Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Grandia Xtreme

Grandia Xtreme Coverart.png

More Ecologically-Distressed Than Earth

Those well-versed in roleplaying games likely know developer Game Arts for its Lunar and Grandia series, the combat systems of the latter in particular extolled by many mainstream critics. While the first two Grandias debuted on Sega systems, they would see ports to Sony’s PlayStation consoles, albeit with technical issues. The year 2002 saw the release of a side-story focused mostly on the gameplay, Grandia Xtreme, on the PlayStation 2, with Enix, still separate from Square, publishing it. The gaiden game builds upon the gameplay of its predecessors, but is that a good thing?

Xtreme follows a Geohound named Evann forcefully conscripted into the military, and annoyed that his old rival, Kroitz, somehow serves as a Colonel. The initial goal of the game is to neutralize an environmental crisis called the Elemental Disorder, following which is the exploration of ancient ruins and the attempt to create a “perfect” world by an ancient god named Quanlee. The environmental crises and visitation of elemental-themed ruins somewhat parrots the very first Final Fantasy, the theme of childhood rivalry has been done by previous media prior, and the “ancient evil” arc later on isn’t exactly original.

The side-story further deals with the theme of race relations, which actually doesn’t receive much exploration throughout the game, with little exploration of why exactly the human characters and their elven counterparts are somewhat antagonistic. Furthermore, while there are some narrative elements taken from previous Grandia games, Xtreme at best features a standalone storyline with little connection, akin to the Final Fantasy games. Meaningful character development is also virtually nonexistent, the plotline is oftentimes melodramatic, the characters themselves are generally unlikeable, and there’s little inventive backstory.

For the plot to actually be coherent was somewhat miraculous, considering the rushed nature of the localization, which, while largely free of spelling and grammar errors, contains some Engrish such as the term “forestall” when surprising enemies in battle and “sway” when foes dodge attacks. Some of the names for characters and other things are somewhat laughable, such as “Elemental Disorder,” “Titto” for one of Evann’s allies, and “WOW!” for an attack power-increasing spell. Some of the item names are also misleading, some actually failing to indicate that they heal multiple characters.

The other writing throughout the course of the game is also lousy, accounting for the melodrama in the plotline, and much battle dialogue sounds unnatural. There seems no reason, for instance, aside from alcohol, why any sensible human would find it realistic for a character to shout “Shoot through them LIGHTNING!” or proclaim “Owie, everybody!” when losing all health. Granted, there is the rarity of a few of the lines on combat actually sounding okay, such as Evann’s angry “You’ll pay for that!” whenever he takes a critical hit, although there’s little excuse overall for the dismal disposition of the localization.

That leaves the gameplay to carry the load, and Grandia Xtreme actually has many things going for it in its favor in this department. However, as with its predecessors, the system of visible encounters is a step down from those in other RPGs such as EarthBound, with enemies charging Evann regardless of his party’s level, although one minor improvement is to hold a button to put him in “alert” state, which makes it easier to surprise antagonists. Another bright spot is that after battles, Evann blinks for a few seconds, allowing players some time to get away from foes in dungeons. A meter at the bottom of the screen also gauges the relative strength of monsters.

Battles themselves follow many of its precursors’ same rules, with icons representing the player’s characters and enemies populating a turn order meter. Whenever Evann or one of his allies reaches a certain point in the gauge, all action of combat stops, allowing players to select one of many commands, including two different types of attack, combos where characters slash an enemy twice or more times (with certain high-level Skills allowing for more of these in such assaults), and “critical” attacks where, if timed correctly, the player can cancel out enemy commands if they’re on the part of the turn order gauge where they ready their own commands.

Enemies too can neutralize the player’s commands, and things can certainly get hectic when there are more foes than there are Evann or the three allies he brings into a dungeon. Fortunately, most characters can equip multiple Mana Eggs, many of which have spells able to target multiple enemies, which somewhat helps fights go by faster. As characters attack, moreover, they acquire special points necessary to perform skills that increase in level the oftener they are used, some of which, when maxed out, can execute instantly, with a few of these able to cancel out enemy commands, perfect for those times when they’re readying a powerful assault.

Characters can also defend to reduce damage, or use this command to move to a different portion of the battlefield, sometimes necessary since certain skills and spells depend upon their current position, but lamentably, the general system of movement for both the player’s party and enemies involves a great deal of randomization and unpredictability. Furthermore, if characters are too far from enemies and they run too often when attempting to execute their command, they can run out of stamina and have their ability wasted, with no indication given, even from certain Skills, of whether they can actually execute their order within reasonable constraints.

Evann and his allies can equip three different levels of Skills, their quantity indicated by equippable Skill Books, that provide innate effects such as being able to view the commands enemies are readying during a character’s turn, increasing the quality of the rewards from fighting enemies, adding a cancel effect to magic spells, and so forth. The effects of these Skills gradually increase based on certain types of experience obtained from slaying adversaries, alongside standard experience, money, and items mostly acquired from victories in combat. The player can create new Skills via scrolls acquired from slaying monsters at a special facility in town.

One quirk about Skills is that the player can “sell” them at said facility, with special points gained from doing so that the player can use to purchase special items including equipment and Mana Eggs, and a maximum return granted from fully leveling one of these abilities. The player can also sell Skill Books for these points, which may sometimes be necessary since the game places a maximum on the number of the number they can carry during the game, and unfortunately, there aren’t enough Skill Books to fill every character’s slot.

Mercifully, however, there are ample Mana Eggs for everyone, with each character having a different number they can equip at a time, and the player able to fuse them at another facility in town to create more powerful ones. Each Egg has its own Magic Points that dictate how many spells the player can use, and certain methods of fusion can grant bonuses to more powerful Mana Eggs, with some of their spells potentially able to obtain increased execution speed, reduced cost, and even power. However, the method by which said spells gain such bonuses doesn’t seem to have a definite methodology.

There are other issues with the battle system that prevent it from truly excelling, such as the fact that during most character and enemy abilities other than regular attacks or defense, the action of combat completely halts with unskippable animations, some of which can drag on for a while, and really mar the game’s pacing, potentially adding hours of superfluous playtime. Xtreme also ditches recovering save points in dungeons, which sometimes have long enemy-infested stretches before bosses that can really exhaust the player’s party. That death in battle results in a Game Over that makes the player’s efforts all for nothing further augments this issue, and while many have adulated the franchise’s battle system, the various issues really hamper its enjoyability.

The game, however, fares significantly worse in the area of control. While the menus are superficially easy to navigate and there’s a general decent sense of direction on how to advance the main storyline (except for some points where the player has to talk repeatedly with NPCs in a town), the mentioned issue with saving and recovery dampens this aspect. There’s only one recovery point in town, and doing so forces the player to exit it and forces them to endure an unskippable sleep sequence. The player can also only save in town and between significant plot breaks, and as an added annoyance, only view the game clock on the save file page.

Also unskippable are the Mana Egg fusion and Skill creation animations, along with the text in most cutscenes, voiced or not, with no option either to pass the story scenes themselves. Furthermore, many dungeons feature puzzles and other interactable elements that the player must redo whenever they revisit said areas. The final nail in the coffin is the total inability to pause the game, which has always been inexcusable. Overall, Grandia Xtreme is undoubtedly one of the most user-unfriendly RPGs I have had the displeasure of playing.

One area that fares significantly better, however, is the aural presentation. Series regular Noriyuki Iwadare returns for the gaiden’s soundtrack, with many great tracks such as the energetic battle themes, one of the regular ones having a bit of a flamenco feel. Regardless, the two main themes that perpetually alternate can get old somewhat fast, and a different theme for when the player surprises the enemy would have been welcome, given that there’s a special one for foes surprising the player’s party. The central theme with a few remixes is also good, along with many dungeon tracks and cutscene pieces that have an orchestral feel.

No one can say the same, however, of the voice acting. Press releases for the game, alongside the game case, piously proclaimed the “talents” of actors Dean Cain and Mark Hamill, not to mention singer Lisa Loeb, although given the lackluster nature of the writing, their efforts largely come across as phoned-in, alongside the performers of other characters, with occasional miscasting such as Titto looking like a child but sounding like a teenager. Many voices in battle also have an unusual echo effect, and ultimately, while the music is mostly good, Xtreme proves celebrity talent doesn’t equal great performances.

The graphics also fail to reach excellence, and didn’t exactly push the visual capabilities of the PlayStation 2 to their capacity. While the character models look like their anime-style portraits, which show ranges of emotions, the models themselves don’t change much, particularly with regard to their faces, which almost never change, aside from the occasional eye-blinking. The colors are realistic, and the animations in battle are nice, but the environmental textures appear blurry and pixilated. The best part are the CG cutscenes, but otherwise, the graphical presentation is nothing to write home about.

Finally, the game can take longer than its predecessors, given the potential for hours of repetition, somewhere from two to four days total of playtime, including the post-game dungeon and sidequests such as collecting all Sound Bites necessary to participate in a minigame. However, given the tedium of the gameplay, odds are most players won’t want to invest superfluous time in the gaiden.

In the end, Grandia Xtreme has things going for it like the good ideas behind the gameplay and enjoyability at points, although issues with the save system, alongside the potential for tons of wasted progress and hours added by unskippable animations and cutscene text really mar the experience. Story has never been a strong point in the Grandia games, either, and the side-story pushes that standard to a new low. The aural and visual presentations are middling, too, and ultimately, only those who earnestly believe the gameplay of the series is infallible will be the ones most likely to have a good time.

The Good:
+Gameplay has good ideas.
+Soundtrack is good.
+Graphics get the job done.

The Bad:
-Feels padded.
-Weak story and localization.

The Bottom Line:
You’re not missing much.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: PlayStation 2
Game Mechanics: 5.0/10
Controls: 0.5/10
Story: 1.5/10
Localization: 2.5/10
Music/Sound: 5.0/10
Graphics: 5.0/10
Lasting Appeal: 5.0/10
Difficulty: Moderate
Playing Time: 2-4 Days

Overall: 3.5/10

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