Fight or flight.
When I hear the term "role-playing," terrible things come to mind. Corporate training classes. Uncomfortable marriage counseling sessions. Eighth-grade Saturday nights. All things that I don't care to experience or revisit…sober.
The video game RPG has much more potential, aspiring to be a totally different beast. And yet certain unshakable "role-playing" elements seem to drag down even the best titles, like Jason Voorhees pulling a former survivor into Crystal Lake.
You may have heard good things about Grandia III, and not all of them are false. It's got a pretty fantastic battle system, after all. Remove the cool fights, however, and you have a small, steaming handful of everything that should be excised from the genre: childish characters, repetitive dialogue, and the end of the world.
And that's a great place to start. This episode of Grandia focuses on Yuki, a young would-be pilot who wears such a complicated array of vests, holsters, straps and accessories that it's obviously easier to sleep with his clothes on. That explains why he's not yet a man, which is also why he falls for the first young woman he meets: a Communicator in trouble named Alfine. What's a Communicator, beyond something sci-fi fans lust after? Why should I tell you, when I had to play for 30 hours to figure it out?
They're not alone in this saga. Yuki's mom (not a bad fighter, but more a sister than mother…creepy) is along for some of the ride. She's got a budding romance with possible con-artist Alfonso the seaman. Their emerging relationship is the best part of the story, which of course means that it's jettisoned half-way through so that we can follow Yuki and Alfine as they grow up together and, ugh, save the world.
If it weren't for Grandia III's perpetually condescending voice, bargain basement dialogue and cringingly obvious progression, it might offer a decent story. The first disc has an air of Miyazaki as Yuki and his mother embark on a world-spanning journey. For the first few hours it seems as if the tale might not even dive into that end of the world guff that pollutes most RPGs. Then the second disc purges all the good ideas in favor of said guff. It's maddening.
Grandia III is partially redeemed by an excellent battle system. It's so good, in fact, that Game Arts has barely bothered to change it since the series first appeared on the Dreamcast. It's turn-based...sort of…and active…sort of.
Each combatant has a small icon that revolves around a circular gauge. When the icon hits a certain line, that character can choose an action. Their icon keeps moving until it reaches the ACT line, at which point the character acts. Depending upon how fast a character can move, their icon might take more or less time to revolve from choosing to acting.
It sounds complicated, sure, but after a couple fights it's exceedingly simple and surprisingly powerful. For instance, launch a critical strike (faster than a standard combo, but less powerful) as an enemy is between the point of choosing and acting, and you can cancel its attack. Or launch an enemy into the air, then immediately hit him with another character's attack for a powerful aerial combo; killing a foe in this fashion awards bonuses. The game even records how high in the air you've knocked monsters.
Since the action pauses while player movements are chosen, there's room for some strategy. Small animations indicate when characters are preparing for special attacks, and helpful tooltips (which can be toggled) direct you towards the best course of action.
Then it's all about reading the situation. Should you finish off that weakened monster with a vicious special attack, or try to cancel an imminent spell that could put the whole party to sleep? Is your cool special fast enough to do the trick, or is it too fast, so that your orchestrated, multi-character aerial attack won't come off properly? Distance plays a part, too, so even if you're theoretically striking in time to cancel an attack, the effort might be in vain if the enemy is too far away. Enemies can cancel your attacks as well. When being ganged up on by a boss and henchmen, it's possible to be cancelled all the way into oblivion. So that's how Arrested Development feels...
Grandia III's combat system allows for all kinds of ways to approach a fight, and with several magic spells, special attacks and combos per character, it can be a great deal of fun. Unlike many RPGs, battles are not random; you'll always see the beasts walking around on the main screen. They can be avoided or swiped with Yuki's sword for a pre-fight stun and a little advantage.
Unfortunately, there really is very little to do outside of combat. Side-quests and subplots might have distracted from the awful story, but there's none of that here. Talking to everyone in a given area might offer some extra detail and an item or two, but those bits are hardly necessary and in short order, so you'll be tempted to just blaze through it all, riding on the knowledge that the major plot points are impossible to miss.
Grandia III is also enormously linear; in any area there will be a map showing exactly where you can and should go. Combined with the lack of tangential action and detail, it turns the game into a point-and-click story whenever combat isn't involved. And while some of the areas are quite nice to look at – particularly green and forested bits – the rigid pathways and linear movement make any visual polish little more than window dressing.
If you've got a lot of house work to do, Grandia III might be for you. Do the dishes or clean up the dog's mess while the dire plot unwinds, then plop back onto the couch in time to crack skulls. Whatever you do, though, don't forget that there are other, better, more complete RPGs readily available for the PS2, or that cracked skull might be your own.