eisen: Scoobies (ready forever). [<lj user="vice">.] (we hit the streets with all we had.)
[personal profile] eisen posting in [community profile] a_gamer_is_me
Okay, let's see if I can write this thing!

... because previously all attempts to write it have ended with me getting up with a burning desire to just play the game instead (and then I am stymied by the fact that my Dreamcast is currently packed away under a pile of clothes, and so nothing gets done).

You see, I love Grandia II probably more than any other game I have ever played, certainly more than any other RPG I have ever played, and if I had not come across Grandia II when I did I guarantee I would not care about gaming as anything more than a thing which other people do. That is how much I love this game. I grew up with friends who I played Final Fantasy games with - I vividly remember playing FF7 for the first time with them, and likewise Suikoden I and Suikoden II - but, unlike everyone else's experiences with those games, I was never very impressed with them or even found the battle engine very engaging. In short, RPGs in particular were eye candy but they weren't things I cared about. I read epic fantasy as a kid; RPGs, story-wise, had nothing to offer me, and I didn't learn the appeal of dungeon grinds until I was almost out of high school, so it's safe to say simply pounding away at monsters wasn't gonna win me over, and I already mentioned that the eye candy of the first couple console generations wasn't enough to hit my buttons either.

(I have since learned the appeal of these things; I have gone back and with fondness played a lot of games I didn't find interesting as a tiny kid. But back then? Nah, they did nothing for me.)

I am honestly not sure why, of all these games, Grandia II carved out a piece of my heart and crawled in there to stay, but it did.

I think, with Grandia II, there's nothing to say for it but that it existed at precisely the right time, on exactly the right system. Grandia II on the PC is a bug-riddled waste of time; on the PS2, it's a glitchy, ugly-looking mess. But on the Dreamcast, it's breathtaking, and still is even now, after my brain's been rewritten by the dazzling visual heights of stuff like Persona 4 and Odin Sphere and etc. If anyone is going to own Grandia II, it deserves to be on the DC. GII was made for that system, and it shows.

Story-wise, Grandia II isn't exactly breaking new ground - it is a generic hodgepodge of character types and skills and plots and such-and-such - but it executes them so precisely and perfectly pitched that I don't hate it in the slightest. It is its own special brand of familiarity.

You have the caustic manpain sufferer with a secret heart of gold for a main character, the cheerful, naive staff chick mage character, the ~*~sexy~*~ flirtatious punchy mage girl, the (unfortunately stereotypical) noble beast-man, the (also, unfortunately straightforward) robot girl who learns to feel, and the plucky prince kidlet out to see the world. Those are your party members, and they all fit a mold, and all of them (with the irritating exception of the beast-man, who is nevertheless awesome but still) are so much more than that.

What they don't mention about the naive staff chick (Elena) is that she's less naive than she wants to admit and pretty much suicidally driven by the underlying discrepancies of her faith.

What they don't mention about the flirtatious mage girl (Millenia) is that she's a tool trying to learn how to be a person, just like the robot girl, and she doesn't know how to show it.

(What I am not mentioning yet is that these women share the same body for most of the game.)

What they don't mention about the plucky prince (Roan) is just what kind of king his father is, and what kind of kingdom he stands to inherit, and just how much that child truly loves his knives.

As for Ryudo, Mareg, and Tio - the protagonist and the aforementioned beast-man and robot girl, respectively - their stories are ones I don't know if I can really articulate without selling them short. Ryudo's particularly sounds flat when written down, but when you're playing it through it just slams home hard in ways that make Ryudo one of my favorite protagonists of all time.

There's more to everyone, all of which comes out in what at the time (as far as I know) was still a novel setup: every time the characters set up camp to rest, or entered a town, or stayed a night in an inn, there was an option to view a scene where the characters ate dinner - and spent the conversation pretty much talking each others' ears off. Worldbuilding, character development, trivia, food preferences, backstory hints, you name it, it was in there. It wasn't nearly as elaborate or expansive as, say, the Tales skits, but it was still pretty extensive.

This extended to most NPCs, as well - multiple non-plot-dependent NPCs had at least two distinct sets of dialogue, for the first time you talked to them and the second, and after plot-relevant changes happened they would sometimes reveal two more distinct dialogue sets.

Now, this was before FFX came along and damn near forced all RPGs to start providing voiced dialogue for every scene, so Grandia II's voicework is still fairly spaced out and for the most part you really can't guess which scnes will have it and which ones won't, and it's not all amazing, but the main characters are stellar, so it's a welcome delight when they do show up to add extra emotional punch to the story.

I haven't yet mentioned the game's sense of humor about itself, and I really should; Grandia II may have played connect-the-dots with a lot of genre staples, but it also knew it, and half the fun of playing it (especially in the beginning, when Ryudo is still in the throes of "they hired me to WHAT") is the game's own genre-savviness and willingness to play along with audience expectations just to throw a few curveballs in when you least expect it - and some of them are real gutpunches, but a lot of them are just fucking hilarious.

Ryudo brings the snark heavily in the first half of the game, and he's a real jackass about it, too - I love this about him, other people might find it irritating. My personal favorite example is when an NPC kid wanders up to him and asks if it's true Geohounds drink the blood of their enemies, and Ryudo responds by telling him, "no, but we like to BATHE in the blood of our kills" (or something along those lines!) just to watch the kid run off screaming.

Your protagonist, ladies and gentlemen: he's a dick.

(I love him.)

Ryudo has his reasons for this behavior, admittedly, and they're one hell of an emotional headfuck when they do hit, because of one other thing the game does well: issues of faith, responsibility, belief, and doctrine. It may be a standard plot, especially in RPGs, to include as a major facet of the plot a corrupt church run by a morally bankrupt leader, but Grandia II takes this and goes one step further by including multiple failed religious organizations, one of which Ryudo once belonged to - if you hear "lapsed Catholic" looming large in the conceptual makeup of our dear protagonist, you are not wrong.

In fact, if you hear Catholicism and Christianity in general getting heavy play the more you learn about these characters, you ain't mishearing things. Grandia II's metaphor is only barely a metaphor - the religious leader is even called the Pope, for fuck's sake - and it treads a fine line between tactlessness and clarity in its applications of that metaphor, but when it's on, it is on fire. The commentary it offers on the dangers of fundamentalist doctrine and the risks of misinterpretation only hit harder these days, for me, as someone who strives to reconcile my own faith with the nature of what passes for "faith" in the eyes of organized religion.

Elena in particular lives a struggle I know intimately, because for her, faith is what makes her a good person. She doesn't know what "good" means outside of the context of her God; it's her folly, and the folly of many, to trust that God can only come to her through the words of the Pope, to believe in the infallibility of a man who is all too mortal. Elena is a penitent, God-fearing, and noble soul, and this is what almost kills her. This is what's wrong with her. It breaks her, in the end, and she has to almost rebuild from scratch, but the funny thing that the game points out is that "from scratch" is a lie; it takes more than just realizing your entire life was misguided to shake the beliefs that life shaped within you, it takes conscious, constant effort, and you have to want to try.

She is not my favorite character in the story, but she comes damned close.

No, my favorite character is ([personal profile] dekaja won't be surprised) Millenia, because of who and what she is.

Millenia is a tool. In fact, for much of the game, it's safe to say the people who call her "it" aren't entirely without just cause, because Millenia is a piece of the Chaos God, Valmar, the thing the game essentially drops in Ryudo's lap as "that thing whose awakening you have to stop" (to which Ryudo gives a typically-Ryudo response of "I don't give a fuck about your dumb gods, but I'll do anything if you pay me first") and one hell of a metaphysical MacGuffin. Not to spoil anything, but funnily enough, a lot of what people blame on Valmar turns out to be wrong, and their own twisting of doctrine to shut out parts of the world they just can't stand instead. Of course, sometimes it is Valmar - but not the parts people were blaming Valmar for, and oftentimes perpetrated by those who believed what they were doing was justified by their faith. Millenia is part and parcel of this, heir to a thousand wrongs she never personally committed but that she's perfectly comfortable taking responsibility for all the same. She expects to be loathed, she expects to be feared, and by their fear and loathing she expects they will worship her, because she's a fucking piece of a dead God, you fucking mortals, she can do whatever the fuck she wants.

(And she's right in more than just a story sense: gameplay-wise, one of Millenia's later skills is the all-time definition of "game breaker" at its higher levels, because it can't be blocked, and it can't be broken, ever. Master it, and while Millenia's in your party the game is yours. TOO BAD MILLENIA ISN'T ALWAYS IN YOUR PARTY, HURR HURR.)

The problem is, Millenia is also something else: she's the other half of Elena. Elena, you see, suffers from DID, and when the Wings of Valmar (that's Millenia!) infect her, Elena does the only thing any penitent fundamentalist Christian would do with a piece of the Devil feeding off their soul would do: she blames all her guilty feelings and all the parts of her she's uncomfortable with on it, and the end result is that the personality Elena's spent a long time suppressing, the part she's spent her whole life suppressing and using as a repository for all the self-loathing she carries around inside, every "good little girl"'s internalization of the virgin/whore dichotomy, suddenly that part's not so suppressed anymore, and that part has an axe to grind and the power to grind it. Millenia takes shape from Elena's own malformed ideas of what she would be like without faith to control her impulses, and it's a broken, incomplete, almost two-dimensional girl that she makes of herself. Like Elena's own quest for meaning outside of faith, Millenia's quest for who she is under all those definitions the world and her own birth shoved onto her is a journey that takes the entire game to resolve, and continues on even after its end. And it's safe to say the game takes one look at that aforementioned virgin/whore dichotomy, spits on it, and shatters it into itty bitty pieces with several well-placed kicks to the face.

Millenia and Elena hashing out their differences and learning to coexist with each other at last also coincides, not accidentally, with one of those gutpunches I mentioned earlier, and I won't spoil it but I will say this: in terms of how it handles DID, it is both one of the game's weakest and strongest moments, all at once. And it will make you cry.

Oh, and she's voiced by the Little fucking Mermaid, one of my generation's formative crystallizations of the virgin/whore dichotomy, Jodi Benson herself, loving every chance she gets to break someone's childhood in half (and if you think Jodi Benson didn't have axes to grind playing her, let me remind you Jodi Benson is a practicing Christian, and while I am not saying every role has to have personal relevance to an actor's political views: think about that for a minute, will you).

This isn't even getting into the headfuck that is the entire plot of Mirumu Village/Lumir Forest, one the most perfectly handled pieces of storytelling ever, as far as I'm concerned, where everyone's best (and worst) intentions collide in an abominable, frighteningly prescient clusterfuck of privilege and discrimination and ableism and the game hits it out of the park in tackling the failure of majority Christian doctrine at addressing all three.

Or Ryudo's backstory (wherein Jodi Benson plays a girl sacrificed for the sake of faith and virginity, because AXE TO GRIND, people), which is horrifying in all the right ways, just ... horrifying.

(And I haven't even mentioned Roan's story arc, or Tio's, or Mareg's, who would all take as much space as Millenia's and Elena's and all for very different reasons.)

The game has an ideological focus that barely wavers, even when it reveals where the religion actually came from (hint: Clarke's Third Law is in full effect here), and it goes after its intended targets with ruthless dedication. Most RPGs would settle for keeping the metaphors kind of vaguely pointed; not Grandia II, Grandia II's barbs are sharp enough to split hairs on.

It's also decently sexually non-standard, with several bones thrown to people looking for kink possibilities; nearly every outfit has some form of tie or belt to it (but not to utter ridiculousness, like some designs I could think of), especially where Elena and Millenia are concerned there's some clear but incredibly complicated D/s subtext/imagery at play in their relationships to each other and everyone else, there are the beast-people who would be somebody's thing even if it's not particularly mine and there is the part where Mareg the beast-man and Tio the robot girl are Platonically in love with each other and it's fucking adorable, and, well, the ending. I am a sucker for any game that ends with a fucking canon OT3, I enjoyed it in Skies of Arcadia and I enjoy it even more here, where all hell breaks loose repeatedly until everyone involved agrees that all this bullshit is enough and none of them need to choose between each other.

Also, anybody who's spent time brushing up on Catholic symbolism knows just how much kink there is embedded in religious doctrine, and hey, Grandia II's take on it isn't any less kinky, so there's that too!

And I'm sure there's more that I just haven't noticed because I haven't considered it the right way.

But that's a lot of talk about the story elements; let's talk gameplay! As anyone who has ever played a Grandia game will tell you, the battle and leveling engine for these games is one of the best-designed in the entire genre, although it's got its own quirks and irritations to deal with (my biggest pet peeve is that most buffs/debuffs are fucking useless and yet the game gives you at least thirty different ones anyway, and you have to level them up to get better spells so they're a fucking waste of EXP even if they aren't a waste of anything else), and in GII there's certainly still room for improvement. You literally don't notice you're grinding, sometimes, because you're just plowing through seeing what the engine does, or too busy going "ooh" at discovering some new way to cause the enemies you're fighting to hate you just that little bit extra.

Grandia II uses the standard Grandia battle system: what's known as an Initiative Point, or IP, Gauge. Think of it as a cross between the ATB system and the turn-based system used in Persona 4, with actual terrain effects thrown in to make things just a little bit more interesting. Combat is a mix of turn-based and real-time, with initiative being determined by characters' placement on a "gauge" in the right-hand corner of the screen that their icon moves across in real time; the speed at which they move along this gauge is affected by their stats and equipped items and skills. The gauge itself is split into two sections, which have proper names but I always call them the "initial" and "prep" section: the initial section is hard to describe despite being the most important part of the system in some ways, because while the characters on the field do little but run around, much of the battle can be determined if you can stack the odds in your party's favor and make sure they reach initiative before the enemies do; the prep section represents the time it takes between choosing an attack and executing it. Both sections are separated by the initiative stage in the middle in which characters can choose the type of move they will execute at the end of the prep section, and some moves reach execution faster than others. Moves like, say, telling your character "go here" to stick them out of range of an enemy's attack, which are risky moves to make because once a move is executed you're right back to the start of the gauge, but sometimes it's that or KO.

If you time it just right and your character's stats are right, you can actually dodge an enemy's strike by telling the character to go run somewhere else, rather than it just being a matter of statistical dodge rates; magic, unfortunately, is undodgeable, but this is where things get interesting, because with the IP gauge a critical hit in the middle of a character's prep period for launching a magical attack will knock the character all the way back to the start of the IP gauge and they'll be forced to redo the attack selection process; if the character is faster in the prep period than the enemy attacking them, any attack becomes a counter by slipping in just before the enemy executes their move but before it actually can follow through - counters, however, only revert the character's place on the gauge back to the start of the prep section, not all the way back to the start like a critical.

During the move select stage that delineates the initial and prep stages, the battle pauses completely to let you take a moment to analyze the situation; you can examine locations the characters might move to, the status of enemy and ally HP/SP/MP, attack ranges for potential moves, and most importantly if the enemy is far enough along on the gauge you can tell which character they're targeting and what the range of the move they intend to strike that character with will be.

This is all fairly dry and perhaps sounds dull and straightforward; in play, however, the system is anything but - with the variety of opponents and the variety of options your characters likewise have in how they approach them, combat is a wild and unpredictable beast, and only late in the game do any of the battles become "just as planned". By that point, if you're me, it won't be boring; instead, each time you win by knowing exactly what to do when is just a welcome reminder that you have learned the system just that well.

(Unless you've got Millenia in your party, in which case no, it's just because that one skill of Millenia's is horribly fucking broken. I make no secret of the fact that when I'm in the right mood, I will take gleeful advantage of this and I feel no guilt whatsoever!)

You can only have four characters in your party at any given time, and there are six characters total, which means the game dictates when characters swap in and out of your party because of plot events; these are less obnoxious than they often can be (most of time, the equipment and skills/magic swap back to the communal party pool), but some of them are absolutely player punches (those would be the times the equipment/skills/magic don't). There are in-game ways to mitigate this - if you're dedicated to exploring every scrap of the game, and I am, so I had no problems here, except the emotional gutpunch those events handed me.

As far as your characters go, GII, like all Grandia games, straddles that sweet spot between well-defined character skills and total customizability: every character comes with a set number of skills, several of which are locked away until certain plot milestones pass, and all of which serve very different purposes in terms of battle usage (except Ryudo and Elena's final skills, both of which are pretty much "flatten the battlefield with PURE DAMAGE SPAM" - but unlike Ryudo's version, Elena's is accessible the minute you get her, if only at such horrendous casting costs that casting it means Elena can't cast anything else using her SP until you find a heal spot), and which are cast using Skill Points (SP); there are Skill Books you can acquire as the game goes on that provide character-independent skills that all fit certain "categories" of skill types and can be leveled up via SP to increase their effects on characters, and these can be equipped on any character in any fashion you like, but characters have a limited number of skill slots (that increase as they level) so you have to choose what kind of characteristics you want to encourage in character growth; meanwhile, magic (cast, obviously, using MP) is something every character is capable of, but magic spells are limited entirely to Magic Eggs which your party can only acquire after completing certain plot events (Millenia arrives in the party with one pre-equipped :D), but Eggs are completely swappable between characters and they stay with the party even if the character isn't currently in the party (so even if the Chaos Egg may be Millenia's at first, there's nothing preventing you from assigning it to Elena when she's not in the party) and there are more Eggs than there are party members so once you've acquired them all the options for customization are pretty extensive; there are also Magic Skills in those aforementioned Skill Books that require MP to level up and which affect magic casting stats in ways that make things very interesting.

So character work is pretty interesting, technical aspects-wise. Now let's talk dungeons!

I still think Grandia II has some of the best graphic bang for anyone's buck - used copies for the DC version are fucking cheap - but what it lacks in graphic punch it makes up for in conceptual heft - each area feels distinct and real, especially once you get past the early levels set in the archetypal dungeons and suchlike (which only takes playing a few hours into the game to do), and as mentioned earlier, the level design of especially the dungeon crawl within the events surrounding Lumir Forest and Mirumu Village is as stellar and pointed as the rest (in fact, I have a sneaking suspicion whoever designed "Heaven", one of the late dungeons in Persona 4, was taking notes off the later parts of this dungeon the whole time), and damned fucking creepy to boot - if you have a phobia of creepy eyes, do not let yourself play this level because it will give you nightmares, just like it's meant to.

And since GII has the advantage of having no randomly-generated dungeons, every floor for each dungeon feels distinct within the unified aesthetics of the dungeon, with new variations on whatever theme that particular dungeon is riffing on - several of them, in particular, are satisfyingly visceral and squishy. I have a thing for organic dungeons, so sue me, and there's a few dungeons in GII that are literally the characters crawling through something's humongous bowels, with arterial blockages that spurt when cut and other such things.

It only has a few really tricky puzzles, so players looking for consistent intellectual cruelty should probably look elsewhere, but - as [personal profile] dekaja, my fellow partner in GII-fangirling crime, points out, when they show up, those puzzles are real master classes in level design, demanding and then rewarding careful attention and rigorous thought, and they grow organically out of the setting rather than feeling thrown in for the sake of puzzlecraft, to boot.

But possibly my favorite part of the level design is this: NO FUCKING RANDOM BATTLES. I may have gotten used to random battles, I may even on occasion look forward to random battles - I would, for example, not hate a Grandia game with random battles, and the average SMT game makes me orgasm with joy every other battle it springs on me because seriously that battle system is sexy as hell - but that is entirely dependent on whether the game engine drives me screaming batshit from joy or if it does it to me, instead and far more frequently, with rage, and I have honestly never gotten over my instinctive fear and distrust of the random battle as a concept necessary for enjoyment of an RPG. And so: Grandia II has no random battles. Every single enemy unit (here meaning "set of enemies" instead of single enemy because of system display limitations) is visible and - most importantly - both surpriseable and dodgeable.

This does not mean they are always easy to surprise or dodge, hell no. My number one least favorite noise in a video game ever, the noise I hate worse than any other, is not the Sonic drowning noise like it is for many people (in fact, I find it aesthetically enjoyable, haha), but the noise of the fucking hopping scorpion enemies in Grandia II, because sneaking up on them is so difficult it's almost impossible, and if you fail to sneak up on them they start hopping, and because in GII the enemy units occupy the same space as your characters enemies can and will pounce on them and catch the party by surprise to boot (meaning they reach prep before any of your characters can) and these fuckers do it every time. The only reason they are not Goddamned Bats is because they're easily killable with Mareg in your party and Beast-King Smash on his skill list, and only fucking annoying even if he's out of commission, but still, that fucking noise and their guaranteed certainty at getting the first five strikes in makes them so fucking obnoxious, even though several later enemies make them, power-wise (in comparison to party levels at that point), look like chumps when it comes to the kind of damage they can wreak on the party even if they don't catch you by surprise.

Also, with the exception of the final boss (an affliction many games share, sadly), the bosses in GII are serious heavyweights if you fight them in the expected weight class - but it's totally doable, with the possible exception of one boss that proved harder than I expected and totally wiped the floor with me the first twenty times I fought it, to still beat them with the right combination of luck and strategy, a few levels below the recommended levels. That said, meeting the recommended levels will only be difficult if you don't obsessively go through every floor killing everything like I did, because if you kill everything (sometimes twice) you will probably wind up hitting the right level to make the bosses challenging but not impossible (with a few exceptions) without much actual conscious consideration of it - and this brings me to my next favorite thing about GII:

It is probably anyone's ideal First JRPG Ever, because its learning curve is as effortless and natural as the curve of a baby's bottom, and half the time you don't even notice the game teaching you new tricks that then become essential tools to master the next few levels because you're too busy poking everything to see how it works, you'll be too busy fighting to notice you're actually grinding, and you'll be too busy exploring to realize you're learning how to navigate progressively trickier puzzles and convoluted levels, and too sucked into the story to feel disappointed when it starts exposition bombing you at crucial moments because you just want to know more.

Possibly most importantly, GII understands better than any other game I've ever played how to juggle story development with gameplay development; I cannot say "gameplay and story integration" because that would require the game explaining how some of the spells can exist and yet be so destructive they clearly can be seen from space, but when I say that the game understands how to time events and dungeons so precisely that just when you might tire of dungeon crawling it drops a new story nugget in your lap and just when you feel like everyone's been talking too much the story leads the characters to a new dungeon, I am sure anyone who's had to sit through a two-hour cutscene just to get to a fucking dungeon and anyone who's struggled to find the urge to grind for another ten hours to get a twenty-minute cutscene - in short, anyone who was playing a game and only slowly realized their priorities playing the game were not priorities the game shared - will understand what I mean when I say that in my opinion GII is perfectly balanced to please both impulses. There isn't a wasted second of game to it - GII is a lean piece of game with no filler to it whatsoever. It's not there to waste any player's time on pointless quests or needless subplots. You can't throw a rock without hitting something integral to the game's structure, something the game just couldn't afford to lose and still feel complete, because it is tight. When it throws a puzzle at the player, it's because that puzzle belongs there, it was considered and found to fit there perfectly, and if it didn't fit it would have been tossed out, something that fit better put in its place instead.

In short, it has everything I want from a game and a fair bit more, and I revisit it at least once a year even now, almost a decade after its original release; it's safe to say it is one of my longest-lasting fannish loves, and I expect I'll still be playing it ten years from now with fondness and affection.

Besides. Canon OT3. That's basically my reason for loving it right there.
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