Some games simply don't get anywhere near enough attention, but Nippon Ichi should be used to that depressing phenomenon by now. Everyone loves to whine about originality and uniqueness, but they clearly wouldn't be complaining nearly as much if they played more NIS productions such as GrimGrimoire. It takes the well-established strategy formula pioneered by games like Command & Conquer and Civilization, shrinks it down in physical size, somehow ramps up the freedom and depth, and paints it in broad fantasy strokes. If you like the sound of this, there's no doubt you should give this one a try, even despite its drawbacks. You won't find another like it anywhere else on the store shelf, and if you can appreciate a solid storyline, vibrant and charismatic characters, and a truly innovative gameplay style, than GrimGrimoire is probably for you.
If you're familiar with the previously released Odin Sphere, you'll know what to expect in regards to visuals. When it comes to beautiful hand-drawn artistry and unbelievable character design, it doesn't get much better than the luscious 2D graphics from NIS and Vanillaware. While the PS2 is an aging system that doesn't have anywhere near the capability of the next-gen systems, we've still seen several stunning games in 2007 (besides Odin Sphere, we point you in the direction of God of War II). This is another great-looking PS2 title, and while the gameplay maps are all the same, thereby severely limiting the visual diversity, we simply can't deny the overall level of accomplishment and appeal. Even though the environments aren't too various, the sprites in them are wonderfully created; some are sweet and charming while others are appropriately dark and intimidating. They've got a really nice collage going in GrimGrimoire, and while it's hardly perfect, it's still very pleasing to the eye.
The sound is a bit more erratic, primarily due to the somewhat surprising lack of musical accompaniment and a few less-than-impressive voiceovers. Granted, most strategy-based games don't have fantastic soundtracks, but we would've liked to hear a much larger variety of tracks, especially during the gameplay. The soundtrack certainly fits the atmosphere and style, but it definitely takes a back seat to the voice cast and battle effects (neither of which can be considered top-notch), and that puts a damper on the experience. However, that being said, many of the main characters are voiced very well, and the voices within the battles and outside the plot-advancing cut-scenes are excellent. Furthermore, while the effects are a little downplayed and not all that intense, they still manage to fit in nicely with the setting, and that helps a great deal. It's just that, with such a gorgeous visual palette, we were kinda hoping to get an overall sound presentation of equal quality. We didn't quite get that, but at the very least, no player will be annoyed at the sound in this game...that'd just be nitpicking, plain and simple.
You'd be wrong if you glanced at GrimGrimoire and immediately labeled it as an RPG. This is a strategy game through and through; mostly an RTS but with the ability to pause the action at any time to issue new commands and get your bearings. You begin playing as young magic student, Lillet Blan, who, despite being a touch na´ve and jumpy, is excited about becoming a master magician. She begins attending classes amongst a nicely defined and intriguing cast of characters, and while this may sound like a traditional beginning, things quickly begin to stray from the norm. During your first lesson, you'll quickly notice the strategy gameplay: you will be creating different units, each with different skills, and working to put down enemy uprisings in the process. There's a lot to learn, but thankfully, just about everything is easily understood; developing, placing, and commanding your units is a relatively simple and straightforward process. But in order to excel, you need both time and experience.
We'll break it down as simply as possible- as you progress, you will obtain grimoires, which are spell books that allow you to place Runes on the battlefield. There are four to eventually obtain and choose from (Necromancy, Sorcery, Alchemy, and Glamour), and in total, you can utilize 12 Runes during play. These Runes are home to several units, but they must be leveled up in order to obtain all possible units. Furthermore, if you want to level up a Rune, you need to harvest enough Mana, which your first-level "gathering" units will get for you. So at first, each and every battle starts off in a similar manner, which involves using the basic units to gather enough Mana to level up the Rune, thereby giving you access to different - and usually far more diverse and powerful - units. As a basic example, the first unit from a Necromancy Rune is the Ghost, which can gather Mana from an established crystal, and even attack enemies with a special ability once you've leveled the Rune. But this is merely the foundation; it goes much, much further than this.
First off, each unit can only collect Mana crystals from their own crystal, and can only deliver it to their own Rune. So in other words, the Ghost can't deliver Mana to the same Rune the Elves deliver to, and vice versa. On top of this, it's not just about gaining more powerful units as you level up a Rune, it's about gaining a horde of new abilities that will allow you to approach battles in very different ways. Some units have ranged attacks rather than melee attacks, some can fly, some are invulnerable to certain attacks, some are stationary (yet very effective if placed correctly), etc. And of course, your enemies will be various and determined as well, so it's not like you're utilizing a vast arsenal to deal with the same kinds of foes over and over again. No, this is a strategy game, so it's not all about aggressive attack units; it's also about support units, it's about playing defensively when necessary, it's about preparing plans well in advance, it's about seeing several moves ahead. Heck, it's about a lot of things, which is exactly the point. It'll take you about an hour's worth of lessons before you gain a workable understanding of the gameplay, but it picks up quickly.
The storyline is quite engaging, especially for a strategy title, because Blan actually relives the same five days again and again, but she learns more and more about the plot with each 5-day phase. More strange details are carefully unveiled in each set, and before long, you'll be asking yourself- "okay, what the hell is going on around here?" That colorful cast of characters makes for a very dynamic storyline, because with the likes of a devil, fallen angel, and other mysterious personas, you're constantly wondering who's doing what. This makes for an interesting experience, and also lends more urgency to each confrontation. Generally, there isn't much of an emphasis on story in games like this, but both the gameplay and plot array are well developed and well implemented, which only adds to the obvious originality in GrimGrimoire. But even though everything appears downright amazing on the surface, there are more than a few shortcomings, and some of them may annoy you over time. Perhaps the best thing to do is simply ignore them, but that'd be up to you...
The most painfully visible drawback is that each battlefield is identical. It consists of a cross-section of the school tower, which shows off the same staircases, pillars, and hallway detail. The units and actual battle objectives are frequently different, and your strategy will certainly have to change, but it's very unfortunate that you can't fight in other locales. It just gets a little boring after a while, and you quickly begin to grow weary of that one battlefield. On top of this, keeping an eye on your units can be a frustrating challenge, even though the developers have tried to make it easer. There's often a great deal of unit overlap in battles (especially later on), and while you can easily select one individual unit by utilizing the d-pad, actually seeing what's there can be immensely difficult. Most times, you'll have to highlight a big set of allies just to see how many of them there are, and when the action starts to pick up, it gets even tougher to closely follow the status and location of your comrades.
Lastly, some of the combat objectives aren't all that exciting, and while things almost always heat up near the end, there tends to be more downtime than we'd expect from a mostly real-time strategy title. Just as a "for instance," the first real battle you encounter has you attempting to withstand an enemy onslaught for 20 minutes. Now, that may sound plenty exciting, but for the majority of that time, you'll just be preparing while waiting for any enemy units to appear. Only near the very end did the difficult ramp up (it got pretty dicey there for a few minutes), and that wasn't the only time we found ourselves just waiting for something to happen. However, now that we've outlined all our complaints, we have to reflect on the entire experience with a smile: the story is fun to follow, just about all the characters are engaging and uniquely personable, the gameplay is sufficiently deep (victory is well-deserved and satisfying), and there's a nice balance between story and battle. Oh, and if you hadn't already guessed, it's one of the most original titles on the shelves today, and stands out against the same ol' same ol', even in comparison to next-gen productions.
We were a touch disappointed the sound didn't impress as much as the graphics, and the solid strategy formula tends to flounder in identical environments, but that can't stop it from being extremely entertaining. Obviously, this has to be your type of game - it won't appeal to everyone - but if it is, and if you're a fan of NIS, than it's a must-try. GrimGrimoire is just very well done, from top to bottom.
8/27/2007 Ben Dutka