GrimGrimoire for the PS2: Video Game Review

GrimGrimoire is the first game I’ve put up on Proon. It seems like a pretty good candidate, since it’s got a very anime-ish style and storyline, is Japanese, and it’s a game which I’ve actually finished. That last bullet point is probably the most important. To be honest, I don’t finish many games; I generally get so obsessed with “playtime” and “replay value” that I progress more slowly the closer I get to the end, forming a vertical asymptote around 80% completion, or until I get a new game to play and replace it. It’s not something I consciously do it’s just the way it is ok. On the other hand, it does provide an exciting back catalog of games that I have neither beaten nor remember dating back to pre-Playstation 1 days.
Back to the game at hand. Grim Grimoire is a strategy game, with a tentative Real-Time prefix in much the same way Baldur’s Gate was Real-Time: namely, with the ability to pause whenever you want. Some may claim this isn’t truly Real-Time, although I haven’t yet encountered a nerd sweaty enough to deliberate on this point. Regardless, it is essentially a RTS, old-school PC style, with resource management and everything. It’s only one resource, and you can really only do three things with it (create buildings, units, and upgrades) but god damn it it’s there and isn’t that enough for now?!? Japan is on the cutting edge of this whole RTS phase and rest assured that in a few years they may develop far enough along to have two resources and maybe, MAYBE more than one faction. By the way, a grimoire is a magic book in case you didn’t know you stupid jackass. Go read a book on tape.

Thankfully all the passive-aggressive PC wanking is out of the way now and I can go into more detail about the game itself. The story is…alright it’s going to sound like a cross-pollination experiment between Groundhog Day and Harry Potter but just stay with me ok? Lillet Blan is a witch and she’s going to magic school YES HOLD ON and the headmaster’s name is Gammel Dore. Phew, I’m glad we got that out of the way. Feel free to laugh for as long as you need to. Tell your friends, it’s hilarious. It really is. Now that’s cleared up I can continue. She’s stuck repeating the same five days in an infinite loop. Once the midnight bells begin to sound on the fifth day, she’s shunted backwards through time and, if you listen to those crackpot physicists, space, to restart right from day one. She retains the knowledge and items she gained. That’s very important, since she goes from wide-eyed young witch to throat-stomping, face-crushing magical mastermind. Your opinion of the story will vary of course, depending on several factors such as your tolerance for derivative fantasy storytelling, but overall I’d say it’s quite good. You think you know what’s coming early on but different characters slowly reveal different colors and make the proceedings very interesting. I only wanted to shoot myself two, maybe three times during the course of the game’s story. And that’s good for something from Japan!

The gameplay is more similar to traditional RTS games than you would think at first blush. Each school has a basic worker unit that erects gathering structures on mana crystals and then harvests said mana crystals for big money big prizes I love it. Each school of magic has three grimoires, with very few parallel uses between them (for instance, the Gehennas Sorcery grimoire is solely focused on upgrading Sorcery units, while the Engraving Alchemy grimoire is used for creating Golems, the game’s long-range artillery). That keeps things interesting, and ensures that try to focus on a ‘winning combo’ as you might, you’ll find yourself making a lot of the Runes every battle. Runes, by the way, are just fancy words for buildings; they’re physical representations of your grimoires and where you summon and upgrade units from.

There’s a rock-paper-scissors mentality to the proceedings, as Glamour beats Necromancy beats Sorcery beats Alchemy beats Glamour, but one of the best parts of the game is that these are far from absolute rules; for instance, Alchemy may be strong against Glamour, but a Morning Star (an astral Glamour unit [it’s a ghost]) will tear through ranks of Alchemy units unchecked without a Homunculus there to make it corporeal. So while you may roll your eyes at the mention of a “this beats that beats that” gameplay system, remain aware that this shit isn’t absolute by any stretch. Units are interesting and diverse enough that you’ll find yourself utilizing a counter-force to what your enemy has, rather than a “supreme cocktail” of the most powerful units. At least on the more challenging difficulty levels; on Sweet or Easy, summon yourself up a few Dragons and Chimeras and go to town.

Not everything is super magical wonderful, though. I don’t expect to play DotA 7.13b on the game, but some kind of rudimentary map editor would have been nice. Perhaps not economical, given that there’s no multiplayer in place, but it would have been nice. The lack of multiplayer really sticks in my craw; I can appreciate a story-driven experience in any genre, but RTS games are meant to be played against other retards on the internet (or face-to-face against other hambeasts at your LAN). I think it shows less of a lack of confidence in Vanilla Ware’s gameplay balance and more of a ePhobia. Japanese developers have never been encouraged to use the online capabilities of the PS2, and I hope that when Grim Grimoire 2 comes out (assuming it actually comes out for a current system and not the PS2 again) Vanilla Ware will take the first revolutionary step forward to bring RTS gameplay online.

Of course there’s the control issues, but since the game does pause itself every time you select a unit or press a button or do pretty much anything it’s not as big of a problem as it’s been on other console RTS’s. Not being able to scroll over the map separately and jump to specific points is annoying as hell, though. A tip: use both analog sticks to scroll, it makes the screen move faster. The backgrounds are very similar, it’s true, and although the layouts and map sizes vary quite a bit, a little bit of variety would have been greatly appreciated. I understand that it’s a castle and it’s the same five days repeated over and over again, but come on. If I’m in the Alchemy section, put in an alchemy background with distillers and pipits and Bunsen burners and shit. Necromancy? Ghosts wandering around in the background and maybe coffins or tombstone pizza boxes or whatever you know? Get a little creative next time, please!

Finally, the game’s length: I have read on various sites that Grim Grimoire is 25-30 hours at a minimum. This is not quite a lie, but not quite true either. Hearing this, I plowed straight ahead and received quite a sucker punch when I beat the game with the fantastically short playtime of 15 hours, 19 minutes. Wow, that’s like ten hours short guys! It turns out that the bonus missions, which unlock every time you beat a stage, are actually important to wringing the most you can out of GG; at 25 stages, they are approximately half the game. I still suggest saving them for last rather than completing them as they’re unlocked, as that would break up the story and deliver a less focused experience. Also the bonus missions are often quite clever, and restrict you to using units and strategies you generally wouldn’t, which end up being very interesting and fun. In the end it’s up to you whether you choose to complete them after or during the storyline, which is a nice touch.

So a question I’ve been asked a lot is: better or worse than Odin Sphere? That’s quite a question. Quite a question. They’re two very, very different games, despite the striking similarity in graphical design. It’s very hard to decide; it would rest primarily on whether you prefer RTS games or action/rpg games. Many people have already played Odin Sphere, as well, so a lot of people may go into GG with preconceived ideas that weren’t present with such clarity at the start of Odin Sphere. At the end of the day, I’d be willing to say that Grim Grimoire does just as much with its genre as Odin Sphere did, although perhaps in a more traditional way. Odin Sphere is going to get the majority of the press and attention, since the market for 2D action/rpg fisticuffs is just much larger than the audience for 2D console RTS strategy, but that in no way makes Grim Grimoire the inferior of the two games.