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LONG BLOG

Where the Hell is Grandia?

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With the success of several videogame companies during the 16bit era, especially within the JRPG genre, there became an explosion of game development in the 5th generation of consoles. That was especially the case in developing for the newest kid in the block; Sony's PlayStation.
However, in this case, the Grandia series wasn't one of the many JRPG franchises getting their start on the PSOne. Instead, it opted for the Sega Saturn instead. Yet, only later, when ported to the PSOne did the first Grandia game endear itself to a Western audience.

From that start, the series continued developing for Sega consoles then ported to Sony's, until the last release which was exclusively developed for the PS2. Since then, what once was a beloved and adventurous JRPG series simply disappeared.

So, what the hell happened here?

To understand what exactly happened to the Grandia series, we need to look at all the games released under that name, which isn't many. Unlike other franchises that I covered in these blogs, Grandia only has six games. These are divided neatly into three mainline games, and three spin-offs.

The mainline games all employ a similar JRPG structure that utilizes the franchise's trademark battle system. As for the spin-offs, they are varied and each game is nearly self-contained within itself.

All critical ratings are from Gameranking.com, and commercial performance is based on some research by myself.

A) The Mainline Series:

The mainline games are each a self-contained story. Yet, they are all "numbered" entries in the series, and they do employ a similar structure and gameplay.

1- Grandia:

  • Released: Saturn, 1997 in Japan; PS1, 1999 in Japan and NA.
  • Developer: Game Arts.
  • Publisher: ESP Software, Sony, Ubisoft.
  • Critical Reception: 87.25%; 85.87%.
  • Commercial Reception: About 1M Units Sold.

Beginning with their first game in the franchise, Game Arts knocked it out of the park. Grandia is not only one of the best JRPGs of the 5th generation, but also one of the best games of that generation as well. While it late port to the West have probably affected its historical reception in comparison to behemoths like Square's Final Fantasy VII, any accurate comparison of the two will actually favor Grandia in everything apart from music.

That's because the game's story fosters a rare sense of adventure, camaraderie, and character development that is done better than any other JRPG game I ever played. Featuring the ever-positive wannabe adventurer, Justin, and his attempt to reach beyond the end of the world (A wall that is even larger than the Ice wall of Game of Thrones), the story is propelled forward at an exhilarating pace that introduces new characters and new developments in a clear and concise fashion.

This only manages to accentuate the bond you get with these characters, as they feel like they have more depth to them than many other games. With clear and identifiable weaknesses and strengths. It becomes both a strong adventure game and a strong coming-of-age story.

A story by itself doesn't carry a game though. Thankfully, the trademark Grandia battle system works to make battles very engaging, challenging, and also maintaining a constant sense of progress. It's a classic turn-based system with an interesting twist. All character icons are shown in a time bar at the top of the screen. The icons move in this bar to show when they will act (based on speed) and then move slower once an action is chosen as the action is prepared. By attacking any given character, their turn is delayed, or better yet is canceled if hit with a strong attack while they are in the middle of preparing one of their own.

That lends a ton of strategy to the system, especially when you add movement, character progression, area of effect attacks, and other options into the mix. It is, to this day, one of the best turn-based battle systems I ever experienced.

2- Grandia II:

  • Released: Dreamcast, 2000 in Japan and NA; PS2, 2002 in Japan and NA.
  • Developer: Game Arts, Rocket Studio (PS2 only).
  • Publisher: Game Arts, Enix, Ubisoft.
  • Critical Reception: 88.81%, 72.76%.
  • Commercial Reception: Around 500K units sold.

While I personally disagree with them, some people say that Grandia II is the best in the series. With a darker and more "mature" story, I understand why someone prefers the second outing compared to the first one. Especially since nearly all other aspects remain the same.

Utilizing an upgraded graphical engine that uses a similar but better-looking mixture of sprites and 3D assets, and also using the same battle system with a few differences, Grandia II is yet another excellent JRPG. The story this time follows Ryoudo, a mercenary who must protect a priestess from a band of demons that need to sacrifice her for some nefarious reason. Here, the twist is that there is another more mischevious personality within the priestess that occasionally crops up to make a mess of things. One big criticism of the game is that the dungeons are similar looking, with many employing a body-horror motif with grotesque sprite imagery and stuff.

One thing to note is the significant difference between the Dreamcast and PS2 GameRankings scores. That is due to the port being inferior, with some technical glitches and overall less attractive graphics. Yet, there was at the time a strong undercurrent of anti-JRPG and anti-anime bias in the reviews industry, as games like this were accused of being too kiddy for the Western audience.

3- Grandia III:

  • Released: PS2, 2005 in Japan, 2006 in NA; XBOX.
  • Developer: Game Arts.
  • Publisher: Square Enix.
  • Critical Reception: 78.60%.
  • Commercial Reception: Around 500K Units Sold.

In some ways, Grandia III was supposed to be the moment the series explodes. Published by JRPG veterans, Square Enix, there was an effort for the series to take a significant step forward. With over three movies worth of cut-scenes, graphics that are comparable to Square Enix's own Final Fantasy series, and even some expensive veteran voice actors, the game was supposed to propel the series forward beyond the respectable sales of its predecessors.

Still, the game did not sacrifice the spirit of adventure and optimism that previously defined the series. This may be the first JRPG I played where the main character's mother is part of the playable cast. It works as a direct contrast to the increasingly edgy stories being told at the time. Of course, the franchise's trade-mark battle system made a return and was better than ever.

Unfortunately, the reception the game got wasn't to Square Enix's expectation. Taking a page of the anti-Nintendo marketing book, the game was accused of the deadly sin of being too "kiddy". The lack of massive stake, as well as the warmer story, were both criticized. In that time, I am ashamed to confess to falling victim of that image, refusing to play the game because I was afraid my cousins would criticize my "childish" gaming choices.

B) The Spin-Offs:

The spin-off games are not related to each other but are also little related to the main series by virtue of having a completely different gameplay structure. Even if some elements, such as the battle system, being also part of these games.

1- Grandia: Parallel Trippers:

  • Released: Gameboy Color, 2000 in Japan.
  • Developer: Game Arts.
  • Publisher: Hudson Soft.
  • Critical Reception: 24/40 at Famitsu.
  • Commercial Reception: Unknown.

 

It's not strange to try and port a game franchise to a portable console, and Game Arts were simply following that trend by releasing Parallel Trippers on the Gameboy Color. Starring a little boy for Japan who suddenly finds himself in the world of the first Grandia, where he must unite with his friends and find a way back home. Naturally, the characters of the first game find a way to help the boy.

The story has little of the charm of the original and none of the gravitas. Combat is a skinned down version as well. Mostly though, the game's graphics and sound are mostly unattractive on the Gameboy Color, with poor art direction.

2- Grandia Xtreme:

  • Released: PS2, 2002 in Japan and NA.
  • Developer: Game Arts.
  • Publisher: Enix.
  • Critical Reception: 71.12%.
  • Commercial Reception: Around 400K sold.

 

The interesting thing about this game is that it didn't start out as a spin-off to the series, and instead as a bold new direction for the entire franchise. It was built on the premise that casual players are turned off by the usual trappings of the JRPG genre, and as such, they decided to trim down the entire Grandia experience into a dungeon crawling game. Obviously, that premise in its entirety is completely wrong, as it is the dungeon crawling and not the story progression that would usually push casuals away.

As such, with Xtreme, we have a game that almost removes all fo the charm and adventure of the past Grandia games and only retains its excellent combat system. It is at this point that you realize that Grandia's dungeons were probably always their weaker points, with battles being exciting and strategic because they are interspersed with story sections that break the rhythm.

Here, the dungeons and battles simply overwhelm the player, not giving them any downtime to recharge and ending up with a not bad, but somewhat very boring game.

3- Grandia Online:

  • Released: PC, 2009 to 2012 in Japan.
  • Developer: Game Arts.
  • Publisher: GungHo.
  • Critical Reception: n/a.
  • Commercial Reception: Unknown.

From the early days of the Dreamcast, Game Arts talked about their dream of making an online Grandia game. Years later, after online giants GungHo acquired Game Arts, this dream became a reality. That is, the dream became a reality for three years when the servers were unceremoniously shut down.

By all reports, the game was not very well-received, with Grandia honestly being a poor fit for an online universe. Each game in the series was set in a different world, and the only similarity was a battle system that does not fit MMORPGs and a sense of adventure that is more personal than multiplayer.

It is, therefore, not a surprise that the Online game failed to make any` ripples in the market. Unfortunately, the final game in the franchise ended with a critical and commercial whimper.

With three well-regarded games in the main series, Grandia seemed poised to continue as a mid-budget JRPG series at the least. Its first and second games were very well regarded and have some respectable sales. While the series faltered a little with its third game in the series and the Xtreme spin-off, it did not look like the end of the franchise.

However, there was nothing after the release of Grandia III for almost five years. After which, the ill-fated Grandia Online was released to the tepid customer and commercial reactions. Since then, no new Grandia game was announced or even rumored.

So, why did it die?

Middling Commercial Performance:

I don't think it is fair to say that Grandia's commercial performance is at all poor. Its highwater mark was with the first game, selling around 1 million copies. From then, the series's other three main titles all hovered around half a million in sales. That's not detrimental to a JRPG series that rarely pushed any graphical boundaries.

However, with Square Enix publishing the third main game and increasing much of its production value, that showed that such performance wouldn't work if the series wanted to develop further. In the absence of growth, there couldn't be much justification for newer games in the series. Not when the franchise does not have a dedicated publisher to support it.

The decline of the Mid-Tier Game:

The reason that the franchise was not able to continue with is middling sales is that mid-tier games, in general, suffered a gigantic setback with the start of the HD era. Especially with the PS3 butchering the mid-level developers of Japan that made the PS2 such a big draw in the first place. With rising development costs, JRPGs, in particular, began to suffer as their larger scope meant lower margins of error.

It is no surprise that many of these Japanese games in this blogging series have stopped with the PS3, as the rising costs and complexities of that console pushed them into the mobile space, where a fierce competition coupled with a race to the bottom mentality culminated in many franchises declining or disappearing.

Sega's Decline and Being Acquired by GungHo:

And being forced to work on IPs that are not their own

Perhaps, if in a different timeline where the Sega Saturn has succeeded as a console and Sega did not implode later as a result of its failure, then the Grandia franchise would have seen a core game released on the Sega Ascension today. By hitching their fate to Sega's early in their days with the Lunar and Grandia franchises, Game Arts essentially ensured that they would be rudderless without a mast once the great console giant went up and failed.

After that, Game Arts partnered with Square Enix for a bit, which published Grandia III to some lukewarm commercial reception. After that time, with the PS3 released and Game Arts unable to raise the funds or support to develop any new games in their core franchises, the company was acquired by the rising online-focused publisher, GungHo Online Entertainment, under which they released the ill-fated Grandia Online.

From that point, Game Arts were only trusted to develop one ambitious game, which was the online-focused Ragnarok Odyssey based on another GungHo franchise. With the publisher basically content with their premier IP, Puzzles & Dragons, making most of its money, there is little chance for its various development houses for making any games from their own established franchises.

With JRPGs making some kind of comeback these days, you may wonder why exactly do we need another JRPG series. In many ways, there are games that supposedly fill the niche Grandia occupied. Or is there?

I would argue, that there isn't really any game in the market that captures the same magic of the numbered Grandia games. There are many reasons that this is a franchise that deserves the chance to live again. Yet, it can mainly be boiled down to the following two:

Excellent & Unique Turn-Based Gameplay:

 

Notice that turn meter in the bottom left

It is a testament to how unique and innovative the original Grandia battle system is that no one could copy it without being immediately noticed for doing that. As such, there simply isn't any JRPG game out there even using something remotely similar.

For the uninitiated, the turn-based battle system in these games has a number of special characteristics:

First, all fighters (friends & foes) have an icon in a linear turn-meter. Depending on their speed, that icon moves from standby to action. Once the icon hits the action stage, the fighter chooses what to do. Depending on that choice, whether it is a special move or a regular attack, the icon moves with a certain speed into executing the move. However, if any fighter is hit, their icon goes back in the turn meter. When in the process of doing an action, a strong hit can cancel that action entirely. Needless to say, that opens up a lot of strategy to the gameplay. Which is increased by the second point.

In the field of battle, moves usually have a field of effect to them, which means that character position is key. This is emphasized by the fact that you can move characters around during their turn. Obviously, this means that you can avoid a strong area of effect move from a boss by scattering your party about.

You can see how the above characteristics, which are not available in any other game (to my knowledge) offer a unique and strategic implementation of the classic turn-based battle system. Which is why battles in Grandia are just that much more engaging, especially the many challenging boss battles with their multiple limbs and tentacles (each with their own different icon).

A Sense of Optimistic Adventure:

There is nothing like seeing this scene for the first time

In the middle of the increasingly "mature" storytelling of the 5th generation, where "realistic" polygonal graphics were pursued at the expense of anything else, Grandia dared to harken back to the sense of adventure that propelled the early JRPG games of the past. In the story of Justin, we had a young adult who simply wanted to become a grand adventurer. Compared to the macabre and apocalyptic stories of other JRPGs in the same era, that motivation was considered to be almost "childish".

Yet, we gamers have grown up, just as I have grown up, to realize that we are letting go of the childish habit of assigning "childish" as a negative trait to things. Instead, we have come to see the story of Grandia as the adventurous and positive thing that it is.

While there are of course room for all kinds of JRPG stories and styles, the straightforward and sincere sense of adventure that this series is known for has always endeared itself to me. It is telling that my little sister always enjoyed seeing me play the first Grandia game at a time that she enjoyed watching me play little else.

The last Grandia game was an online MMO released in 2009, with a mainline game released four years before that. That marks nearly a decade and a half since the franchise has ever been relevant in the West. Looking at that, the most likely future of this series is in rereleases and bit-part remasters.

Since GungHo Online Entertainment owned the IP and developer, nothing of note has ever happened to the franchise outside of the occasional rerelease.

Yet, the fact that the developer, Game Arts, still survives means that there is a possible future for Grandia. The question is what form will that future take? Will it be oblivion, revival, or a continuation of this uncomfortable stasis?

Oblivion in the Online & Mobile Purgatory:

With GungHo owning the IP, it is natural to think that any path forward the envision for the series would be a mobile and/or online game focused on coercive monetization. Obviously, the "gacha" models GungHo are known for do not lend themselves well to what makes Grandia a unique and great property. As such, any such game would be Grandia in name only, with little attaching it to the core of the franchise.

Still, the fact that this has not happened yet proves that GungHo knows what they are doing, partially. In many ways, they have shown restraint when using the IPs they own. For instance, the fact that Grandia Online was a failure has probably suggested that such a game wouldn't be a success.

A Revival and a Fourth Numbered Game:

Can the series take flight again?

Anything less than a full sequel (or maybe a full remake of the original) would not be the revival the fans are looking for. This perspective sequel doesn't need to be something cutting edge or revolutionary. No. Even a game that uses HD sprites and environment but in a similar to the first two games would be excellent.

As long as this game has the same sense of adventure, as well as the excellent battle system, it may jumpstart the series again.

With the success of games such as Bravely Default and Octopath Traveler, there is clearly a market for old-school JRPGs. Yet, risk-averse publishers like GungHo are afraid to part with even the scantest of investments.

Which brings us to the most likely future:

The Stasis of Infinite Rereleases:

For a company like GungHo, that gets around 90% of its revenue from only one hit product that it developed (Puzzle & Dragon), it is hard to imagine them committing any creative energy to revive a franchise such as Grandia. Not when they can simply rerelease it ad infintium and squeeze something from doing nothing.

Creating a sequel will take work, as it will need a dedicated team that seeks to understand the best traits of the original games in order to recreate them ith some advances. Such work has not been conducted by Game Arts or most of GungHo subsidiaries since being acquired by the gaming giant. In fact, Game Arts only original output was in making the critically-lauded Ragnarok Odyssey on the Vita, a game in an IP they had no involvement with before.

Maybe, one day, Game Arts will be free again, and in that time they will be able to make new sequels to the Grandia and Lunar franchises. Maybe, in a parallel dimension where Sega did not shoot its own foot, these sequels are being enjoyed by many gamers, just like I enjoyed Grandia nearly 20 years ago.

There is a little hope in GungHo putting the Grandia "Remaster" front and center in their latest press releases

**************************************************************************


The "Where the Hell is" is going to be a series where I discuss the decline and disappearance of game franchises that interested me greatly, and now are gone. For a series to be covered, it needs to have three or more games, an unresolved conclusion or different storylines and is a series I somewhat played. Please feel free to give me any feedback or recommendation, as I always try to write better blogs.

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About Lord Spencerone of us since 5:57 PM on 01.12.2014

Hello all, I am Lord Spencer, your friendly neighborhood royalty. Yes, the ancient bloodlines are letting absolutely anyone in these days.

Being the lurker that I am, I have been following Destructoid for more than four years. Well, its 3 AM where I live now, and I just plunged in getting HUGE in the way.

Here is hoping for a fun time.

Oh yes, here is a little more info about me that is probably not as interesting as I think it is:

-I owned and played about 1000+ games.
-I owned and read about 2000+ books (I counted comic books I read as a kid so this is not as impressive as it sounds).
-I absolutely love Legos.

Out of all the games I played, I only regret playing a few. I am a big fan of gaming, and thus I really like most of what I play.

Thanks to the excellent work of community member Dango, now I have a cool infographic of my top 20 games. This list is not my final one, but what I thought off at the moment. If you notice, they are presented in chronological order:





Oh, and here is a link to my blogs:
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