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March 24, 2012

Grandia III: Disappointment In the Sky



Yo man, Mass Effect 3 is the worst piece of garbage I’ve ever -- no, just kidding.  Let’s leave that off the table for now, shall we?  I haven’t beaten it yet, but unless there’s some grievous issue that I can’t ignore, I’m willing to give both the game and Bioware the benefit of the doubt.  (My prediction?  Shepard engages in a noble sacrifice and bestows unlimited hot dogs throughout the entire universe.)

Enough of that.  I suppose you guys should count yourselves lucky; the moment this topic started up, I was ready and waiting to discuss -- and justify -- my abject hatred of Final Fantasy XIII.  But I’ve already done that here on multiple occasions, and one of these days I intend to continue my rant.  So instead, I’ll focus on one of the few other games out there to earn my ire so readily.

Its name was Grandia III


...Excuse me, I need to go smoke a few truckloads of cigarettes.


Of course, it wasn’t always that way.  When the PS2 game was still in development (prior to a 2006 release), and videos trickled down the pipeline to my then-ancient PC, I was ecstatic.  Another JRPG!  Look at that action!  The colors!  The explosions!  The music!  I was hungry for some more stat-crunching, beast-busting action, and I’d learned to put my stock in the genre thanks to games like Tales of Symphonia and Baten Kaitos -- even Final Fantasy VIII, in spite of being the most easily-breakable RPG I’ve ever played.    Somehow I managed to coax my brother into buying it on his way back from school; incidentally, the day he was slated to bring home the gold was the same day I spotted a review.  On a scale of one to ten, it earned a seven.

“Impossible!” I spurted.  “A seven for such a (presumably) amazing game!  I call bias!  Obviously they’re going harder on the game because it’s a JRPG!” 

I would later go on to think that the reviewer was being too kind.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.


As was the standard, my brother took the first swing at the two-disc adventure…and as was the standard, he gave up well before reaching the endgame.  So it was up to me to bring about a happy ending.  I remember when I first started a new file; I was in the den, with the sun having gone down and a single light illuminating the screen.  I was all alone.  It was going to be my greatest adventure yet.

There was just one little caveat: before my adventure could begin in earnest, I had to listen to a certain song.  “In the Sky” -- a title befitting the game’s themes and motifs…and one of the most utterly grating songs I’ve ever heard.  Just thinking about it makes me twitch.  And the cutscene in which the song plays in full, less than an hour into the game -- if I remember correctly -- is unskippable.  I had to switch to the TV channels just to avoid hearing it; I also had to switch back and forth between channel and game, asking “Is it over yet?” and then being greeted with “TO MAKE YOUR WISHES ALL COME TRUE.”

I was sixteen or seventeen at the time.  And never in my life had I needed all the beer on Earth.

 Fortunately, it was over “soon enough.”  And with that out of the way, I could get to the story proper.  An elfin damsel in distress, Alfina, is on the run from some malcontents, and the only one who can save her is the hot-blooded swordsman and fledgling pilot Yuki, who just happens to cross her path.  Yeah, we’ve all heard that one before, but I saw it as a means to an end.  That relationship was easy enough to see coming (love interest much?), but what really intrigued me was the potential to be had in one of the other characters, Miranda.  Otherwise known as Yuki’s mom.

 
If you asked me to count how many times I’d seen a MOM as an actual party member, I would hold up exactly one finger.  Granted, she didn’t look any older than Yuki (maybe she takes really good care of herself?), but the fact remained that it was a role I’d rarely seen.  Coupled with some banter between the two and an injection of manliness via gambling sailor Alonso, and I had high hopes.

And the battle system.  Holy hell, the battle system.

It was fast-paced.  It was strategic.  It was flashy.  It was everything that Final Fantasy XIII should have been.  It offered a different interpretation of the ATB system seen in other games; turn-based, yes, but actions were split into multiple phases.  You’d pick an attack, and depending on its strength you’d have to wait a moment to charge and then execute the attack -- and then go into a cooldown time, waiting to reach a ready phase to select another move.  Sounds a little silly at first, but there’s a catch: enemies not only followed the same rule, but you could completely cancel out their attacks if you hit them during their charging phase with the right move.  And enemies could do the same to you.  So on top of being a struggle of managing your HP, MP, and SP, you also had to delegate which of your party members used their slow-but-powerful moves and which members focused on interrupting enemy attacks.  To say nothing of the fact that -- with the right preparations mid-battle -- you could air juggle your enemies into dust, almost as if you’re playing Tekken with swords.


It was a deep, but interesting system.  More importantly, there was just so much energy involved in the affair.  I enjoyed the sounds of war; ignoring the fact that Yuki was voiced by Power Rangers alum Johnny Yong Bosch (and reading his lines with mass amounts of hot-blooded conviction), the music was snappy and psyched you up.  Magic attacks weren’t just “fireball, fireball column, really big fireball”; you could shoot out dozens of flaming sparrows, send a searing wall of flame through the battlefield, or nuke the shit out of your foes.

I lapped it up like a cat slurping milk from a saucer. Awesome fights.  Miranda and Alonso.  The prospects of a new world to explore at my fingertips, and all the magic I could ever want just waiting to be equipped.  I dug in my heels; I’d see this story through to the end.  I was ready.  I was waiting.  I was hyped.

And then the plot happened.

Miranda comes to realize -- through Alonso’s suggestion, and a few poignant cutscenes -- that Yuki can take care of himself.  With Alfina’s mission as a communicator -- a liaison to the guardian spirits -- in need of attending to, Yuki soldiers on with the priestess by his side.  Ultimately, the mother decides to let the son take to the sky in his new plane without her; he’ll make his way in the world without hesitation.  The sky’s the limit, as they say.  And so, Miranda bids Yuki farewell, agreeing to sail with Alonso -- but before Yuki can take to the skies, he calls back “I love you, Mom!”  It’s an utterly heartwarming scene, and a signal of even better things to come.

Except they don’t.  You never get to see Miranda and Alonso again.  Referenced?  Sure, albeit very briefly.  Seen?  Nope.  Mentioned?  What, you think that a mother-son relationship is actually meaningful?  Pssshaaaaaaaaaw!


It’s right around this time where two major flaws in Grandia III’s story start to rear up.  The first problem is that, while other RPGs -- fiction in general -- feature character arcs that span the start of a story to its end, Grandia III doesn’t.  Sure, Yuki wanted to be a pilot with a spiffy plane and meet his hero, but those are both resolved just before you part ways with Miranda; flying and the sky become less of an experience and more of a way to get to the next dungeon.  Miranda and Alonso are done; the former’s character arc is about letting Yuki leave the nest (har har) and the latter has a plot where he learns that his actions have consequences (stop gambling!), but that’s it.  You get two new party members, hungry beast-man Ulf and improbably buxom enchantress Dahna, but their plots are resolved, for the most part, shortly after meeting them.  Ulf has some issue with his clan and dragon-riding, and Dahna’s become a nihilist thanks to the souring luck of her village and her MIA lover Raven (who you meet regularly), but that’s it.  They don’t even appear in most cutscenes.  Hell, I’m just having a hard time remembering their story arcs, much less any impact they might have had.

It just goes to show that issue: the game HAS arcs.  The problem is that they end way too quickly.  Ulf has a problem!  Here, let’s help!  Ulf makes a stand!  Problem solved, lesson learned!  Yuki has a dream!  Oh, but he’s got a problem!  Don’t give up, Yuki!  Problem solved, dreams realized!  Nothing challenges their characters or motives anymore; no foils, no disagreements with foes, no inner conflict -- in their minds, and rarely amongst one another (though that’s probably just a consequence of Ulf and Dahna being little more than party member stand-ins)…it feels so empty.

But it’s not.  The game tries to give you something -- some impetus to continue the story, and see it through to the finale.  It tries to give you characters, and a world, worth caring about.  It tries so very, very, hard…and it stands as an utter failure that produced one of my most hated video game characters ever.

Say hello to Alfina.


We all know the type.  The white mage.  The mysterious waif with a mysterious hidden power (often a princess, though not in this case).  The love interest.  The gentle girl who smiles when there’s something to be happy about -- like nature or friendship -- and cries when things get rough.  You’ve seen that archetype a hundred times by now; it had varying levels of blandness or annoyance, but there were at least a few positive traits to help keep things in line.  Final Fantasy X’s Yuna is a fine example; once you accept that it’s her story -- suck that down, Tidus -- you get a character with myriad responses and transformations, showing just what it’s like to be the chosen one.

Alfina is like a poor man’s Yuna.  For comparison’s sake, I made this handy little chart.  Click on it, if you would...


I’m not saying that Yuna was a perfect character, but compared to Alfina she might as well be.  At least Yuna didn’t cry in every other cutscene.  At least Yuna had a personality besides “wide-eyed goodness.”  At least Yuna was capable of thought and reason.  Alfina is an abyss of a character, one that takes everyone else’s potential for a story arc or contribution to the overall game and sucks it right up.  After Miranda and Alonso leave, the story focuses entirely on her; the problem is that because Alfina then begins spending all her time moping about, trying and failing to protect the guardian spirits, trying and failing to get her brother Emellious to stop being such a twat about things that the game’s tone shifts.  No longer is it peppy and full of hope.  No longer is it charming.  It just becomes one cutscene after another, confirming “yep, things are getting bad” and “oh look, Alfina’s crying!  Look how much emotional turmoil the rebellion of her brother has caused!  FEEL EMOTION FOR HER!”  It’s needlessly morose.

I wish I could find some sort of defense for her, but I can’t -- which just illustrates a bigger problem with her as a whole.  I don’t remember a single thing about Alfina.  I remember details about her character, but ask me to name some distinct part of her and I’d turn into a sputtering mess.  All I can recall is my frustration one afternoon when, while watching another middling cutscene, I lost it.  “STOP CRYING!” I yelled.  “YOU ALREADY CRIED!  YOU CRIED IN THE LAST CUTSCENE!  YOU CRY IN EVERY CUTSCENE!  THAT’S ALL YOU EVER DO!”  I literally yelled that, mind; my brother can attest to that.  If all I can remember is how much of a pain in the ass a character is -- yet remember how awesome a character is from a game I played years earlier -- then that’s a bad character.

But I was stuck.  I had some perverse need to finish the game.  I had to do what my brother couldn’t; I had something to prove.  But just as the story fell apart before the first disc was done, so too did the gameplay.  Yes, even the battles.


Eventually you start to realize there’s a fatal flaw in the battle system: you can’t move your characters as you see fit.  They’ll automatically move into positions when they finish casting/attacking, but other than that you don’t have a shred of control over them.  It doesn’t matter much at first…but it DOES when enemies start taking advantage of this little fault.  There are little guys who lay down bombs before you even get a chance to choose your move; by the time you’re ready to strike, the bomb explodes, saps half your health, and cancels out your attack.  And you fight as many as six of the critters at once.

Then there are the tentacle monsters.  They’re a cross between Mewtwo and Hojo’s final form from Final Fantasy VII -- and you often have no hope of beating them.  They’re insanely fast, insanely strong, and can wreck your party before they’ve even drawn their weapons.  And often, you’ll fight them while fighting off the bomb critters.  And often, you’ll have to deal with enemies that summon more enemies, and can continue to interrupt your attacks.  And often, you’ll find enemies that can not only nuke you, but hit you with status effects in the same breath.  All the while, they’re taking advantage of your non-ability to move (both on the field and when using abilities) until you game over.  And over.  And over.  And over.

It all comes to a head with the last boss.  He can attack you three times before you even get your second move in.  His damage output is huge.  He’s got an insane amount of HP.  But most of all, he has “Death Knell,” an attack which lets him lay down a platform of darkness below a character’s feet.  It’s set to detonate after a short while.  If you can somehow use a move to get your character out of that platform, it’ll go off without hurting you.  If you can’t, they’re pretty much screwed.  If you can get them to attack, move out of the circle, then watch as they waltz right back into the circle, then you’ll find yourself resisting the urge to throw your TV through a wall.


Oh well.  At least there are sidequests, right?  Oh wait, no there aren’t.

Oh well.  At least there are minigames, right?  Well, there’s some gambling that you can don at one location, but…no, no there aren’t.

Can I at least go flying around the world, discovering new loca -- nope.

You can’t do anything.  You just take your miserable cast of characters from one point on the map to another, watching piddling cutscenes, and engaging in increasingly meaningless and depressing battles until you reach the next cutscene/boss battle.  You go on and on and on, until you kill your way to the last boss -- a typical “destroy everything!” superbeing -- and get your ending.  It was Final Fantasy XIII before Final Fantasy XIII.

Your reward for beating the last boss?  Seeing Yuki and Alfina married, and with a child who loves flying.  All to the majestic chords of “In the Sky.”



As soon as I finished the game, I threw it back in the case and never touched it again.    

You know, it’s funny.  JRPGs get a lot of flak these days -- they’re clichéd, they’re boring, they’re childish, they’re catering to moe fetishism and otakus, blah blah blah.  I disagree; while they’ve got issues, I dare you to name a genre that doesn’t.  My reasonable defense is a result of my almost-blind love of the genre back then, when I figured they could do no wrong.  They were perfect masterpieces, emblems of art, culture, and of course storytelling.

And then I played Grandia III.  Disappointment?  Yes.  But in a way, I suppose I should thank it.  It taught me the importance of a good story -- how just a few faults can destroy your entire product.  It showed me that even the genre I loved wasn’t invincible.  And most of all, it taught me how much I could hate a single song.

“TO MAKE YOUR WISHES ALL COME TRUE.”  Damn.  I need several dozen drinks.

12 comments:

  1. Well, I just bought the game, so... yeah. Next time I'll read the review BEFORE buying a game. But since I'm a Grandia devotee, I suppose I have no choice but to play it. Wish me luck!

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    1. Good luck. You'll need it.

      ...To be fair, the game's a blast until Miranda and Alonso leave the party and the "brave new world" veneer starts to wear off. Maybe you should just pretend that when they split off from the team, that's the end of the game.

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  2. Yeah, you know, before reading this review, I took a look at the game manual's character page, and just judging by the drawings, Miranda and Alonso seemed like the most interesting and promising of the bunch. Then I read their profiles, and was surprised to find that Miranda was Yuki's mom! She looks so young! Like you said, I had high hopes, expecting some interesting social dynamics between her, Yuki, and Alfina, but hoping it wouldn't get too cliche and anime-like. Also, Alonso is the only male character on that page that actually looks "cool" (more or less). Oh well. How far into the game do they split? Sounds like it happens before the end of the first half.
    On another note, I happened to stumble upon the official music video of "In the sky" (also before reading your review). Let's just say that it made feel embarrassed to be a member of the human species. I'm thinking of turning it into the next rickroll. By the way, have you played Rogue Galaxy? I was thinking of picking it up.

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    1. Hmmm...it's been a while since I played the game, but I think that Miranda and Alonso are gone pretty quickly. Maybe before the halfway point of the first disk, if that. Certainly before you get Dahna, or even meet her IIRC.

      Incidentally, I HAVE played Rogue Galaxy -- and I have to say, that's a far better game. Okay, I'll admit that its plot is a little cliche at times (and occasionally a rip-off of Star Wars), but it's an expansive -- and surprisingly long -- game with a simple-yet-snappy battle system, interesting characters, and good customization options. You even get your own factory, and can use it to create items (assuming you can put all the mechanical parts in the right order).

      Also, the music is a lot better throughout. Have a listen:
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_JQI84ZnY_Y

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  3. Nice! The soundtrack really IS good, even the slower tunes. I'm sure you've already heard them, but...

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0xJ42lF8CrA
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dj_tYfiwLLc

    Thanks for taking the time to write the above mini-review for Rogue Galaxy. I think I will indeed snag it. Speaking or JRPG's, I'll bother you with one last question: Have you ever played Hoshigami: Ruining Blue Earth? It's my favorite RPG of all time, but very few people seem to like it, so I thought it'd be interesting to hear your opinion on the matter.

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    1. Hey, I should be thanking you for visiting my blog. Good to know that there are real people (instead of some sort of digital specters roaming through cyberspace) that are actually finding my stuff.

      Unfortunately, I haven't played Hoshigami. I was an N64 kid, so there are a lot of JRPGs that are lost on me...though by the looks of things, there's a DS remake. Maybe I should look into it.

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  4. Yeah, the N64 kicks ass for sure. Super Mario 64, the original SSB, and Zelda OoT are probably my favorite games of all time, period (although the Megaman Legends series is also up there).
    Anyway, I don't know if I'd recommend Hoshigami. It seems like there are two versions available for the DS -- original, and "Remix". I played the original on the Playstation, as you can imagine, and at first it was very frustrating. Then I found out about level grinding, and I discovered that, although somewhat tedious, I could gain and maintain a 5 to 10 level advantage (or more) over the enemy troops, and pretty much be invincible. You can play with up to 6 characters on the field, but I beat most of the game with just one. Some levels would have 30 or so enemies, and they didn't even stand a chance against my one guy. Actually, at first, going solo was challenging, but the experience points my character gained from taking on entire battalions just kept widening the level gap until there wasn't really anything that could pose a threat left in the game. I am BY NO MEANS an expert gamer, so I find it interesting that people call this game "extremely difficult" (the remake for DS has difficulty settings, unlike the original, but it still is criticized for its difficulty). After beating the game, I found a really easy and quick way to level up your whole party, or any given party member, and I realized that if people knew about this method, they wouldn't hate the game for being hard. So if you ever decide to play it, and you don't feel up to the challenge of beating it without a little XP farming, let me know. All in all, though, I guess I wouldn't recommend it. The plot is not all that interesting, by common standards (whatever that means) and the characters are forgettable, except for a few. The graphics don't hold up to those of current games, and the gameplay is fun but not a "can't miss". I must be a wacko for liking this game so much.
    In any case, this is a pretty cool blog, and I'll keep my eye on it. Take it from me -- you could definitely succeed in a writing career. You have the wit, the humor, and the grammar (and possibly the inspiration/artistic vision -- I haven't read much of your work, so I won't comment on that yet, but when I read more of it, I'll let you know what i think).

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    1. Hey, thanks. I could use a little internet notoriety.

      And thanks for the Hoshigami heads-up as well. Weird that people would call it hard, but I'm no stranger to hard games. With God Hand, Devil Survivor 2, and Sin and Punishment: Star Successor added as notches on my belt, I suppose you could call me a masochist.

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  5. Haha, right on. Yeah, I heard some things about Devil Survivor...
    I realized after I wrote my last comment that a game's difficulty is judged by how hard it is to beat WITHOUT level grinding, so disregard most of what I said (seems like I was overlooking a pretty obvious fact back there). Maybe that's why I like Grandia -- the ease at which one can cruise through the game is refreshing. I guess Grandia III is another matter, though (way to bring it full-circle, huh?).

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  6. Bought this game last week. Beat it tonight. It was stupidly easy, and I didn't level grind at all. Was surfing the net to see if there was any side-quests to do and am disappointed to see that there are none. Kinda stupid having so many places on the map you can't even visit. I was looking forward to racing my plane on that one island. Oh well.

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  7. Apparently there were going to be sidequests and other areas to explore, but development time and budgets ran short. So yeah, no fun for you, gamer.

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  8. Actually has a way to move the characters.
    Just put to the side when you press "Guard". The character will walk to a different spot (and you choose which one).
    I really like the game, with all the faults. And bothers me a lot that we can not find Miranda throughout the game. Oh well. Dahna is my favorite character in the game and I actually like the main song of the game.

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