By Katie . June 25, 2007 . 1:25pm
Consoles and RTS (also known as real-time strategy) games. At worst, a mixture akin to fire and pressurized gas. At best, a tremulous liaison whose main contributor is a body of triple-A PC titles, ported to the hardware of the day with a good measure of compromise and clumsily remapped to a controller. The success of X-Com: UFO Defense, Command & Conquer, and Starcraft, so lucrative in the weakening computer-gaming market, could not be thrust so simply upon Nintendo and Sony's babies. The resulting mixture, more often than not, improved only to the likes of oil and water.
But someone was bound to try again, some day – either with another lazy transplant of the next smash hit for the PC, or when the flaring popularity of the genre had cooled to smoldering embers ripe for the fanning. Since we now know the first story would never come to pass, it became that someone would have to build a console RTS from the ground up and hope to capture the crowd in the overlap. Could it be done? Would it? Most of all, given the inherent demands of the genre and the limitations of a console and a TV screen, SHOULD it?
Actually, it’s never a huge gamble when the producer is Nippon Ichi, keyholders to the hearts of diehard PS2 niche gamers everywhere. So, with success all but guaranteed, we get our answer: Grim Grimoire, an unlikely Japanese take on a venerable Western tradition, and one that’s also bound to please fans of PC strategy and console role-playing games alike… even if it does inherit some bad genes from both.
What I know from my stints in Age of Empires and Warcraft, as well as any other RTS game I can name, is that I know only ONE kind of RTS – the kind with a three-quarter overhead view, boundless outdoor maps, and intricate, if tiny, units and structures. They do not have big, flowing, sometimes screen-filling sprites and side-view castle interiors. They follow the hunt-and-gather model to an invariable fault, just as they most definitely center around some nasty war business. They have nothing to do with magic books (the titular Grimoires), shady teachers and students with talking frogs, and – most frighteningly of all for game-addicts-turned-dropouts everywhere – school lectures.
Grim Grimoire doesn't look, sound, or walk anything like the other ducks, so before reading on, it's time to start thinking of it as the duckling that turned out to be a swan (and that just happened to swim around in Harry Potter’s world a bit too long).
To begin, consider its story. Young witchy hopeful Lillet Blan has just come of the age to attend magic school, where she'll learn to summon familiars from their worlds and control them in hers. To this end, the many professors, each of whom specializes in one branch of Grimoire – be it Glamour, Necromancy, Sorcery, or Alchemy – send Lillet into battle against their creations. As the player progresses, more Grimoires become available, and more pages are revealed therein. Slowly but surely, Lillet will discover the truth behind the strange premonitions of her dreams, and be able to prevent them with an army amassed from all walks of supernatural life.
Beware. The above synopsis is rudimentary at best; the actual plot rife with esoteric events and actors, past and present, making it a trifle difficult to keep straight. Who taught whom? Why did that guy pull a Beauty and the Beast on himself and his girl? Did I only DREAM that sequence? Grim Grimoire pretty much like most RPGs in this regard. While the dialogue and voice acting are clear, convincing, and beyond reproach, they deliver a lot of introductions and information for you to recall, which later is only made available in short debriefings of the day's events. So pay attention!
The second item we must address is the entire absence of the third dimension. The skirmishes in Grim Grimoire unfold on a single plane, and – what's this? – there's nary a CG render to be seen throughout. No movies either, aside from a charming intro cinematic with the look of a picture book done in relief. In keeping with the pop-up style intro, character models in the story scenes take on an embossed, multi-jointed appearance against vivid, elaborately-animated backdrops – for instance, you can see Professor Gammel Dore (no relation to any Prof. Dumbledore) shift his robes and beard as he breathes, while constellations frolic across the walls in his planetarium-like lecture room. In battles, it’s somewhat reversed – the sprites are flattened to large, clear animation cels, and the castle backgrounds – all quite similar affairs – scroll with layers of pretty parallax. Efforts like those put forth by developer Vanillaware are doubly impressive in that they exhibit a new pinnacle of 2-D on 3-D hardware, and on the aging PS2 no less. As far as I’ve seen, Grim Grimoire goes unrivaled on the system for its resolution, its constant profusion of frames, and its simply captivating quality.
The only downfall of such intensive visuals comes when amassed hordes collide. Slowdown only marrs movement and scrolling slightly in the early build, so hopefully Vanillaware can squeeze the last clock cycles out of the PS2 for the final release and eliminate it completely.
Sounds take a vital role in providing notification in battle. Cueing you with a howl that battle has broken out where the big red arrows indicate on the minimap, in case you missed them, and that tasks back at the Runes that have no visible results, like leveling up, have completed, the sounds in Grim Grimoire are as moody and creepy as a mildly cutesy fantasy war will permit. Coupled with character voices that perfectly suit their subjects and a tolling score of bells and other appropriately occult instruments, they create a respectable and enhancing effect overall.
In terms of gameplay, things finally turn a tad toward the typical. The only structures to worry about in GG are the runes you create, and the crystals you mine for Mana, the game's only resource – pretty stripped-down stuff. The peons of the game (see the articles on the different units) must convert the crystal to a Sanctuary before mining its Mana. Then, by opening any one of your spellbooks and paying a flat fee in Mana, you can set up a rune – the barracks, if you will, for a certain set of units – and make up to five at a time, up to a total of 50. However, some runes are more geared towards strengthening the stats of existing troops or lowering the costs of making new ones, and some units count as more than one – in the end, you just have to commit their functions to memory. It may seem vague at first, but you can always refer to the in-game Grimoire documentation for help, and the optional Trial missions for practice. Plus, there are always the three difficulty settings – Sweet, Normal, and Easy – to suit your skill level (and for the harder missions, your patience).
At this juncture, let us segue onto the topic of the learning curve. Beware that, like Disgaea and many an NIS game after it, GG requires patience not only later for its demanding objectives, but early on for sitting through the tutorials. I really wish they would stop the hand-holding, or at least involve the player to the degree adequate for retaining the information. Group actions are limited to a selection of units of a single type, and to scroll amongst them, with a PS2 controller and on a 2-D play field, can be a tedious affair, especially if you don't quite remember how because the tutorials bored you good. Lots of context-sensitive actions await when the menus are and aren't present, like pressing Triangle to get the Grimoire menu, then the shoulder buttons to scroll through the options, at which time I still find myself hitting the D-Pad. I guess print manuals still have some use after all.
Talking frog-spawned warts and all, Grim Grimoire is a fun, toned-down RTS that may lack the depth required to create addiction sufferers, but can be appreciated for its feature-length-animated-film-calibre craftsmanship. And this RTS, for a change, need not wear out your mouse from compulsive over-clicking, and need not that you purchase a fold-up keyboard with labels for more shortcuts than a human brain can retain. Although it might enrage some fans of Harry Potter for the blatant inspiration, it offers some surprising twists in its scenario, in its characters, a good deal of originality, in its music, lovely, Danny Elfman-esque fare, and its graphics are gorgeous to boot.