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Game: gRiMgRiMoiRe, GrimGrimoire
System: PlayStation 2 DVD-ROM
Release: June 2007 (NTSC-J), July 2007 (NTSC-U), September 2007 (PAL)
An unconventional Real-Time-Strategy game in every sense of the term is GrimGrimoire, the sophomore effort of VanillaWare Inc., makers of Odin Sphere. GrimGrimoire combines the striking 2d charm and whimsical narrative of its predecessor with perhaps the best control scheme implemented in a PlayStation 2 RTS to date. Training and commanding units is, with only a few exceptions, a delight and easily outclasses its peers in that respect. It is, however, repetitive and suffers greatly from the stark lack of any multiplayer facility. Luckily its well designed units and art design, which GrimGrimoire has in spades, help make these shortcomings the more forgivable.
The title screen sets the visual tone of the game perfectly.
GrimGrimoire’s plot, while eclectic and understatedly bizarre, falls flat in terms of both originality and narrative cohesion. The player assumes the role of Lillet Blan, a young girl invited to the illustrious Silver Star Tower, an academy of magic tutelage built on the ruins of an evil Archmage’s fortress. Five days into her stay, a period which serves as a basic tutorial, the school is assaulted by the Archmage Calvaros, released from his binding for reasons unknown. Lillet mysteriously finds herself back at the night she arrived at the Silver Tower at this point, instead of at the top of Calvaros’ pile of corpses however. Such does GrimGrimoire begin, the goal being to both to understand the recent events and work out how to prevent them. This could set the stage for a remarkably deep exposition, as the non-linear nature lends itself to revelations of twist after twist. One would especially expect this due to the sheer number of students, teachers and others whose intriguing back-stories and interactions are hinted at constantly, but this never comes to pass. Motivations are unclear, the story itself goes nowhere, and aside from being confusing, does not come together at all in the end. When the credits role the player will undoubtedly want to know more the interesting people they have met or about the circumstances leading up to this curious ending, but neither are forthcoming. Since the plot ultimately fails, the originality of the whole idea has to come into question as well. Schools of magic are all too common these days in fantasy fiction (Hogwarts, Duel Academy and the Scholomance all spring to mind), but other touches, be they a freshly risen villainous mage intent on the protagonist’s murder, a philosopher’s stone, or a headmaster called ‘Gammel Dore’, point the finger of inspiration squarely in Harry Potter’s direction. Admittedly the original Japanese name was ‘Gammel Drask’ and, along with names like Chartreuse, Opalneria and Advocat, was a not-so-subtle nod to European liqueur, but the point remains. Make no mistake though, it is still an enjoyable adventure with a surprisingly copious amount of sexual innuendo for a story about children at school. It still has all the etherial quality of a fairy tale, but the mainplot arc does not diverge from the beaten track perhaps as much as it should.
Elaborate subplots are business as usual for GrimGrimoire.
Insofar as Lillet Blan is a wizard in training, magic in GrimGrimoire is divided into four schools and taught by the eponymous ‘Grimoires’; tomes of lore awarded after the defeat of the teacher in a given field. Possession of each Grimoire allows creation of a certain ‘Rune’ in battle. Runes are effectively the barracks of GrimGrimoire- unit-producing structures which, when all destroyed, constitute a loss for the player. The first unit produced by the first Rune in each school can collect Mana, the only currency in the game, from crystals littered about the stage and it can be used to either build Runes, units or upgrade Runes already in place. The schools are arranged in a quadrilateral configuration typical of Japanese RPGs. Glamour, a faction of elves, fairies and unicorns, has a natural advantage over the ghosts and phantoms of Necromancy, which naturally trump the imps and demons of Sorcery. Sorcery itself can devastate Alchemy’s golems and homunculi, which both enjoy strength against Glamour. Although there is a strong aesthetic through-line for each house, there are no particular strengths or weaknesses attributed to each, outside of the innate advantages they have over each other. Unlike, say, Warcraft III’s Orcs, which have the undisputedly toughest ground units in the game, there is no clear distinction in GrimGrimoire. Each school has gatherers, spell-casters and strong tanking units. Luckily the reactive element comes from being quickly able to lay down a Rune of an advantageous type after scouting the enemy’s army- you have access to every Rune already obtained in every battle and there is no need to choose one faction over another. The unfortunate aspect of this design is that battles become monotonous because of it. Premium units from each denomination become frequent sights and opposition comes from the same couple of Rune combinations the majority of the time.
The Titania Rune is the strength of the Glamour school.
While the GrimGrimoire’s plot and factional disparity could use some polish its controls need none. Controlling the units, at least, is a blessing. What could easily have become its greatest downfall is instead one of GrimGrimoire’s shining assets. While the XBOX 360 version of Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars is often given as an example of console RTS done right, the control scheme of GrimGrimoire is in its own league. First off, both analogue sticks are used; the right to scroll the screen and the left to move the cursor within it. Stages are designed in a grid-like fashion with regard to hit-boxes which means clicking (pressing Square) on the large, colourful sprites is child’s play. Square to select, Cross to command, with the analogue sticks for screen movement is an arrangement that keeps things simple. Selecting multiple units is similarly easy given that only units of the same type are selected when Square is held and dragged across the screen. This nuance simplifies the task of isolating a lone Grimalkin unit amongst a pack of demons- something that will come up quite often. Group selects can also be achieved by pressing up when a key unit is already selected, and movement commands are simplified to smart moves, and attack moves, both of which are self-explanatory. Targeting deserves special mention as oftentimes the headache of your gatherer elf wandering off to engage a looming chimera instead of a Mana Crystal due to an innocent selection error is averted as though the game can anticipate your motions in real time. The proof is in the use, but without exception this is the most accomplished control setup available and should stand as an example for future console RTS design. The regrettable few drawbacks come as a side-effect of its ease of use. You cannot, for instance, select a group of more than one unit type, or jump to another part of the map without scrolling there manually. Trust this reviewer, however, when I say that these are more blessings than curses if you consider how much harder things would have been on the whole had the controls been done any other way.
These Fairies have no natural advantage over this Imp, outside of sheer numbers.
Another aspect that needs no further refinement is the graphical presentation. Like Odin Sphere before it, GrimGrimoire is a testament to how a successful 2-dimensional approach to game design should be taken in 2007. Every character and every unit is animated fluidly, gorgeously and with a clarity that breaks benchmarks in this area. Not only are the in-game sprites artworks in and of themselves, the menu systems are some of the most noteworthy in gaming. It is clear that the highest level of attention went to all aspects of the visual design throughout development and the game has a very distinct class because of it- its interface truly comes alive. The only imaginable complaint to level is that there is not nearly enough of anything. There are five to six units per faction. The menacing golem, the gargantuan dragon and nightmarish chimera all beg for more of the same, however. Silver Star Tower’s innards are an indulgent blend of gothic and romantic architecture, but ultimately all of the story missions feature maps built from the same tileset. You do get a handful of differently-themed levels come the extra ‘Trial Missions’, but there is no avoiding the compulsory 10-15 hour slog in the main tower. Story scenes are told with lush, large portrait sprites for the main characters, and the occasional unit is featured in these too. Still, dialogue with Charon, the penultimate Necromancy familiar, among others, is all but obligatory at this point, although omitted.
A Chimera and Dragon on-screen at once is usually a sign of a major battle.
This limited scope extends to the overall presentation, which is missing a number of key modes. GrimGrimoire is basically a story mode, comprised of a progression of similar missions complemented and segregated by cinematic interludes. As far as this goes, it is a strong experience. The game is complemented by an adept mood-setting score throughout, although the battle theme will invariably grate on the senses after a short while. Better still though is the voice over track, which is done in full English and boasts some superb performances, particularly that of the devil Sorcery teacher Mr. Advocat. Aside from this strong linear stroke, ‘Trial Missions’ are unlocked over time that offer unique challenges but exist outside the main story arc. Between the two of them, though, there are less than fifty in all, and there are only so many tactical scenarios that can be played out with these confines. Between this and the remarkable lack of any two-player battle feature whatsoever, a lot of the strategic value of the cleverly crafted units is squandered on an AI that irrevocably falls back on attrition-based tactics. Adding insult to injury is that there is no reward, ignoring an additional ‘Hard’ difficulty for each mission, attached to completing the game. A fully-featured level select is unlocked as you go, so any scene can be revisited at any time, but after the first clear no apparent reason to revisit any part of the game presents itself. Further, there are no replay, map-editing or custom scenario features, all of which would have gone a considerable way in prolonging this game’s shamefully short longevity.
In terms of detail, GrimGrimoire's interface leaves nothing to be desired.
GrimGrimoire, makes a great first impression, with graphics that dazzle, an enchanting score and a genuinely amusing English dub. It does not have any glaring weaknesses but there isn’t really much lasting value to it either. The story would have been better had it come to a more satisfying (or sensible) conclusion and the game itself would have benefitted from a greater breadth of modes considering the engine and gameplay themselves are competent in what they do. Nevertheless, as with the previous Odin Sphere, GrimGrimoire should not be missed if for its unique aesthetic alone. ‘Charm’, a word which I’ve bandied around in the reviews of both games, simply doesn’t go far enough to describe their intangible qualities or why they make the games worthwhile. It is hard to recommend an odd 2d PS2 RTS to buyers in this day and age, especially given this one’s obvious shortcomings, but GrimGrimoire is more than worthy of a rental at least. Don't miss trying it out whatever you do.