GameArts' best RPG to date
gives Final Fantasy VII a good run for its money

Publisher: GameArts
Developer: Game Arts
Genre: RPG

Years from now, when gamers remember the truly great 32-bit RPGs, one of the first names mentioned will always be Grandia. It stands out as an innovator in a genre which has barely evolved since the Genesis/Super Nintendo, and the only RPG on the Saturn to seriously compete with Final Fantasy VII.

When GameArts first announced Grandia's development, the company was already renowned for its Lunar RPG series, and if it had wanted, it could've stuck with the top-down 2D engine, and nobody would've complained. Instead, the designers went ahead and designed an RPG with a fully polygonal environment, pushed sound production, and designed a stunningly different world. By the time you read this, several other "3D" RPGs have come out, but none as complete as Grandia.

From the first time Grandia boots up, you know you're in for something special. Imagine a Lunar or a Chrono Trigger-style town, given life and depth, and you can just about imagine Parm. Everything is alive -- the people move, the canals flow with water, while seagulls glide in the currents above the city. The building models aren't simply texture maps pasted onto Lego pieces, but meticulously-designed architecure, from slanting roofs to rotating windmills. Every city, from the the London-esque Parm to the tourist paradise of Ganbo Village, has its own distinctive look, and is vibrant in a way simple bitmaps can't provide. There's no feeling like being able to look around a corner, searching under a bridge for treasure, or just standing atop a tree house, looking over the nightlife.

Then there's the sound. My God, what can you say about the sound? Grandia has perhaps the best use of sound ever used in an RPG. GameArts mastered it at Skywalker Sound (you know, the same people who did the Star Wars Special Editions), and it adds a whole new dimension to the RPG experience. Where other games use music to cover up fairly uninspired sound effects, Grandia's effects and music are equally important. Musical themes are just that -- tunes to carry moods and guide the players experience. On a good stereo system, you can hear the way the themes mute themselves indoors, or clash in a musical duel between borders of dungeons. The ambient sound subtly brings a world to life, from rustling grass, to the creak of wooden planks, to the susurrations of waves on a beach. Even if Grandia weren't such a good game, the overall experience would be compelling.

Thankfully, Grandia is as good as it looks. Unlike the Square folk, GameArts' stories tend to be less pretentious and are usually filled with gentle humor. If Final Fantasy VII is Arnold Schwarzenegger, then Grandia is Harrison Ford. Playing Justin and crew is like embarking on an anime-style remake of an Indiana Jones adventure, traveling to exotic lands, searching for artifacts of lost civilizations, and tomb raiding, RPG-style. The plot unfolds in a charming romantic adventure style, with quiet moments, shotgun weddings, and the inevitable hero vs. hero fights. As a testament to the writers, the story is universal, and requires little translation to get ideas across the language barrier.

If any game pushes the Saturn's hardware to the edge, it's Grandia. The number of textures, and the complexity of each city demonstrates that the Saturn can crank out high-quality graphics. Unfortunately, the small village size and fairly low frame rates suggest GameArts has maxed out the Saturn's capabilities, both in memory and hardware. Hopefully, this will be corrected if GameArts does a Katana remix as rumored.

So in the end, which one's better, Grandia or Final Fantasy VII? That's a hard question to answer because it hinges on the innovation vs. refinement arguement. Final Fantasy VII still has the best graphics ever seen in an RPG, but it's not significantly different from the standard RPG -- bitmapped backgrounds, invisible monsters, mostly turn-based combat. Grandia is a great step forward -- 3D worlds, an almost-tactical combat system, a realtime interactive environment, and a game design that takes advantage of all of it. Grandia may have its flaws, but it's a glimpse into the glorious future of console RPGing.