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Game Review: GrimGrimoire

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Background

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GrimGrimoire is a Real-Time Strategy game developed by Vanillaware and publshed by Nippon Ichi/NIS America.

The game is considered unique for its resplendent art style and 2D approach to RTS gameplay.

I bought GrimGrimoire forever and a half ago, back when PS2 games were still getting reviewed. I played it for about 10 hours straight, then set it down and didn’t touch it until this week. On a whim I stuck it in my console and was instantly re-hooked.

I played to roughly the 50% mark then walked away in favor of important things like eating or getting a working Windows OS on my computer. When I came back I sat down and finished it, clocking in at exactly 12 hours.

Along with Muramasa, which I sat in on a friend’s playthrough recently, GrimGrimoire has rekindled my recently dormant love of 2D games.

Story

Lillet Blan was recently admitted to the Tower of Silver Star, a prestigious mage academy, on recommendation by the headmaster, Gammel Dore. Her first days spent there are normal enough, even if the people surrounding her are more than a little unique.

On the 5th day however, Lillet wakes to the sudden news that almost everybody in the tower has been killed, and a mage’s soul that was sealed in the tower has been released. Moments before her death, the tower’s bells toll, and Lillet is suddenly back to her first evening at the Tower.

Left shaken, and more than a little confused, Lillet sets out to prevent the deaths of those inhabiting the tower, as well as uncover why she is stuck looping through time.

Lillet_BlanIf this reminds you of Harry Potter, rest assured you’re not the only one. There’s a reason the localization team changed Gammel’s last name and broke the established convention of naming all of the characters after liquor and alcoholic beverages. Fortunately the story is more compelling than Harry Potter, and there are pretty pictures to go with it.

I liked the story, and it was good enough to keep my friend planted next to me on the couch during story sequences, but I’ll not say that is isn’t at least a bit cryptic. It can neglect to properly explain things that probably needed more dialogue to sort out, and there are some aspects of it that are criminally under-explored.

I’m extremely wary of the well worn “looping” concept. Higurashi no Naku Koro ni butchered that shit so horribly I wish I knew how to selectively erase memories, and Cross Channel is so bad I feel like I’m giving it too much publicity by mentioning it here. It’s also a stale idea. We need to move away from it and on to more fertile narrative grounds.

GrimGrimoire sidestepped the worst pitfalls of the concept because of one thing . The story follows one character, who retains memories throughout the loops. Remember Groundhog Day? That old movie with Bill Murray? The movie was good because we got to see Bill’s reactions to time repeating itself. From disbelief to exploiting it for personal pleasure, and finally to depression that he is seemingly stuck reliving the same day for all eternity.

Watching Lillet problem-solve as she loops, retaining knowledge from the previous repetitions is what makes it interesting. I don’t want to see different Imagining the Tenth Dimension possible outcomes bullshit. That’s frustrating as a viewer because, being on the other side of the fourth wall, you want to see progress towards a conclusion. Walking in circles isn’t fun unless you find something knew each lap.

Visuals

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Meet (most of) the cast.

I said at the top of this review that the game was praised for it’s crazy-cool art, and it deserves every word of it. There’s nothing exactly like it that I’ve seen, outside other Vanillaware games, and its pretty breathtaking the first few times you see it.

The characters and setting may be 2D, but they aren’t devoid of life. The portraits literally breath with life, even when standing still. The subtle animation of the portraits, units and backgrounds keeps the screen from becoming static and lifeless when characters are done speaking or if nothing is moving on screen at the moment.

It has a great sense of style, feeling like an animated popup book. It’s entirely pleasing to the eye, and never gets old. the character design is great as well. The characters are fun to look at and a few of them are very clever. One of the more awesome character portraits is Chartreuse, and the Alchemy units are particularly creative in design.

Sound

The Music is kind of generic and entirely forgettable, but its only got one particularly sore spot. The battle theme never changes. Not once. It’ll grate on you to no end.

The voices fare much better. The English dub was good enough that I never felt compelled to switch to the kindly provided Japanese track. Like the music however, the voices have one glaring fault in the voices of the units. Most are acceptable, and a few are downright awesome (Homunculus ftw), but each unit type has about 3 voice clips, maybe 4 if its lucky, that it repeats at random every time you give it any kind of order. When you’re in the middle of a fight, and are controlling several different unit types, and constantly revising their orders, you hear these voices constantly, and its nigh unbearable.

Gameplay

As you’ll read anywhere else on the internet, GrimGrimoire is a 2D RTS. You make build units from “Runes” which are basically buildings in any other RTS ever, and send them off to slaughter anything that isn’t your friend.

This RTS is different from others in that there is much less emphasis on resource gathering (there’s only one type), and the number of unit types is severely cut down in favor of strategical use of the units you have rather than discarding the useless ones and making more heavy-hitters.

(psst. Unicorns are so badass you don't even know.)

Unicorns are so badass you don't even know.

It’s minimal in almost every way and I like that. I’m not a huge RTS nut, even though I spent a majority of my later formative years playing Age of Empires II. I don’t enjoy learning to wrap my head around all of the stuff RTS games require you to perform and the things it makes you monitor. In particular, the Your Base/Your Army dynamic. Switching between the two isn’t fun, and I liked that my base was almost entirely self-sustaining, with very little upkeep on my part aside from queuing more more Phantoms and Unicorns so I can rush the enemy runes.

The game is pretty evenly balanced, introducing new units and  Runes as the game progresses. Once you hit the midway point of the game and all of the runes are available to you, they still power themselves up as you finish levels, allowing new layers of advancement with new benefits from increased unit HP to the ability to change a unit into astral form for increased damage against Devils.

grimgrimoire-15

Dragon vs Chimera. THE ULTIMATE SHOWDOWN.

To be fair, Dragons are available very early and are generally superpowered compared to other units (Chimeras being an exception), with very little keeping you from hatching two or three to prowl the map hunting for runes. Towards the end of the game you also attain a powerup that raises the baseline movement speed of Phantoms to somewhere between really fast and “Where did my units go?”. Add to that their MP-draining ability that increases the speed of all actions (including attacking), and you’re basically invincible unless you are fighting against Glamour-type enemies.

The interface is streamlined nicely, with most actions being issued by a press of the X button, and selection of units/runes with Square. The game pauses if you’re in any sort of menu, allowing you time to navigate it. This helps cushion the transition to a controller instead of mouse/keyboard, and thankfully you can resume the game clock by pressing O while in a menu. Some minor gripes include the Zoom toggle being sucky (even the farthest zoom is really close), inability to form groups or squads with more than a single unit type, and only being able to queue 5 units at a time per rune.

The zoom isn’t so big a deal until you’re wanting to survey the map to set up strategic towers, or placement of units. The group thing is normally not a big deal since the general strategy is to swoop in with a single unit type and cause havoc, but occasionally, especially later when your population limit is raised from 50 to 60 or 75, you’ll want to move a lot of units fast, and only being able to select a maximum of 9 units of one type can feel restricting. The 5 unit queue seems unnecessarily small, and only serves to give you something to dote over when you’re not raping faces off.

All of these problems are made less serious by the fact that you can get a lot done with only 5 or so units. Because of the smaller population limit, and the 4-way strength/weakness balance is done, a half dozen units can lay waste to an entire rune and all of the enemies guarding it.

There are 3 difficulty levels, and you choose at the beginning of each stage, so don’t think you’re stuck on a single difficulty. Levels can be replayed and story can be rewatched via the bookshelf that acts as a stage selection menu. Bonus stages are unlocked at regular intervals to provide you with extra levels that are generally larger and more open (all runes are unlocked regardless if you’ve gotten them in the regular story). Not a lot of replay value outside of the harder difficulty and bonus stages, but it’s a nice gesture.

Final Thoughts

Games like this don’t come along often, and it’s important to embrace them when they do. It takes a unique kind of balls-to-the-wall attitude to release a 2D game these days, and especially in a genre like this. It’s also nice to see a Japanese developer’s take on a very much western dominated genre.

GrimGrimoire succeeds in almost every way, and many of the faults it has can be forgiven to an extent because they aren’t grave enough to affect the outcome of a stage. It’s got tight gameplay, splendid visuals, and a good story. You can probably pick it up for peanuts at your local Gamestop since they’re trying to flush out all of their old PS2 games to make room for newer generation used titles. So if you own a PS2 and are even mildly interested in RTS games, you should consider getting this.

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Written by PIR

October 2, 2009 at 22:16

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