Grand Kingdom PS4 Review
Fans of developer Vanillaware might remember a title from a few years ago called Grand Knights History, a tactical role-playing game for the PSP. It was initially announced for a release in EU and USA in 2011 by XSeed, but a year later was cancelled due to the publisher lacking the ability to program translations into the game, having to instead send the words to Vanillaware in Japan. The Japanese studio was busy making Dragon’s Crown at the time and did not have the staff to manage one of its older titles for translation. It was a huge shame, since it looked like another great game from the studio. As sad as it was, we can be happy now, as everything is different with the release of Grand Kingdom, a spiritual successor to Grand Knights History by Monochrome, a new studio that includes the director of the original game, Tomohiko Deguchi, who has managed to – with help from NIS America – bring one of the more interesting Japanese RPGs for the PlayStation 4 over to our shores.
The weakest part of Grand Kingdom is its story. The player is put into the shoes of a leader of a small group of fighters, who must take command of his squads when they begin working for the mercenary guild in this fantasy world. You never see your avatar – people speak to you in a similar style to visual novels. Hanging with you are two advisers, Flint, a fighter who just wants to fight and earn prestige or get drunk in the taverns, and Lillia, tasked by her father, the leader of the mercenary guild, to keep you in check and offer tips and advice to keep everyone alive and get the most out of your band of fighters. These two will talk a lot, being more like a group of friends then business associates. This gives them personality, more so than most of the other characters you come across, especially the enemies, who don’t get to be all that memorable, due to the lack of screen time. Expect the story to be similar in experience – one that will be forgotten after you are finished with it.
The base story is only 12 chapters, which you could easily get through within 9-10 hours. It also starts on the easy side, feeling like a big training regime (makes for a good tutorial) for about half of the initial 12 chapters. There is a reason why the main game is a little on the short side, as back in Japan, Grand Kingdom didn’t have a typical release. Adding to the cheaper priced game was 36 chapters through downloadable content to expend to a total of 48. What NIS America has decided to do with the Western release is combined all the DLC together into the package, so the game is complete from the get go. Once the 12 chapters are finished, Grand Kingdom allows to then proceed to play each of the Four Great Nations’ nine chapters, finding out additional details about why the states of Fiel, Magion, Landerth and Valkyr can’t seem to do anything but fight with each other. It extends the content of the game by a huge margin, but just like the main campaign, you’ll probably won’t find it compelling enough to be remembered in the future.
I feel story was never the focus of Grand Kingdom, since its gameplay is what sticks out above all else. There are two main mechanics that make up the core of this game – exploring and battling. Going on a quest will take your selected squad into the field. These battlefields are linear pathways made up of squares. Your unit is a silver piece that can move on these squares, with each move taking a turn. As you move, so does the purple enemy pieces. Movement can be done with the analogue stick or dpad, although due to the isometric angled view, the dpad default directions means that pressing right is actually moving up right, which made me often move incorrectly, due to my brain stupidly not getting the grasp of directional control. I do have to thank Monochrome for putting in the option to change the dpad direction, so that up will actually move you up-right, rather than up-left. For me, it felt more natural using this setting.
Tactical play is important, as a counter will display how many moves are available to finish the quest, and hitting that limited means failure. Do you save moves by going straight for the goal and getting into battles that block the direct route? Or try arriving at the objective by managing to dodge enemies and deadly traps that litter the field? Things become more complicated further into the game, as invisible enemies and secret routes become more frequent, requiring a key eye to spot them. Of course, you can’t have an RPG without loot – treasure chests are hidden in the faraway corners of the field, so one must take into account the detour if collecting every secret is what you enjoy doing. Missions will sometimes have objectives to defend a point, stealth to the goal (get to the goal without being noticed) or attack all units, while skills can be used in the field to heal or buff certain aspects, and traps can also be disabled with specific items, although these are limited in supply. Traps can be passed safely by skipping three turns to wait out a dangerous thunderstorm or take apart a mine trap, and are usually the best way to survive instead of risking potential damage or penalties.
Touching an enemy will initiate the battle, but before any of that, you want to have a well balanced team. A squad is typically made up of four units from one of the 17 class types that can be bought from the hire menu – plenty to play around with to master their abilities. Included here are the typical Paladin, Fighter, Rogue and Medic classes found in many other RPGs, but the game also manages to chuck a few surprises in. One cool unit is the huge Dragon Mage class that takes up two unit spaces, but has the ability to attack with strong melee attacks with her dragon, but also deal long-range damage with magic spells. Overall, no matter if the unit uses a sword, lance or bow, you can find a class that will fit into a confident role, either being up close and personal with melee damage, staying on the back rows with range magic or physical attacks, being sneaky by hiding and/or setting traps/buffs for units to walk into, and healing classes, who excel at keeping fellow combatants alive. On the customisation side, you can switch hair, skin and armour colour, and change the pitch of their voice, giving you a unique team when taking the squad online (more on that later).
Battles are portrayed from a 2D side perspective. Think similar to Vanillaware’s Odin Sphere or classics like Streets of Rage 2. Fights are turn-based, with speed determining which character will attack next. Having a team positioned well is key. Starting grid positions for battle can be set in the party menu either in the home base or when exploring the field board. The battlefield is divided into three lanes, and units can switch lanes or move up and down them freely until the movement metre has expired. Imagine if Valkyrie Chronicles’ movement system was made in 2D – that is exactly what you have here. Performing actions, such as attacking or using items and magic, will reduce an action metre. Movement and actions are performed in real time. A melee fighter will have a small selection of skills on the face buttons, and during a fight, they can deplete all their action metre by constantly performing a combo by linking each move. If you don’t do that, the unit will stop attacking, as it assumes you are done with dealing damage. Throw in time cancels to deal extra damage between linking moves and you have one example of how the combat tries to keep your attention. Another good example is the bow user, whose basic attack is to shoot arrows into the air. The player has to time the cross-hair perfectly onto the enemy to get the hit, but doing so can create jungles, as volleys of arrows come raining from the sky, but if you miss a hit, the combo stops and the attack ends.
Fighting in Grand Kingdom requires focus. I learnt this early on when I found out that friendly fire exists. It’s easy to forget to take into account the size of an object, the poison bottle by the medic is a good example. This little bottle of death is thrown at an angle, and it also has an area of effect when it smashes, so not only do you take care throwing it over a friendly comrade, you also must take into account the spread it does when it hits an enemy or the ground. Same goes for health potions, where its area of effect will also heal enemy units next to the unit who is calling for help.
Melee doesn’t escape friendly fire either. Using a wide range attack will need to take into account the team members who are lined next to the attacking unit on the different lanes, otherwise they will get an unexpected surprise. Tactical RPGs are often true to their name, but Grand Kingdom comes across as one that fully embraces this concept with all its battle mechanics that need to be taken into account. It also manages to do all this in a battle system that’s rapid without waiting out tedious turns, which isn’t always the case with some titles.
Getting through all the campaign and the many side quests will last you a good few hours, but Grand Kingdom keeps the content coming with a huge online feature built into the War mode within the single player campaign. Signing a contract with one of the four kingdoms for a determined amount of battles will give you access to the online war, along with that kingdom’s shop that will sell unique items and gear. It’s in this War campaign where you will fight other players with a squad of six heroes (your four plus two hired mercenaries). Battles are not actual fought against another live players, but against a squad created by them and controlled by the computer who tries to act similar to the player sat on the other side of the internet. These units spawn onto the battlefield constantly unit the skirmish timer finishes.
Online was initially confusing. It isn’t clear what is going on in the battles. The gist is that each war has a 24-hour period, and through asynchronous gameplay everyone in your Kingdom who is currently online can pick a place to invade. Players can then send either a spare group of mercenaries or take a squad themselves to go into battle and try claim the enemy forts, switching them over to your colour to push the percentage of the war in your favour, eventually claiming loot for all the hard work. It’s more complex than the main offline game, but this mode keeps the game going on past the story, allowing you to level up units, resetting their levels to improve masteries in specific stats, then level them up again for stronger units on the harder difficulty.
There is a sense of Vanillaware with the aesthetic of Grand Kingdom. It’s visuals, drawn by Chizu Hashii, merges some of his own style with the animation and look of a game like Dragon’s Crown. It’s a fantasy world that is infused with Japanese ideas and brought to life with beautiful and detailed sprites that make for a great looking title. On the audio side, there’s a mixture of good and mediocre voice acting for English, but there is a Japanese audio track for anyone wanting to keep the game in its natural language.
The story might be forgettable, but Grand Kingdom‘s gameplay certainly is not. This is a game that features a refreshing and unique battle concept for a genre that can often feature formulaic combat, mixing its deep mechanics to bring a challenging, beautiful and inventive game that is a fascinating breath of fresh air for tactical RPGs.