A side-scrolling strategy game? Will wonders never cease?
Real-time strategy games on home consoles are rare, but not unheard of. In fact, I dare say the genre itself probably owes more to the console market than die hard PC enthusiasts might care to admit, with TechnoSoft’s Herzog Zwei spearheading the genre on the Genesis some two years before Westwood’s iconic Dune II. That said, Nippon Ichi’s upcoming summer offering, a side-scrolling real-time strategy release for the PlayStation 2, is a very different beast indeed.
In a rather (sometimes painful) anime stylized spin on the Harry Potter, wizard-in-training motif, GrimGrimoire puts you in control of amateur magician/student Lillet Blan as she moves about her wizarding school, getting into mischief while bumping into the school’s professors and resident ghosts and devils, though these things need not be mutually exclusive. There is even talk early on that “the Philosopher’s Stone has returned,” making this game feel, well, a bit rehashed.
This wouldn’t be so noticeable if the story, ridiculous as it is, didn’t take itself so seriously. Admittedly this sort of thing is par the course for Nippon Ichi, and we love them for it, but here, with a story that plays out like Harry Potter meets Groundhog Day, things are taken to an almost absurd level. Then again, I have yet to play through the entire campaign, so in fairness things may well pick up and deliver. A handful of hours in, however, the game wades deep into the labored waters of middle school drama.
The version of the game sent to our office was far enough along to feature all of its English dialog, which is decent, though needless panning inches to the left and right as characters talk during cut scenes is more annoying than useful, sometimes making the characters look like they are having to endure an earthquake every time they open their mouths. Also, there are some awkward pauses that pop up all too frequently in the speech, which is in and of itself is well (over)acted. Sometimes these pauses are due to loads from the disc, but other times just feel as if the actor forgot to turn the page. Many times I found myself skipping past the dialog simply because I finished reading the line of text before the actor decided to speak up.
Putting all of the wacky anime flavor aside for a moment, the meat of GrimGrimoire‘s gameplay is surprisingly old hat, playing to elements found in nearly every real-time strategy game released since the early 80s, first in the form of training (there is a quite a lot to wrap your head around), and soon enough in full fledged combat. As the campaign unrolls, Lillet earns several grimoires, basically magical tomes, which in combat act as a specific generator for certain abilities and creatures, called familiars. Think of these as the buildings in Warcraft or other similar offerings, with each able to be upgraded in order to provide new and more powerful familiars and abilities.
As expected, this is all made possible by resource farming, using your weakest familiars, peons for lack of a better term, to scout out and harvest nearby crystals and then carry them back to the closest generator in exchange for goods and services. Everything you build pulls from a single pool of accumulated crystals, the game’s ultimate resource.
Without question, what appears to be be GrimGrimoire‘s strongest asset is its impressive visuals, particularly with regards to the large and intricately detailed unit sprites. The available units are all terrifically animated, and greatly varied, from the whimsical faeries and iridescent ghosts, to the menacing dragons, which occupy nearly a quarter of the screen by themselves. When a pair of these nasty, lumbering beasts face off, a swath of destruction is left in their wake. In addition, cut scenes are brought to life with large, well-drawn anime characters that seem to pulsate thanks to a strange yet oddly compelling animation technique that makes all of the characters look as if they are taking deep, life giving breaths.
In typical strategy game fashion, you can select and move multiple familiars to do the same task with a single order. However, just as resources are greatly simplified in this game as compared to GrimGrimoire‘s PC contemporaries, so too are the methods used to group and give orders to units. Unlike some more complicated (some would argue robust) examples of the genre, only like familiars can be included within a given group. The game argues that this is because each familiar harbors its own unique sets of orders, which is true, but seasoned strategy enthusiasts will no doubt be put off by the game’s simplified approach (editor’s note: some screenshots from the Japanese version plainly show different familiars grouped together, so this shortcoming may be overcome as the game progresses.).
Of course, what becomes immediately apparent in this game, even during the tutorial segment, is that given the game’s larger (admittedly gorgeous) sprites and the limited on-screen real estate afforded by the game’s side scrolling nature, things get very crowded in a hurry as soon as more than a handful of familiars are put into your control. As sprites overlap, the game requires you to use the direction buttons to cycle between familiars, and listen for audio cues as to who or what is selected. Thankfully most times this is obvious, but again most players will long for a above view perspective that, while old school and maybe not in line with Nippon Ichi’s repertoire, still would have made things much more friendly. Keeping things simple has never been Nippon Ichi’s stock and trade… and again, we love them for it.
Set for release this summer, GrimGrimoire is certainly unique, at the very least in terms of how it presents gameplay that is decidedly old school. As with all Nippon Ichi releases, this game will not be for everyone, but rather for those who appreciate the company’s unique catalog of titles brought over from Japan. For those players, this is yet another to keep on the radar. I have more than a few gripes with the game, but its unmistakable anime charm, gorgeous sprites, and familiar story are sure to invite a niche following. That said, GrimGrimoire seems to lack much of the hard core strategy appeal found in Disgaea or other similar releases, so it will be interesting to see how accepting console strategy enthusiasts will be. If I had to venture a guess, I’d have to think that players will be less inclined to fall in love immediately, but will eventually warm up to all the game has to offer.