Time to call it a night.
Everybody's favorite classic RPG series, Growlanser, is back! And on the PSP! One of the greatest turn-based adventures in memory, a new cast is here to save the continent from warring factions, hired mercenaries, and crazy frozen-for-millenia-children found in caves. You know, like it should be for the Growlanser series!
Wait, you haven't played a Growlanser before? Well, I guess that's common enough (read: nobody else I know has). It's not too different from the standard Japanese RPG fare: big storylines, oddly-dressed characters, and the same look and feel as it had when the first game released in Japan in the late 1990s. We still haven't seen the first game in the States, but we did get the second and third incarnations bundled together by Working Designs dubbed Growlanser Generations (which was, sadly, the last port released by WD before their demise).
The whole thing goes like this: You take command of a fella named Crevanille who belongs to a mercenary group, but due to extraordinary situations, the group disbands and leaves him to discover what his own next move should be. He's what's called a Ruin Child: a person that was buried deep within mystical ruins for 2,000 years from a more advanced civilization. Those Ruin Children are the only ones capable of wielding powerful magic, called, uh, "spells." Go figure.
The first time Growlanser 4 was released was in 2003 on PS2, and for some reason it still resembles a PSOne title; the presentation is extremely sharp during cutscenes, but roaming around towns and landscapes looks extremely blurred and muddy. The blur is all the more noticeable during story sequences, since characters of note are displayed as animé figures and look extremely clean, akin to titles like Persona 4, and the animé cutscenes are very well done (although the voice actor's volume is turned way down for some reason). Sadly, that's where the similarities end.
The story feels more convoluted than it should, even though it's easy enough to comprehend—countries at war, gotta figure out who's good and who's evil, that stuff. Characters tend to flow in and out consistently enough that I don't really remember who's actually important to the story or even who's on my side sometimes. Attacked, then attacking, then partners, then they leave without much explanation… it leaves me shouting "why the hell did they matter" at my PSP.
What makes it a problem is that none of the characters have much, well, character; they either all get along way too easily or just speak in the same tones over… and over… and over again. Occasionally one will say a line that might show a sense of humor or an interesting personality trait, but like taking some good medication, that sign of optimism goes away quickly. It's almost identical to the situation I experienced in Gungnir (also published by Atlus)—there's just no fire. No drive. Nothing that makes any character—aside from the occasional choice given the protagonist that actually seems to mean diddly-squat—stand out in any way. If I were to be blindfolded and the dialogue read aloud, I couldn't tell you who had said what.
But what I do enjoy is the battle system. It's simple and effective, with the ability to pivot on the fly if necessary. When a spell is leveled up, for example, it takes longer for a player to cast. But let's say the fight's about to be lost, and your spellcaster has only charged up to, say, level two when they were asked to charge up higher. No matter—that spell is available up to the level you've reached, and while it's weaker in effect, it's still ready for use. In a world of cookie-cutter JRPGs, this feeling of total tactical control is super-sweet-kickass.
It's worth some time to play through if you enjoy a more tactical battle system than you're likely to find in a more well-known franchise, but unless that's enough to hold your attention, methinks you're going to be disappointed with this latest Growlanser. Oh, and about that, just to confuse a player more, this is technically Growlanser IV while Growlanser: Heritage of War on the PS2 was the fifth of the series, and we never actually got the first. I love how localization works sometimes, don't you?