Retrospective: Grandia II

The Dreamcast had a sadly short life, doomed as it was to be SEGA’s last shot effort at staying in the console-making game. Unlike its disastrous predecessor Saturn, however, the Dreamcast is still more or less beloved among a lot of gamers now in their 20s. Maybe it’s because everyone knew it was SEGA’s last shot, or because some of its games were actually pretty good.

Grandia II was one of these. Released in 2000, Grandia II was in many ways a typical JRPG – lots of battles, boss fights, traveling, dialogue, dialogue, dialogue, and all in the context of an epic quest to save the world. Your hero is Ryudo, a young mercenary who runs around the countryside looking for work with his pet (?) talking falcon (???) Skye (no, the game never explains this. Especially confusing because Skye is the only talking/intelligent animal in the game; the rest don’t say a word. Also, in the English dub Skye sounds like George Takei.) Ryudo is kind of a dick, and although Skye tries to keep him in line it doesn’t always work.

One of Ryudo's many quips

One of Ryudo’s many quips

The gist of Grandia II is that you, as Ryudo, have to take a job from the church that controls your country to seal an ancient evil together with a nun who is the key to sealing that evil, because of a reason I can’t remember. You travel to see the pope while meeting people who have serious problems you have to fix, after which a few of them will join your party as permanent members. ……..

Right, so in terms of setting, plot and basic character layout, it’s a generic JRPG. Painfully generic, and as stale as a week-old baguette. The hero is a jaded sarcastic guy, the main female lead is a nice girl who wants to help everybody. There’s also a kid, a warrior furry lion sort-of guy and a robot girl. And if you’ve played even a few JRPGs of this kind, you’ll see the plot twists coming several hours before they hit. Hell, you might be able to figure out everything that’s going on, all the way to the very end of the game, after finishing just about a third of it. Really, that’s not right at all.

FINE Elena we'll fucking save the townspeople already

FINE Elena we’ll fucking save the townspeople already

Despite that, Grandia II is a good game if only for its gameplay, and namely for its battle system. It’s a mix of turn-based and real-time battle. Each of your members has his or her turn along with each of the enemies. However, the order of everyone’s turns is determined by their speed stats and whether your party was able to catch the enemy off guard or was ambushed by the enemy. Each turn, represented by the character’s face, moves along the initiative bar to the blue COM threshold, where you can input a command for that character. Once they hit the ACT line, that character will carry out their inputted action. Both you and your enemies’ actions can be cancelled, however, if they’re attacked before carrying said action out. Getting canceled flings the affected actor’s icon way to the left (i.e. the beginning) of the initiative bar again.

Your characters also get a whole crapload of moves and spells to learn, some of which do various amounts of area damage. A few moves are great for canceling imminent enemy attacks.

Grandia II's battle system is its best asset.

Grandia II’s battle system is its best asset.

This system might sound complicated, but it’s really easy to pick up and a lot of fun once you’ve gotten the hang of it. Battles in Grandia II are a lot more than simple point-and-click or run-around-the-field-swinging-your-sword deals as they are in many other JRPGs, and that adds a lot of value to the game.

Another nice addition to Grandia II is this bit that comes up maybe six or eight times throughout the game where you get to sit in on a dinner conservation with your party. It’s not especially substantive or anything, but it adds some flavor to the game, and the characters’ interactions can be amusing sometimes. In fact, most of Grandia II‘s dialogue is pretty well-written, even in the context of its stale plot.

Is he being sarcastic?  Who can tell.

Is he being sarcastic? Who can tell.

Grandia II is a nice JRPG that’s well worth playing if you live in 2000 and own a Dreamcast. And though it hasn’t aged all that well, really, even today it’s fun. I played it a couple of times as a kid, and returning to the game, I can still enjoy it.

Sadly, it’s kind of hard to track down today in its original form – copies of the Dreamcast version are on sale for $150 on Amazon (it’s the same with Skies of Arcadia, actually – what is it with Dreamcast RPGs being expensive as hell now?) The PS2 version might be cheaper, though I’ve never played it – it could also be a horribly broken port for all I know. And the PC (!) version is probably damn near impossible to play on a Windows 7/8 machine. Still, if you can track this game down for a decent price, it’s well worth a play. I don’t know if it’s necessarily $150 worth of it, but it’s certainly worth something.

Retrospective: Skies of Arcadia

Skies Of Arcadia

Sometimes I get nostalgic for my old Dreamcast, and when I do one of the games I think about is this one. Skies of Arcadia was released in 2000 and it stands on its own, without any sequels or spinoffs (the Gamecube port with added content, Skies of Arcadia Legends, doesn’t count.) And it’s still one of my favorite games of all time.

Skies of Arcadia didn’t have an especially fresh plot or complex characters or anything like that – it was a pretty standard “save the world” sort of deal, and the characters were, for the most part, either just plain good guys or bad guys. Moreover, a lot of the bad guy characters in this game are of the goofy, sort of incompetent type. SoA did have a nice lightheartedness to it that a lot of RPGs lacked, though, and the characters were genuinely dynamic and fun – just don’t expect any big deep human drama or anything like that.

The heroes of Skies.  Please don't laugh at the graphics too much; 2000 was a different time.

The heroes of Skies. Please don’t laugh at the graphics too much; 2000 was a different time.

But as far as setting went, Skies was unique as hell. The main character here is Vyse, the son of a pirate captain (a good guy pirate, meaning he only plunders bad guys.) Only, as the name implies, these pirates don’t sail the seas: they sail the skies. The whole world of Skies of Arcadia is suspended in the sky, including the land masses and the ships. Imagine the good Pirates of the Caribbean movie, only it takes place a few miles above ground, and you’ll have a good idea of what’s going on here.

This is your navigation screen while you're piloting your ship.

This is your navigation screen while you’re piloting your ship.

There’s no real explanation of how or why everything in this game is in the sky or how it’s all floating up there, and no indication of why the developers decided to set a pirate-themed RPG in the sky. Somehow, though, it all works. SoA offers the player a big world to fly around in (at least for a game made in 2000) with new parts of the map revealed as the game progresses, all RPG style. Your character can dock at ports, some of which are town areas and some entrances to dungeon/field areas. At this point, you set out on foot.

This is generally when you get into fights.  SoA's combat system is pretty standard, but RPG lovers should enjoy it.  There are way too damn many random battles, though.

This is generally when you get into fights. SoA’s combat system is pretty standard, but RPG lovers should enjoy it. There are way too damn many random battles, though.

A lot of SoA‘s gameplay is pretty normal turn-based RPG fare. Where the game gets interesting is in its ship battles. At certain points in the game, you will enter into battle with an enemy ship, during which you must choose your ship’s actions (usually you’ll get three or four of them, depending on how many characters are in your active party) against your prediction of what you think the enemy ship will do. Here you’ll have to use some tactical thinking to take advantage of times at which your enemy is most vulnerable to attack and to shield yourself when your ship is weakest in position. You can outfit your ship with plenty of weapon types, including normal cannons, smaller guns that can fire in succession and torpedoes that can hit the enemy up to two turns away from when they’re launched, allowing you to concentrate a lot of firepower at the point where your enemy is exposed to attack. Trust me; it’s all a lot of fun when you actually play it.

Ship battles also feature a lot of "turning point" decisions like this that can change your fortunes for better or worse.

Ship battles also feature a lot of “turning point” decisions like this that can change your fortunes for better or worse.

Later on in the game, you can enhance your ship by recruiting crew members who add special abilities to your craft such as added attack, defense and healing. The whole ship battle thing might have come off as gimmicky if it had been shoehorned into the flow of the game or was done poorly, but I think it really ties in well with the story and the action of Skies.

Also, you fight this thing.

Also, you fight this thing.

Sadly, SEGA never followed up on this classic. I’d guess that it didn’t sell all that well, only that can’t be true, otherwise they wouldn’t have re-released it on the Gamecube with a ton of added content. So what happened? Nobody seems to know. Fans of the game have been badgering SEGA to put out a sequel, or at the very least an HD remake of the original, and SEGA has consistently put off those hopes. I’m not holding my breath, myself.

If you’re looking to play Skies of Arcadia today, you might have a hard time going about it. Both the Dreamcast original and the Gamecube port are currently selling for $150 on Amazon and similar amounts on eBay and other sites. You might notice that this is completely insane. I don’t know why copies of Skies are so rare these days, but they are.

That said, if you have the money to burn and the time to fully enjoy this fantastic RPG, I’d advise you to go for it. Skies of Arcadia is worth it – it offers dozens upon dozens of hours of gameplay and is just a lot of fun.

Or it could just be the nostalgia talking. Either way, Skies was a great game that still holds up today.