Grandia soars thanks to its charm and battle system, but this port does it no favors otherwise.
1997 was a long time ago. That’s when the well-regarded Game Arts-made RPG Grandia first came out on Sega Saturn in Japan on the same weekend that the movie Titanic was released in theaters. 22 years laters and Grandia, after a worldwide appearance on PlayStation in 1999, is out on Nintendo Switch as part of the Grandia HD Collection (check out our separate review of Grandia II). For the most part, Grandia is a brilliant and engrossing Japanese RPG with an excellent battle system paired with an enjoyable story, but this modern remaster lacks a degree of polish and refinement that holds it back from being the highly recommended pick-up it should be.
The story in Grandia has a pleasant whimsical feel as you take control of overly earnest teen adventurer Justin who pairs up with town friend/surrogate sister Sue to sneak around and explore. They wind up setting off in search of a lost civilization and over time join up with a varied cast of characters that are all endearing in their own way. While the late ‘90s voice acting doesn’t hold up all that well (Japanese audio is more pleasing and easy to switch to), the writing is fine more often than not. Even still, the story has some supreme goofiness and low-key pacing issues, but it’s an enjoyable romp that occasionally juggles some good emotional beats next to the occasional dips into breezy absurdity. Combine the story with the bouncy and big soundtrack from composer Noriyuki Iwadare and the scope and scale of the journey is ably felt.
However, the general slow pace is something that’s prevalent throughout all of Grandia. While load times and the like were acceptable and common back in the ‘90s, the 2019 remaster is abundantly slow, even if it does improve some stutters and framerate dips from the original releases. Some sort of fast-forward or speed-up option (a feature relatively common in modern RPG remasters and ports) would do wonders here and it’s a shame nothing like it is in place. In general, this is a barebones, straightforward port absent the visuals. Plain and simple, this is just Grandia, save for some newfound bugs and problems that cropped up in the transition, ranging from audio cues being jumbled or cut short to sporadic sprites that don’t reflect the remastered smoothing. Publisher GungHo seems to be aware of these issues and will hopefully iron out the kinks, but as it stands right now, an onslaught of periphery and presentation issues plague this port.
Further, the previously pleasant visuals of sprites in a 3D world have been smoothed over and now appear washed out and overly polished with no method of reverting back to the original visuals. It doesn’t sully the look entirely, but it certainly doesn’t do it any favors. The art style can be disorienting in motion, especially with the lack of any map to view. The compass does a token attempt at giving you direction, but even that is confusing in its own right. Most of the dungeons and towns aren’t that complex, but all it takes is one errant camera pan to make it hard to make sense of your placement in a locale.
Through all that though, Grandia is still amazing and transcends these myriad issues. The battle system is truly something special. Comparisons could be made to Final Fantasy’s Active Time Battle system, but in lieu of individual meters, all heroes and enemies are displayed on a line at the bottom, moving forward as their turn comes up. The basics involve jostling between Combo, which attacks quickly and can potentially counter enemy attacks, and Critical, which needs time to charge but can reset an enemy’s turn meter entirely. A lot of depth unfurls from that as you try to manage the enemies around you by making smart use of the tools available to you. In an early boss fight, I managed to manipulate Combo and Critical with my two party members to never let the boss get an attack off.
Additionally, every character has access to different weapon types, which can be leveled up to add stat bonuses specific to that weapon. Bouncing between swords, maces, bows, and more can be beneficial because each bonus is different and having the weapons at higher levels can unlock powerful special attacks. Magic also works in a similar way, where using magic can level up that type of magic, adding more abilities and bonuses. The entire battle system works in harmony and the deeper I got into the game, the more fun it became as I added different abilities, party members, and options. It’s daunting at first, but a slow rollout of quick text tutorials at save points keeps doling out useful explanations in a way that never gets overwhelming. While pacing issues might hold back parts of the story, the battle system benefits from the consistent addition and notification of tweaks and strategies.
While problems with this port and a lack of modernized tweaks make Grandia less of a slam dunk to recommend, this is still a relatively hidden gem from the late ‘90s that is worth trying or rediscovering. The graphics might not be as pleasant, the writing might have some cringey moments, and odds are you’ll come across a few out-of-place bugs, but Grandia’s battle system helps to overcome those drawbacks alongside its endearing characters and world. At the very least, Grandia stands tall next to its other late ‘90s contemporaries. So much so that I can envision the plucky star Justin trying to convince Cloud and Barrett from Final Fantasy VII that he’s an adventurer who rightfully deserves a seat at their theoretical table of classic, genre-defining RPGs.