramatic setup redolent of the movie Groundhog Day–you’ll find yourself reliving the same first five days, making (one can hope) new decisions to ward off the unpleasant turn of events that has landed you in this awkward situation, and your classmates in an early grave.
With each cycle of the same five days, Lillet acquires more grimoires—magic books—containing spells for the four classes of magic; in this way, she becomes a more powerful magic-user—one more and more likely to able to confront the dark forces at work. She’ll also learn more about the many, yawning blank spaces in the story…and about the trustworthiness—or not—of the various oddball characters. Learning the true stripes and spots of those around you is one of the arguable upsides of living on borrowed or otherwise atypically-acquired time.
From the general cartoonish sprite-style to the lovingly-drawn character portraits to the voicework, GrimGrimoire looks and feels like a Japanese RPG at first blush—but it’s a real-time strategy game composed of battles that revolve around the interplay of forces and spells from the various ‘schools’ of magic (each of the four disciplines uniquely vulnerable to another, in a rock-paper-scissors-widget fashion). As Lillet learns the contents of new grimoires and unlocks spells in the books already acquired, players can lay down new runes in the midst of the battles: They serve the same function as production facilities in more traditional RTS games.
Instead of looking down on the expected RTS open-area battlefield filled with conventional military units and terrain features, you’re looking instead at a cross-section of the stone halls and stairwells of the sprawling castle that houses the magic school—instead of hills, rivers, ore-mines or the like, the “terrain” variables are the pathways or obstructions from floor to floor, and the locations of the all-important mana crystals (which must be harvested like so much dark-age Tiberium). In place of light tanks, APCs and ore-carriers, you’re faced with a supernatural bestiary that reads like the index of the Dungeon Master’s Guide: Elves, phantoms, skullmages, ghosts, imps, unicorns, faeries, demons, black cats, chirmera, dragons… oh my.
[image2]The game may look unrelentingly cute, but the options for strategy are serious and numerous, whether you’re trying to wipe out the enemy’s runes, or “simply” (hah!) trying to hold out for a set amount of time against hostile advances (this latter type of challenge can be a real bitch, wherein you’ll cling to dear defensive life for what seems like forever…only to be overrun and stomped in the final two minutes).
You’ll encounter the same basic types of challenges as you’d expect in any otherwise-conventional military RTS: The elves are trucking your harvested mana, and you’re hoping they don’t get waxed by something that can actually fight when you’re not looking. You can push back the fog of war in the increasingly-complex tower structures with scouting units to reveal mana crystals or collections of enemy units, but if you don’t keep an active unit out there, you’re not going to know if the enemy has overrun a previously-clear area; and while some visually- and violently-effective showboat units like chimera can open up large cans of general whoop-ass, they have weak points that can be exploited (such as the fact that they can’t lay a claw on insubstantial phantom beings); however, certain support units can, in turn, drain said phantom units’ energies, or even render them temporarily material…you get the idea (and to counter that counter, the aforementioned big/wicked units can be lulled to sleep by still other combatants). It’s a rewarding a well-balanced system.
Unlockable additional challenges in the 50-plus levels add to the gameplay value, and include missions limited to certain types of units—or even a single unit which can’t harvest or fight, thank you very much. You'll need to scout up some dormant enemies-of-your-enemy before you get your collective, occultic-fantasy ass kicked. Good luck with that.
[image3]Unfortunately, you do still have to take some Grim with your Grimoire. The whole RTS-control-in-a-console-game thing is still an issue here: Players can select all of one type of unit at any given time…but only that one type at a time, and that doesn’t include units that happen to be offscreen. Two more minor problems are that 1) the dank-castle “look” is present from level to level without visual alteration, and 2) there’s no way to insta-zap to a far corner of the map; instead, you must scroll and scroll. Oh well.
Perhaps the biggest gripe—which might go a long way toward showing just how much some players love this game—is a toss-up between the fact that there’s no map editing or multiplayer (they’re both things that this game screams for) and the inability to save in the midst of some hairy, hour-plus battle. Here, it’s Go Big or Go Home.
Nevertheless, these are relatively venial sins, mere sins of omission. What the game does, and the sheer amount of what it does, is done with solid mechanics and considerable style. Also, the ability to review previous game/story progress (to keep track of what’s gone on before) is handled well. Best of all, GrimGrimoire reaches out across the gap that too often separates gamers exclusively disposed to Japan/anime-centric games, and those who love more conventional RTS titles. Think of it as an M.R.E., with a user-friendly dose of high-fantasy wasabi.