Holy Crap! A revolutionary 2-D RTS game!
Being a fan of the Real Time Strategy genre is tough. Over the last few years we have been presented, or perhaps I should say assaulted, with clone after clone of generic RTS titles. Oh sure, they’re not necessarily bad games, but they aren’t representative of anything new, either, only serving to provide something fresh in the form of a new franchise or storyline continuation from a previously released game. Developer Vanillaware has accomplished what I would have sworn was the impossible; created a new way to play RTS games. Vanillaware is probably known among most in the United States as the developer of Odin Sphere, a game which shares several things in common with their latest title, GrimGrimoire, which I will now tell you about!
Put simply, GrimGrimoire is a 2-D, side-scrolling, sprite-based RTS game. This is significant for two reasons: Firstly, in typical Vanillaware style, the game features absolutely gorgeous artwork, similar in both style and beauty to Odin Sphere. Characters are illustrated with luscious color schemes and flowing lines, and environment artwork is similarly well designed. The second reason of the game’s significance is that Vanillaware has managed to preserve the fundamental basic mechanics of PC RTS titles in a 2-D console game. This is nothing short of a monumental achievement in terms of cross-platform game design, and it warms my heart to see that there are a few developers and publishers in Japan both willing to try something new and publish it in the American market.
As you start playing GrimGrimoire, you may be caught off guard by its rather blatant use of established material from the first book of the Harry Potter series, or at least, its obvious influence from such material. The player takes the role of Lillet Blan, a young student of magic just enrolling in a prestigious magic school, the Tower of the Silver Star. The School’s most powerful professor, Gammel Dore, is charged with defending the powerful Philosopher’s Stone from the forces of evil. While all of this may sound suspiciously similar, the similarities end there. As Lillet proceeds through her first four days of class (basically a tutorial), she’s awoken on the fifth to learn that everyone in the school has been massacred. Before she succumbs to the demonic forces attacking the tower, she is propelled back in time to the night of her arrival at the school, retaining all of the knowledge she attained over the last four days, including magical abilities. The story continues in this fashion, with Lillet being sent back in time every five days, uncovering more mysteries and truths than she’d initially dared hope. FUN FACT : Every character in the game is named after some form of hard alcohol!
The game is played on a single flat plane broken up by two dozen or so floors in descending and ascending altitudes, with the player usually starting somewhere around the middle. In this manner, Vanillaware was able to create an expansive playfield while maintaining the two-dimensional aspect of this novel approach to the genre. All of the fundamental gameplay mechanics of RTS games are present; resource nodes to collect mana (the game’s currency), harvester units that both collect mana and have limited build capabilities, fog-of-war to shroud the map, defensive turrets, etc. GrimGrimoire’s tech tree is divided up into four schools of magic in a rock-paper-scissors arrangement, each having inherent strengths and weaknesses to the corresponding magical school. These four schools, Glamour, Necromancy, Sorcery, and Alchemy, have three spell books, or grimoires, each, and learning the contents of them allow for the summoning of more powerful units. Glamour magic is capable of summoning nature-oriented creatures such as elves, fairies, and unicorns. Necromancy magic is capable of summoning astral units, like undead knights and ghosts, which cannot be harmed by physical attacks unless brought into the physical realm with special abilities. Sorcery magic is the stuff of hellfire, enabling the player to summon demons, imps, and powerful dragons into the fray. Finally, Alchemy magic, probably the most powerful of the four, allows the player to summon monstrous creatures with powerful ranged attacks, like homunculi, golems, and fearsome chimera.
Gameplay of the game itself runs pretty much like other RTS games do; find resource nodes, build some harvesters, earn some cash, construct build some units, and kick ass. The more mana you collect and enemies you kill, the more upgrades you’ll have available to strengthen your characters during that level. Most units that the player can summon are on foot and must take the stairs connecting each floor to traverse to the next, however flying units are exempt from this requirement, as are the chimera and dragons, which are so large (each fills about a quarter of the screen) they can simply walk from floor to floor as if it was flat ground. It’s the rock-paper-scissors design that adds difficulty to the game’s many levels, meaning that even the most powerful units have their weak points, and it’s important to combine units of all four schools of magic to supplement any weaknesses the CPU might try to exploit. Each of the game’s levels provides a different challenge the farther in you go. Unfortunately, it’s the level design which leads to the game’s first disappointing aspect; a general lack of level diversity. Every single level of the game, every one, features the same cut-away medieval backdrop and art. The only difference between each stage is how the stairs are arranged and how barriers and gaps are placed across each section of floor. Considering the effort Vanillaware went to produce the artwork, elegant control scheme and thoughtful creature concepts, why they felt a lackluster job on level design was required is up to anyone’s guess. The least they could have done is provided different level backdrops, but even that is left out. While it’s not a crippling problem, and the game plays fine and still looks gorgeous using the singular medieval backdrop, it still speaks of either a lack of effort or a forced publishing of the title.
The game features a robust assortment of English-speaking voice actors to provide a full dialogue track during the story sequences. However, in classic Vanillaware style, they have thoughtfully included the complete, brilliant Japanese voice track in the game, which earns them points bordering on the brobdingnagian scale. The player can switch between the dialogue tracks at any point during the course of the game, which is fortunate for those of us that are unable to appreciate the inner-ear damaging “talent” of most American voice actors. Similarly with Odin Sphere, GrimGrimoire features a musical composition that starts out well but slowly whittles away at your patience as you hear the same track look over and over again for just about every level in the game. Unit specific audio design is generally robust and different for each branch of magic, with the most powerful units sounding appropriately monstrous, and demonic units sounding evil and damning. However, units like Elves, Imps, and Fairies, which possess high squeaky voices, will probably give you a headache after a few minutes as they continually repeat the same high-pitched acknowledgment and confirmation sound bytes over the course of an hour long stage.
On a straight play-through, the game will probably take you about twenty to twenty five hours to complete. Of course, once you beat a certain mission you can always return to that stage, and there are usually about five bonus missions in every chapter, as well. Considering the length of time some of the bonus missions take to complete, it could theoretically take a player several hours to complete just the tutorial section. In other words, there’s a lot to do! The game is rated E for everyone, but it’s seriously doubtful if anyone in their teens or below would have the patience to play through this entire game. GrimGrimoire is quite possibly the most innovative take on the real time strategy genre in years. Not only that, but it’s a fun and sufficiently different experience that simply exudes style and creativity, that hopefully everyone, including non RTS fans, can enjoy. GrimGrimoire is in stores now.